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“Open, Empty, Humble”

Katherine Todd
John 9:24-41
Luke 1:26-38

John 9:24-41

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.

 

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

For nothing will be impossible with God.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary, and tells her crazy, wonderful, wild, and impossible things.  Few encounters are so entirely world-altering as this news would be to Mary’s entire life.  She will give birth to a child, who will be great and will reign on the throne of David…forever.

None of this message could be true.

Could it?

She, a virgin, pregnant?  Giving birth?
The child, with God – quite literally – as his father??
This child a King?
…to reign on the throne of Israel?
…forever??

Mary is being asked to believe in impossible things.
Mary is being asked to trust, beyond the boundaries of her mind and all her life experience.

 

What we view as possible is changing all the time.

I remember thinking as a child that the next invention would be a phone where you can see people as you speak.  And voila!  We have that and soooo much more!

Had you told the apostle Paul that you could communicate with peoples on the other side of the world, in minutes, or that you could go there in a day, he would have thought you mad.  It was impossible.

Flying was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Talking across miles was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Broadcasting your video to the world was impossible…until it wasn’t.
Making a video was impossible……..until it wasn’t.

Who are WE to say what IS and ISN’T possible?!?

 

All we have are the boundaries of our own experience, the limits of our understanding, the borders of our imagination and vision.  Thus, every time we pass judgement, we are incorrect.  We simply cannot perceive all that is or can be.

So when GOD says something, we do well to listen. 
When GOD guides our steps, we do well to follow.
When God makes a promise,
speaks a word,
makes a move,
you can believe it.  You can count on it.  You can build your house on it; it is solid.

 

The difficulty then is in the hearing.  Do we believe God still speaks at all?  If so, do we believe we have the capacity to hear God?  And if we hear God, who might rightly interpret what we hear?

So many questions – all understandable, all legit.

And yet Mary, with the faith of a child, accepts this word of Gabriel as from God. 
Mary, with the faith of a child, believes what she cannot see or understand.
Mary, with the faith of a child, opens herself – her mind, her heart, her body, and her entire life – to the will of God.

 

Can you imagine?

Quite often it is precisely because we’re so grown up that we cannot believe.
Most often, we grow to trust our own experiences more.
We learn things and therefore think we see and understand.
And what does scripture say about those who think they can see?  That they in fact are blind.  But about those who know they are blind, they can see!

Whatever our training and education,
Whatever our degrees and certifications,
Whatever our history and experience,
Whatever our vision and foresight,
WE cannot grasp the Truth.  We cannot capture the Way.  We cannot contain Life.

We
do not have
the capacity
to
behold
God. 

 

Children know this.
They are open.
They are curious.
They are humble.

Mary knew this
as she suspended her own understanding and imagination and experience
in order to make room for GOD. 

And so it is that Mary makes room for Christ. 

 

It isn’t about her decorating a baby room, buying baby insurance, diapers, or formula.
She makes room for Christ
by humbling herself.

In humbling herself, Mary makes room for the possibility of Christ. 

 

It can be tempting to compare ourselves to one another and then think better of ourselves when we “come out on top.”  It can be easy to look at the evening news and think, “I’m glad I’m not a person like THAT.”  We are always better at something, relative to someone else.

And this can woo us into an inflated sense of ego.

We might look around us in church and think, “I come more often than so & so” or “If only so & so would do things my way” or “wow, look at that sin!”  But in this case too, we are seduced into thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.

Any measurements we take of ourselves should be relative to God.
Do we know what God knows?
Have we experienced what God has experienced?
Who among us has made what God has made?
Who among us sees what God can see?

And if we come out lacking, we have every reason to humble ourselves, to lift the veils of our egos, and make ourselves open like an empty glass.

Are we empty, like a dry and ready sponge, to make room for Christ?
Are we open, like a covid-time social calendar, to make room for Christ?
Are we ready, like well-aged wine, having soaked ourselves in the yeast that is Christ?

Do we accept the twists and turns, as the ocean accepts all rivers?
Do we hunger, like a baby bird waiting for its mother?
Do we trust, like a child – gleefully squealing as his father throws him high into the air, begging him to do it “Again!”

 

May we be as Mary – open, accepting, obedient, humble –
for this is how we ready ourselves.
In acknowledging that we cannot see,
God gives us eyes to see,
…eyes
to BEhold
and BEheld
by Jesus Christ, Emmanuel!

