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“Love One Another Deeply”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 13:31a, 33-35
1 Peter 1:17-23

 

John 13:31a, 33-35

When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

 

1 Peter 1:17-23

If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart. You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.


 

I am struck by the words of 1 Peter.  In the second section, he says that now that the believers are being purified by obedience to the truth and have been given a genuine, mutual, brotherly and sisterly love, they are to love one another deeply, from the heart.

In obeying God, following the Truth, these disciples have been given God’s love for one another.  Given.  Somehow in their obedience and following, God has bestowed on them God’s love for one another.  And this is huge, because how often to we struggle to love.  Is it possible that it is in our obedience to God’s leading, that we will find God’s strength to love?

This seems to be how Peter is laying it out for them.  Their obedience to God has lead to their being filled with God’s love.

And now they have a responsibility.  They are not simply to go along, come what may.  No, they are to actively and intentionally love.  They are to love deeply, fervently, sincerely…from the heart. 

 

Interesting, is it not?  I would have thought, that as far as God is concerned, loving actions would be enough.  After all, it is often our loving actions that precede our sincere feelings of love.  And doesn’t God care more about our actions?

I believe God does care more about our actions – certainly more about our actions than our words, our promises, our acclamations, or ascent.  Actions speak louder.  However, it would seem that God’s love does not stop there.  God’s love goes beyond action and into our hearts.  God’s love, when truly active and manifested, is active.  God’s love is intentional.  God’s love is fervent and deep.  God’s love is wider and more enduring that we can begin to imagine.  So our love does not even come close to the love of God until our actions of obedience and love are met with heart.

 

Our God is not interested in mere money.  God owns all that is.

Our God is not interested in mere puppetry.  We are more to God than vehicles of God’s will.  After all God made us and delights in us.  And God can accomplish whatever God wills – whether or not we ever follow, obey, and join in.

Our God is not interested in pageantry and appearances.  God is interested in the substance behind an action, a gift, a smile, or a sacrifice.  God has no one to fool or impress.

 

Our God came and went all in.  Our God was born into our midst as a helpless child, dependent, hunted, a refugee.

Christ gave of himself, healing the sick, seeking out the lost, feeding the hungry, raising the dead.

And when the time came, Jesus Christ walked that long road to Golgotha, allowing his blood to be spilled, his lungs to collapse, and the life-breath to leave his body.

 

Our God went all in.
And this God calls us to bring our all.

Obedience alone is not complete.  Love makes our actions complete.  Perhaps this is why we are encouraged to speak the truth in love.  Truth alone is incomplete.  Perhaps this is why Paul speaks about faith, hope and love: that faith, hope, and love abide but that the greatest of these is love.  Perhaps this is why Paul waxes about the gifts of the Spirit, making the point that without love, all the gifts are sounding gongs or clanging symbols – mere noise, obnoxious clutter, impediments.

And isn’t this our experience.  It does not matter how much we know; no one cares until they know how much we care.

Skill, talent, resource,
Wisdom, insight, knowledge…
None of it matters unless we employ them with love.  In fact, our failure to love as we serve, is actually an impediment to others, an obstacle, an annoyance.

Love completes our obedience.
Love completes our gifts.
Love completes our knowledge.
Love completes our wisdom.
Love completes our helping.
Love completes our serving…

 

God has called us to love deeply.  The Greek word also means fervently, sincerely, and out of purity of heart.

We are called to a higher standard of living.

God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit, filling us with God’s love.
And God then calls us to love on purpose, love in all sincerity, love one another deeply.

 

It matters…what dwells in the depths of our hearts.
It matters.

 

And so as we seek to know God’s will,
As we seek to be faithful, following God in trust and obedience,
As we live and work,
May we bring it all:  our whole self, our whole life, our whole heart.

 

God is glorified in our gifts and talents.
God is glorified in our obedience and service.
And all these things are made complete,
            As we love one another truly, from the depths of our hearts.   

 

THIS is how everyone will know we are Christ’s disciples. 

“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.

“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.