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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“The One God of All”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Genesis 21:8-21

 

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.

 

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

~~~~~~~~~~

 

I’ve always found this story rather distressing.  In age-old feelings of jealousy, it appears Sarah decides Hagar and her son should go.  It says she didn’t want Ishmael to inherit with her own son Isaac.

In a land of plenty, in this family with no other heirs, Sarah’s jealousy is most disturbing; why can’t she share?  Does she not trust Isaac will have enough?  …Even though we are told that Abraham is a rich man?  Is this a class war, where she doesn’t want her son playing and associating with Abraham’s son by her slave Hagar?  Or could it be anger and resentment, since – as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child – we are told Hagar gloats and looks down on Sarah.  After all, Hagar had surpassed Sarah in her apparent “womanhood” with Abraham, or so the culture would have said.  There was (and even still is) a lot of shame wrapped in a woman’s inability to bear children.

 

But even more disturbing:  wasn’t it Sarah’s idea all along that Abraham sleep with Hagar in order that he might have a descendant that way?  And now she wants to undo what she did?  This feels audacious and cold.  And yet, as judgmental as I feel toward Sarah in this moment, what options did a wife have in those days?  Women were valued by their ability to produce heirs, and this was something she could not yet do.  She was nearing a century of life, without the blessing of having her own child.  Perhaps she turned to her servant Hagar, as her way of trying to fulfill her wifely duties.

 

Whatever Sarah’s feelings or her reasons, we hear that Abraham is greatly distressed by Sarah’s wish to send off Ishmael.  So God speaks into this moment and directs Abraham to do as Sarah wishes.

And so, despite his distress, Abraham does what he has done before.  He believes God.  He obeys.  He sends Hagar off with Ishmael and only bread and a skin of water by which to survive.

But God has told Abraham that God will indeed make a nation of Ishmael also.  So not only will Ishmael survive, but it would seem that he will indeed thrive.  He too will become numerous, having many descendants.  And so Abraham obeys.

 

And this is when we look upon the dire situation in which Hagar finds herself and her son – with no more water, and expecting the end for she and her child.  She leaves Ishmael underneath a bush, farther off, so she might not have to witness the death of her child.

But just as God speaks with Abraham when he is distressed of soul, so an angel of God speaks to Hagar in this moment of deepest despair.  The angel tells her not to fear; that God has heard the cries of her son, and that God will actually make a great nation from Ishmael.  Hagar is to go back to her child and hold him fast in her hand.  And when she obeys, as Abraham had done, God opens her eyes and she sees a well.  She goes and refills the empty skin full of fresh water, and she offers this water of new life to her son.

 

Can you imagine the emotional journey Hagar has been on?  Can you imagine being someone’s servant, their slave?  Can you imagine that someone telling you to sleep with her husband?  Can you imagine the fears that must have entered her mind?

Can you imagine the position in which she finds herself?  Truly she appears at the mercy of her masters.  She does what they will.  She sleeps with Sarah’s husband.  She bears his child.  And when tensions grow between she and Sarah and Sarah wants her gone, she is cast out to fend for herself in lands and cultures where not having a tribe means certain death.

 

But this is not the end of Hagar’s story.  God has a plan for Ishmael as well.

Hagar’s story, tragic on so very many levels, does not end with the death of she and her son in the wilderness.

…For God hears,
God speaks,
And God provides.

 

To this woman, used and abused, God speaks of a future for her son that is magnificent and hopeful.

 

Now I must say that I am still very uneasy with this story.

It seems that, as in so much of life, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, the powerful remain strong while the powerless are jerked around and mistreated.

 

But I am also encouraged by this story.

For God does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as disposable, as trash, as pawns.

For apart from Abraham and Sarah, Haagar and Ishmael will prosper.  Their stories intertwine, but her story branches off here in its own direction.

God is with Ishmael, and he becomes strong with the bow.  He lives in the wilderness, and he marries a woman his mother finds for him from her homeland of Egypt.

They survive.

And they prosper. 

 

This is the character of the God we serve.

Imperfect servants of God, Abraham and Sarah,

They are still used by God.

