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“Gratitude – Bringing Truth into Focus”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 78:1-16
Exodus 17:1-7

 

Psalm 78:1-16

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

The Ephraimites, armed with[a] the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot what he had done,
and the miracles that he had shown them.
In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

 

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

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

 

 

We have been following the story of the Israelites, from Jacob to Moses this summer, and it is ever so striking how faithless the people, these chosen ones, God’s people, seem to be.  Is it any wonder they also experience God’s wrath – as they, who have been blessed so abundantly, stray so very far from God’s ways and God’s heart?!

Finally, under Moses’ leadership, the nation has been liberated from the heavy hand of Egypt, but despite having witnessed God’s judgement on Egypt in sign and wonder and heart-break; despite having narrowly escaped the full military power of Egypt, crossing the very Red Sea on foot, while the waters ceased their flow on both sides of them; despite receiving manna in the morning and quail in the evening the people still doubt God.  The people still complain.  The people still fear for their well-being.  They fear they will not have…food and pleasure and provision.

Can you believe it? 
Would you be changed if you’d walked through a corridor of water, held back by the hand of God, saving your life in the nick of time?
Would you be changed if you were rescued out of slavery?!

It is easy to point the finger.

 

And yet,…
What about you?
What about me?

 

As for myself, I was blessed to be raised in a family of God-fearing parents.  I was sheltered from many a storm and heartache because of that.

And each summer, though my parents could not afford anything extra, my church gave me and each of my siblings scholarships to attend the area Presbyterian Camp, where I came alive!  It was there in my final summer, that I felt God’s call to ministry.

And most every summer my church or my family would make their way to Montreat Conference Center, in the mountains of North Carolina.  There we’d rock hop, explore old micah mines, hike, sing, and wade in the cold crisp mountain stream.  The camping option there always gave us a way in, even though the hotel was out of reach.  And to this day, Montreat is where my heart feels home.

When my parents split up and my heart felt it was splitting in two, my youth minister showed me great love, calling me every single morning, before school, to pray with me.  She knew I needed the support.  And she led us in Bible Study, which I was really finding delicious, for the first time.  She taught us that it wasn’t about religion at all but about relationship, a relationship with God, and that made all the difference.

And I was blessed to attend Presbyterian College, where I got to learn from amazing professors in my fields, of religion, philosophy, and music.  There, I got to ask all the hard questions, put my faith on the line, come to end of myself, and find that God was still the most real thing in all the world to me.

A year later I got to attend Union Presbyterian Seminary and explore my faith further – hoping to find all the answers but rather uncovering more and more questions.  Faith would have to grow or fade.  And again I would have the chance to face the demons in our spiritual closets, to face difficult scripture passages, and to continue on my slow journey of trusting God in the process of my life.

And though I’d felt called to ministry at 16, I couldn’t see the path forward at the time.  I was deeply shy, introspective, introverted, soft-spoken.  I couldn’t see how I could be used by God for such work.  I thought being gregarious and funny, outgoing and extraverted were all necessary for the job.  But I trusted that if God called me, God would equip me.  And twenty years from the time of my calling, I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at Camp Hanover.  Despite many doubts, much time, unforeseen obstacles, and test after test after examination, God fulfilled this call in my life.  What a tremendous gift!

 

Now, most often when I recall my childhood, I will recall how I felt bullied most all the time.  I recall being excluded by church “friends” from events and conversation.  I recall being looked down on as a scrawny kid, the slowest in my age group on swim team.  I recall playing softball and being sometimes lovingly and sometimes meanly mocked for my “positive” way of encouraging each player up at bat.

I recall how my family never had new things.  We never had new school supplies or clothes.  We frequently window shopped – which meant looking and not buying.  And if we did buy, it was at the discount Sears store, but most often we merely window shopped,…there.  I recall our stopping at the day-old bakery to buy almost-gone goodies – where you were in a race with time to eat it before it molded.  I still can recall the taste of moldy powdered doughnuts!  I recall the way my Mom made a little last a long, long way  – cutting mold off cheese, making milk from powder, and eating week-old leftovers.

