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“The Church of God, for Today”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 20:1-20
Matthew 21:33-46

 

Exodus 20:1-20

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

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

 

 

It strikes me that the 10 Commandments are getting a lot less air-time than they used to.  When I was a child, they were one of the first things you learned in Sunday School.  But as we are all aware, we live in a different time and culture today.  Our children and their children are not getting the same Christian Education.

I am grateful that some of this is our realization that indoctrination is not the end-all, be-all.  We in fact want our children and our children’s children to come to know and love and the Lord God, with all their hearts and souls and minds and strengths…  And this does not come by rote.  It does not come intrinsically by Sunday School attendance.  It does not come by perfect church attendance.  It does not come by memorizing all the rules.  It does not even necessarily come from following all the rules.

 

Loving and knowing God simply cannot be educated into a person.  Being loved by God cannot be earned or deserved.  And the journey of faith is a journey of the heart, a journey of living.

 

But the education piece was nonetheless valuable – invaluable in fact.  We were learning more about God by studying God’s word, memorizing those words, and discussing them in Bible Studies and Sunday School classes.  We were learning from one another, as we sought God’s face together in church.  And much of these gems of Christian life are no longer part of the next generations’ experiences.

 

We mourn this loss in the church.

We can wistfully look back on the good-ole-days.

 

As for me, I miss the long table full of food – on church potluck evenings!  I miss playing out in the church yard, while my parents had choir rehearsal.  I miss the nursery – the nursery! – where there were always cheerios to be had, building blocks to stack, and comrades to play with and arm wrestle.

I miss youth group!  I miss the ridiculous games we played.  I miss our trips to Montreat Conference Center.  I miss our Habitat builds.  I miss the lock-ins…

I miss my college fellowship group.  I miss “Walk to Emmaeus,” or “Chrysalis,” an intensive faith formation weekend for disciples and church leaders.  I miss fall retreats.  I miss the holiday dances…

 

But there have also been gains:

  • we now understand that dressing to the nines is not a pre-requisite of holiness and respect,
  • we now know that church is meant to bolster a LIFE of faith (and not be the end-all, in and of itself),
  • we now accept that there are a myriad of ways to serve God – both inside and outside the  church,
  • we are much more attuned to listen to God’s voice in our everyday – rather than expecting our entire spiritual nourishment to come on a Sunday morning,
  • we have stopped shaming those who drink on Sundays,
  • we have stopped shaming those who must work on Sundays,
  • we’ve stopped forbidding folks from playing cards on Sundays,
  • we’ve mostly stopped judging people for having tattoos,
  • many have stopped shaming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,
  • women have been accepted into more of the leadership of the church – and less cloistered to the halls of the “Presbyterian Women” and other alternative, segregated, branches of leadership,
  • we have begun to open ourselves to learn about God from folks who do not look like us, share our background, or meet our own educational status,
  • persons of varied colors and races are more able to gather in one place to worship God,
  • we have opened to new experiences of worship,
  • we have allowed greater diversity of faith expression – in music and liturgy and practice…
  • Pastors are no longer living in manses, where they were expected to be at everyone’s beck and call.
  • Pastors are setting aside and guarding time with their families and with their God – with intentionality – recognizing that the former ways of neglecting family and self are lacking in God’s faithfulness and love to family and self.

 

There have been both loss AND gains.

 

The new generations have begun to question things that were never questioned before.  They cringe to tell children the story of Noah’s ark – since most creatures and people were simply wiped off the face of the earth, drowned by God.

They are concerned by stories of a vengeful God.

They do not know what to make of God’s commands to kill all the Gentile unbelievers off the promised land.

They don’t know what to make of a “Father” God who sends his son to be killed, sacrificed!

And many are concerned about how modern day Israel is interfacing with the Palestinians and their geographic neighbors.

 

They don’t want to proceed with blind faith.

They don’t want to walk with blinders on.

They don’t want abject obedience – without thoughtfulness and mindfulness.

 

And I must say, that frankly, I respect this authenticity, this honesty, this courageous truthfulness.

I respect all who choose to press into the harder questions of faith.

I respect those who choose to employ the brain God gave them – trusting God to lead them to truth.

I respect those who do not simply lean on conventional wisdom, but who investigate things for themselves and do their homework.

