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“Family in the House of God”

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

 

Philippians 3:4b-9

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

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

 

Matthew 5:21-22

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


 

 

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

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

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

God is like that.

 

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

 

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

Goodness.  In the darkest super-villain.

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

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

And we relate.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?

Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?

Have we set aside jealousy and competition?

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

 

Christ is calling each of us

to come in,

to set down our loads,

to pull up a chair,

to know and be known…

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

 

 

 

 

“Come To the Party”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 20:1-16
Luke 15

 

Matthew 20: 1-16

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.  When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same.  And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’  They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’  When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’  When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner,  saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’  But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

 

Luke 15

The Parable of the Lost Sheep

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable:  “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.  And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.

The Parable of the Lost Coin

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’  Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons.  The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.  A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.  When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.  So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs.  He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!  I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you;  I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’  So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’  But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing.  He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on.  He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him.  But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’  Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.  But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”


 

I couldn’t leave this story without giving time to the older brother and those other feelings we may have about this story.

I don’t know about you, but for many years, I most heavily identified with the older brother.  I also identified with the 99 sheep who never went astray.  I felt a bit concerned for myself and angry at God – that perhaps I wasn’t that sheep who was sought out & rejoiced over by the shepherd.  I felt upset that I might do all the “right things” my whole life and not experience a party for me… or miss out on the party entirely.

The statement that “there is more joy in heaven over the 1 who is found than over the 99 who have no need of repentance” seems to imply that God doesn’t equally love us all.  Does God favor those of us who mess up, over those of us who don’t?!?

 

Even though I have identified as the older brother, as one who has tried to do all the right things and obey God, my blinders are now off and I know down deep now that all of us mess up, whether we are aware of it or not.  For me, my sin was in the way I judged others and myself.  My sin lay in the way I treated myself without mercy and grace.  My sin lay in the false notion that I almost measured up on my own.

I now, think that God’s joy over the one who repents and is found – is joy because that one is finally receiving the love and mercy of God.  While those who falsely believe they have no need for repentance and God’s mercy are that much further from the truth about themselves and that much further from receiving the mercy and grace of God…  And this grieves God, who loves us more than we could ever begin to grasp!

Perhaps this statement isn’t saying that God doesn’t care about the 99.  Perhaps this says that the 99 are those who don’t think they need help, think they’ve got it under control, think they’re doing good enough on their own.  Perhaps the notion that some have it all together, that some are righteous, that some are holy – is a false notion all together.  Perhaps none are righteous but God, …and the path back to fellowship with our Maker, who loves us so, is by first becoming deeply aware of our brokenness and need for a Savior.

In this story of the Prodigal Son, we witness a Father whose love for his son, far outweighs his pain and disappointment over the son’s sin against him.  We see a Father who longs that the son might know his love and pleasure in him,…his heart for him.

 

And so this is what is so appalling about the older son’s responsehere, this older son has been with his Father all that time, and yet he’s not understood his Father’s heart, after all!  How heartbreaking this must have been for the Father.  In the Father’s response to the son, the Greek word tells us that the Father exhorted his son, begged his son to come join the party.  It is the Father’s heart that his son join in – enjoy and celebrate!

 

And so it is important to remember that Jesus initiates this round of parables we’ve read from Luke, in response to the Pharisees and scribes.  They were judging and irritated that the sinners and tax collectors were flocking to Jesus.  They were even more judging and irritated that Jesus welcomed and ate with them – accepting them, treating them as ones of value and worth – when they were so far from living in a way that might come close to deserving such treatment!

But that was the whole point.  Jesus came to offer those who didn’t deserve life and love – a life overflowing with life and love!  Jesus came to show his heart of love for those who cannot help themselves.  God came to show us all that love.

And the truth is, none of us deserve any of it!

But somehow, our receiving God’s love and mercy, is usually bound up in our perception of ourselves…

And if we think we are righteous,

or at least more righteous than others…

well, we may well miss the whole point,

because God doesn’t seem to be keeping score.                   At all.

 

I want to scroll back up and read the story of the prodigal son again, with your heart.

I want you to imagine yourself in the story.  Where are you in the story?  From whose eyes do you see each event?

And what do you see?

How do you feel?

 

Listen, for the Word of the Lord, to you.

 

Read the story of the Prodigal Son

 

For those who found yourself taking that long road home, reciting every excuse, every reason…planning to beg your way back closer to the Father.

Forget it.

And receive!  Feel the joy in your Father’s heart, that he sees you again! J / – that he might love you once more!  Feel the desire in his heart, to bless you, as a son, a daughter, a part of the family – reclaiming you, not because you’ve deserved it but simply & wholly because He loves you!  Celebrate and receive the lavish gifts and his party, over you! 

 

For those of you who found yourself cross-armed outside.  Smelling the food while your stomach rumbles…standing, back to the laughter, the music, the stories…outside, angry, full of righteous anger…

Come and listen to the Father’s exhortation – to come inside and celebrate!  Feel the Father’s heart for you and for your brother.  See his generous spirit that just wants you.  Know that everything he has is yours!

Lay down your time-sheet.  Trash your star chart.  Ditch your Sunday school attendance record.  And see that God’s heart isn’t like that.  God’s heart doesn’t keep score or remember wrongs.  God’s heart is FOR you.  Cheering for you.  Wishing to lavish gifts upon you.  If only you’ll set aside your score-sheet and allow God to give you more than you could ever ask, deserve, or imagine!

All that GOD has is yours…the power, the resources, the strength, the patience, the wholeness, the peace, the joy!…  And all we have to do is ask – knowing we don’t deserve it – and receive.

All we have to do is ask…

And receive! 

All God has

Is ours. 

 

And you who found yourself cooking the food, serving the guests, looking in on a family that wasn’t your own…  Come and join the celebration!  God has done what we could not do.  God has adopted us into the family, not as guests, but as sons and daughters.  We are children of the most high God, and great is our inheritance!

Jesus has said we are no longer servants but friends.  Christ has called you brother.  Christ has called YOU sister.  You are God’s BeLoved, precious in God’s sight.  And delightful is your inheritance!  Come.  You are home.  Be at home.  And celebrate!

 

And to you who found yourself overjoyed at the sight of your son in the distance, whose heart lept within you when you saw his form, his walk…rejoice in this precious one, who was lost but is found!  Enjoy each tiny detail…his mother’s hair, your fingers and toes, the freckles on his face,…and the way he laughs!…that sound you never thought you’d hear again!

You who’s heart breaks for your older son, who entreats him, begs him, encourages him to come in and be merry, to forgive and enjoy, to be forgiven and know his father’s lavish, never-giving-up love…

Stand fast. Don’t stop celebrating each rescued soul.  Stand fast and don’t stop entreating all those bound by rules and enslaved to endless striving…to come in and join the celebration, share in the feast!  Stand fast in your hoping, in your praying, in your watching, in your loving!

 

 

May you and I know the GOD’s heart for us!

May we stand amazed in the undeserved generosity of God, that has clothed us with life & breath, passion & ability since our birth.

May we return to the One who longs to lavish the gifts of his love on us, as beloved children.

May we believe and receive, God’s over-the-top, running-to-greet us from far away, entreating us to join in the party of love.

Amen.