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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Juxtaposition of Jesus”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 21:1-11

 

Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

 

Matthew 21:1-11

When they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, just say this, ‘The Lord needs them.’ And he will send them immediately.” This took place to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying,

“Tell the daughter of Zion,
Look, your king is coming to you,
humble, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.”


 

So, I’ve a question for you:  between donkeys and horses, which is more regal?  Which is more dignified?  Which one, would you say, is fit for a King?

I am fairly certain no earthy King would ever be caught on a donkey.  The sound they make alone seems to mock and laugh at.  They are shorter, lower to the ground.  Their teeth make it on to all kinds of comedic greeting cards…

And the horse is stately.  The horse is elegant.  It is tall, and it’s mane adorning….

These two animals lend themselves to comparison because they are similar in build and shape.  They also can be similar in some functionality:  both can work, hauling people and materials.  They deviate around speed.  They deviate around the power they lend their riders.  They deviate around pomp and circumstance.

 

And so which does Jesus ride on, when still in the womb of his mother Mary?

A donkey.

And which does Jesus ride on, when entering Jerusalem for what would be the last time?

A donkey.

 

Here we have the God of all creation,
Riding a donkey.

A donkey

 

They don’t match. 

 

I horse would better reflect the power, might, and authority of this rider.
And yet Jesus, on both occasions, rides a donkey.

And the contrast here is stark.

Isn’t this the case with so much of Jesus’ life?

  • Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit to an unwed teenage girl from backwater Nazareth
  • The Messiah, born in a backyard shed, laid to rest in a feeding trough
  • Rabbi and Teacher, son of a carpenter
  • Multiplier of food and provision, eating by the generosity of friends and strangers
  • Owner of all that is, with no use for money
  • Prince of Peace, traveling by foot, fishing boat, and donkey
  • Master over all creation, without sword or spear or firearm
  • Holy Lamb of God, loved by sinners, outcasts, tax collectors, and prostitutes
  • King of the Jews, healing and bringing good news to Gentiles
  • Head over all the powers of the world, condemned by the powerful of the world
  • Healer, bar none, nailed to and hanging on a wooden beam, to suffocate and die…

 

It would seem that the whole of Jesus’ life and ministry is a giant juxtaposition.
The imagery clashes. 

 

Fishing boats, po-dunk towns, backyard animal sheds, unwed teenage girls, feeding troughs, and donkeys…

None of these are what a writer or a move-maker would use to communicate power and authority.

 

But these were the things of Jesus’ life.  These were the people of Jesus’ attention.

 

What does this say to us?

There are many industries in which appearances are everything.  As you know, I am also a realtor, and in that industry, first impressions matter.  People are drawn to shiny things, to perceived wealth and power.  And so realtor’s know that they must keep up their image:  dress to impress, drive an impressive car, carry a respected bag,…and the list goes on.

In many of your industries and past lives, you too have known this pressure to keep up the façade, even if the realities are starkly different.

 

But with Jesus, we have the real deal: righteousness, holiness, goodness, love, mercy, power, might, authority…

And yet Jesus does not display it, but in fact does the opposite of what we’d do to communicate our authority.

 

Jesus, King of the World, humbles himself.  Humbles himself

Does this make any sense to you?

 

I doubt it did to the disciples.  The disparity from who Jesus was and how Jesus lived was in such worldly contrast to one another, that his disciples were overjoyed when they finally got to glimpse him in his glory on the top the mountain that day, speaking with Moses and Elijah in brightness and light.

I imagine the disciples craved for Jesus to look and act the part of Savior, Rabbi, Teacher, Healer, Messiah. 

But instead, Jesus didn’t get a horse.  He made do with donkeys.

He didn’t get a shipping vessel.  He used simple fishing boats.

He didn’t build an amphitheater.  He spoke from tops of mountains and boats on the edge of hilly shorelines.

He didn’t hire a chef.  He ate whatever was provided him.

He didn’t book out his services years in advance.  He lived each day, each moment.

He didn’t cater to the rich and powerful.  He spoke truth, even when it was not what they wanted to hear.

He didn’t ignore the weak, the ill, the shunned, and the untouchables.  But he touched them.  He listened to them.  He accepted them and healed them.

 

Jesus didn’t charge for his services.  He simply served.

Jesus didn’t have a home or a house.  He was homeless.

Jesus didn’t require change first.  Rather he loved first.  And changes naturally followed.

 

Jesus IS a giant juxtaposition. 

 

And so I invite us to reflect on our judgements and impressions. 

What do we look for?

What do we expect?

What do we respect?

Is it possible, we’re looking at the wrong things altogether? 

 

I invite us to reflect for a moment on what we use to judge our success? 

What are the markers of success?

What are the requirements?

And does any of this truly matter? 

 

And on what do we spend our time, focus, and energy? 

What are the accoutrements of our lives?

Who gets our attention?

On what do we spend our time, this one wild and precious life?

What is the stuff of our focus and energies?

 

If you do not like some of your answers, just as I don’t like some of mine,

let us join together in fervent prayer,

that our lives might reflect

the life and wholeness

we encounter

in Jesus of Nazareth.