 

It is respectable.

 

But is also means we don’t have the former full-load of attendees in worship.

It means folks are not just giving money to the church, but also to beautiful, new non-profits.

It means folks are not always present on Sunday, because they are finding spiritual nourishment in a variety of places.

 

Again, we have gains and losses.

As a people, we are at once growing and shrinking – learning and regressing.

 

And what of these 10 Commandments?

They do not have the following they used to.  Or at least folks do not study and memorize them as often.  And I do think that is a loss.  Many outside our walls (and some of you within them) dismiss the Old Testament altogether.  The God portrayed there seems vengeful and petty, re-active and harsh, unforgiving and playing favorites.

But the Old and New Testaments – while different – are not meant to tell two different stories.  Rather, they tell one story.  And when we hold that story as one whole, we can begin to better understand the difficult parts of the Old Testament.

We believe that Christ is the greatest revelation of God!  And so through the lense of Jesus Christ, we are to re-visit these Old Testament stories, these texts.  And we are to understand them from the perspective of this greatest revelation of God – the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!

And so we can begin to piece together God’s purposes.  We begin to piece together God’s heart.  We begin to understand that these rules – the 10 Commandments – are not legalistic.  Rather, they are for the purpose of blessing.

Over and over, God explains why – that you may be blessed, that you may live long in the land God is giving you, that you may not sin and endure those consequences but rather obey and experience God’s steadfast love – from generation to generation to come.

 

Just as our earthly parents wish to guide us in goodness that our lives may be full of happiness and spared of pain, our heavenly Father wishes to guide us in living lives of righteousness – that we might not miss out on the goodness and blessing God intends for us!

How do you feel when your child just won’t obey?
…when they fight your best intentions,
…when they mistrust you and deliberately rebel – thinking they’ll miss out on the best by being obedient…

It’s heart-breaking, is it not?

We watch as they make tragic, life-diminishing, enslaving, harmful, and hurtful choices.

 

And God’s heart too breaksbreaks for us all.
For we have all gone astray.
We have all doubted God’s goodness and heart.
We have doubted God’s future of hope – both for ourselves and for our congregation. 

 

But what would happen if we learn these rules?
What would happen if we study the scriptures?
What would happen if we choose to believe God’s Word over our own fears and wistful feelings of loss?

What would happen?

 

Might we finally experience,
For ourselves,
God’s mighty provision,
The blessings of obedience,
The relief of trust – replacing doubt,
The assurance of faith?  …in this, our journey with God?

 

For everything there is a time and a season. 

We are not in the same season as the one that built our beautiful sanctuary.

We do not have the same folks who gave of all their free-time to decorate and maintain and plan and serve in this place.

We do not have a host of members, pledging money and volunteering their free time.

We do not have a full-time pastor, who is always available.

 

But what is God’s calling to us, in THIS season?

Could it be that we are called for such a time as this??…

  • Might we be a place where the disillusioned can come to God honestly, and without pretense?
  • Might we be a place where the disconnected can experience the steadfast and unconditional love of the Father?
  • Might we be a place where the discouraged, hear a word of encouragement and find strength for their journeys?
  • Might we be a place where the angry can come as they are, in honesty, and be heard and validated?
  • Might we be a place where the hopeless begin to hope again?
  • Might we be a place where the seeking can find?
  • Might we be a place where truth is spoken, and freedom is found?
  • Might we be a place where sin is recognized and released?
  • Might we be a place of forgiveness, seventy-seven times?
  • Might we be a place with our eyes SET on the goal – the heavenly calling of Christ?
  • Might we be a place that does not get bogged down in the weeds, but keeps our gaze onward?
  • Might we be a place where we can agree to disagree – where each one is valued because God made them, and not because they hold to all of our beliefs and value systems?
  • Might we be a place where grace is given and boundaries are set – where we find undeserved blessing, while also fiercely protecting all that is sacred and holy among us?
  • Might we be a place where folks can explore their scary questions of faith -without judgement or condemnation, but with encouragement and support?
  • Might we be a place where folks are not valued and sized up by how often they attend, how much they give, or how much they volunteer.
  • Might we be a place where each persons journey and choices are respected – while we each seek to listen for and be faithful to God’s invitation to press in, step up, take responsibility?
  • Might we be a place where the Spirit of the Living God is mightily felt and swiftly obeyed?
  • Might we be a place where God’s unfathomable, unconditional, undeserved love is experienced and shared?

