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“Faithful Doubt”

By Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:24-31
Jeremiah 29:13

 

John 20:24-31

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Jeremiah 29:11

When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart


 

To all those tossed about on the stormy seas of depression who are asking, “where is my God, my Rock?”

To all those watching the suffering of another, whose hearts are burning with the question, “Why, God!?  Where is your comfort?”

To all those witnesses of injustice, who are begging, “God show yourself.  Make this right!”

To all you who cannot find an answer to your suffering,

To all you who are waiting for a miracle, praying for a breakthrough,

To all you who live with questions about your faith, questions about the Bible, questions about Christianity…

 

I share with you this hope:  The Story of Thomas.

 
Thomas is a passionate disciple.  When Jesus tells the disciples of his plans to return to Mary & Martha’s home in order to bring their dead brother Lazarus back to life, the disciples all seek to discourage Jesus from going saying, “Rabbi the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and you are going there again?”  Realizing Jesus’ resolve, Thomas rallies the others saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”  Thomas is a devoted disciple.

When Jesus, risen from the dead, shows himself to the other disciples, Thomas needs to know it is real.  He can’t help but doubt.  His doubt protects him, because when he believes something, he will go all out.  He cannot follow this Risen Jesus whole-heartedly until he is sure it is indeed him.

 

For eight long days, Thomas is adamant in his unbelief:  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  …The Jesus I knew and loved was tortured, crucified, and buried.  If he is really Jesus, he will have those marks of torture and death.  Only then can I believe what you’re saying.

It can’t have been easy to disbelieve.  Meanwhile Thomas’ friends, the others are exuberant.  They are joyful.  They are no longer mourning.  They are excited.  They can’t wait to go forward, wherever Jesus will take them.  Thomas is still at the funeral.  He can’t understand their joy.  He can’t get excited about a future.  His entire hope was buried, and his friends are in different place.  Yet, Thomas stays with them.  When Jesus comes to them again, Thomas is there.  He remained in the discomfort of being on a different page than the others.  Without giving into pressure from his friends, he remained honest with himself and his closest friends about his thoughts & feelings.  He doubted actively, begging for a resolution, engaging in search of the truth.

And Jesus answers.  Eight days after He first showed himself to the disciples, Jesus reappears to them, while Thomas is present.  Jesus speaks directly to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Do not doubt, but believe!”

 

Jesus answers.

 

Thomas asked.  He sought out truth, and Jesus, faithful to his word opened the door and came in.  “Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”  Thomas was not lukewarm.  He was not afraid to take a stand.  He doubted out loud in front of his trusted companions.  He did not remain safe and obscure in silent doubt.  He did not trade his search for the truth for an image of piety.  He laid himself out on the line in honesty, in search of the truth.

Thomas finds what he is searching for.

 

Jesus, bearing the marks of death, yet alive, comes to him.  Jesus returns to answer this disciple’s passionate doubt.  Jesus comes that Thomas might passionately believe.  Thomas is blown away.  He worships Jesus:  “My Lord, and my God.”

Thomas is remembered to this day, as “doubting Thomas.”  But his story does not end in doubt.  His story ends in bold worship.  He asked.  God answered.  And he believed.

 

In Christian communities today, it is not popular to doubt.  Many of us tidy up our spiritual lives by packing and sometimes shoving our doubts into closets, where we hope they will remain hidden and forgotten.  Thomas shows us a radically different way to handle our doubts.   Thomas doubted OUT – LOUD.  It takes courage to doubt as Thomas did.

 

 

Today I want to share with you a song by Rich Mullins, a contemporary Christian artist who doubted like Thomas did.

Rich Mullins was a Christian Musical Artist of our time.  He wrote treasured songs such as Awesome God, and Step by Step.  He is known for his beautifully poetic and prophetic lyrics.  His songs were like landscapes:  vast and breathtaking while intimate and detailed.  He loved God dearly, and his music reflected both the complexity and the simplicity of life.  He is respected both for his musical contribution and his life of service to Christ.

