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“The Church of God, for Today”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 20:1-20
Matthew 21:33-46

 

Exodus 20:1-20

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

It strikes me that the 10 Commandments are getting a lot less air-time than they used to.  When I was a child, they were one of the first things you learned in Sunday School.  But as we are all aware, we live in a different time and culture today.  Our children and their children are not getting the same Christian Education.

I am grateful that some of this is our realization that indoctrination is not the end-all, be-all.  We in fact want our children and our children’s children to come to know and love and the Lord God, with all their hearts and souls and minds and strengths…  And this does not come by rote.  It does not come intrinsically by Sunday School attendance.  It does not come by perfect church attendance.  It does not come by memorizing all the rules.  It does not even necessarily come from following all the rules.

 

Loving and knowing God simply cannot be educated into a person.  Being loved by God cannot be earned or deserved.  And the journey of faith is a journey of the heart, a journey of living.

 

But the education piece was nonetheless valuable – invaluable in fact.  We were learning more about God by studying God’s word, memorizing those words, and discussing them in Bible Studies and Sunday School classes.  We were learning from one another, as we sought God’s face together in church.  And much of these gems of Christian life are no longer part of the next generations’ experiences.

 

We mourn this loss in the church.

We can wistfully look back on the good-ole-days.

 

As for me, I miss the long table full of food – on church potluck evenings!  I miss playing out in the church yard, while my parents had choir rehearsal.  I miss the nursery – the nursery! – where there were always cheerios to be had, building blocks to stack, and comrades to play with and arm wrestle.

I miss youth group!  I miss the ridiculous games we played.  I miss our trips to Montreat Conference Center.  I miss our Habitat builds.  I miss the lock-ins…

I miss my college fellowship group.  I miss “Walk to Emmaeus,” or “Chrysalis,” an intensive faith formation weekend for disciples and church leaders.  I miss fall retreats.  I miss the holiday dances…

 

But there have also been gains:

  • we now understand that dressing to the nines is not a pre-requisite of holiness and respect,
  • we now know that church is meant to bolster a LIFE of faith (and not be the end-all, in and of itself),
  • we now accept that there are a myriad of ways to serve God – both inside and outside the  church,
  • we are much more attuned to listen to God’s voice in our everyday – rather than expecting our entire spiritual nourishment to come on a Sunday morning,
  • we have stopped shaming those who drink on Sundays,
  • we have stopped shaming those who must work on Sundays,
  • we’ve stopped forbidding folks from playing cards on Sundays,
  • we’ve mostly stopped judging people for having tattoos,
  • many have stopped shaming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,
  • women have been accepted into more of the leadership of the church – and less cloistered to the halls of the “Presbyterian Women” and other alternative, segregated, branches of leadership,
  • we have begun to open ourselves to learn about God from folks who do not look like us, share our background, or meet our own educational status,
  • persons of varied colors and races are more able to gather in one place to worship God,
  • we have opened to new experiences of worship,
  • we have allowed greater diversity of faith expression – in music and liturgy and practice…
  • Pastors are no longer living in manses, where they were expected to be at everyone’s beck and call.
  • Pastors are setting aside and guarding time with their families and with their God – with intentionality – recognizing that the former ways of neglecting family and self are lacking in God’s faithfulness and love to family and self.

 

There have been both loss AND gains.

 

The new generations have begun to question things that were never questioned before.  They cringe to tell children the story of Noah’s ark – since most creatures and people were simply wiped off the face of the earth, drowned by God.

They are concerned by stories of a vengeful God.

They do not know what to make of God’s commands to kill all the Gentile unbelievers off the promised land.

They don’t know what to make of a “Father” God who sends his son to be killed, sacrificed!

And many are concerned about how modern day Israel is interfacing with the Palestinians and their geographic neighbors.

 

They don’t want to proceed with blind faith.

They don’t want to walk with blinders on.

They don’t want abject obedience – without thoughtfulness and mindfulness.

 

And I must say, that frankly, I respect this authenticity, this honesty, this courageous truthfulness.

I respect all who choose to press into the harder questions of faith.

I respect those who choose to employ the brain God gave them – trusting God to lead them to truth.

I respect those who do not simply lean on conventional wisdom, but who investigate things for themselves and do their homework.

 

It is respectable.

