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“Look Up”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 5:6b-11
Luke 13:31-35

 

Romans 5:6b-11

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”


 

In this passage from Luke, Jesus speaks for most of the passage.  He’s responding to those who are telling him to flee for his life from Herod, but then his answer focuses less on Herod and more on Jerusalem, which he portrays as central to this salvation drama and his own story.  In a foreshadowing manner, Jesus alludes to his death in Jerusalem, Jesus speaks to the significance of three days, and to those words of the chanting crowd when at last he will enter Jerusalem.

It’s as if he takes the opportunity of those advising him to flee to assure everyone that things will happen in the place and order in which they are intended, and that neither Herod, nor anyone else, can derail what will be.

It’s also as if Jesus maximizes this opportunity to paint a clearer and clearer picture of Jerusalem.  Not only do they kill those God sends to them, Jesus says, but they refuse the comfort and protection of the most high, who only wants to gather them beneath the wings, and yet they are unwilling.  This is a sad picture.  And building off those final words of Jesus – the chants of blessing with which Jesus will be greeted on that Palm Sunday Jerusalem – how much more tragic is it, that these same ones chanting welcome and blessing would soon after be the same ones chanting “Crucify.  Crucify!”

 

As with a child who is angry and hurt and yet cannot be encouraged, protected, or comforted, the people of Jerusalem long for the salvation of God and yet cannot see it or receive it, even when their life depends on it.  They become the enemy of their own well-being.  They become the obstacle to their own redemption.  Tragedy, indeed!

 

This picture of Jerusalem as conflicted, reminds me of a parable in the writings of Medieval Anchoress, Julian of Norwich.  Anchoresses were women who had retreated from the world to live a life of prayer and meditation, alone in a cell.  Julian was an anchoress of The Church of St. Julien in Norwich.  Often when these women would become anchoresses, they would literally be walled into their cells along the sides of churches, and a funeral mass would be held for them, signifying their death to the world.

Though we know very little about Julien, we know that she became deathly ill at age 30.  To comfort her, a priest held out a crucifix before her, and as she teetered on the edge of death, she experienced 16 visions.  Julian miraculously recovered from the brink of death, and though she describes herself as illiterate, she recorded these visions into what we now have as a collection called, “Showings.”

In this book, she tells of a parable of a servant and his lord.  Listen to the parable.

3'17'19 Look Up Julien of Norwich excerpt

3'17'19 Look Up Julien of Norwich excerpt2

In this parable, we hear in the Lord’s desire to comfort the ashamed and hurting servant, God’s desire to comfort us, even as we try to serve God faithfully yet fail.  And this image of the servant, eager to please the Lord, yet fallen and hurting, unable to see the loving eyes of his Lord – I find this image so very moving.

 

How many times have we tried our best to follow God faithfully, and when we fail, we turn aside from God in shame and miss out on the loving gaze of our Lord, who still loves us infinitely, without stopping.

What beauty!

What tragedy!

How much suffering do we experience, simply because we do not re-connect with God when we make a mistake? 

How much pain do we experience because we do not see and receive God’s unfailing love?

 

And here, in these words of Jesus concerning Jerusalem, I see a similar situation:  the city representing the heart of a people who have been chosen by God and cultivated by God to bring the light of the world into being.  Here, we have a city called to be “a city on a hill” a “light to the nations,” and yet, their own clarity of vision is muddy and conflicted.  Their own ability to see and receive God’s presence and comfort is obscured by their willful arrogance.  Unlike the eager servant of the parable, they are not innocent, they have in some ways lost their way.  Instead of perceiving the point of all the rules and all the rituals, they have come to see the law as lip-nus tests, measuring sticks, righteousness meters…  They are lost, and they do not know it.  They cry out, they worship, they proclaim God’s name, but then they reject God’s word to them, kill God’s ambassadors to them – refusing the blessing and comfort, healing and protection that God’s Word has always been intended to bring them.

And so they sit,

Uncomforted

Unprotected

Yearning

Seeking, but not finding

Looking, but not seeing…

 

And Jesus’ parables in Luke keep restating and restating this tragedy.

 

And yet,

Christ comes to them anyway.

Even though they are lost and have missed the point.

Christ comes through them anyway.