Though he produced 9 highly acclaimed Christian music albums, Rich was notorious for never having any money.  Bob Thornton (KTLI Wichita) writes : “Rich used to come into the station quite a bit. He had friends who worked here and all of us knew him, so he would drop in when he was in town. He would just walk in the lobby and call out to any staff that was around, ‘Who wants to go to lunch? I haven’t got any money!’ That was Rich. He never had any money…”  He made a lot, and he gave it all way, literally.   Amy Grant said of Rich that “He was the uneasy conscience of Christian music.”  She explained that Rich had taken a vow of poverty.”

In 1995, after completing a degree in music education, Rich pursued one of his greatest dreams and moved to Tse Bonito, New Mexico to teach music to children on Native American Reservations.  Many such reservations could not afford to offer music classes in school.  Rich wanted the children to be blessed from God with music.  He wanted to bring the hope of Christ to the Native American reservation.

Though revered in many Christian circles, Rich strived to be honest with his doubts and struggles.  He did not bow to pressures to appear flawless.  Rather he humbled himself and was honest about the nitty gritty of life.  When he doubted, he doubted OUT LOUD, and when he believed, he believed OUT LOUD!

 

About his last recording, the Jesus record, a friend wrote:

For several years Rich had talked about making an album that would unfold the Jesus that we quickly gloss over on our way to church or Christian concerts. He wanted us to see the raw, rough Jesus who had dirty fingernails and who hung out with all the wrong people and loved them just as they were. It was a record, he said, that was “needed,” because for too many of us, Jesus had become domesticated, ordinary, and predictable. And necessary because those who believed Jesus to be otherwise often felt abandoned and alone in their convictions. Such was the nature of Rich’s work: he sought to at once challenge and heal, stir and to comfort, agitate and settle.

In September 1997, Rich sat down in an old, abandoned church, and, using a borrowed cassette recorder, recorded a demo tape for his new album.  The song, Hard to Get, is first on the recording, and it is one of Rich’s most explicit songs about doubt and faith.  In this song, the singer accuses God of playing hard to get up in heaven, while we all struggle down here on earth.  The song mingles knowledge of God’s love and mercy with the realities of pain and suffering.  It ends with a play on words in which the singer acknowledges God’s presence with him and concludes that rather than “playing hard to get,” God is “just plain hard to get.”

Nine days after this recording, Rich Mullins was killed in a car accident on his way to a benefit concert.  He left this world and went to meet his Love and Lord. Though only 41, when he died, Rich Mullins left a lifetime legacy of compassion and service to others.

 

I encourage you to listen to his song, “Hard to Get,” his demo version.  The words are below:

Hard to Get
You who live in heaven
Hear the prayers of those of us who live on earth
Who are afraid of being left by those we love
And who get hardened by the hurt
Do you remember when You lived down here where we all scrape
To find the faith to ask for daily bread
Did You forget about us after You had flown away
Well I memorized every word You said
Still I’m so scared, I’m holding my breath
While You’re up there just playing hard to get
You who live in radiance
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in skin
We have a love that’s not as patient as Yours was
Still we do love now and then
Did You ever know loneliness
Did You ever know need
Do You remember just how long a night can get?
When You were barely holding on
And Your friends fall asleep
And don’t see the blood that’s running in Your sweat
Will those who mourn be left uncomforted
While You’re up there just playing hard to get?
And I know you bore our sorrows
And I know you feel our pain
And I know it would not hurt any less
Even if it could be explained
And I know that I am only lashing out
At the One who loves me most
And after I figured this, somehow
All I really need to know

Is if You who live in eternity
Hear the prayers of those of us who live in time
We can’t see what’s ahead
And we can not get free of what we’ve left behind
I’m reeling from these voices that keep screaming in my ears
All the words of shame and doubt, blame and regret
I can’t see how You’re leading me unless You’ve led me here
Where I’m lost enough to let myself be led
And so You’ve been here all along I guess
It’s just Your ways and You are just plain hard to get

 

Let us pray.

Jesus, you amaze us as you care to answer our deepest doubts.

It amazes us that you go out of your way to meet us where we are.