 

But is also means we don’t have the former full-load of attendees in worship.

It means folks are not just giving money to the church, but also to beautiful, new non-profits.

It means folks are not always present on Sunday, because they are finding spiritual nourishment in a variety of places.

 

Again, we have gains and losses.

As a people, we are at once growing and shrinking – learning and regressing.

 

And what of these 10 Commandments?

They do not have the following they used to.  Or at least folks do not study and memorize them as often.  And I do think that is a loss.  Many outside our walls (and some of you within them) dismiss the Old Testament altogether.  The God portrayed there seems vengeful and petty, re-active and harsh, unforgiving and playing favorites.

But the Old and New Testaments – while different – are not meant to tell two different stories.  Rather, they tell one story.  And when we hold that story as one whole, we can begin to better understand the difficult parts of the Old Testament.

We believe that Christ is the greatest revelation of God!  And so through the lense of Jesus Christ, we are to re-visit these Old Testament stories, these texts.  And we are to understand them from the perspective of this greatest revelation of God – the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!

And so we can begin to piece together God’s purposes.  We begin to piece together God’s heart.  We begin to understand that these rules – the 10 Commandments – are not legalistic.  Rather, they are for the purpose of blessing.

Over and over, God explains why – that you may be blessed, that you may live long in the land God is giving you, that you may not sin and endure those consequences but rather obey and experience God’s steadfast love – from generation to generation to come.

 

Just as our earthly parents wish to guide us in goodness that our lives may be full of happiness and spared of pain, our heavenly Father wishes to guide us in living lives of righteousness – that we might not miss out on the goodness and blessing God intends for us!

How do you feel when your child just won’t obey?
…when they fight your best intentions,
…when they mistrust you and deliberately rebel – thinking they’ll miss out on the best by being obedient…

It’s heart-breaking, is it not?

We watch as they make tragic, life-diminishing, enslaving, harmful, and hurtful choices.

 

And God’s heart too breaksbreaks for us all.
For we have all gone astray.
We have all doubted God’s goodness and heart.
We have doubted God’s future of hope – both for ourselves and for our congregation. 

 

But what would happen if we learn these rules?
What would happen if we study the scriptures?
What would happen if we choose to believe God’s Word over our own fears and wistful feelings of loss?

What would happen?

 

Might we finally experience,
For ourselves,
God’s mighty provision,
The blessings of obedience,
The relief of trust – replacing doubt,
The assurance of faith?  …in this, our journey with God?

 

For everything there is a time and a season. 

We are not in the same season as the one that built our beautiful sanctuary.

We do not have the same folks who gave of all their free-time to decorate and maintain and plan and serve in this place.

We do not have a host of members, pledging money and volunteering their free time.

We do not have a full-time pastor, who is always available.

 

But what is God’s calling to us, in THIS season?

Could it be that we are called for such a time as this??…

  • Might we be a place where the disillusioned can come to God honestly, and without pretense?
  • Might we be a place where the disconnected can experience the steadfast and unconditional love of the Father?
  • Might we be a place where the discouraged, hear a word of encouragement and find strength for their journeys?
  • Might we be a place where the angry can come as they are, in honesty, and be heard and validated?
  • Might we be a place where the hopeless begin to hope again?
  • Might we be a place where the seeking can find?
  • Might we be a place where truth is spoken, and freedom is found?
  • Might we be a place where sin is recognized and released?
  • Might we be a place of forgiveness, seventy-seven times?
  • Might we be a place with our eyes SET on the goal – the heavenly calling of Christ?
  • Might we be a place that does not get bogged down in the weeds, but keeps our gaze onward?
  • Might we be a place where we can agree to disagree – where each one is valued because God made them, and not because they hold to all of our beliefs and value systems?
  • Might we be a place where grace is given and boundaries are set – where we find undeserved blessing, while also fiercely protecting all that is sacred and holy among us?
  • Might we be a place where folks can explore their scary questions of faith -without judgement or condemnation, but with encouragement and support?
  • Might we be a place where folks are not valued and sized up by how often they attend, how much they give, or how much they volunteer.
  • Might we be a place where each persons journey and choices are respected – while we each seek to listen for and be faithful to God’s invitation to press in, step up, take responsibility?
  • Might we be a place where the Spirit of the Living God is mightily felt and swiftly obeyed?
  • Might we be a place where God’s unfathomable, unconditional, undeserved love is experienced and shared?