 

Though they cannot see, they are seen.

Though they cannot love, they are loved…

 

And herein lies the Good News – that WHILE WE ARE SINNERS, Christ loves us anyway.  WHILE WE WERE SINNERS, Christ died for us.  WHILE WE ARE SINNERS, Christ reconciles us to God!

The good news!!

 

Each of us will fail – many, many times in this life.

 

And if we learn to look up,

To return to God,

To take shelter under the wings of our loving Lord,

We too can experience the loving mercy, unfailing love, and amazing grace of our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.

 

Whenever we find ourselves down, may we always remember…

to look up.

“BeLoved”

Isaiah 43:1-7
Acts 8:14-17

 

Isaiah 43:1-7

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

Acts 8:14-17

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.


 

In college I had the joy of studying the Bible and learning about God through various Christian perspectives.  And one of the most impactful teachings I remember from that time was to read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were to you and me.  Why?  Because we too are now God’s chosen people.  As believers, we have been adopted into the family of God.

This made Isaiah 43 one of my favorite passages.  Favorite because it tells of God’s utter love for and commitment to us.  God claims us:  “You are mine.”  And God speaks tenderly to us, “you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

I loved these verses.  They helped me understand God in a more personal way.  You see, in my final years of high school, my home church had hired a youth director who we all adored.  She was funny and spunky and fun.  The Bible was alive for her, and she was opening it up to us, for the first time in our lives.  She used to always say, “Christianity is not a religion.  It’s a relationship.”  Of all the things she taught us, this was most profound.  For the first time, we were beginning to realize that the juicy goodness of faith was lived out in relationship with God.  And the way we best got to know God was by studying the Bible and growing in fellowship with one another.

And so this life-giving new path was opening to me.  So then when I learned in college that we could read God’s words to the people of Israel, as if they were written to us, so much more of the Bible opened up to me.  It meant that the Bible was overflowing with God’s words of love and promise.  And I was coming to adore this God who was everything needed, respected, trusted and yearned for.

Listen to these verses from Isaiah again, and whenever you hear Israel or Jacob, instead hear your own name.

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
hen you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you.
because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;

 

This is utterly beautiful.  This is the commitment we may seek from one another our whole lives.  This is the commitment shown us by our Beautiful Lord.

 

But what I didn’t delve into at the time were the words about God exchanging others for my life.

After college and while in seminary at Union, I became friends with an Egyptian family.  The husband was also a seminary student, and our families became good friends.  They explained that the Bible is hard to read for them because it makes such negative mention of Egypt, time after time.  And yet these Egyptian friends of mine were also believers, and their families had been for many generations.

I had never before thought about those countries and people who are labeled negatively in these stories.  And here, right in the middle of one of my favorite passages, is a section about God exchanging others for us, for God’s chosen people.

And this was hard to digest.

 

First we have the trouble of being God’s chosen.  If some are chosen, does that mean others are not?  And why?  Other parts of scripture made it clear that God’s heart is for the whole world and that God came so that ALL might know God’s saving love.  And yet, there is this element of choosing.  What does it mean?

On the one hand, I love this idea of choosing.  Choice means that God’s involvement in our lives is voluntary.  It shows us that GOD WANTS US.  And that is part of what’s so beautiful about these words of God, shared through the prophet Isaiah.

At the same time, choice seems to imply that others are not chosen.  And these verses about exchanging whole other people groups for the chosen ones, seems to support that idea.

I was torn.

 

And yet, in the very chapter just preceding this one, Isaiah writes of the Lord,

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations

A light to the nations.  God called the nation of Israel, took it by the hand, and kept it IN ORDER TO give them as a covenant to the people, a LIGHT to the nations.

So again, there is this idea that God chose the people SO THAT they might shed God’s light on the nations, everyone!

 

To this people who has been taught for so many years to avoid other nations, these hints throughout the prophets that Israel would be a gift FOR the nations come as a great surprise.  The people had internalized this notion that God’s choosing them somehow meant they were better than others.  But here, we see that God’s choosing them is part of God’s whole plan to save everyone.  God was keeping them, taking them by the hand, that they themselves might be the fulfillment of God’s promise, God’s covenant, to all creation.