May we have the honesty and courage of Rich Mullins.

May we have the faith of doubting Thomas.

May we seek you and find you, as we seek you with all our hearts.

In the middle of our chaos, depression, tragedy, and injustice, show yourself to us.

Let us see that you have been here too.  Let us touch your wounds.  Show us your face.

May we see your merciful eyes and outstretched hand.

May we experience the power of your resurrection in our own lives.

Lord, how we need your resurrection power in our lives.

We seek you, With all our heart.  Come Lord, Jesus, that we may worship you,

our Lord and our God!            Amen

“Look Up”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 5:6b-11
Luke 13:31-35

 

Romans 5:6b-11

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

 

Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”


 

In this passage from Luke, Jesus speaks for most of the passage.  He’s responding to those who are telling him to flee for his life from Herod, but then his answer focuses less on Herod and more on Jerusalem, which he portrays as central to this salvation drama and his own story.  In a foreshadowing manner, Jesus alludes to his death in Jerusalem, Jesus speaks to the significance of three days, and to those words of the chanting crowd when at last he will enter Jerusalem.

It’s as if he takes the opportunity of those advising him to flee to assure everyone that things will happen in the place and order in which they are intended, and that neither Herod, nor anyone else, can derail what will be.

It’s also as if Jesus maximizes this opportunity to paint a clearer and clearer picture of Jerusalem.  Not only do they kill those God sends to them, Jesus says, but they refuse the comfort and protection of the most high, who only wants to gather them beneath the wings, and yet they are unwilling.  This is a sad picture.  And building off those final words of Jesus – the chants of blessing with which Jesus will be greeted on that Palm Sunday Jerusalem – how much more tragic is it, that these same ones chanting welcome and blessing would soon after be the same ones chanting “Crucify.  Crucify!”

 

As with a child who is angry and hurt and yet cannot be encouraged, protected, or comforted, the people of Jerusalem long for the salvation of God and yet cannot see it or receive it, even when their life depends on it.  They become the enemy of their own well-being.  They become the obstacle to their own redemption.  Tragedy, indeed!

 

This picture of Jerusalem as conflicted, reminds me of a parable in the writings of Medieval Anchoress, Julian of Norwich.  Anchoresses were women who had retreated from the world to live a life of prayer and meditation, alone in a cell.  Julian was an anchoress of The Church of St. Julien in Norwich.  Often when these women would become anchoresses, they would literally be walled into their cells along the sides of churches, and a funeral mass would be held for them, signifying their death to the world.

Though we know very little about Julien, we know that she became deathly ill at age 30.  To comfort her, a priest held out a crucifix before her, and as she teetered on the edge of death, she experienced 16 visions.  Julian miraculously recovered from the brink of death, and though she describes herself as illiterate, she recorded these visions into what we now have as a collection called, “Showings.”

In this book, she tells of a parable of a servant and his lord.  Listen to the parable.

3'17'19 Look Up Julien of Norwich excerpt

3'17'19 Look Up Julien of Norwich excerpt2

In this parable, we hear in the Lord’s desire to comfort the ashamed and hurting servant, God’s desire to comfort us, even as we try to serve God faithfully yet fail.  And this image of the servant, eager to please the Lord, yet fallen and hurting, unable to see the loving eyes of his Lord – I find this image so very moving.

 

How many times have we tried our best to follow God faithfully, and when we fail, we turn aside from God in shame and miss out on the loving gaze of our Lord, who still loves us infinitely, without stopping.

What beauty!

What tragedy!

How much suffering do we experience, simply because we do not re-connect with God when we make a mistake? 

How much pain do we experience because we do not see and receive God’s unfailing love?

