Posts

“Connecting the Dots”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Peter 3:13-22
Acts 17:22-34

 

1 Peter 3:13-22

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

 

Acts 17:22-34

 Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,

‘For we too are his offspring.’

“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” At that point Paul left them. But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.


 

I appreciate this passage about Paul’s time in Athens.

He went through the city and was distressed to see so very many idols through-out the city.

I imagine most of us would want to leave as quickly as possible or would be likely to condemn and to judge the people.  After all, they were partaking in and passing on lies as truth; for idols are anything other than God, that we lift up in the place of God.  And these human-made infatuations are not worthy of our love and devotion.  They cannot protect us and do not care.  They are not worthy of our lives.

But I love Paul’s response:  when asked to speak about the gospel he had been arguing in the temple and the marketplace, he begins by connecting his experience of Jesus Christ with their own experiences and belief in “an unknown god.”  For rather than outright despising the people or fleeing from them, he dug in, wandering the streets and reading inscriptions on their idols and statues.  He had found an altar dedicated to “the unknown god.”  How marvelous!

 

First of all, this shows great humility, as in truth, to all of us, God is mysterious and a great bit unknown and not understood.  Paul grounds his message in their own experience and belief.  It is wise and helpful to the people because it gives them a way to understand and themselves explore Paul’s message, rather than outright reject it.

Furthermore, though Paul is distressed by the presence of so many idols, he chooses to see the glass half full, rather than half-empty.  In other words, he recognizes in this plethora of idolatry, their seeking for God.  He recognizes this search as something holy and beautiful.  He praises their search, for in speaking of people through-out time he says, “…that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for him and find him.”

Paul has acknowledged the people’s own sacred searching for God.  And he comes as one to close the gap, between their searching and their finding.  Paul would fulfill God’s call on his life to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ in their midst!

And Paul goes yet another step further, connecting the dots for the people:  he connects the words of one of their poets Aratus, to the gospel message.  In Aratus’ poem invoking Zeus, he says, “in whom we live and move and have our being.”  And rather than allow any open distress at this misguided sentiment, Paul again recognizes these words as true – not of Zeus, but of God Almighty, as known and seen in the person of Jesus Christ.

 

You see the people HAD been seeking for God, groping for God.  They had recognized that God was far more and far bigger than they could even grasp or understand.  And they knew that their own lives were tied in some way to God, who enables all of life.

And though they did not know the name of Jesus, though the gospel had not yet been preached among them, many among them had indeed been seeking God, the unknown god, for whom they had no name…  And scripture assures us that when we seek, we shall find, if we seek with all our hearts.

 

Through-out time, God has been known and seen through the things God has made.  Paul wrote this.  And he was onto something.  Indeed, truth is truth, no matter the time or place.  God is God, no matter the time or place.  And even though folks had fallen short in their understanding of God, they had also hit the mark in moments, just as we all do.  They had understood bits about God, and Paul recognized this work of God among them.

Through many well-intentioned mission outreaches to other cultures and lands, we have slowly learned – by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before – both healthy and unhealthy ways of sharing the gospel.  There has been much remorse over the years at the way we stripped other cultures of their story, trying to replace their stories with our story.  While some actions and traditions of cultures are most clearly evil, many others are good and of God, for God has been seeking them out, from the beginning of time.  And to truly honor and respect another people, is to humble ourselves and to endeavor to see the world through their eyes.  In doing so, we become better equipped to respect and honor their stories, naming God’s presence in their histories and acknowledging their holy efforts to seek out and find the Almighty. 

 

And this is precisely what we see, modeled here by Paul.  Paul can only connect the dots for the people – between the God they have sought and the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth – by taking the time to learn their culture.  And he already had the benefit of having one foot in both worlds; he was both a Roman citizen and a Jewish leader.  Paul was uniquely equipped to help folks connect the dots, and he took this calling and responsibility seriously.

Most of us are likely indebted to him for having heard the good news of Jesus Christ at all!  Paul worked hard to operate within culture, while simultaneously pushing the boundaries of that culture; encouraging people by example, to live less and less according to the ways of the world, and more and more into the Kingdom of God in their midst.  But Paul’s ability to do both – to conform and challenge, to respect and inform, to proclaim the good news and to humble himself – these tools made his work mightily more effective. 

 

Today in America, we live in post-Christendom.  There was a time when Christianity here was the norm.  That is no longer the case.  Today, spirituality is common but religion is largely mistrusted.  And folks have various and valid reasons for their caution to embrace institutionalized religion.  After all, for all the good it has done, the institution of the church also has a history of grappling for power, wielding scripture as a weapon, and reducing Christ’s words to mere guilt and threat – missing the power and point of Christ’s coming in the first place.

And just as Paul did, we can respect folks’ reasons for caution, while inspiring and inviting folks into the fellowship of Christ’s body here on earth.  We can be in the world while not being of the world.  We can get to know and understand our own secular cultures, while also pushing the boundaries of culture, toward a more just and loving community – the Kindom of God.

In the same way that Paul’s great outreach in Athens yielded some who received the good news with joy, and others who scoffed and walked away, we too will meet with similar results.  But may we press on in courage and faith, for only God will know the impact our life and witness, our words and our actions, our loving and our serving.  And one day, along with all the saints who have gone before, may we too hear the voice of our Lord saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!  Enter into the joy of your God.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Are Light”

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

 

Matthew 5:1-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 49:1-7

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

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

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


 

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

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

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

And his message is a hard sell.

 

But he is calling them back to trust.

 

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

“Listen you peoples from far away…” 

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

Israel

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

They hardly feel like a mighty weapon.

They feel rather pitiful.

But Isaiah is inviting them to widen their gaze.

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The people have not been abandoned.

They have not been disinherited.

They are not forgotten – far from it!

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

and they are at the heart of the story. 

 

 

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

For all you who feel forgotten…

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

 

This Word is for you.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

You are loved.

God is with you.

You are light.