The chosen people were the means by which God’s light would come!  Through them, a tiny baby would be born, of a virgin, in a backyard stable barn.  And through him, God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, spilling out beyond the boundaries of the people of Israel and spreading to people far and wide.

We are here today because of how God spoke through and came through the people of Israel.  Through them, Jesus came into this world, and we have come to believe!

 

Perhaps this is what helped my Egyptian friends.  Perhaps they could hear God’s love for them and their nation, amidst all the negative press their nation gets in the Bible.  Perhaps they too had learned to read God’s words to the Israelites, as also being God’s words to them.  Perhaps their identities as Children of God had become the main identity with which they read God’s Word.

 

 

There is much in the Bible to digest.  There are mysteries that may remain mysteries our whole life long.  There is Mystery and there always will be, as long as we are seeking the one true God, the One whom we cannot ever fully know or understand.  And so our relationship with God will never be one of full knowing.  This God who we serve is far above and beyond all our understanding.  If we think we fully know God, then we must question whether we know GOD at all.  Our God is above all.  Our God is beyond our understanding.  God’s ways are not our ways.

And so we walk by faith.  We place our trust in the One who is above all and in all and through all.  We decide that this One who loves us with a never-stopping, never-giving-up love is worthy of all our praise.  We choose back this One who has claimed us in the waters of baptism and chosen us as God’s own.  We bind our lives to the One who came that we might have life and have it to the full!

“You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you” says the Lord.

This is the One whom I have placed my trust.  With Timothy, I proclaim,

“I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him.”

 

With our faith and our doubts,

With our fears and our hopes,

In understanding and in awe,

In mystery and in knowing,

We come

Before the One who knows us

And chooses us

And loves us

Just as we are.

 

You are precious in God’s sight.  Honored.  And beloved.

 

Believe it.

And be loved.

“What Love is This?!”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 23
Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

 


 

This story of Ruth and Naomi compels us.

What possesses someone to cleave to another like that?

 

It is a mystery.

Did Ruth not have a better option?  Was her family of origin a place she never wished to return?  What were Ruth’s ties with her home country like – that she would give it all up to stay with Naomi and move to away from the only place she’d ever known?

Or did Ruth love her hometown and family of origin but love Ruth more?  Was her commitment to her husband so deep that not even death would end her commitment to his mother?  Did she pity her mother-in-law for having lost so much and feel an obligation to care for her?  Was her connection with her mother-in-law so extraordinary, that leaving her felt like more than she could bear?

 

We do not know.

For some undisclosed reason, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.

And this seems clearly NOT in the best interest of Ruth.

She had a much better chance starting over in her hometown.  She could re-marry.  She was young enough.  She could start again.

But following after her mother-in-law, who could no longer marry and had absolutely no way of caring for herself (as a woman in those days), was most certainly the bigger risk.  As women, their entire livelihoods were reliant on their having men to provide for them.   And all the men were gone.  The ties that bound them were gone.

 

But Ruth commits herself to Naomi – that not even death should part them.

 

This is extraordinary.

And it probably saved Naomi’s life, as two were much more likely to survive than one, alone.

And so we have Ruth and Naomi traveling back to Israel, to Naomi’s nation-of-origin, in the hopes that they would somehow find a way to survive, as word had reached them that God has spared the people of Israel, giving them food.

This commitment by Ruth to Naomi is so extraordinary that couples getting married will often pull from this text – in hopes that their own love and commitment might be half as strong that that shown by Ruth to Naomi.

 

What is it about this text that draws us in?

I think it’s this utter commitment.  I think it’s the depth of love shown in this most tangible way – of not leaving, even when it surely means suffering and risk and a difficult journey.  This cleaving to another person with devotion is so utterly gorgeous.  It draws us in.

 

Mercifully, Hebrew culture had a system for caring for the people.  Since in that day men were alone allowed to own property and conduct business, so all women needed the care of a man in order to survive.  Sometimes the man was a husband, sometimes a son, sometimes a father.

This system was so developed that they even had a system for making sure each man’s name and legacy was carried on.  If a woman lost her husband and had no children, the next of kin had an obligation to marry that woman so that she could conceive and bear a child to carry on the family name.  This was a family obligation.  And the character and integrity of one’s nearest of kin could be measured in their willingness at such times to step in and provide for the bereaved woman in this way.

