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“Gratitude – Bringing Truth into Focus”

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

 

Psalm 78:1-16

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

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

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

 

Exodus 17:1-7

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

It is easy to point the finger.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And I can go on and on.

 

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

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

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

I did find my way. 

I knew friendship. 

I had food to eat. 

I had shelter. 

 

I was blessed. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

We must choose remembrance.

We must choose to share.

We must choose to recall.

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

“Our God Comes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 63:7-9
Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

 

Isaiah 63:7-9

I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord,
the praiseworthy acts of the Lord,
because of all that the Lord has done for us,
and the great favor to the house of Israel
that he has shown them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
children who will not deal falsely”;
and he became their savior
in all their distress.
It was no messenger or angel
but his presence that saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

 

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”


 

 

Can you imagine the journey Mary and Joseph have been on?

First Mary is confronted by an angel who tells her she will bear God’s child.  So she becomes pregnant and is totally at the mercy of Joseph and the society, for in that day women who had slept with someone outside of marriage could be stoned to death.  Her fiancé Joseph figures out that she is pregnant…and not by him.  He plans to dismiss her quietly – breaking their engagement.  But instead he is instructed by an angel in a dream to take Mary as his wife – that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

 

What a roller coaster!  Had either or Mary or Joseph imagined their wedding day, their marriage, conceiving a child, etc.,…they could not have imagined THIS.  The order is all out of whack.  One would hope to wed and then conceive and birth a child, but instead a child is on the way before they even are intimate or married.

Now Joseph has all the power here.  He can marry her, have her killed, or dismiss her quietly.  He can carry out his own plan, or he can follow what the angel tells him in a dream.  And he chooses to follow.  He marries Mary.

And THIS is where they might hope to settle down, find their stride, set up home, and build a life together, but alas, there is a census.  Everyone must travel to their city of origin – to be counted.  And so Mary, very pregnant, and Joseph must travel over hills and valleys to Bethlehem.

When they arrive, all they want is a soft bed and warm food.  All they want is a place lay their heads and close their eyes.  But perhaps they were slower on the road.  Perhaps their journey took a tad longer.  Whatever it was, Bethlehem was full to the brim.  There was no room for them.  All they were offered was a cattle shed out back.

And our very-pregnant-Mary goes into labor.

 

Nothing about their engagement, wedding, first year of marriage was going according to plan.  None of it was what they’d dreamed of.

And now, they were giving birth to their first child, in an animal barn out back.

But God showed up.  The brightest star shone overhead – as though God’s light was breaking through the heavens to pour warm light on God’s Son.  Angels broke through the heavens with singing – before the only ones keeping watch that night, the shepherds.  And when they took their beautiful baby boy to the temple to be circumcised, Anna and Simeon greet them with joyous prophecy; their son is the long-awaited one!  And over time, that bright star guided Wise Men from the east, who would travel long distances to find the newborn King and pay him homage.

Gifts and provision.

 

Confirmation

after confirmation

after confirmation.

 

The red carpet was not rolled out.

They were not teleported to their destinations.

Doors did not magically open.

But God showed up.  Angels showed up.  God spoke to them in dreams, in signs and wonders, and through the people around them…those who were watching, those who were seeking, those who were waiting.

 

And so we would hope that at this point in the story, they would joyously make their way back home.  But not so.  Again, Joseph is visited in a dream.  He is instructed to flee to Egypt with his family – that Herod is coming to destroy their perfect baby boy.

And again, Joseph has a choice to make – to stay or to go.  I imagine both he and Mary must ache for some normality, some comfort, some routine, some family, some coffee, a night off, some familiar…  But the storm of Herod’s fear and jealousy is coming like a fury.  And this precious family has no protection, except the voice of God breaking into their reality.

God breaks through. 

Joseph again chooses to obey, to follow after God, to believe, to trust, to place his hand in the hand of God.

 

And so they flee.

They flee to Egypt.

And God instructs them to stay until Herod dies.  Which they do.

 

Can you imagine?

 

GOD is doing amazing things.  GOD has come.  GOD is turning the world around.  GOD is breaking through, into our reality, into our lives, into the order and disorder of things…

God is breaking into hearts by an infant –

an infant whose tiny hands grasp our flawed fingers,

an infant whose wrinkled feet are swaddled in rags and laid in straw,

an infant who learns his first words following the faces and sounds of his perfectly imperfect parents.