I recall my hatred of sixth grade when I was bused to a magnet school for music – two hours there, two hours back – only to be a magnet for other’s abuse.  I recall how the Assistant Principal at my middle school called me into her office one day to ask if I was okay.  I was shocked that she could see how very depressed I was.  Ostracized by my peers, I had learned to make friends with the friend-less, but I felt very alone.

And I can go on and on.

 

These experiences of pain and suffering make their indelible mark, do they not? 

And yet, through-out all the food-stretching, I saw my mom make jam & the best cookies on the planet.  We enjoyed dollar movies at the discount movie theater and my Mom would carry in all kinds of snacks for us to enjoy – smuggled in, in a baby diaper bag (long after diapers were a things of the past!).

Through-out all the school isolation, I did know friendship.  I had a best friend in 1st grade, till she moved away.  I had a best friend in 2nd and 3rd, until a new student convinced her that it was not okay for her, a black girl, to hang with me, a white girl.  And in late middle school, a new girl transferred to the school who was already “pre-engaged” to a high schooler.  It seemed she had done all the forbidden things, as she was from the countryside where it seemed folks had nothing else to do but drink and make out.  So she started out at our school as a pariah, but she became my friend.  And in high school, I finally made the best friend I’d ever had:  Jane Trexler.  She lived in my neighborhood & was the opposite of me.  I was invisible.  She was popular.  I was shy.  She was student body president.  I was skin and bones.  She looked lovely and mature.  And we walked – walked around our neighborhood – we shared life and faith and friendship.

I did find my way. 

I knew friendship. 

I had food to eat. 

I had shelter. 

 

I was blessed. 

 

What about you?
When you look back, what do you recall?

 

It is easiest to recall the pain.  It is easiest to recall the injustice, the unfairness, the times we’ve felt slighted and hurt.  That is natural.

 

But do we also recall the times we are blown away by God – like when my youth minister called me every morning at 6:30 am, just to pray with me?

Do we recall when we are surprised by God – like when my family went to the state fair and a church friend happened to show up, giving us free tickets?!

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters that the befall us – like when the Presbyterian Board of Pensions helped me pay unexpected medical bills?

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters we may bring on ourselves – like when God woke me up from my slumber and led me out of a marriage where I endured continual emotional abuse and was slowly dying to my true self?

 

Our God is alive.
Our God is moving.
God is showing up for each of us, in ways big and small.

But if we do not consciously REMEMBER this stories, TELL these stories, RECALL these stories…we forget.  We become lost at sea – terrified by the next dark cloud up ahead.

THESE moments of God’s mighty provision, God’s mighty rescue, God’s mighty presence and power are touchstones – they are grounding, they are re-orienting, they put things into perspective, they bring the truth into focus.

 

If I only focus on the bad things I have endured, I have a big bone to pick with God.  WHY did I have to endure such bullying, such ostracizing, such loneliness?  WHY did I have to endure scarcity and want?  WHY did I have to go through the breaking up of my family?

BUT when I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I know God is with me.  God’s hands are present – in comfort, in manna and quail, in prayer, in friendship, in growth, in meaning, in calling, in overcoming, in drawing me near!  When I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I see how very blessed I am.  I see that God had the past, and that I can trust God for whatever may lie ahead. 

 

REMEMBERING grounds us.
REMEMBERING sheds light on the truth.
REMEMBERING helps us not loose our way, through the stormy seas of life.

 

Like the Israelites, we too have been mightily blessed, mightily rescued, mightily known, mightily loved and called.  But just like the Israelites, unless we choose to recall God’s mighty acts, we too become ungrateful, entitled, fearful, demanding,…lost.

 

We must choose remembrance.

We must choose to share.

We must choose to recall.

 

That’s what these gratitude stories have been about.  For it is in building a spiritual practice of gratitude, that we remember and give thanks.  And these are the stories that remind us who we are and whose we are. 

 

May we be a people,
Chosen and beloved
Who remember and share,
The mighty acts of God.

 

 

 

 

 

“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.