 

And here, in these words of Jesus concerning Jerusalem, I see a similar situation:  the city representing the heart of a people who have been chosen by God and cultivated by God to bring the light of the world into being.  Here, we have a city called to be “a city on a hill” a “light to the nations,” and yet, their own clarity of vision is muddy and conflicted.  Their own ability to see and receive God’s presence and comfort is obscured by their willful arrogance.  Unlike the eager servant of the parable, they are not innocent, they have in some ways lost their way.  Instead of perceiving the point of all the rules and all the rituals, they have come to see the law as lip-nus tests, measuring sticks, righteousness meters…  They are lost, and they do not know it.  They cry out, they worship, they proclaim God’s name, but then they reject God’s word to them, kill God’s ambassadors to them – refusing the blessing and comfort, healing and protection that God’s Word has always been intended to bring them.

And so they sit,

Uncomforted

Unprotected

Yearning

Seeking, but not finding

Looking, but not seeing…

 

And Jesus’ parables in Luke keep restating and restating this tragedy.

 

And yet,

Christ comes to them anyway.

Even though they are lost and have missed the point.

Christ comes through them anyway.

 

Though they cannot see, they are seen.

Though they cannot love, they are loved…

 

And herein lies the Good News – that WHILE WE ARE SINNERS, Christ loves us anyway.  WHILE WE WERE SINNERS, Christ died for us.  WHILE WE ARE SINNERS, Christ reconciles us to God!

The good news!!

 

Each of us will fail – many, many times in this life.

 

And if we learn to look up,

To return to God,

To take shelter under the wings of our loving Lord,

We too can experience the loving mercy, unfailing love, and amazing grace of our Creator, Redeemer, and Friend.

 

Whenever we find ourselves down, may we always remember…

to look up.

“You Prepare A Table Before Me”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 31:1-8
Psalm 23
John 14:1-7 and 10:10b

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the Lord promised.  The Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them.  The Lord will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you.  Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it.  It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

John 14:1-3 and 10:10b

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

 


 

Have you ever gone out of your way to surprise someone, to honor and celebrate someone?  The careful planning.  The details and arrangements.  The coordinating.

Can you recall a time when someone when out of their way to surprise you?

Some of us have these kinds of memories.

Others of us may not.

But I want to tell you that God has done just this for you.

You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.

I’ve always read this line and immediately switched out of the sheep/shepherd analogy and back to real life.  It is a beautiful image, and one I believe to be true, of God preparing a place for us, at a table of abundance, in the presence of our enemies.

But I hadn’t before thought of this image in relation to sheep.

The Shepherd, Phillip Keller, who wrote the book “A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23” tells that the word table is often used in reference to high country:  the tablelands.  The Spanish word “mesa” is often used to refer to such lands, and mesa literally means “table.”  When one thinks of how a table is where we find our sustenance, nourishment, and fellowship, it is most appropriate to think of the highlands in this way as well.  The tablelands are the place where the sheep find their nourishment, sustenance, and closeness with the shepherd during the hardest, hottest season.

And in the same way, the assertive shepherd will go ahead of the sheep, making several trips to the tableland, before even all the spring snow is melted, to determine the best route, the best camp, the best bedding grounds, the best pasturage, and the areas of danger.  He or she goes before.

Carefully planning.  Each detail.

The shepherd will likely take with him or her some salt and minerals, to place in certain areas, for the benefit of the sheep, and he/she will scout out poisonous plants, sometimes even going to lengths to eradicate them.

Phillip Keller tells of his own experience at his first range.  When he bought it, he didn’t know the ranch was covered in blue and white cammas in the spring.  Though gorgeous to the eye, the white cammas were poisonous to the sheep.  Lambs were especially vulnerable to its poison and would stiffen up like a block of wood and die, if they ate even a few of the leaves.  So Phillip and his children would go into the fields, every spring, on hands and knees and pull each camma from the ground.  It was grueling work, but it was necessary for the sheep’s survival.

 

David was likely familiar with what it took to prepare the land for the sheep, as well.

He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

He anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 

I don’t know about you, but there’s something about that going before, about that preparing everything in advance for me, that I find so loving.  Our good shepherd will lead us along valley pathways, onto highlands, into lands flowing with milk & honey, good lands.  And the whole journey, our Shepherd has taken before.  The dangers, the temptations, the fears, and hope, and love…Christ has felt it all before.  Christ has gone before us – through the valley of the shadow of death and to glory eternal.  And Chist goes to prepare a table before us, preparing a place at the table of God, for us.