 

Might we be a place where folks

encounter

 

…the Living God?!?!

 

 

“Keep Alert. The Expectant Shall See.”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


 

So much surrounding Jesus’ birth is extra-ordinary.

A virgin birth.

An unwed mother still engaged, though her child is not his own.

A girl, the chosen one, from the no-good, backwater town of Nazareth.

Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, pregnant with John, after a lifetime of barrenness.

Elizabeth’s husband Zephaniah made mute until his firstborn and only child John is born.

Angel visitations – to Mary, to Zephaniah, and to Joseph in a dream.

The first-ever world census, it says.

A star directly over the barn, where Jesus is born.

The wise men who study the stars and travel from other kingdoms to pay homage to Jesus.

The glorious host of angels alerting the shepherds to the Christ-child.

A holy child wrapped in mere bands of cloth – not a blanket – and lying in a feed trough.

 

Here the long-awaited Messiah is born and who comes but the foreigners,

The social outsiders – shepherds who spent more time with animals than with other people.

 

It says Mary pondered all these things in her heart.

And as she should!  Because WHO could have foreseen this bizarre series of events?

Who would have guessed those whom God would call to witness this great act of God – the outsiders, the unclean, the foreigners…ALL people God’s chosen were taught to keep their distance from.

 

But WHO is ready?

Is it the people of Israel?

 

Certainly it is not the people of Bethlehem who have relegated this very expectant mother to the animal barn.

 

No.  Foreigners are among the first to see.

And among their own people, it is not all the well-dressed,

The put together,

The wealthy,

The well-connected, no.

Shepherds.  The smelly shepherds.  Those whose work keeps them on the fringes.  Those who are not clean or presentable.

These are among the first to hear and see.

 

And WHY did they see?

Could it be because they were open and available?

Could it be because their socially isolating work required that they be open and ready, listening and waiting, on guard for the sheep – alert to any change or danger?  Could it be because they were among the few lying on their backs under the open stars?

 

 

For those who are paying attention, there is so much to witness, so much to see and hear, extraordinary happenings!

There is so much to ponder in one’s heart.

 

But those who witness,

Who hear and see,

They are the expectant.

The expectant are witness to this extraordinary in-breaking of Mystery into our world, the Son of God, born a tiny babe to a virgin, wrapped in scraps of cloth, and lying in a feed trough.

Those who hear and see are the expectant, the alert, the watching and listening and waiting ones.

 

 

How vigilant are you to protect and preserve moments of waiting,

Moments of listening,

Moments of openness and expectancy,

In your day by seemingly-ordinary-day life?

 

This tiny babe, is still breaking into our lives, in extra-ordinary ways.

The watching ones.  The waiting ones.  The seeking ones.

The expectant ones SEE.  Halleluia!

 

Our Lord is here.

Do we see?

“I Once Was Blind, But Now I See”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 100
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Psalm 100

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into God’s presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God.
It is he that made us, and we are his;
we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to the Lord, bless God’s name.

For the Lord is good;
God’s steadfast love endures forever,
and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

 


 

In this season, we are reminded to give thanks.

Giving thanks is something we know we should do.  On some level, we all know we are blessed, but in the day to day, we find it exceedingly difficult to stay in a grateful place.

Some days, things seem to fall into place; the road rises to meet us!  Other days we find ourselves face to face with injustice, with short-sighted and inconsiderate behavior, with quandaries in which we feel forced to choose between the lessor of two evils…

And even when our situations aren’t so dire or discouraging, we’re often just in a funky mood because we had to drive behind someone slowly on the highway, or wait long in line, or make extra trips to the store because what we wanted wasn’t in stock…

From the simple things to the deeply complex, we find ourselves mired in negative thought patterns.

 

So if you will, I’m gonna give you several minutes to briefly jot down all the things that are bugging you today – big and small things.  Nobody needs to see your list, unless you want them too; this is just an exercise we’re doing for ourselves.

So if you will right now, actually take the next three minutes, and jot down all the things that have got you down or angry or worried.