God remembers that they are made of dust.

 

And yet God’s love doesn’t stop with the family of Abraham who he has chosen.

No God’s presence and love follows Hagar and her son Ishmael,

even into the lonely and vulnerable wilderness.

 

God has mercy on Sarah, who could never bear a child – her one main duty as a wife.  And God works in the life of Hagar, providing for she and her son in the darkest place of their lives, that they may one day form a nation of their own.

 

 

It is a common misconception that God’s choosing of Abraham means God does not love everyone else.  But it has always been for the sake of the whole world that God chose Abraham.  It has always been that THROUGH HIM all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Abraham is blessed TO BE a blessing…to the rest of the world. 

For God’s love doesn’t stop with Abraham.  God’s love can be shown and grown through a servant like Abraham who listens, believes, and follows.  Through his obedience the families of the earth will find blessing.  But God’s love is for the whole creation, the people of every land and place, all those who wander and run themselves ragged in fear, like sheep without a shepherd.  God has mercy on us, despite our sins, and graces us with undeserved favor and blessing.

 

THIS is the God we serve:
The God who speaks to the rich nomad
and the spurned and abused servant girl,
making them both ancestors of great nations.

Despite all our human-divisions of power and vulnerability, gender and opportunity, wealth and poverty, …master and servant,

GOD is God to all.

 

We are alike,
beloved by the Most High God.

Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

On this Father’s Day, let us speak aloud the names of those who are and were father figures to us. 

                                                (Psalm 72, excerpts)

Give to your Leaders good judgement, O God, and a sense of what is right.  May they govern your people with justice and do right for those who are powerless.  May the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.  May they defend the poor among the people, save the children of those who are needy, and crush the oppressor.  May they endure as long as the sun, like the moon through all generations; like the rains that fall on the early crops, like the showers that water the earth.  May justice flower in their days, and peace till the moon is no more. May they have pity on the week and the powerless; may they save the lives of the poor.  May they redeem them from oppression and violence and regard their blood as precious.  Let grain be abundant through-out the land, and wave on the the tops of the mountains.  Let the crops blossom like Lebanon and the people flourish in the cities like the grass of the fields.

(Iona Abby Worship Book)

Liberator Christ, you came into a holy place and read the sacred word about sight for the blind folk and freedom for prisoners.  Come to this place now.  Read these words to us till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked, and we can see the world as it is, and as it could be; till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously, and the visions of the young are valued, and the potential of the old is released; till you Kingdom is celebrated everywhere, and your church is good news to the poor.

Amen.

“To Be Channels of God’s Goodness”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23

 

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

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.


 

Reading this passage from Acts about the apostles and early believers sharing everything they have in common, I am struck anew at how very, very counter-cultural this act is.  One could even say it is subversive.

We buy and sell.  We own and transfer ownership.  We own land.  We build and own property.  And back in Jesus’ day, even women, many servants, enslaved persons, and children were all considered property.  As capitalistic as we are today, there was an even bigger spectrum in Jesus’ day of what and who people thought could be bought and sold, owned, possessed.

Frankly the idea of a person owning another person causes a visceral response in my body.  I find it so very offensive.  Nonetheless, the culture and world to which Jesus came and gave his life saw ownership as a sign of wealth and power, much as we do today.

So when the disciples ask new believers to share everything freely with one another, to sell their possession and give to the poor, to hold nothing back – it is most certainly subversive.  It is a hard ask.  Can you imagine asking that of another person?

 

I cannot.

I truly delight in ownership.  I love owning a car.  I adore owning real estate.  I love the items that I’ve purchased or found and now call my own.  I love the memories.  I love the resourcefulness.  I love being prepared.

And yet the disciples learned a very different way of living from Jesus.  They travelled from place to place, without ownership, without provision, without knowing where their next shelter or meal would come from.  Sometimes they picked wheat and produce from the fields through which they wandered.  And sometimes Jesus asked them to feed people, when they themselves did not have anything on them to offer another.