But in this instance, Naomi was advanced in age, and it seems her time of bearing children was over.  She fell through the cracks.  There would be no more children to care for her, even if her next of kin were to step in.  She had lost the two she bore, and she could bear no more.  The two young wives had no brother in law to step in redeem them, as it was called in that day.  In fact, since Naomi and her husband had traveled to Moab and were foreigners in that land, they had no next of kin there at all.  So these two women had absolutely nothing.

This was about survival.

 

And in this place of nothingness.  In this place of emptiness.

They are reliant on God.  They are reliant on the mercy of strangers along a risky journey.

And in this place of emptiness, they cleave to one another.  They rely on each other.

 

When Naomi has no societal power left and no inroads to survival, Ruth will not leave her side.  She works tirelessly for herself and her mother-in-law that they might have food.  And to Naomi who feels as if her life is over and she has nothing, Ruth is living proof that God loves her and will not leave her.

Naomi shelters Ruth by bringing her back into the land and culture of Naomi’s roots.  There, there is food; God has been merciful to the people.  There, they have land owned by her former husband.  There they have kin, if one will step up and care for Ruth in this way.  And so Naomi guides her daughter in law – instructing her in this foreign land and culture – that Ruth may find her way and start anew, with fresh hope.

 

I will probably never tire of hearing this story.

We all need people in our lives like Ruth…

The kind of people who stay – long after their obligations have ended,

The kind of people who love – even when there’s little in it for them,

The kind of people who are committed to us – in thick and in thin, in plenty and in want.

 

We all come to places in our lives when we feel utterly stripped of all power and security.  We face journeys that feel so endless and barren.  We find ourselves with more loss than gain.

And in these times, we need people like Ruth.

 

I don’t know why some of us enjoy friendship and love like this only for a short season.  I don’t know why some of us search all our lives and never find such companionship.  I don’t know why others of us are so blessed to have several folks in our lives who would love us like this.

But wherever you find yourself today, I invite you to give thanks for those in your lives who have been there for you, for a lifetime or a season, or even a moment.

 

I have spoken to you before about that very low time in my life, that time pinnacled with acquiring bed bugs just before Christmas.  The bed bugs themselves can be enough to make the strongest among us feel crazy, but the real pain was in feeling so alone in my suffering.  And the bed bugs felt like icing on that cake of suffering.

The day I got the news that all fabric in my house had to be bagged and laundered and all belongings had to be pulled out 4 feet from the walls – for the bed bug treatment- I despaired, as I have no family in area.  Who could I possibly ask to come and enter into my misery – to help me through this mountain of a task?  I only had a few friends, and some of those friendships were new and untested.  So I called one such friend, and though it may be hard to tell at the outset, she is among the saints of this world – if her acts of love are the measure.  She agreed to come help, but she knew we would need more help if we were going to get everything ready in time, so she called some of her friends.

In the end, one of her friends agreed to come help.  It was a tiny miracle.  And so the three of us worked until we could work no more, and when it became clear that more would be needed come morning, the friend of my friend slept on my couch, in order to help me again in the morning.

 

What love is this?!?

What love is this – that goes the extra mile – and for someone essentially a stranger?

 

In this very low time, God showed God’s love for me through the love and selfless generosity of a stranger – to enter into my misery and walk with me until I could go on.

 

I do not know who your angels in disguise have been.  They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, times and places.

They have come in our times of greatest need.  And sometimes they come only for a moment.

But in these moments, God is showing the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.  In these moments, God is present and real to us in flesh and bone through people who have opened themselves to be used of God.

 

In our lives full of glorious mountain moments and valleys of despair, may we find God present with us, in the stranger, in the friend, in dear companionship, and in moments of utterly selfless beauty.

 

It is hard to love like this.

That’s why it is so rare and precious.

That’s why an entire book of Bible is one such story.

But as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to be used by God,

we will find ourselves party to more and more such moments,

we will find strength to love with this kind of self-less and persevering love,

and we will witness the profoundly gorgeous love of God poured out.

 

God is actively working

To comfort the afflicted

To restore the oppressed

To heal the broken and brokenhearted

To shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death and bring us into a broad

land of milk and honey

To make our cups overflow!