 

Might we be a place where folks

encounter

 

…the Living God?!?!

 

 

“The Kingdom of God is Like…”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.
Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.
Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.

Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,
you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.
He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.

He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,
the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.
He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:
“To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”

Praise the Lord.

 

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

“Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asked.

“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

These images of the Kingdom of God are telling and worthy of a deeper dive.

First off, what is the Kingdom of God?  I don’t know that any of us can fully explain, after all none of us have seen it in full.  Some have wanted to explain it away as heaven, but our scriptures talk about the Kingdom of God as being here and now, among us.  It is not something we merely wait and hope for.  It is what Christ began and we are called to continue, in this world, here and now, by the Spirit of the Living God.

And so, when we read these parables, Christ is giving us insights into the work we are to be about.  Christ is giving us glimpses into what is not yet but is already AND is still becoming.  We glimpse what is and what is to come.  And so these parables become touchstones to us along this life of discipleship, along our journeys of faith, along our lives of mission and service.

 

The first parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed a man plants in his field.  Though the smallest of seeds, it says, it yields among the largest of garden plants, becoming a tree, in which the birds of the air build their nest and perch in its branches.

Several things stand out.  First, the Kingdom of God is powerful but modest.  It may appear small.  It may appear wimpy.  It will be underestimated –  the hug, the smile, the kind word, the act of forgiveness, words of compassion and empathy, telling the truth, listening, the small step toward justice – and yet, as it grows, it far exceeds expectation.  Not only that, but it is a blessing to other creatures.  The Kingdom of God grows and grows and grows – it multiplies like the loaves and the fish – and in its shade, creatures find shade and shelter, rest and provision.  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The second parable we read compares the Kingdom of God to yeast a woman mixes into 60lbs of flour, till the yeast pervades the dough.  60 pounds.  Can you imagine?  I did the math:  that’s 12 bags of four.  Some tiny grains of yeast – able to raise 60 pounds of flour?  That’s no small feat.  Again, one would underestimate the yeast.  It is small – especially up against 60lbs of wheat.  They don’t begin to compare, and yet it leavens the whole batch!  THIS is what the Kingdom of God is like!

 

The third parable is different than these first two.  Rather than speaking of how small the Kingdom of God begins and yet how powerful and pervasive it is, this third parable speaks to something else.  It speaks of joy!  It speaks of impact!  It speaks of one’s life, turned upside down,…in blessing!

Here a man finds a treasure in a field.  He is amazed.  What luck!  What blessing!  But it is not his; he does not own the field.  And so he hides it back again, goes home and sells all he has, and returns to buy that field.  Today perhaps we could imagine one doing this, if one found gold or perhaps oil on a track of land.  It is a treasure.  It is provision.  It is more than one could ask or imagine.  And yet there it is.  And so every bit of life needs to be rearranged in order to receive that gift, that blessing.  Everything unnecessary must go.  Everything owned to this point doesn’t even begin to compare.  Nothing will be the same because this man knows that the treasure is worth it all.  He gives up what he has in order to receive the blessing.  He sells all he has that he might acquire it.  He loses his life in order that he might find it.

pearTHIS is what it looks like when one truly finds the Kingdom of God.  It is a treasure of great worth.  Nothing else compares.  Everything else must go to make room for it.

 

And the forth parable is like the third.  This time the man is in active search for a pearl of great worth.  He knows what he wants and won’t stop till he finds it.  And when he does, he lays down everything he has for it.  He sells it all so he can afford the one thing for which he has searched and searched.  And he buys it!  He seeks and he finds, as he seeks with all his heart.  And he would never go back.  THIS is how earnestly sought after the Kingdom of God is.  THIS is how desired, how valuable, how re-orienting the Kingdom of God is on our lives.

 

And so we come to the fifth.  Different still, this parable tells of the end of the age, the end in which the righteous are sorted out from the unrighteous.  The unrighteous meet a fiery end.  And this is jarring, is it not?  This is the kind of story told by many a preacher scaring the Kingdom of God into fearful souls.  But righteousness isn’t remedied by a one time confession or prayer.  Righteousness comes from action.  And our actions just don’t cut it.  But God in mercy has made a way in Christ, that all may be made well, that all may be made whole, that all may be cleaned and covered by the sacrificial love of Christ – taking for us the punishment we deserved and drawing us into the family of God – made righteous not by our own actions but by Christ’s actions on our behalf.  We are made righteous by the saving act Christ.  And our command is simply to receive it, to let that truth seep beneath the surface of things and start that Kingdom of God transformation in us, from the inside out.

