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“My Refuge and My Fortress, My God in Whom I Trust”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 91:1-6, 9
1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

 

Psalm 91:1-6, 9

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,

 

1 Peter 4:12-14 and 5:6-11

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.

Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.


 

This passage from 1 Peter feels strangely relevant. The world of today is vastly different from the world into which these words were written, but still we hear God speaking through the text and into our own stories.

Right now, many of us are working through incredible anxiety.  And it’s not that kind of anxiety of an imagined threat.  The threat is real.  Covid-19 is real.  300,000 people in the world dead from a virus only half a year old (in humans) is real.

The writer of 1 Peter gives this advice:

1 – Humble yourselves

2 – Casts your anxieties on God

3 – Discipline yourselves

4 – Resist the devil

 

Humility doesn’t feel at all relevant to our situation today, but on closer inspection, I see its wisdom.

That December when we discovered bed bugs in our home, I hit a new low.  Already overcoming obstacles, already beating the odds, already working overtime, already emotionally and physically exhausted, the life-altering presence of one itty-bitty bug rocked my world.  All my clothing & all fabrics and linens had to be washed, dried, and bagged.  The closest washer and dryers were a block away.  All furniture was to be moved 4 feet away from every wall.  But alas, the rooms were too small for that!  The pest company came to treat and then surprised me with the instruction as they left that I should remain in this state of upheaval for another 2 weeks.  If I was still getting bit after that, they would return for another treatment.  And two weeks after that…the same.  What I thought was a one day upheaval became a two week upheaval became a 4 week upheaval became a 6 week upheaval.  I caught sixty some bugs within that time, as they kept multiplying, and I learned how to catch them in the dead of night.

I lived with the uncertainty of not knowing where they’d come from.  It made me suspicious of everything & everyone & everywhere I’d been.  I lived with the anxiety of somehow carrying them to another person, place, or household.  How did they even operate?  What was the science?  How did I even make an informed decision?  And I lived with the complication of living out of bags for a month and a half – my furniture and rooms all discombobulated, a pile of bags of clothes in the living room floor…at Christmas.

It was my first Christmas in my new apartment, and I longed for it to feel like home.  I knew nothing makes a place a home like shared memories with family and friends, so my family had plans to come and celebrate Christmas at our place.  And then this happened.  And all our plans were to the wind.  I couldn’t even trust passing a gift to family or friends, without fear I’d also pass them the plague.

 

And in a Covid-19 context, I am surprised how similar the experiences are:  our routines are upheaved, our ways of being are being re-written, we cannot gather with others for fear of passing on illness or catching it ourselves, we cannot even shop for new clothes in a store, and our calendars and plans are all suspended indefinitely.

But of course, this time it is on a much grander scale.

And the stakes are higher:  I’ve not heard of anyone dying of bed bugs (though it certainly could be possible).

 

But that moment in which I felt I touched bottom – was through a long night of losing my dinner in the bathroom.  And in touching the bottom, I was able to push off and back upward, toward the light.  In that moment I reflected on how often I’d been this sick:  it had been rare.  I realized that my health was a gracious gift of God.  My health was a gift I’d never before paid much attention to.  I’d taken it for granted.  I realized that things could get MUCH worse than bed bugs.  I realized that things could be much more grave than a stomach illness.  And I was humbled, lying on the bathroom floor.  Every gift of God that I had enjoyed was truly a gift.  I’d not deserved them.  I wasn’t entitled to them.  And instead of complaining and bemoaning my situation, I started to give thanks.

Like Job, I’d felt very self-righteous.  I’d not done anything to deserve these plagues.  It wasn’t fair.  But in the dark despair of a lonely night, stuck in the bathroom, I humbled myself and began to give thanks.

Humility is indeed crucial.  And in this season of struggle, discomfort, and suffering, humility IS relevant.

 

Next the writer encourages us to cast our anxieties on God.

And this, my friends, is something I struggle to do.  Can I do my best in a moment – with what resources I have, with what knowledge I have, and leave the results to God?  Can I trust God with my deepest fears, hopes, and desires?  Can I wake from a fitful sleep of nightmares and turn to God in prayer, in resting, in stillness?

The writer of 1 Peter knows well that we are not equipped or expected to shoulder the weight of the worries of our lives or of the world on our shoulders.  That is GOD’s job.  And so he encourages us to cast our cares on God, because God cares for us.  We are loved with a unstopping, relentless, fierce, and steadfast love.  We are loved by Almighty God.  Can we not trust this One with all that matters most?  Can we cast our anxieties on God?

 

Third, the writer instructs the followers to be disciplined, to keep alert.  Temptation, fear, fear-mongering, lies, myths of scarcity, doubts of God’s love for us all come and stand tall around us, sometimes blocking out the sun entirely, especially when we feed them.  And so we must discipline our mind.  We must discipline our bodies.  God has given us wisdom, education, resources, data, skill, and so much more for the business of survival and prospering.  So let us do our part, let us discipline ourselves, and then may we cast our cares upon the God who cares for us.

 

Finally, we are instructed to resist the devil.  These temptations and fears come to steal, kill, and destroy.  They quench life.  They rob us of peace and of freedom and joy.  We are called to resist, standing steadfast in our faith – standing on God’s promises and in God’s presence, believing God’s word over our own fears.  Scripture declares, “Resist the devil, and he will flee.”  When we resist, when we stand firm, when we keep our eyes fixed and our minds set on God’s words to us, we renew our strength; waiting on the Lord, we mount up with wings, as eagles!

 

And so I find this instruction of 1 Peter quite helpful.  Our God is not apart from all that we are going through.  Our God is not far from the sufferings of this world.  Our God is near to the broken-hearted.  Our God hears the cries of the sick and the dying.

