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“Family in the House of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Philippians 3:4b-9
Matthew 5:21-22

 

Philippians 3:4b-9

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

 

Matthew 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.


 

 

“You have heard it said…But I say to you.”  Matthew records Jesus as saying this over and over again, in succession.  The teaching we read today merely starts this series of teachings.  Jesus is re-framing things for his listeners.  Jesus is contrasting our ways with God’s ways.  Over and over again.

Basically, for everyone who has studied the law and scriptures and who think they know something about holiness, goodness, and truth, Jesus is shining a brighter light, revealing the flaws in their thinking.  It’s as though the people of God have been trying to work and see inside a dim room, but when Jesus comes, he throws open all the curtains and the light of day comes streaming in.  All of a sudden what was once believed to be white is seen for the yellow-stained color it is.  All of a sudden what was considered black catches the light to reveal a deep blue-ish purple.

You see, in the light of God’s truth and presence, the things we once viewed as holy are uncovered for the pale reflection of holiness that they are, and the things we once viewed with disgust and judgement, we can now begin to see the beauty in.

God is like that.

 

So Jesus is waking the people up from their slumbers.  Jesus is turning on the brights.  And the people have the chance now to finally see themselves and one another in the light that God sees them.  God’s holiness is not attainable.  God’s righteousness cannot be achieved.  God’s goodness is far above what we pass off as good.  And even in the blackest of sinners, God’s fingerprints can still be seen, there are still glimmers of light.

 

This teaching, emphasized over and over again by Christ, can be seen in the movie series, Star Wars.  There are heroes.  They are often clumsy or afraid.  They may not have the faith they need at times.  The sometimes fail and miss their chances.  They are far from perfect.  And then there are the “bad guys,” as we often say, who do heinous things at the expense of human life and creation’s vitality.  They exploit and control.  They deceive and trap.  They use their life force for evil instead of good.  …And yet, the riveting parts of the stories are where that glimmer of goodness inside them steps forward.  Where the “bad guy” sacrifices himself to save another.

Goodness.  In the darkest super-villain.

This is what makes these movies so compelling.  This is what tugs at our heart-strings.  The characters are not one thing or another.  They are not flat.  They are not only good or only evil.  They are a complex mosaic.  They grow.

And so Star Wars shows us people much like ourselves – full of dichotomies and complexities – sometimes doing good, sometimes doing harm…

And we relate.

 

While we are ever tempted to label and dismiss one another…  While we are certain we are right and someone else is wrong…  While we stoop to calling one another names…  God sees things in a different light.  Apart from Christ’s own sacrifice, even the best behaved among us is a sinner, with evil in their hearts.

And so Jesus’ words call the people to suspend their judgements.  Jesus’ words call the people to humility.  Jesus’ words call the people to listen and to open their hearts to learn.  Because as long as we think we already know something, as long as we are convinced we are right, as long as we feel justified, we are living an illusion.

 

The truth is:  none of us know it all, none of us are right, none of us see clearly, none of us has the corner on the truth.

 

As much as it may not seem fair, Jesus is RAISING the standards of the religious communities of his day.  Rules that perhaps before felt challenging or even impossible, are now that much more impossible.  It is at once inspiring and defeating:  God’s ways are beautiful and wholly pure, but we dreadfully fall short of God’s good way.

And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.

Could it be that Jesus is toppling over their human constructs of goodness and evil in order to make room for the truth?

Could it be that Jesus is pulling back the curtains on their partial understandings in order to open their eyes to wonder and concern?

Could it be that Jesus is encouraging the weak and challenging the strong in order to help each and every one of them see their utter and complete need for God’s mercy and grace?

 

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is turn on the news and in a few short minutes, we can name a handful of individuals worse behaved than ourselves.

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is score higher on a test than someone else, and the feelings of superiority begin to bake in.

Here on earth it is remarkably easy to start thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought.  All we have to do is pass someone holding a card-board sign on the side of the road and wonder what it was they did wrong…

 

We are skilled in our judgements.  And yet our judgements are flawed.  They are flawed to the core.

 

Paul also spoke to this flawed way of thinking.  And he too sought to re-orient his listeners and their judgements:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Christ reorients our hearts.  Christ shows us the dinginess of our greatest gains and achievements and invites us to lay those down in exchange for a that higher righteousness that only God can give.  For we cannot achieve God’s holiness on our own, but we bear the imprint of our Maker and we are loved beyond belief.  And our lives, no matter how stained and fractured, are of great value to God.

 

Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?

Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?

Have we set aside jealousy and competition?

Have we stepped out of the rat race and into the flow of God’s unbounded love?

 

Christ is calling each of us

to come in,

to set down our loads,

to pull up a chair,

to know and be known…

For our God has called you “daughter.”  Our God has called you “son.”  Our God has called you “friend.”  You are family in the house of God.