And Christ doesn’t just go ahead, and leave us to try to make our own way.  In John, we hear Jesus speaking of returning, to get his followers, so they will be with him.

In both this image of the Shepherd, who goes to lengths to prepare the highlands for his/her sheep, and Christ, who has gone before us, both in life and in death,…to prepare a place for us…

I feel that deep and abiding love of God for me.

I feel comfort that the Shepherd will come back for the sheep, to lead them through the valleys and into the highlands – that promised land of nourishment and sustenance.

I feel comfort that Jesus promised to not leave us alone but to come back so as to lead us safely home.

 

I read the book “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo a number of years ago now.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.  It is a father’s retelling of his own journey through extreme valleys in his life, culminating in his 4 year old son Colton’s major brush with death.  In the time following his son’s recovery, his son would say things, casually and unexpectedly, over time, about experiences with Jesus and heaven and angels…from when he was near death.  And the family was blown away by the Biblical truth, by the details and things their son could not have otherwise known, had he not indeed had such an experience with Jesus, while barely hanging on to life.

Whatever your feeling about the book or their story, I respect that.

Myself, I found it very compelling, overwhelming, profound, and simply beautiful.

One of these moments in which they got a glimpse into Colton’s experience, was when Colton and his Dad went to visit a man in the nursing home, who was very near death.  Colton’s dad Todd is a part-time pastor like myself, so where his Dad went, he went also.  Let me share a bit from this story:

Read p 117-119 of Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo, starting at the last paragraph, “Colton peered out the window…” and reading through the end of the chapter. 

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 1

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 2

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 3

 

I find it very comforting, that we are not alone.

That our Lord goes before us

And comes back for us

For every season of our journey.

 

From the Israelites crossing over the Jordan and entering the promised land… to now

God has promised to go before us AND to be with us.

 

Our Lord has prepared a table for us.

And Christ leads us to it

 

It is not merely a heavenly table, surrounded by God, in all God’s glory

I believe it is that,

But it is also a table, here and now, in the presence of our enemies…

 

In the midst of our trials and troubles…  In the presence of those who hate, bad-mouth, and look down on…   In the muck and mire of our real, day to day…  In the misunderstandings and hurt feelings…  In the systems we feel powerless to change…  In the battles we fight over and over again…  In the midst of all that would threaten our life and our happiness…

Here,

God prepares a table before us.

In this place,

Our cup overflows! 

 

What a miracle of our Lord!

that our life and healing

protection and closeness

happiness and sustenance

would be given us

in the midst of such adversity

 

Let us pray.

Lord, Christ, we long to be in the tablelands.  We long to know what it’s like that our cup overflows!!!  We want to know your loving preparation and provision.  We want to see your fingerprints all over every aspect of our lives!!!

We want to follow you into the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey.

Thank you,

that you have gone before.  Thank you that you are getting everything ready even still.

Thank you,

that you have not left us on our own to find our way.

Thank you,

that you lead us still

Every step

Every season.

 

Thank you for being the Lord of our life

life to the full!

both in this life,

and forevermore.

 

Lord, do it.  Make it so!!!

We love you.

Amen

“What Love is This?!”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 23
Ruth 1:1-18

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.

Ruth 1:1-18

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons.  The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion; they were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.

Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she had been living, she and her two daughters-in-law, and they went on their way to go back to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find security, each of you in the house of your husband.” Then she kissed them, and they wept aloud. They said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters, why will you go with me? Do I still have sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? Turn back, my daughters, go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. Even if I thought there was hope for me, even if I should have a husband tonight and bear sons, would you then wait until they were grown? Would you then refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me.” Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

So she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” But Ruth said,

“Do not press me to leave you
or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people,
and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die—
there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me,
and more as well,
if even death parts me from you!”

When Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more to her.

 


 

This story of Ruth and Naomi compels us.

What possesses someone to cleave to another like that?

 

It is a mystery.