 

In these words of Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) let us quiet our hearts and minds, praying together.

I keep projecting my present condition onto the future.  If I feel dark, the future looks dark; if I feel bright, the future looks bright.  But who am I to know what life will be like for me tomorrow, next week, next year, or ten years from now?  Even more, who am I to know who you will be for me in the year ahead?  O Lord, I will not bind you with my own limited and limiting ideas and feelings.  You can do so many things with me, things that might seem totally impossible to me.  I want at least to remain open to the free movement of your Spirit in my life. …O Lord, let me remain free to let you come whenever and however you desire.  Amen.

 

 

PRAYERS                                                         [Hildegard of Bingen, Germany (1098-1179)]

Holy Spirit – giving life to all life, moving all creatures, root of all things, washing them clean, wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds – you are our true life:  luminous, wonderful, awaking the heart from its ancient sleep.

[George Appleton, England (1902-1993)]

Give me a candle of the Spirit, O God, as I go down into the deeps of my being.  Show me the hidden things, the creatures of my dreams, the storehouse of forgotten memories and hurts.  Take me down to the spring of life and tell me my nature and my name.  Give me freedom to grow, so that I may become that self, the seed of which you planted in me at my making.  Out of the deeps I cry to you, O God.

 

“Illumine Us”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 64:1-9 &  Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Psalm 36

 

Isaiah 64:1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
From ages past no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who works for those who wait for him.
You meet those who gladly do right,
those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
because you hid yourself we transgressed.
We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.
Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
and do not remember iniquity forever.
Now consider, we are all your people.

 

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
and come to save us!

Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

O Lord God of hosts,
how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in full measure.
You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
the one whom you made strong for yourself.
Then we will never turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

 

Psalm 36

Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in their hearts;
there is no fear of God
before their eyes.
For they flatter themselves in their own eyes
that their iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of their mouths are mischief and deceit;
they have ceased to act wisely and do good.
They plot mischief while on their beds;
they are set on a way that is not good;
they do not reject evil.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
your judgments are like the great deep;
you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me,
or the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie prostrate;
they are thrust down, unable to rise.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

We sure do navigate our worlds with a lot of judgement.  We are continually measuring ourselves
…against others
…against our past
…against our dreams
…against passing cultural norms.

And as we measure ourselves, we measure one another.  After all, self-judgement is where other-judgement is rooted.  And so the real work is within.  The real work is in us:  how we see, perceive, and measure ourselves.

 

With whose eyes do we judge?
Who among us can rightly perceive?

Does our judgement change
…with the weather
…with politics
…under community pressures
…when we are sad
…when we are lonely
…when we are overjoyed?

And this judgement can go different ways.  We can judge ourselves too harshly.  And we can judge ourselves too leniently.  Either way, misjudgement is misjudgement.  Either way – be it that we think too lowly of ourselves or think too highly of ourselves – we are basing our perceptions on falsehood and not truth.

 

Psalm 35 speaks our capacity to flatter ourselves and to fear God…in our own eyes.  We become arrogant.  And the truth is not in us.

The truth, as witnessed by Isaiah is that we are the clay and God is the potter.  We are all the work of God’s own hands!  None of us is self-made.
None of us is self-made.
The truth. 

So on what higher ground might we stand?
If all we have has been a gift, has been standing in the grace of God,
then all we are and all we have is but a gift.
Is it not?!?

 

And we are not mere worms, as some forefathers in faith have understandably felt.  No, scripture tells us that we are “precious and honored in God’s sight.”  Thinking of ourselves too lowly is also falsehood.  It’s simply not true!

And these are the revelations we come to see in God.
For in God, we see light!
In God, we behold all that is, in the light.
In God’s light, we know light!

And without light, we cannot see at all. 

 

And so it is only with God’s eyes that we can rightly judge. 

It is only with God’s heart that we can rightly perceive. 

It is only in God’s light that we can see anything rightly at all. 

 

God’s vision does not change
…with the politics of the day
…under pressure from friends or family
…based on societal expectations
…based on cultural norms
…based on feelings and passing fads,

No.

 

Where God’s face shines, we have truth.  And where truth abounds, we return to God in humble witness to the truth that “but by the grace of God, go we.”  Precious and flawed are we.  Living and dying are we.  Orphaned and connected are we.  Lost yet found are we.