But Jesus had shown them the power of this way of life.  They’d been challenged to wholly lean on God for their well-being.  When they split up to go and witness to the Kingdom of God in neighboring towns, Jesus had instructed them to go empty-handed.  They were to take nothing but the tunic on their backs.  And they were to rely, wholly, on the generosity of those they met.  Can you imagine?

 

Some in our culture know this way of life.

There are a few who also know not where their next meal will come from or where they will find shelter and rest.  There are some who travel without provision, wholly reliant on those around them to survive.  Many hustle in their own way – trying to sell goods or services to make a buck.  And others beg on street corners, traffic islands, and even grocery store parking lots.

We tend to look unfavorably on these folks.

They are not being responsible, we say.  They are mooching off the rest of us.  We are paying for their laziness, we feel.

We don’t know what to do when we see them.  Are they truly in need?  Are they a victim?  Are they victimizing me?  What will they use my gift for?  Will they use it for life-crushing substances?  Will they use it for food?  Will they use it wisely?

Our questions are left unanswered, as we each try to make up our own minds.  And this discomfort weighs on us, especially as we pass by those we choose not to help.  Are we doing the right thing??

 

And though these wanderers and sojourners differ in some ways from Jesus’ disciples, they also have enough similarity, that it behooves us to pay attention.

 

In America we have some exposure as well to a culture that did not believe in land ownership:  the Native Americans.  The earth and all its fullness is seen as a gift – not to be grasped, but to be received with gratitude and respect.  The earth and all its fullness is not for us to use and squander however we choose.  Rather, we are given its keeping for a little while, and it is our great and holy responsibility to keep it thriving for our children and our children’s children.

Frankly, this view of creation sounds far more in keeping with Christ’s manner of living than our own.  And sometimes, the manner of living of the homeless and wanderers among us, seems much more in keeping with Jesus’ manner of living.  Jesus was, after all, homeless.  He did not have money.  He was not beholden to the systems and powers that be.  He was not part of the economic engine, the machine.  So in this way, he was uniquely free, a freedom many of our homeless brothers and sisters have also known.

 

So where does this leave us?

I’d like to think that our society is just what Jesus would have designed, but I cannot imagine that is true.  I appreciate capitalism.  I love home and land ownership, but this is not what we see in Jesus’ own life, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I believe you and I are responsible to God for how we life, be it for good or for ill.

So whether we own or use land, whether we own or use resources, whether we buy or borrow goods and services, we are responsible.  And our actions reflect, in some way, our levels of trust, in the good shepherd, with whom “I shall not want.”

 

We give lip service in the church to trusting God.  We give lip service to trusting God with our money, our goods, our lives.  But when it comes down to it, our actions most accurately reflect our trust. 

Do our gifts of money, answer God’s call on our finances?  Have we taken the time to be still and listen for God’s still, small voice speaking over what we possess?  Do we even dare open up ourselves to such a vulnerable position of listening??

How much treasure do we store up for ourselves?  When do we have enough?
How much toilet paper do we store up?  When do we “have enough?”
Isn’t it all relative?
Isn’t it all so easy to rationalize?

 

I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.  I dare not venture to prescribe how much you should own or give.  And I think God’s answers and invitations to each of us differ widely. 

 

And so, I invite you, to be still before our God, and to listen. 

 

What does God bring to mind?
Who does God bring to mind?
Is there someone in need nearby, whom you can help?
Do you have resources you’ve outgrown that would tremendously bless someone else?

This process is for you and you alone.   Each person, each family, each couple is responsible for how life is lived, what resources are used, what is shared, and whether or not we obeyed God’s private instruction in our lives.

 

The early believers shared all they had in common.  They sold what they had and gave it to the poor.  They shared, wherever there was need.

THIS my friends, is the Kindom of God.
THIS is the radical way of living Christ calls us to.

We are to place our trust in Christ alone, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

 

And I am moved to read this now, because so many of us have been acting more like this of late.  Food Lion issued 1,500 $20 gift cards for school children in impoverished neighborhoods in this community.  Jo-ann’s has been giving out mask-making supplies free to anyone who will make them.  Reservoir Distillery here in Richmond is giving away hand sanitizer every weekday – turning their tasting room into a distribution center.  Celebrities are paying rents for entire low-income neighborhoods.  One is even paying for virtual therapy.  Another has started his own boot-leg broadcast called, “SGN” – Some Good News, and he’s using it to spread stories of hope and courage to lift of the community.