Did Ruth not have a better option?  Was her family of origin a place she never wished to return?  What were Ruth’s ties with her home country like – that she would give it all up to stay with Naomi and move to away from the only place she’d ever known?

Or did Ruth love her hometown and family of origin but love Ruth more?  Was her commitment to her husband so deep that not even death would end her commitment to his mother?  Did she pity her mother-in-law for having lost so much and feel an obligation to care for her?  Was her connection with her mother-in-law so extraordinary, that leaving her felt like more than she could bear?

 

We do not know.

For some undisclosed reason, Ruth refuses to leave Naomi.

And this seems clearly NOT in the best interest of Ruth.

She had a much better chance starting over in her hometown.  She could re-marry.  She was young enough.  She could start again.

But following after her mother-in-law, who could no longer marry and had absolutely no way of caring for herself (as a woman in those days), was most certainly the bigger risk.  As women, their entire livelihoods were reliant on their having men to provide for them.   And all the men were gone.  The ties that bound them were gone.

 

But Ruth commits herself to Naomi – that not even death should part them.

 

This is extraordinary.

And it probably saved Naomi’s life, as two were much more likely to survive than one, alone.

And so we have Ruth and Naomi traveling back to Israel, to Naomi’s nation-of-origin, in the hopes that they would somehow find a way to survive, as word had reached them that God has spared the people of Israel, giving them food.

This commitment by Ruth to Naomi is so extraordinary that couples getting married will often pull from this text – in hopes that their own love and commitment might be half as strong that that shown by Ruth to Naomi.

 

What is it about this text that draws us in?

I think it’s this utter commitment.  I think it’s the depth of love shown in this most tangible way – of not leaving, even when it surely means suffering and risk and a difficult journey.  This cleaving to another person with devotion is so utterly gorgeous.  It draws us in.

 

Mercifully, Hebrew culture had a system for caring for the people.  Since in that day men were alone allowed to own property and conduct business, so all women needed the care of a man in order to survive.  Sometimes the man was a husband, sometimes a son, sometimes a father.

This system was so developed that they even had a system for making sure each man’s name and legacy was carried on.  If a woman lost her husband and had no children, the next of kin had an obligation to marry that woman so that she could conceive and bear a child to carry on the family name.  This was a family obligation.  And the character and integrity of one’s nearest of kin could be measured in their willingness at such times to step in and provide for the bereaved woman in this way.

But in this instance, Naomi was advanced in age, and it seems her time of bearing children was over.  She fell through the cracks.  There would be no more children to care for her, even if her next of kin were to step in.  She had lost the two she bore, and she could bear no more.  The two young wives had no brother in law to step in redeem them, as it was called in that day.  In fact, since Naomi and her husband had traveled to Moab and were foreigners in that land, they had no next of kin there at all.  So these two women had absolutely nothing.

This was about survival.

 

And in this place of nothingness.  In this place of emptiness.

They are reliant on God.  They are reliant on the mercy of strangers along a risky journey.

And in this place of emptiness, they cleave to one another.  They rely on each other.

 

When Naomi has no societal power left and no inroads to survival, Ruth will not leave her side.  She works tirelessly for herself and her mother-in-law that they might have food.  And to Naomi who feels as if her life is over and she has nothing, Ruth is living proof that God loves her and will not leave her.

Naomi shelters Ruth by bringing her back into the land and culture of Naomi’s roots.  There, there is food; God has been merciful to the people.  There, they have land owned by her former husband.  There they have kin, if one will step up and care for Ruth in this way.  And so Naomi guides her daughter in law – instructing her in this foreign land and culture – that Ruth may find her way and start anew, with fresh hope.

 

I will probably never tire of hearing this story.

We all need people in our lives like Ruth…

The kind of people who stay – long after their obligations have ended,

The kind of people who love – even when there’s little in it for them,

The kind of people who are committed to us – in thick and in thin, in plenty and in want.

 

We all come to places in our lives when we feel utterly stripped of all power and security.  We face journeys that feel so endless and barren.  We find ourselves with more loss than gain.

And in these times, we need people like Ruth.