In God’s light we can cease to cling to one image, by which to feel our worth.

In Christ’s eyes, we see the love of God, bending over our cribs, as it were, in love and delight!

In Christ’s light, we can see the duplicity of us, for what it is.  We can see both what is and what is becoming.

And in Christ’s light, we drop our measuring sticks – the ones we use to measure both ourselves and others.  For Christ has shown us the follies of our ways.  Christ has shown us the follies of the world.  Christ rendered all our standards mute, all our judgements irrelevant.

 

So why are we running back after those sticks?!
Why are we still returning to law and culture?
Why are we still worried about the perception of the world?
Why do we still strive after the values of this world? …instead of following our God to the alleys, to the hurting and sick, to the ostracized and alone…to the cross?

 

 

We absolutely need the light of God. 

We cry out with the Psalmist, “Let your face shine, that we may be saved!”
And we ever seek to grow in the likeness of Christ, that by God’s grace, we may rightly judge, rightly perceive, rightly see.

“Tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah prays.
…and that is exactly what God did
in sending Jesus, the Son,
the way,
the truth,
and the light!

 

Let us pray,
Luminous God, we are blinded in your glory.  But teach our hearts to see.  Teach our minds to perceive.  In your light, everything is made new!
Come Lord Jesus,
make us new!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“In A Flash”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
Matthew 25:1-13

 

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.

“Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

But Joshua said to the people, “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good.” And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

 

Matthew 25:1-13

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour

~~~~~~~~~~

 

God’s justice comes in a flash.

Christ returns in a flash.

The presence of God sweeps o’r the plains and rustles the trees – most suddenly, without warning, a wind gust, unparalleled.

There is no weather forecaster, no siren, no text or facebook message

when God’s Kingdom comes.

No.

 

It comes in a rush,

and when it does,

who will we be?

Where will we be?

What will have our attention?

 

 

Along with many the Psalmist, I too cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

I wonder why God’s justice has not yet rushed down, like the mighty waters.

I wonder when a change will come.

I yearn and wait and weep and pray that God’s will may be done

on earth,

as it is in heaven.

 

But then what? 

Do I wait expectantly?

Do I watch?

Do I ready myself,

my life,

my time,

my availability,

my heart,

…my devotion?

 

Do I ready myself? 

Do I work for God’s Kingdom?

Do I speak the truths of God’s Kingdom?

Do I love as one of God’s own family?

Do I forgive readily and seventy-times seven, as Christ has forgiven me?

 

Do I ready myself?

…working through the suitcases of my baggage?

…delving into the shadow-places of my soul?

…voicing the questions and doubts in my heart?

…taking step after step of faith

growing in capacity and trust, endurance and faith,

day by day??

 

Do I ready myself?

Do I wake and ask God –

“What is your will for me today?”

“What will you have me do today?”

“Call me into your presence, and let me follow.”

“Speak to me.  Teach me, as one being taught.”

 

Do I ready myself? 

Do I learn the Word of God?

Do I meditate on scripture – sitting with it, reflecting on it, bathing in the light of God’s truth?

Do I ask God’s wisdom…to discern right from wrong, goodness from evil, truth from falsehood?

Do I ask and listen for God to direct my every step

…even as my heart plans the way?

 

Do I ready myself?

Am I swift to turn from evil,

swift to apologize,

swift to make right?

 

Each of these are among our muscles of faith.

These are the little things that make up our whole lives as disciples.

And what we do now,

either prepares us for God’s coming,

for the Kingdom of God,

for the Kindom of God,

or it doesn’t. 

 

 

And when God speaks, life emerges.

When God rebukes the wind, it ceases.

When God makes right – who can stand in the way? 

 

So,

Where will we be?

Where will I be?

Where will you be …

 …when God’s Kindom comes and God’s will is done,

on earth,

as it is in heaven? 

 

 

“Hospitality to Strangers”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 25:31-46
Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7
Hebrews 13:1-2

 

Matthew 25:31-46

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

 

Genesis 18:1-15 and 21:1-7

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

 

Hebrews 13:1-2

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.

~~~~~~~~

 

This passage from Genesis stops me in my tracks before the story even gets going.  From the start we are let in on the fact that God was in fact meeting with Abraham, but it does not appear that Abraham knows this.  Rather, he looks up and sees 3 strangers standing nearby.