You have made masks upon masks for one another.  You have labored long over financial records and payroll sheets – to find and solicit ways to continue employing those workers who have served in our midst for so very long.  You’ve written cards and letters to one another, especially our home-bound members and friends.  Money for projects and paychecks has been provided, mysteriously, anonymously.  You have rallied to put up and fill a new Little Pantry on our church grounds, to supply the community in this needful time.  When various ones among us have been in a bind, you have responded with help, in time.  When folks call our office asking help to pay a bill, you fund an account that pays portions of these bills.  When folks among us need a ride to appointments, you have shown up.

 

Just as the Israelites long ago were not blessed for themselves alone, WE are not blessed for ourselves alone.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world – to be CHANNELS of God’s goodness – of grace and love, abundance and provision, comfort and care.  We are called to shepherd one another, as our God has shepherded us – to love and comfort one another as our God has loved and comforted us.

We are blessed in order to BE a BLESSING. 

 

So as we prepare to leave this gathering,
I invite you,
to covenant
– with yourself and with God –
to set aside a holy moment,
this day,
to listen to your God.

Generous and merciful God,
how are you calling us to be faithful,
here and now,
in this time.
Speak, in ways we can hear.

And by your grace, may we most surely be, your faithful disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Family in the House of God”

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

 

Philippians 3:4b-9

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

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

 

Matthew 5:21-22

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


 

 

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

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

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

God is like that.

 

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

 

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

Goodness.  In the darkest super-villain.

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

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

And we relate.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?

Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?

Have we set aside jealousy and competition?

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

 

Christ is calling each of us

to come in,

to set down our loads,

to pull up a chair,

to know and be known…

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

 

 

 

 

“Extraordinary Mercy. Surprising Grace.”

Katherine Todd
Micah 6:6-8
Luke 6:27-38

 

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

 

Luke 6:27-38

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”


 

 

This scripture is hard.  It sounds all nice and fine, …until you consider what it might mean to live it out.

Is Jesus actually wanting us to become doormats to injustice, enablers of evil? 

Growing up in the South, I was immersed in Bible-belt culture.  From that experience, I carry many blessings and many curses.  All cultures carry in them beauty and sin.  Southern Bible-belt culture in America is no different.

It was verses like these that reinforced a very passive way of being.  Women were supposed to be meek and quiet.  We were supposed to go along and get along.  I became masterful and accommodating others and making excuses for them.

 

So this instruction to allow someone who’s taken from you to take even more…

It falls right in line with my upbringing, as a woman raised in the south.

Instead of being raised with boundaries, I was raised to say “Yes” to most any request.

Now, there were the forbidden behaviors.  There were things I was not supposed to try or experience, but I was always supposed to be ready to help out.  I was always supposed to give more, be more, try more…

Raised in my mother’s home, we were always at church.  We were often the last to leave.  If something needed doing, we did it.  If someone was working, we joined them.

 

We were not raised to ask the questions:

What do I need?  or

How am I doing? 

 

These questions were seen as selfish.

We were supposed to put God and others first.

Attention to self, in the least, was vain at best and selfish at worst.

 

So reading this verses as a child, I used to imagine myself being robbed:

    “If they take my purse, should I offer them my car keys?…” 

    “Should I reassure them that I wouldn’t pursue or prosecute them?…” 

 

Part of me liked this.

It shows great compassion to look out for another ahead of oneself.

 

The other part of me couldn’t solve how one could live in this world with behavior like this.

How could I give away everything and be okay?

 

 

So as you can imagine, I had a lot of growing up to do.  I had to learn that it was not selfish but essential and, in fact, holy to look out for myself.  I had to learn that I could not give to others in my emptiness.  I had to learn to treat myself with the same compassion with which I would treat others.

And all this growth was pressing against the borders of what I’d understood this scripture to read.  Was standing up for myself wrong?  Was seeking justice wrong?  Was I to allow my abuser to take more?