 

I don’t know why some of us enjoy friendship and love like this only for a short season.  I don’t know why some of us search all our lives and never find such companionship.  I don’t know why others of us are so blessed to have several folks in our lives who would love us like this.

But wherever you find yourself today, I invite you to give thanks for those in your lives who have been there for you, for a lifetime or a season, or even a moment.

 

I have spoken to you before about that very low time in my life, that time pinnacled with acquiring bed bugs just before Christmas.  The bed bugs themselves can be enough to make the strongest among us feel crazy, but the real pain was in feeling so alone in my suffering.  And the bed bugs felt like icing on that cake of suffering.

The day I got the news that all fabric in my house had to be bagged and laundered and all belongings had to be pulled out 4 feet from the walls – for the bed bug treatment- I despaired, as I have no family in area.  Who could I possibly ask to come and enter into my misery – to help me through this mountain of a task?  I only had a few friends, and some of those friendships were new and untested.  So I called one such friend, and though it may be hard to tell at the outset, she is among the saints of this world – if her acts of love are the measure.  She agreed to come help, but she knew we would need more help if we were going to get everything ready in time, so she called some of her friends.

In the end, one of her friends agreed to come help.  It was a tiny miracle.  And so the three of us worked until we could work no more, and when it became clear that more would be needed come morning, the friend of my friend slept on my couch, in order to help me again in the morning.

 

What love is this?!?

What love is this – that goes the extra mile – and for someone essentially a stranger?

 

In this very low time, God showed God’s love for me through the love and selfless generosity of a stranger – to enter into my misery and walk with me until I could go on.

 

I do not know who your angels in disguise have been.  They come in all shapes and sizes, colors and backgrounds, times and places.

They have come in our times of greatest need.  And sometimes they come only for a moment.

But in these moments, God is showing the depth and breadth of God’s love for us.  In these moments, God is present and real to us in flesh and bone through people who have opened themselves to be used of God.

 

In our lives full of glorious mountain moments and valleys of despair, may we find God present with us, in the stranger, in the friend, in dear companionship, and in moments of utterly selfless beauty.

 

It is hard to love like this.

That’s why it is so rare and precious.

That’s why an entire book of Bible is one such story.

But as we open ourselves to God’s Spirit, to be used by God,

we will find ourselves party to more and more such moments,

we will find strength to love with this kind of self-less and persevering love,

and we will witness the profoundly gorgeous love of God poured out.

 

God is actively working

To comfort the afflicted

To restore the oppressed

To heal the broken and brokenhearted

To shepherd us through the valleys of the shadow of death and bring us into a broad

land of milk and honey

To make our cups overflow!

 

God is actively working.

 

May we open ourselves,

listening for God

asking God to use us

and being obedient to the Spirit

That more people may KNOW the gorgeous love of God,

      in moments, and friendships, and love, like the love Ruth showed Naomi. 

 

Lord, use us.  

“I Like You Exactly As You Are”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 14
Ephesians 3:14-21

 

Psalm 14

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

 

Ephesians 3:14-21

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name.  I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.


 

There are some things markedly different about God’s Kingdom than our own kingdoms and our own ways.

For one thing, God welcomes all people as family BEFORE anyone has deserved it.  This scripture from Ephesians makes mention of how every family in heaven and earth takes its name from God the Father.  I do not read this mention of God as a father literally, meaning that God has a male anatomy.  I read this to say that from God we all take our family name.  From God we have all come.  In God, we all are family; we all belong.  I understand from this that God claims us.  God calls us family!

 

That is wild if you think about it.

 

If we meet a rock star or famous person, we are quick to tweet or post or Instagram it.  Somehow we feel elevated by this proximity to power and fame.  But think about God. Adopting. Us.

THAT is something to tweet, post, Instagram about!  That is shocking and wonderful!

Being people as we are, we may be tempted to think we’ve somehow deserved this – or else God wouldn’t have adopted us.  It’s the classic, “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good” logic.  But in actuality, this scripture reminds us that God’s love and adoption extends over all the globe to everyone.