And not knowing that these 3 strangers are in fact God, Abraham’s response is so much more remarkable.

 

Do you know those who will fall all over themselves to bless and care for you?

That is the image I get here of Abraham.  Upon seeing strangers, he immediately jumps up, runs to them, and humbles himself – bowing low before them.  He begs them to allow him to provide for them nourishment as they rest awhile, and they accept.  He instructs Sarah to use the choice flour to bake cakes.  He instructs his servant to choose a calf, tender and good, from the herd to slaughter and prepare as food for his guests.  He gathers it all together with curds and milk and takes it to these three strangers

I am struck because I’m not accustomed to anyone going to such great lengths without a profound history of foreknowledge and respect for the guests.  Or perhaps one would go to such great lengths if one was afraid and wanting to pacify and please their unexpected guests.

But beyond such scenarios, I think we hardly ever see such willing, determined, and generous hospitality in our time.  …especially for complete strangers.

In fact, I suspect our first response would be more akin to irritation at the danger we might feel and the inconvenience of the drop-in.  And I, for one, find myself reticent to share the very best of what I have.  I usually want to save some (or all) for me…

 

But I suspect what is happening here is more about social norms.

With no fast food, no hotels or motels, every traveler remained dependent on the kindness and generosity of complete strangers.  And you would be more welcoming to others because you know that one day you may have to call on that same generosity and kindness, for survival.

 

But I suspect that Abraham’s own character is on display in this exchange.

He didn’t have to use the choice flour, to kill the tender young calf.  He didn’t have to run to meet them.  He didn’t have to.

He could have spoken only after they fully approached.  He could have remained seated, after all, he and his camp outnumbered them; Abraham was holding all the cards.  He could have served them but begrudgingly, not eagerly.  He could have planned to rob them of whatever they had on their person and to leave them half-dead somewhere obscure.

But Abraham rises, he runs to them, he humbles himself, and he lavishly serves them.

 

The writer of Hebrews exhorts the people to show hospitality – for in doing so, some have entertained angels.  But even greater than angels is God.  And here, we find that in entertaining these strangers, Abraham has indeed welcomed God.

And this may sound far-fetched to us – as we do not expect to encounter God in our driveways, hallways, or front steps, but Jesus brings is home, when he tells the parable of the nations.  In this parable, God separates people, and the deciding factor is how they behaved to “the least of these,” the nobodies, the unmentionables, the dregs, the invisible, the dispensable.

 

Please do not hear me as condoning these disparaging and demeaning names for those most vulnerable in our society.  But I use these words, to hopefully call to our minds the various faces of those we have passed by.  Can you see them?

Can you see the faces of those deemed un-noteworthy?  Those who have been counted as collateral damage to progress?  Those ostracized and rejected?  Those condemned by the dreadful circumstances into which they have sometimes been placed, been born, or fallen into?

 

Do we show this abundant, eager, insistent hospitality? 

Do we humble ourselves before them – not assuming our better situation is the result of our efforts alone, or that their disparaging situation is the result of their negligence or sin?

 

I suspect most of us cannot say we have ever offered hospitality like that which we see in this story of Abraham.

Let that sink in.

 

When the Kingdom of God is – at its center – hospitality to the stranger, how have we gone so wrong as to judge and ignore those who come close to our tents. 

I am guilty.

 

And what is it that we miss when we fail to welcome God in the stranger in our midst?

Where would any of us be now?  …We children of Abraham – not by blood but grafted onto the family tree by the grace and favor of our God?

Scripture says that in this meeting the Lord met with Abraham,
and in this meeting unawares,
God foretells that this aged couple will at last bear a child of their own flesh and blood!

It is the hope for which they long-waiting, went astray, and stopped hoping altogether. 

 

What is the hope for which you long-await?
What is the hope for which we long-await?
What is the relief and provision that will be balm to our souls?

I suspect that you, like me, ache.

We ache.
And our long-waiting has taken the form of prayer,
Of hope,
Of discouragement,
Of misguided efforts, and
Of despair, …at times.

 

How much more-so would your whole being ache
To think that God’s mighty and perfect provision came,
But was ignored,
Judged,
Dismissed,
Despised,
Shown the door?

 

God shows up among us in the stranger.

God shows up among us in the powerless.

