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“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…

 

“Pleasures Forevermore”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 20:19-31
Psalm 16

 

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

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.

 

Psalm 16

Protect me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
I have no good apart from you.”

As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble,
in whom is all my delight.

Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows;
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out
or take their names upon my lips.

The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup;
you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
I have a goodly heritage.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol,
or let your faithful one see the Pit.

You show me the path of life.
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.


 

This Psalm is rich.

The Psalmist confesses that God is his chosen portion, his sustenance, the one who holds his lot.  I like this because it speaks to the choice God gives us and to the responsibility we have to choose.  The Psalmist reports that in choosing God, he has effectively surrendered his sustenance and his lot in life, to God.  This is a supreme measure of trust, truly a surrendering, to have God take control over the outcomes of our lives.

Then the Psalmist acknowledges the blessings in his life – how the boundary lines for his life have fallen in pleasant and good places.

I find this confession of gratitude particularly moving because we generally have a harder time truly seeing the gifts we have inherited and those God has given.  I’ve found that this season of quarantine has accented for me the blessings in my life.  I have others, with whom I can eat and watch a movie.  I have folks I can hug and kiss.  I am not alone.  I have folks I worry about – which means I have folks I care deeply about in this life.  I am more acutely mindful of just how blessed I am by those paid the least in our society, the trash collectors, the grocery workers, those who make toilet paper, and those who run around warehouses fulfilling our online orders…  I am aware of how much more space I have to quarantine than many, if not most, in our world have.  Only a year ago and this quarantine would have rendered 4 people wedged in a two-bedroom apartment.  And for how many would even that be a luxury?

 

I am grateful to still seem well.  I am grateful to not have lost anyone dear to this dreadful virus.  I am grateful for private transportation – for the chance to get out without feeling vulnerable to a multitude of other people’s germs.  I am grateful that my work doesn’t require me to put myself and my family at risk on a day to day basis.

I am grateful.  But without a crisis to highlight how fortunate we are, do we actually stop long enough to ponder the ways our lives have been built on the shoulders of others; the ways our parents set us up for success; the benefits we enjoyed of education, connection, and experience?  My own experience is that my laments and complaints quite often steal the lion’s share of my attention.  So this Psalmist’s awareness of his blessings in life is quite notable.

 

Then the Psalmist describes his communication with God.  He says God counsels him, that his own heart guides him in the night, and that God is always before him.  With God at his side, he is secure, he is confident, he is stable and steadfast.

And this my friends, is a feeling quite scarce these days.
How many of us feel confident and secure?

The test of this for me has been grocery shopping.  Every day I learn something new, a new way to protect myself, new best practices and strategies, and every day I find myself wishing I’d known more and done better, earlier.  Each time I go to the store, I find myself winding up tight, like a coil compressed and ready to unleash.  The anxiety and discomfort of my mind manifesting in physical tension, pain, and exhaustion.

But this Psalmist writes that because he has God ever with him, before him and guiding him, that his heart is glad, his soul rejoices, and even his body rests secure.  His body rests secure.  How I am yearning for that!

 

It would seem that…

Living life with God taking the reigns and controlling the outcomes…
Living a life in which God counsels us, staying ever before us,…
Living a life of seeing and giving thanks for the blessings undergirding our lives…
This is a life the Psalmist finds life-giving, joyful, and secure.

And isn’t this what we all yearn for?  Life.  Joy.  Security? 

 

The Psalmist is secure in trusting that God does not give up on him but shows him the path of life.

I remember once, decades ago, as a staff member at Camp Hanover, how one of the lifeguards was gathered with friends in staff lounge, cutting up and shooting the breeze.  A fellow lifeguard, new to the role, came in to ask a question about lights, and instead of showing her how to do it, he withheld information needed for her to succeed and rather made fun of her as soon as she left.  I was taken aback.  But isn’t it true that quite often we are more comfortable judging and despising one another, than in helping one another and pointing one another in the right direction?

Our God did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through God.  And here, long before Christ came to walk the earth among us and work his saving acts, this Psalmist understood the heart of God:  he understood that God shows us the way, so that we might be blessed and be a blessing.  God shows us the ways that lead to life, so that we might have life and live it to the fullest!  Thanks be to God!!!

The Psalmist has experience to show him that in God’s presence is fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore. 

 

Do we have these experiences?
Have we tried and tested our faith? 

Have we pushed back on traditional teaching to challenge those things that make no sense to us – perhaps that the last shall be first and the first shall be last, or that we must lose our lives in order to find it?

Jesus said many things that folks found it very hard to swallow.  And if we are being honest, we will too.  But until we raise up our doubts and test our faith, we cannot be transformed by our God.  Until we experience God’s timely word, God’s saving arm, God’s perfect provision, God’s answers to our doubts…our confession of faith is often mere ritual.

 

Do you want to be someone who can honestly say that your mind is at peace and that your body rests secure?

Do you want to be someone who experiences fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore?

Do you want to entrust the outcomes of your life to the only One who truly sees, the master-gardener, the virtuoso Artist of your life?

 

Until we, like Thomas, question the things we do not understand, until we exercise our muscles of faith – following wherever God leads, until we let go the reigns of our lives and entrust all that matters to our Lord God, we will never know the awesome power and salvation of our God.

When Thomas doubted, it must have been hard.  He was alone in his disbelief.  And that uncomfortable position lasted for a full week.  But God met him.  God showed up for him.  God answered him!

 

As we navigate the new landscapes of our changing realities,
As we work and move and shop differently,
As we wrestle in isolation and quarantine,

May we like Thomas squarely face our demons, our questions, our doubts, our desires and hot anger.

May we bring our full selves before the living God, in honesty and truth.

And may we experience God-with-us in new, transformative ways

So that we too may joyfully confess with the Psalmist,

That with our God is life and peace and security

Gratitude, joy, and pleasures forevermore!