This whole world and everything in it belongs to our God, and nature itself obeys the command of our God.

While we cannot yet discern the path forward,…
While threat and risk emerge on all sides,…
Our God walks with us, in the joys and the pains.

So may we humble ourselves.
May we cast our cares upon God, who cares for us.
May we remain disciplined and alert.
And may we resist the devil and all our temptations,
That God’s words might reign in our minds and God’s peace in our hearts.

 

You are dear and dearly loved.
Rest in that love. 

 

“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Are We Blind? Do We Not See?”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 9:1-41

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.


 

In this exchange in the Gospel of John, we get to witness just how blind the religious elite have become.

The ironic is as thick peanut butter!  Here, this man born blind, is the one who truly sees Jesus, confesses his faith, and preaches to the Pharisees.  And the Pharisees, all with sight from birth, are so blind they cannot receive this gift of truth and witness in the person and work of Jesus.

It is tragedy.

 

What gets me is the Pharisees’ logic.  Their logic is as follows:  Jesus healed on the sabbath, thus he’s a sinner, and therefore he’s not from God.  Using their own human rules, they conclude Jesus cannot be from God.

Now God had indeed given the Israelites the law, and the law forbade them from working on the sabbath, but as so many of us do, they took it too far and missed the point.  This law meant to preserve the people from overwork and exhaustion, this law meant to provide rest and relief, this law meant for life and wholeness…it was being used to deny life and wholeness.  It was being used as yet another heavy burden on the shoulders of God’s people.  The law was for the people – not the people for the law.  But the religious elite had done the work of interpreting the law for people’s everyday lives, and they’d restricted so very many activities, that even to rescue an animal fallen into a well would have been considered sin.  And Jesus would have none of it. 

Jesus did not let the main point escape him.  Jesus knew his calling to deliver and save.  And wherever he went, whatever day it was, he set himself to the task.  And he did not neglect the work of rest and retreat.  He very intentionally goes off by himself to high mountaintops.  He sleeps through storms.  He lives sabbath, even more often than most.

But because he disobeys the human-made rules of not healing on the sabbath day, the Pharisees conclude he is a sinner.

 

How many times do we do something similar?  Do we extrapolate a multitude of rules and moral codes, using them to disqualify others?  Do we judge people based on our own interpretations of God’s law?

You see, the Pharisees were technically preserving the law God gave them.  But as life presented an infinite number of variations and unforeseen circumstances, they themselves began to build on the law, interpret the law, build structures and rules around the law.  And before long, they could no longer see the difference between the law and their laws.  They could no longer discern the difference between God’s heart and their hearts, God’s will and their will.

 

Have you ever had this experience?  It is frankly not all that hard to do.

 

Have you ever been so sure you rightly interpreted some passage of scripture or some guidance, that you have closed your ears, eyes, and hearts to any other possibility?

I know I have.

 

But when we are so sure we know,

When we are so sure we see,

When we are so sure we hear,

When we are so sure we rightly understand,

We effectively have become blind to God-with-us. 

 

And here in this story Christ walks among them, with magnificent signs and wonders…

The blind see, the lame walk, the dead arise!…

The man-born-blind is made to see!…

 

But they themselves cannot see who it is who walks among them.  They cannot see because they are so sure they already see!  They cannot understand because they are so sure they already understand.  They cannot hear the healed man’s witness because they have already decided that this man is bad and Jesus is bad.

 

For you see, the very fact that this man was born blind had led these religious leaders to believe that he was full of sin.  God would not allow a righteous person to be born blind, they thought!  Sure this man and/or his parents sinned.  And that is why the disciples too are asking Jesus “Who sinned, that this man was born blind?”

The religious leaders were teaching that every disease and ailment, every ill-fortune, was the result of sin.  And that led them to all sorts of judgements.  This is why Job’s friends all those years before were so adamant that sure Job had sinned to have gone through such extreme loss of family, wealth, and health.

 

But as obvious as it is to us that “bad” things do happen to “good” people, I think we are just as quick to jump into judgements when something bad happens to someone.

  •             Isn’t this why we keep our distance from those who are under?
  •             Isn’t it why we put so many rules around who gets our service and help?
  •             Isn’t it why we privately despise many of those in need?

 

As obvious as it is to us that God’s ways are above our ways, and God’s thoughts above our thoughts, I think we are just as quick to confuse our interpretations of God’s Word for God’s Word.

  •             Is this not why many of us dig in our heals and refuse to even listen to the others?
  •             Is this not why many of us close our ears and refuse to dialogue?
  •             Is this not why we consider ourselves such experts on who is “good” and who is “bad”?
  •             Does this not contribute to our own sense of pride and self-righteousness? – the fact that we are one of the only ones upholding our own moral code and set of convictions?

 

And as obvious as it is to us that Jesus was the Messiah, I think we are just as quick to miss the holy among us.  For when those who do not look like us, do not have what we have, have not learned what we’ve learned venture to witness among us to God’s presence and power and might,

  •             Do we not baulk?
  •             Do we not question?
  •             Do we not venture to disprove?

 

Has God shown up among us in the uneducated?

Has God shown up among us in the illiterate?

Has God shown up among us without credentials?

Has God shown up among us after being imprisoned?

Has God shown up among us in a person of different religious & ethnic background?

 

When God shows up among us,
are we using our own human standards
to discredit what is plainly before our eyes? 

 

May we humble ourselves.

May we reform from our addiction to judgement.

May we be like little children:  open.

 

For our God shows up. 

The lame walk,

the blind see,

the dead come to life.

“I was born blind, but now I see.” 

 

 When God meets us,

As indeed God has before and will again,

may we too have eyes to see.