God shows up among us. 

 

And what will you do?

 

What will we do?

…when such stranger shows up here?

 

What will we do? 

“Sheer Annoyance, and What God Does”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 16:16-24
Acts 16:25-34

 

Acts 16:16-34

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to youa way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour.

But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailercalled for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.

When morning came, the magistrates sent the police, saying, “Let those men go.” And the jailer reported the message to Paul, saying, “The magistrates sent word to let you go; therefore come out now and go in peace.” But Paul replied, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens; so they came and apologized to them. And they took them out and asked them to leave the city. After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home; and when they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.


 

This scripture passage is so interesting.  Why is it included?  What does God have for us in it?

We hear a story of Paul and Silas and the believers.  On their way to a place of prayer, they happened upon this girl enslaved, who brought a great deal of money to her owners because she had a spirit of divination.  Nowadays, we’d probably talk about this differently.  We’d perhaps call this a gift or possibly premonition.  But then, the disciples and apostles attributed many, varied talents and abilities to spirits.  They themselves had the Spirit of God in them.  Others had other spirits.  We hear often of those possessed by spirits that caused them great distress or bodily harm.  Not all spirits were of God, and there was only one Holy Spirit, given by Christ.  So it was clear to them that the spirit in the girl was not of Christ.  But we do not hear any concern for the girl’s well-being or her deliverance from spirit possession or slavery.  No, those very valid concerns to us were not as concerning to the disciples for whatever reason.

 

Slaves were in fact common everywhere.  And Paul in particular was of the conviction that Christ would return imminently.  Thus, everyone was to make do and be at peace in whatever life circumstance they found themselves.  Something bigger was at play.  GOD was in their midst.  Salvation was at hand!  And there wasn’t much time.  Everyone needed to make the most of the time, for the time of salvation was upon them!

Paul was not out to change the social order.

 

Did he believe that slavery was right?

I don’t think so.  He famously entreats the Galatians with this instruction:

for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”

The Galatians are to stop making distinctions among themselves, even those as basic as gender.  For Christ overcomes all social order.  Christ makes us all family, all Abrahams offspring, all heirs according to the promise of salvation.  Power and privilege are upheaved.

But Paul also writes in his letter to the Corinthians:

However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters,there remain with God.”

 

 

Historically, this passage was used, among others, to justify slavery.  It’s ironic, since Paul also instructs the believers not to become slaves of human masters.  But both of these readings miss the main point.  The main point for Paul was that everyone should stay as they were.  There was no time for pursuing human goals and interests.  No time for marrying even.  Be content as you are, Paul entreats.

 

And so this question of slavery in Paul remains a bit of a mystery, but after studying this matter for some time, I am convinced that Paul was both Pastor and Prophet.  Paul both cast a vision of what life in Christ truly means – which was no more slavery and distinctions of power and authority – AND yet Paul instructed the churches in how to follow, there and then, in the circumstances in which they found themselves, in their day – “remain as you are,” he entreats.

 

While some of Paul’s words are very vision casting, others are very situationally specific – responding to a very specific circumstance, in a certain day and time.  I find it wise to distinguish between these two different approaches of Paul first – so that I read them in the way they were intended to be read.  I don’t want to miss the forest for the trees!

So in this story of Paul of Silas and the girl with the spirit of divination, I am not too concerned that Paul didn’t address this matter of slavery.  While it would be morally reprehensible in our day, it was a very common situation and in a time when Paul believed they had no more time.  Paul was being true to his own belief-system:  he wasn’t trying to upset the normal social order; there was no time for that.  Rather, he was out to spread the good news as rapidly and effectively and widely as he could.  And thanks be to God that he did, because it is very well likely that you and I are here today in large part because of Paul.

 

The greater mystery to me in this situation is why Paul or Silas or the other believers didn’t simply set the girl free from this spirit, as they’d done and Jesus had done so many other times.  Perhaps it was because the girl wasn’t in imminent or physical harm from the spirit.  Perhaps it was because the girl was satisfied with her life and abilities.  Perhaps it was because the girl was enslaved, and they didn’t want to upset her owners.  We don’t know why they didn’t start out by casting out the spirit inside this girl.