 

Is everyone good?  No, in fact our Psalm from this week very articulately reads,

there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

 

No one.  No, not one.  No one does good.

Notice this scripture does not say, “No one IS good.”  In fact our creation stories say quite the opposite.  “God looked at all God had made and saw that it was very good.”

No, we are good.

But we do not DO good.

Our behaviors are riddled with sin.

Our personhood, is very good!

 

But unlike everywhere else in this world.  God does not wait until we fix our behaviors to show us mercy and love.  God does not hold acceptance over our heads like a carrot, or a cake, or ice cream, to motivate us to DO GOOD.

No, God loves us and calls us family WHILE we are still sinners.

 

I watched the movie “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” while it was in theaters.  If you’ve not watched it and you appreciated the life and work of Fred Rogers from PBS’s Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, I encourage you to do so.  It’s at Redbox now.

In the documentary, you learn about why Fred Rogers did what he did:  why he felt so strongly about being present with children, and why he chose to teach and empathize through children’s television instead of entertaining with the absurd and sensational.  Near the end of the documentary, the host reflects on criticisms of Mr. Rogers.  Some blame the entitledness of new generations on his messages of unconditional love.  They say that what was wrong about his show was that he told a whole generation of children that they were loved just as they are, without their having to earn that love and value.

While I understand this concern, I cannot help but hear Jesus in the word’s of Mr. Rogers:

“I like you exactly as you are.”

 

Jesus did not wait until we were perfect to love us.  Jesus did not come to teach and to die and to rise from the dead with power for those who would get it right.

No, Jesus did not come to save the righteous

but to save sinners.

And remember, who does good?

No one does good.  No, not one.

We are all sinners.

We all are made good, very good.

And we all screw up.  We all have used our power to choose good and instead have chosen bad.

 

WE are who Christ came and died and rose to save!  WE are in need of God’s mercy and grace.

 

And God does not WAIT till we get our act together.  God loves us in our brokenness.  God loves us in our sinfulness.  God hates the sin and the way it ravages us and our communities.  But God loves each of us. 

 

Paul continued this pray in Ephesians asking…

“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. “

 

Paul’s whole prayer is about love.  Paul starts out confessing that everyone comes from God.  Everyone is part of God’s family.  And then Paul prays that Christ might come to dwell in each of our hearts by faith, as we’re being rooted and grounded in love..

 

Rooted

and grounded

in love.

 

Perhaps that is what Fred Rogers was working so faithfully to do.  A Presbyterian minister himself, Fred perceived that children most needed to feel loved.  They needed, not only to feel loved, but to be rooted and grounded in loveFrom that place of being loved, just as they are, children could learn to love others.  From that place of being loved, just as they are, children could learn to value themselves and one another.  From that place of being loved, just as they are, children could grow and prosper in life.  From that place of being loved, children could see the face of God.  For God is love. 

 

Through love, we know GodThrough love, Christ dwells within our hearts.

 

And Paul goes on…

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Paul continues to pray about love!  -that each of us might be given the power to understand the width and length and height and depth of God’s great love for us!  For Christ’s love surpasses our understanding, and we need God’s help to comprehend it, but as we do…as we glimpse the unstopping, never-giving up, relentless and persevering love of God for us, we are filled with all the fullness of God.

 

When we know God’s love, God’s fullness fills our being.

 

And so yes, telling children they are loved just as they are, may make them less manipulatable.  It may give you fewer strings to pull and control their psyche and behaviors.

But telling children they are loved, just as they are, fills them, more and more, with the Spirit of God.

For God is love.

 

 

So I do not know what hoops you feel you have to jump to stay in God’s good graces.

I do not know what demons you stare down, to remember who you are and to stand tall.

But I encourage you to remember

Actively remember

Writing notes to yourself

Making symbols to remind yourself, day after day,

Of God’s unrelenting love for you,

just as you are. 

 

God did not wait, for you to get it all right.

God sought you out and has been calling your name,

“My child”

“My friend”

May God give us the grace to comprehend,

Down in the depths of our souls,

just how precious

and beloved

and cherished we are

by the God of all the Universe.