 

 

 

 

“You Are Light”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 5:1-16
Isaiah 49:1-7

 

Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”


 

Isaiah is a book full of so many things.  But most often I am drawn to passages in Isaiah.  God’s commitment to justice and healing alongside God’s discipline and compassion is moving.  I get a real feel for God’s heart for the people.

The prophet has been addressing the people of Israel in their exile in Babylon.  They are a people fractured.  Hardly set-apart, they are rather smooshed in between the people and gods of a foreign land.  Their whole rhythm of life and faith has been de-railed.  Their culture and heritage is in question as some start to assimilate, others hold to their old ways rigidly, some become opportunists, others writhe in their anger and angst, and others still wither away in despair and depression.  We all respond differently to having our entire lives and worldviews uprooted, and they were no different.

So Isaiah is speaking to a people that run the gamut of emotion.  And their faith – very rooted in custom and ritual, holy sites and holy days – has lost its center.  Some are questioning everything.  Some believe God has turned on and rejected them.  The landscape of feeling and faith is messy, and Isaiah is calling them back to a God who has never forsaken or stopped loving them.  Isaiah is calling them to trust that their lives are not simply at the mercy of whomever has the mightiest army of the day, but that God is working and moving through every event.

And his message is a hard sell.

 

But he is calling them back to trust.

 

And the verses we read today mark a significant change.  Because in this chapter, Isaiah shifts from addressing the people of Israel to addressing the wider community:

“Listen you peoples from far away…” 

Isaiah goes on to speak as a representative of the people of Israel.  He describes how God has called the people from before they were even born and how God has made their mouths like a sharpened sword and their lives like a polished arrow.

Israel

This nation that has been decimated, divided, driven into exile and slavery…  This nation is a polished arrow?  This nation’s words a sharpened sword?

They hardly feel like a mighty weapon.

They feel rather pitiful.

But Isaiah is inviting them to widen their gaze.

 

If they look only on their own misfortunes and feeling of disorientation, estrangement, and dispossession, they feel rather pathetic.  Some would say they have lost the love of God altogether to be experiencing this misfortune.  They feel like they’ve failed, like everything has been in vain.  But Isaiah is inviting them to see how their lives interface with the lives of the nations.  God did not call them and prepare them just for their own people’s sake.  God’s instructions to be set apart was not because God loved them and hated others.  God indeed loved them!  But God also loved the world, and had a plan for the people of Israel, that they might become the Light of God to the world!

God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

 

While they are focused on their own misfortunes, they are missing the entire point, because God’s will is still playing out.  God is still on the throne.  God is still working their lives for good.  And God has much higher work for this war-torn nation:  they are to bring light and salvation to the entire world! 

Isaiah invites them to widen their gaze.  The prophet invites them to trust that even this misfortune is within God’s loving hands, and that even though they feel defeated, God is in fact being glorified through them – in all the earth!

Isaiah presents a shocking re-frame of all their suffering, all their angst and pain.  For all their feelings of decimation, GOD is in control, and GOD is working through them still.

While they are the abhorred of the nations now, while they are despised and rejected ones now, while they are the slaves of rulers now,…

“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Because of God’s working in them, because of God’s choosing them, because of God’s faithfulness to them, even though they are despised and hated and enslaved now, they will be revered, they will be honored, they will be respected…because they will bring light and salvation to the ends of the earth.

 

The people of Israel are part of God’s bigger story.

The people have not been abandoned.

They have not been disinherited.

They are not forgotten – far from it!

God is weaving a tapestry of salvation and light for the whole world,

and they are at the heart of the story. 

 

 

And so, for all of you today who are feeling cut off…

For all you who feel forgotten…

For all of you who misfortune, heartache, and headache on all sides…

 

This Word is for you.

 

Like God was working through the chosen people of Israel so long ago, God is working through people all over the world, today.  And it’s bigger than the original people of Israel, for Jesus Christ has adopted us into the family of God, grafting our branches onto God’s family tree.  The family of God is no longer defined by race or nationality.  It is no longer defined merely by blood.  It is defined by God’s love, which broke down every dividing wall and fence.

God is accomplishing what God set out to do all those years ago – to spread God’s light and salvation over all the globe.

And every heart that believes and receives God’s unfathomable love is grafted onto God’s family tree, is adopted into the family.  God’s family keep growing and growing.  God’s light shines deeper and further.  God’s salvation and hope is spreading.  You and I are a part of God’s love in this world.  Like the Israelites long ago, you and I are part of God’s story of unstoppable love. 

 

So if you find trouble closing in all around…  If tears have been your food…  If you’ve lost too much, and hurt too badly, and suffered long, hear these words of Jesus from his sermon on the mount, the Message translation:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.

You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.

You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.

 “Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me… You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

 

You, dear ones, are in good company.  For God’s people through-out history have known trial and tribulation, yet none of that has de-railed God’s redemptive work, God’s light and life.  And none of that will separate us from God’s love.

 

You are loved.

God is with you.

You are light.