Thus, not all will believe.  Not all will receive.  Our God is most loving; we are given the choice to love or to hate, to return or to flee, to receive or reject.  Even God, who alone knows what it truly best for us, allows each of us the freedom of choose, the freedom to love.

Should we not do that for one another also?

THIS is how lovingly and respectfully the Kingdom of God comes to us.  THIS is the responsibility each of us must bear:  to receive or reject, to turn toward or turn away.  Whatever we choose or do not choose, it most critically matters for our very lives.

 

And then Jesus pauses the telling of parables to ask whether or not the disciples understand.  They believe they do, answering, “yes.”

And Jesus concludes saying, “Therefore anyone who has been a teacher of the law and now has become a disciple in the Kingdom of God is like the owner of a house who goes into his storeroom and brings out treasures, both new and old.”

I don’t think I’d ever before noticed this statement by Jesus.  It would appear that Jesus is speaking about teachers of the law – meaning those Jewish religious leaders who were teaching the people the way to go.  He is pointing out that in that line of work and service they receive spiritual blessings, and that in joining now in the Kingdom work of God, their blessings only increase – for a lifetime of treasures, new and old.

 

And so does this not apply to our own lives today?

How about the civil servant, working to do justice, who discovers the grace and love of Christ and joins with God’s Spirit in doing justice by the power of God?

How about the mother who raises her children with love, who comes to know the depth and breadth of God’s love for her and joins with God in nurturing her children in the love of God, calling them to live into the fullness of all God has made them to be?

How about the scientist working on breakthroughs, on cures, who hears God’s call to service, who now joins in the power of God to bring healing to the afflicted, far and wide?

Do they not have treasure wrought, blessings bestowed, both new and old?

 

And is this not Christ’s invitation?

…to seek that pearl of great price, the Kingdom of God?!

…to sell everything one has in order to acquire everything that truly matters, the Kingdom of God?!

…to begin our journeys with God, trusting in the smallest of acts done in obedience to the Spirit of God?

…to plant our tiniest seeds of faith and to watch them grow into rest and provision, shelter and shade for all God’s creatures?

 

Is Jesus not inviting us still?
… into deeper communion?
… to recognize how our lives intersect with God’s purposes?
… to see how God’s heart and life lives within us?
… to greater joy, greater provision, greater meaning, greater harvest than anything we could have done in our own strength, in our own power?

 

The Kingdom of God is what we have yearned for, what we have prayed for.  It is worth far more than anything we could earn or acquire for ourselves.  It is the justice that rolls down like the mighty waters.  It is the mercy that makes way for healing.  It is the equity that frees souls to live into their truest selves, their truest purposes and callings.  It is the kindness and compassion that nurtures our very souls, begetting life where there was once only death.

 

THIS is the Kingdom of God.

 

Christ began it.
The Spirit of God enlivens it.
And WE are called to live it into being, more and more and more.

Thanks be to God!

 

 

 

 

“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…

 

“How Long, O Lord?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Amos 5:18-24
Psalm 13

 

Amos 5:18-24

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, not light;
as if someone fled from a lion,
and was met by a bear;
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 

Psalm 13

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.


 

This Psalm is like a breath of fresh air because it speaks the angst and anger in our souls.  It speaks to the pain and sorrows we bear.  It speaks to our lament and loss.

I have wanted to relate to this Psalm much less than I do.

But in fact, this Psalm has more often than not felt right in line with the prayers and cries of my heart.  So many times I’ve needed to cry out honestly to God, “How long, O Lord!?  How long?”

But the turning point in this Psalm comes when the Psalmist writes, “But I trusted in your steadfast love.  My heart shall rejoice in your salvation.”  Even while he is in the midst of pain and sorrow…  Even while he feels God’s face has turned away from him…  Even before God answers his cries…  The Psalmist returns to truth and praise.