 

God is actively working.

 

May we open ourselves,

listening for God

asking God to use us

and being obedient to the Spirit

That more people may KNOW the gorgeous love of God,

      in moments, and friendships, and love, like the love Ruth showed Naomi. 

 

Lord, use us.  

“The Radical, Costly Love of God”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 31-35
Mark 10: 35-45

Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 31-35

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
you set the beams of your[a] chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your[b] chariot,
you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your[c] messengers,
fire and flame your[d] ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
so that they might not again cover the earth.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—
who looks on the earth and it trembles,
who touches the mountains and they smoke.
I will sing to the Lord as long as I live;
I will sing praise to my God while I have being.
May my meditation be pleasing to him,
for I rejoice in the Lord.
Let sinners be consumed from the earth,
and let the wicked be no more.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Praise the Lord!

 

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”


 

Again we find ourselves between juxtaposed images.

In the Kingdoms of the world, those honored are lifted up and, all too often, as Jesus says, they are tyrants over the people.  But Christ’s way is opposite.  Those who want to be great must be a servant, and those who wish to be first must be slave of all.

Now Jesus makes this statement in response to James and John’s request to be seated on Jesus’ right and left in his glory.

Did they know what they were asking of Jesus?  Did they believe Jesus would claim a throne of the world?  Were they vying to secure their authority when he came to power?  Or did they comprehend that Jesus’ Kingdom would transcend this world?  Could they have imagined that Christ’s Kingdom would be won in death and suffering, in Jesus’ pouring himself out as a ransom for many??

It is doubtful they could have seen what was to come – or even began to imagine it.  And Jesus’ response conveys just that: “You do not know what you are asking…”  Not only did they not understand what this Kingdom would be, they also did not realize that those positions could not be granted but only prepared for what appears to be those most deserving.  Putting their request into perspective, Jesus asks them whether or not they can drink the cup that he himself will drink and be baptized with the baptism that Jesus would be baptized.  But continuing in their blind overconfidence, they answer, “We are able.”

Indeed, the disciples James and John cannot comprehend the implications or qualifications of their brazen request.  But Jesus does not shame them.  Rather he seeks to answer their question of how they might advance themselves in God’s Kingdom, reminding them of his own purpose, because Christ’s own life and purpose are the measure, and Christ came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

Now this brings us to our Psalm.  This is a long Psalm, so we didn’t read the whole thing, but there in the final verse there is that uncomfortable line that reads, “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”  This kind of prayer in the Psalms, these sung prayers, is not uncommon.  In other Psalms, we read, “Oh God, that you would slay the wicked.”  And taking it much further one Psalmist rejoices in this gruesome and brutal defeat of his enemy writing, “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.”

Now, I am sorry to even speak that Psalm verse.  It is distressing and disturbing.

And these sorts of verses are what have many disillusioned and even disgusted with Christianity.

I will not defend those verses.

But I want to discuss them with you.  Because Christ has changed our entire worldview.  Christ shattered all our understanding of how the world works.  Christ broke open the dividing wall between good and evil, heaven and hell.  When Christ died on that cross, history recorded that the veil between the holiest of holies in the temple and the outer court was torn in two.  More than symbolic, Christ made a way!  Christ bridged the gap!  Christ poured himself out as a ransom for many!

 

And this was a worldview shift.

 

Before, people understood some as good and others as bad.  There were the wicked and the righteous.

Much of our Old Testament texts read this way – black and white – good and evil.

And while good and evil are real, Christ’s teachings to us revealed to our darkened minds that no one is without sin.  No one does good.  No one is righteous.

 

Only Christ.  Only Jesus.

And so for all this talk of good and evil, there is no way to wholly be on the side of good, without Christ’s ransom.

But people were and are desperate to be rid of the ravages of sin and evil.  We are desperate to overcome our societal and personal sins.  We are desperate to be rid of evil-doers.  We are tired of the loss of life.  We are tired of exploitation and oppression.  We are distressed that bad things seem to happen to good people!  We are weary with the blaming.  We are weary with the bickering.  We are weary from the pointing of the finger.