It is exceedingly difficult to stay in position of gratitude, but gratitude it turns out is one of the markers of resilience.  Gratitude actually has the power to drive out depression and fear.  It turns out that anger, fear, and depression, to name a few, cannot thrive in an atmosphere of gratitude.

So it would seem that giving thanks is the chicken soup for a tired soul.

 

As my son Caleb was growing up, he struggled to say thank you.  In his early years he often forgot, and if I reminded him, he would get upset and the gift-giver would become uncomfortable.  No one wants a forced thank you!  We want folks to mean what they say.  Otherwise the words feel hollow.

But waiting till we feel thankful is also a danger because gratitude at its root is a spiritual discipline.  Discipline is something few of us want.  I know I certainly don’t.  But there are disciplines that strengthen and ground us.

We discipline ourselves to eat regular meals

So that our bodies will be well and able to support us.

We discipline ourselves to get good sleep

    So that we have energy and a good state of mind and body for the coming day.

We discipline ourselves to not speak words in anger

  So that we don’t burn bridges and create divides between us and the people in our   lives.

 

Gratitude in its best form is also a discipline, a spiritual discipline.

Gratitude becomes lifegiving to us, when we do it whether or not we feel anything.  In fact, it is most powerful when we discipline ourselves to give thanks in the midst of trial and adversity.

 

Our own Phylliss Moret tells the story of supervising other supervisors.  They would come to her complaining about so & so, offering a litany of shortcomings.  And after listening for a bit, she would say, “Well if they are that bad, then why are they still here?  Should we let them go?”  And at this, the disgruntled supervisors would quickly say, “But, we need them because…..”  For all the frustration, there was also so much good, and when it came down to it, the good often outweighed the bad.  The complaints were only part of the picture.  Usually there was a host of good that the supervisors were failing to articulate.

The same is true of our lives.  Talk to any one of us on a given day, and we can give you a litany of the many things wrong; of the challenges; of our worries, concerns, and fears.  But in this same moment, we are standing on a wealth of immeasurable blessing that we are taking for granted.

 

A friend of mine illustrated this so well in a facebook post.  She posted a list on notebook paper equating her complaints with their converse, blessings-in-disguise.

11'25'18 Grateful List

This is why gratitude as a spiritual discipline is so very important.  It is precisely because we become blind to the blessings and gifts in our lives.  We need the routine task of giving thanks in order to wake us up to the immensity of blessing in our lives!

 

So at this moment, I want to give you another 3 minutes to consider your complaints one by one and to write down the blessings that lie just under each complaint.  And if you finish while there’s still time, just go hog wild & start a list of the things in your life you are grateful for.

I have asked you to do this exercise not to shame your for your unhappy feelings and thoughts.  Those feelings and thoughts are legitimate.  They are important.  Our negative feelings are there to teach and guide us.  We feel what we feel, and then we process them in light of our values to decide how we will respond to them.  But in and of themselves, feelings are neither good nor bad.  They may be uncomfortable.  They may be deeply upsetting.  But when befriended, they can give us insight into ourselves.  They are one of the many fabulous tools God has given us to navigate our mysterious selves and this mysterious world.

So please don’t take away any shame.

Rather, I hope you will take away a greater awareness of how you’re feeling – the happy, the sad, and the ugly – and of the many blessings in your life.

Life is not one thing.  It is a mix of events – both beautiful and tragic; of feelings – both highs and lows; of growth – both painful and invigorating.

 

Following Christ in this life does not mean we will be always blissful and that nothing bad will ever happen to us.  But Christ teaches us to give thanks in all circumstances.  For in all things, there is much to give thanks for.  And when we do, we unlock new perspective and strength.

 

As we leave the season of Thanksgiving and approach Advent, I invite you to begin your own spiritual discipline of giving thanks.  Do it however you like:  keep a gratitude journal, keep adding to a list, speak the things you’re grateful for at mealtimes, share three things you’re grateful for with a spouse or a friend each day…  But whatever you choose, stick to it.  See it through.  Persevere.

 

And let us see what God can do

in and through hearts

that are AWAKE to the profound gifts and blessings of God in our lives.

 

French novelist Marcel Proust writes, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

 

May God grant us the ability to see as God sees,

with new eyes. 

And who knows,

we may find our whole world transformed.

 Thanks be to God!