 

One possibility is that they were making every effort NOT to come off as dissidents of society.  In 1 Peter, we are instructed to submit to all human power and institutions.  And in Paul and Silas’ actions, we see two men submitting to the local authorities, above and beyond any would ever be expected to.  The chains fall off these men and all the prisoners in an earthquake during the night, but miraculously all the prisoners stay.  This is so unexpected, the reason seems clear:  it is Paul and Silas.  They have fully and completely submitted to the governing authority and they appear to have successfully prevailed on all the other prisoners to do the same.

Their submission to authority speaks volumes to their credit in this ancient world, and I believe this was very intentional and strategic.  It was their living in this extraordinary way that they distinguished themselves as people of integrity.  In this fashion they demonstrated their trustworthiness and love.  THIS is what wins over the hearts of the jailer and his whole household.

Christianity in its beginning could have surely been squashed.  Had it set itself up as opposed to the social order or the governing authorities, it surely would have been quenched.  Then how many generations upon generations would not have heard?  Would we have followed in their footsteps to indeed set the prisoners free…if they had boldly begun upheaving all social order at the start?  We do not know.  But the likelihood is that we would not be here.

And is this way of being – of delaying justice in order to achieve another goal – best for all Christians in all times?  I do not think so.  Is it best to always be in a position of obedience to authority?  I would say certainly not, though it is sometimes honorable.  Are we all called to remain as we are – making the most of our present circumstances?  While it is certainly in our best interest to find peace and joy in whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, I think God’s call is to DO justice – not just preach it.  There are times when we are called to FIND the joy in the midst of injustice and oppression.  Certainly those in Nazi prison camps needed this kind of peace and glimmer of joy in a situation they could not change.  However justice and love compels us to act to change our social order.  And we follow in Christ’s footsteps when we follow a call to social justice.

 

I guess all this is to say it boils down to God’s call in your life.  God’s call to you is unique, and I believe there is no better path for us than to follow – be in finding contentment where we are or speaking out and working hard that justice may cover the earth.  For most of us, God is calling us to both these things.

 

As for the girl with the spirit of divination, I am inclined to believe that the disciples reticence to address the girl’s slavery or her spirit of divination was due to these commitments not to challenge the social order but to submit to authority and thus spread the Word of God as unobstructed and effectively as possible.

 

SO WHY DOES PAUL then eventually do it anyway?

Is it because he changes his mind about not meddling in the affairs of society?

No.  Scripture is very clear that Paul’s casting out of the spirit was NOT a decision at all.  Rather it was a reaction.  Paul was fed up!  He was tired of their girl following them around, saying they were slaves of God.  He was “very much annoyed.”

Paul.

And this makes me smile.

Paul was annoyed. 

 

For any of you wanted comfort and confirmation that God can use even you – YOU with your irritability, your pickiness, your neediness, your deep sadness, your checkered past…YOU.

God can use you.

Now Paul & Silas go through the ringer on this one.  Their action was treated as theft – because the girl could no longer be profited on by her owners.  And the two men were beaten severely with rods and chained in the innermost cell, in stocks.

But true to their beliefs and living what they preached, they made the most of the time:  they sang hymns and songs to God.  And all those jailed around them listened to them.

And they must have made quite an impression in that short time, because when the earthquake leaves all the chains open and all the prisoners free, Paul and Silas have somehow won their trust and respect enough that no one chooses to flee.  They all stay.

Paul and Silas thus minister to their fellow prisoners.  They minister to the jailer who owes his own life to them for staying and not running away (after all, the jailer would have likely been executed himself, if everyone escaped under his watch!).  And then the Jailer’s own household is all saved.

 

Through this act of annoyance, God is still glorified.  God still works good. 

 

We do not hear any more about the girl set free from the spirit.  It is hard to know.  Was her life better after that?  Was it worse?

All we can hope is that her life was made better and that perhaps she got her freedom.  But we do not know.

There is so much we do not know.

 

But what I do take away from this is God’s ability to use all of us – even our possible mistakes and missteps and mere humanity – for God’s glory, that many more may hear and know God through us.

And so Lord, let it be!

Let it be that through us, many more may hear and see, know and believe, receive and experience your unbreaking, never-giving-up love for us all and all creation.

 

And Lord, we ask that you will heal our land.  Heal our hearts.  Heal our social order.  Help us follow you faithfully.  Keep our eyes fixed on you.  Help us make good use of the time that is now – doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with you, our Lord and our God.

Amen.