We yearn for justice!  We yearn for wholeness!!!  We yearn for eternal life – meaning that QUALITY of life that makes our lives worth living!!!

And we are not unlike those who came before Christ.

But without Christ’s bridging of this divide, individual and society imagination could not conceive that God would care about the wicked, much less come to save them and give his own life as a ransom for them!  This was inconceivable.

And so folks yearning for justice and life and healing, prayed the prayers they could imagine:  “Kill the wicked,” “Let the wicked be no more,” and “I’ll be so happy when my enemies and their children are dust and I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder anymore!”  Limiting God to their own imaginations, they prayed that God would do the only thing they could imagine – getting rid of evil-doers – wiping them out so evil would be no more.

And God, who encourages us to pour out our hearts before the throne of grace, heard these prayers.

 

Was it the kind of hearing that automatically grants a wish?

Absolutely not.

Was it the kind of hearing that does whatever is asked without regard for the other?

Absolutely not.

Scripture has made it clear that ALL are made and beloved by God.  Christ said that he came in order that all might come to knowledge of the truth – not just some.

 

God loves all.  Christ came for all.

 

And that was a major worldshift.  God cares for all.

 

But this was exactly what we all needed.  Despite our efforts to do good, we were sinners too.  Despite our good intentions, we sinned blindly and ignorantly.  And we needed a God who would see past our checkered reality and love us anyway.

NOT condoning sin 

NOT excusing sin

But loving us WHILE we were sinners and calling us to a better way…

 

Christ condemned sin WHILE loving the sinner.

 

And that is life to us all – to all who will receive it!

 

I am glad that we are a people who think for ourselves and question the kind of passages like these from the Psalms that seem so heartless or violent.  Let us also keep in mind that we are able to IMAGINE other ways because of Christ, of whom our Old Testament ancestors did not have the benefit of knowing when they wrote these words.

But nonetheless, in these Psalmist’s angry and sometimes small words, we can relate to their cries for justice.  And we know that we are not alone in our wishing for evil to come to our enemies.

 

But in Christ we are shown another way.

No one is beyond Christ’s reach, not even the most hardened.

And so may we,

in our living

and our relationships

and in our communities

and in our policies,

remember that Christ came to save sinners, and that we are all sinners, except by the ransom of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came that ALL might be saved and come to knowledge of the truth.

As James and John’s ambitions were redirected to find their stature beside the measure of Christ’s own life, so may our lives take their shape and purpose from Christ’s.  For we are the light of the world and the salt of this earth AS MUCH AS we are indeed following after Christ in our day by day lives.

 

How often do we, still today, wish for the destruction of our enemies?  How often are we fantasizing of another’s downfall?  What delight do we take in retribution?  As easy as it is to point the finger, we need to get honest with ourselves about our own secret desires and prayers.

Christ – who ALONE is without sin and has every right to be angry and every right to condemn us – Christ chose the radical and costly path of love and forgiveness.

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

Following after our Lord Jesus Christ,

may we too

choose

the radical and costly path

of love and forgiveness

Not living as those in darkness – failing to comprehend the expansive love of God –

But living as children of the light

And working and praying that ALL might be saved

And come to knowledge of the truth.

 

Thanks be to God for the radical, incredible, costly love of God for us, in Christ Jesus!

 

“I Like You Exactly As You Are”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3:14-21

 

Psalm 14

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

 

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


 

There are some things markedly different about God’s Kingdom than our own kingdoms and our own ways.

For one thing, God welcomes all people as family BEFORE anyone has deserved it.  This scripture from Ephesians makes mention of how every family in heaven and earth takes its name from God the Father.  I do not read this mention of God as a father literally, meaning that God has a male anatomy.  I read this to say that from God we all take our family name.  From God we have all come.  In God, we all are family; we all belong.  I understand from this that God claims us.  God calls us family!

 

That is wild if you think about it.

 

If we meet a rock star or famous person, we are quick to tweet or post or Instagram it.  Somehow we feel elevated by this proximity to power and fame.  But think about God. Adopting. Us.

THAT is something to tweet, post, Instagram about!  That is shocking and wonderful!

Being people as we are, we may be tempted to think we’ve somehow deserved this – or else God wouldn’t have adopted us.  It’s the classic, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good” logic.  But in actuality, this scripture reminds us that God’s love and adoption extends over all the globe to everyone.