 

I cannot tell you how many times this re-framing of life has in fact saved my life.  I don’t know about you, but there are caverns of my mind and heart in which I can lose myself.  As a minister, I choose to walk alongside others, in deepest valleys and highest mountaintops.  As an empathetic person, I feel the pain and suffering of those around me.  And in times like these, when the whole world is lamenting the needless and tragic loss of unarmed black men and women in particular, I feel the heaviness of hearts around me.

And I believe we are called to walk with one another in these heights and depths.  As Presbyterians in particular, we affirm the “priesthood of all believers.”  This means that we believe each one of us has a calling to minister to one another.  And though each of us does it in a different way, we are all filled with God’s Spirit, and we are all given this heavenly calling of ministering, one to another.

 

But as we walk alongside one another, as we journey through the heights and the depths, we need to remain grounded in God’s word, in God’s truth.

For me, this has meant an intentional returning to scripture, an intentional remembering of scripture, an intentional choice to believe God’s word over my own feelings, over my own fears, over my own despair or anxieties.  God’s word has been grounding.

 

And so when I am tempted to think God has forsaken me, I remember Psalm 139 – in which the Psalmist proclaims that there is no where he can go, where God will not be!

And when I am tempted to believe that God does not regard me, I remember Jesus’ teaching of the lilies of the valley and the birds of the air – how they do not reap or sow but how God clothes and feeds them, and how we are of more worth to God than many sparrows.  I remember God’s words through Psalm 63, “For you are precious in my sight, and I love you.”

When I am tempted to despair that the future will be brighter than the past, I recall Jeremiah 29:11 – ‘”For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future of hope.”’

 

Story after story in the Bible, Psalm after Psalm, God’s Word through prophet and all creation continues to speak into my life and the lives of those around me – grounding and re-framing our experiences.  And at this particular moment of our national history, I am moved by the verses we read from Amos.  In Amos, God is rebuking the people for their evil ways.  God goes so far as to say God despises their festivals, will not accept their sacrifices, and will not listen to their songs.

Now you would think God was talking to a pagan people or something – people who were singing falsehood or worshiping an idol, but in fact God is speaking to God’s own chosen people.  Their sacrifices, their solemn assemblies, their praise are all worthless,… without justice.

Read Amos 5:18-24 again.
Can you hear God speaking to us here and now, through this Old Testament prophet?

We as a church body ask that God’s will may be done.  We pray that God’s Kingdom will come.  We sing aloud.  We offer tithes and offerings.  We celebrate special holy days and seasons.  But none of this is pleasing to God and God will in fact no accept these offerings and songs, UNLESS they are accompanied with justice.

And this is not a token act of justice.  God says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

 

Our worship, our words, our proclamations, our giving,…none of it amounts to anything, without justice.  For our actions matter more.  How we treat one another matters more.  And justice is not a one-time event.  We are to let justice roll down like waters.  Waters that roll down are unstoppable.  They cannot be contained.  We are to let righteousness be an ever flowing stream -ever flowing!  These waters of righteousness and goodness, justice and truth, are to flow like waters, on and on and on!  THAT is what is pleasing to God.  THAT is an offering God accepts.  THAT is true worship – worship with our lives, worship with our actions, worship with our policies, our politics, our votes, our civic responsibility.

 

So as we come before God this day…
As we stand before one another this day…
As we cry out to God, “How long, O Lord!?”…
As we walk alongside those for whom tears have been their food night and day…

 

May WE do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

May WE labor and love that justice might roll down like the waters.

May WE invite God into the sacred and the secular, the personal and the political, because the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; there is no place where we can go that God will not be.  And our God calls us to be people of justice. 

 

So BEFORE we see the fruit of our love and labors…
BEFORE we see righteousness cover our communities…
BEFORE justice rolls down like the waters…
BEFORE we see God’s deliverance…

We will remember God’s steadfast love.  We give God our thanks and praise, for our God has dealt bountifully with us.  We rejoice in God’s deliverance.  For though we do not yet see that for which we hope and cry out, we trust that our God is faithful, our God is able, our God is just, and our God is loving.  And so we hang our heads in the hands of the One who loves us better than we can even love ourselves.

 

“Holy Spirit, move within us, stir us and send us like the wind, that we might will and work for your good pleasure – that justice may indeed cover the earth, rolling down like the mighty waters.  Amen.”

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE                    (St. Francis)

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

 

“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.