 

And I came smack up against the realization that not all advise is for everyone in every season of life.  It’s part of the wisdom and wonder of the Bible; there is so much there, contradicting and at times divergent; something for everyone, in every season.  But we must allow room for each person to listen for God’s Words to them, through the scripture.

 

If someone is sinking, you do not push them down

If someone is floating away, you don’t blow a little breeze to give them more velocity.

 

No, to the sinking one, you give them a hand up.

And to the one about to float away, you grab a hold of them and pull them back down.

 

These opposite circumstances call for opposite responses.  What’s loving in one circumstances would be evil in the other.  This is not one-size-fits-all.  And the same applied to the Bible.

 

What I needed was to learn to love and to listen to myself.  I needed to learn that I couldn’t love others without first loving myself.  I needed to seek justice and speak out.

I was an example of someone who’d taken Jesus’ instructions out of context and missed the point.  And it wasn’t just me on my own, but the whole culture I was raised in that had turned some of Jesus’ instructions into prisons that held some down and twisted many up inside.

 

I had a lot of unlearning to do.  I needed to sort through my cultural inheritance – to determine which was healthy and whole and which was destructive.

 

Paul encourages us in the New Testament to let our words and actions be for the building up of one another.  But I had been routinely tearing down myself.

Micah 6:8 is beloved and quoted often:  Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.  But I was slow to do justice, and quick to love mercy.  Instead of speaking out against injustice and speaking out for myself, I allowed evils to continue and to take root in those who were quick to take advantage of those more passive, like my childhood self.

Jesus instructs the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, but I thought that turning the other cheek meant turning a blind eye to sins against me.  Instead of saying, “No more,” or “Sin no more” I thought forgiveness meant I had to give endless second chances and continue to put myself in compromising situations.

 

Now if you were raised more in the school of the world than in southern Bible-belt culture, all of this may sound absurd.  But if you were raised in some of this culture, I imagine you may have experienced the way Scripture was sometimes wielded as a way of keeping others down.  I imagine you have felt the pains of being twisted up inside by one isolated line of scripture, to the exclusion of all other verses.

And I so I entreat all of us, to be mindful that we read Scripture with an eye for the details but while keeping our peripheral vision.  Scripture is to be read and heard, in conversation with other scriptures.

 

And so now, I can read this verse and begin to hear Jesus’ call for us to not to rush to litigation.  I can hear Jesus’ call for us to crack open our hearts in compassion.  I can hear Christ’s invitation to surprise those who deserve punishment with unexpected, undeserved grace and mercy.  I hear Christ’s reminder that none of us are without sin.  I hear Christ’s invitation to treat others with the same mercy and grace, forgiveness and kindness that I have received from God.

Rather than pushing me into a position of self-harming giving.  I am more and more able to hear these words of Jesus reminding us not to demonize one another, but to rise up from evil and sin, confronting it with blessing and goodness – praying for those who abuse us, blessing those who curse us.  And I do not hear these verses in isolation, but remember Jesus’ prophetic voice in times of evil, Jesus’ voice of truth in times of falsehood, Jesus’ call to righteous actions and just living.

 

I do not believe Jesus is asking us to be a doormat here.  Christ led by example, withdrawing from the crowd who never stopped asking him for more, and spending time alone, in rest and prayer.  Even Christ ate and drank and slept during some storms.  Even Christ, drew boundaries on where he would and wouldn’t minister, saying he was called first to the children of Israel.  Even Christ, asked the comfort of friends in his darkest hours of fear and doubt.

 

And so let us hear these words of Christ, and remember that we are called to be unique in this world.  We have been shown extraordinary mercy.  We’ve been given grace upon grace.

 

May we be a people who like Jesus protect and say “No more” to sin.

May we be a people who work toward justice and healing, turning aside from the desires for revenge.

May we be a people who show the love, forgiveness, and forbearance God has shown us.

May we be a people who surprise – offering a hand up, when every fairness would understand if we instead threw a stone.

May we be a people who have received and therefore give

…extraordinary mercy and surprising grace.