 

Is everyone good?  No, in fact our Psalm from this week very articulately reads,

there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

 

No one.  No, not one.  No one does good.

Notice this scripture does not say, “No one IS good.”  In fact our creation stories say quite the opposite.  “God looked at all God had made and saw that it was very good.”

No, we are good.

But we do not DO good.

Our behaviors are riddled with sin.

Our personhood, is very good!

 

But unlike everywhere else in this world.  God does not wait until we fix our behaviors to show us mercy and love.  God does not hold acceptance over our heads like a carrot, or a cake, or ice cream, to motivate us to DO GOOD.

No, God loves us and calls us family WHILE we are still sinners.

 

I watched the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” while it was in theaters.  If you’ve not watched it and you appreciated the life and work of Fred Rogers from PBS’s Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, I encourage you to do so.  It’s at Redbox now.

In the documentary, you learn about why Fred Rogers did what he did:  why he felt so strongly about being present with children, and why he chose to teach and empathize through children’s television instead of entertaining with the absurd and sensational.  Near the end of the documentary, the host reflects on criticisms of Mr. Rogers.  Some blame the entitledness of new generations on his messages of unconditional love.  They say that what was wrong about his show was that he told a whole generation of children that they were loved just as they are, without their having to earn that love and value.

While I understand this concern, I cannot help but hear Jesus in the word’s of Mr. Rogers:

“I like you exactly as you are.”

 

Jesus did not wait until we were perfect to love us.  Jesus did not come to teach and to die and to rise from the dead with power for those who would get it right.

No, Jesus did not come to save the righteous

but to save sinners.

And remember, who does good?

No one does good.  No, not one.

We are all sinners.

We all are made good, very good.

And we all screw up.  We all have used our power to choose good and instead have chosen bad.

 

WE are who Christ came and died and rose to save!  WE are in need of God’s mercy and grace.

 

And God does not WAIT till we get our act together.  God loves us in our brokenness.  God loves us in our sinfulness.  God hates the sin and the way it ravages us and our communities.  But God loves each of us. 

 

Paul continued this pray in Ephesians asking…

“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. “

 

Paul’s whole prayer is about love.  Paul starts out confessing that everyone comes from God.  Everyone is part of God’s family.  And then Paul prays that Christ might come to dwell in each of our hearts by faith, as we’re being rooted and grounded in love..

 

Rooted

and grounded

in love.

 

Perhaps that is what Fred Rogers was working so faithfully to do.  A Presbyterian minister himself, Fred perceived that children most needed to feel loved.  They needed, not only to feel loved, but to be rooted and grounded in loveFrom that place of being loved, just as they are, children could learn to love others.  From that place of being loved, just as they are, children could learn to value themselves and one another.  From that place of being loved, just as they are, children could grow and prosper in life.  From that place of being loved, children could see the face of God.  For God is love. 

 

Through love, we know GodThrough love, Christ dwells within our hearts.

 

And Paul goes on…

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Paul continues to pray about love!  -that each of us might be given the power to understand the width and length and height and depth of God’s great love for us!  For Christ’s love surpasses our understanding, and we need God’s help to comprehend it, but as we do…as we glimpse the unstopping, never-giving up, relentless and persevering love of God for us, we are filled with all the fullness of God.

 

When we know God’s love, God’s fullness fills our being.

 

And so yes, telling children they are loved just as they are, may make them less manipulatable.  It may give you fewer strings to pull and control their psyche and behaviors.

But telling children they are loved, just as they are, fills them, more and more, with the Spirit of God.

For God is love.

 

 

So I do not know what hoops you feel you have to jump to stay in God’s good graces.

I do not know what demons you stare down, to remember who you are and to stand tall.

But I encourage you to remember

Actively remember

Writing notes to yourself

Making symbols to remind yourself, day after day,

Of God’s unrelenting love for you,

just as you are. 

 

God did not wait, for you to get it all right.

God sought you out and has been calling your name,

“My child”

“My friend”

May God give us the grace to comprehend,

Down in the depths of our souls,

just how precious

and beloved

and cherished we are

by the God of all the Universe.