And after learning from us, this infant would grow to be a boy anointed and a man full of grace and truth.  For GOD has broken through – through the hardened edges of our religiosity, our legalism, our nationalism, our egos and errors and fears.

GOD is breaking through.

 

And GOD is breaking through still.

And like that first Christmas, God comes still through the perfectly imperfect.

God comes when nothing goes according to our plans.

God comes when we, like Joseph and Mary, choose to follow God’s leading, God’s nudge.

God comes when we are seeking like the Wise Men

Watching like the Shepherds

Waiting like Anna and Simeon

 

God comes.

 

Will we have listening ears,

Watching eyes,

Seeking hearts,

Following feet?

 

Will you?

 

 

Get ready.  Have a bag packed.  Keep your cell phone charged, gas in your car, bus money in your pocket, walking shoes on your feet – for our God comes.

 

Will you be ready? 

“The Audacity of Hope”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 91
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

 

Psalm 91

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge,
the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you,
no scourge come near your tent.

For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
You will tread on the lion and the adder,
the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

 

Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

 

This is some radical hope.

Can you even start to imagine it?

In our world, an election approaches and everyone gets nervous about the real estate market & every other kind of market.  Things slow.  People get nervous.  People stop spending.

 

Can you imagine then what is going on as Jeremiah accepts his cousin’s request to buy land?

Jerusalem is besieged.  Besieged.  And by the army of Babylon, no less.  No one in.  No one out.

This isn’t the whole of Israel or Judah, no.  This is merely the capital city.  That means that much of their land – the more indefensible parts – are already overrun.  All that is left is the city, Jerusalem.  And IT is besieged.

 

And here comes Jeremiah’s cousin, asking Jeremiah to buy some land out in the land of Benjamin.

Can you picture it?

They do not know if they will still be in power day by day, much less alive.  And here comes this cousin asking Jeremiah to buy land that he can’t even get to (and may never see).

 

It is weird.  NO ONE in their right mind would do it?  Right?

This is so far beyond worry surrounding an election.  This is next level.  This is the United States overrun by another country & the last of the people holding out in Richmond, lets just say.  Richmond alone is left.  Society as we know it, completely uncertain, totally unraveling around our eyes.  Can you imagine it?

 

But God speaks to Jeremiah about his cousin’s request, before it happens.  God speaks.  God does that thing that God does, speaking to those who dare to listen…and to follow.  God tells Jeremiah this will happen.  And so when it does, Jeremiah recognizes that this insane request is from God.  GOD is working through this.

 

SO, in a time when everyone is closing their windows and locking their doors.  When folks are burying money under their homes.  When folks are ceasing to buy and trade…  THIS is when Jeremiah buys a piece of land that he can’t get to and may never see.

Because God tells him too.

 

Wild huh?

 

Truly this is when we might call social services on our relatives…making such an irrational decision.  But God had gotten Jeremiah’s attention, and Jeremiah trusted that God was in it.

So he follows.

 

He buys the land,

Publicly, in the presence of many witnesses.

 

And then he turns immediately,

Also in the presence of those same witnesses,

And gives both copies of the deed to Baruch,

Who he charges to seal in an earthenware jar, to last for a long time.

 

For it would be a long time,

But they would again buy and sell land in the promised land.

 

And with this mic drop, Jeremiah finishes.

 

 

Jeremiah has just done two very bizarre things.  He has bought property at the eve of societal collapse, AND he then gives it away.

He grabs everyone’s attention.  And while they are all watching in disbelief, he speaks God’s word to them, God’s word of hope:  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

 

If you aren’t familiar with Jeremiah, he was a strait shooter.  He spoke things plainly, how God showed them to him.  He told the people about their sins and how they would be taken by siege.  In fact, he delivered “bad” news so often that folks got fed up with hearing him speak at all.  He was left in a pit for awhile because he just wouldn’t stop telling people things they didn’t want to hear.

Jeremiah knew that his people would be carried away into captivity by Babylon.  And as much as folks wanted to dismiss his words as fake news, he was speaking God’s word to them.  And everything he spoke would come true.

And when God instructs Jeremiah to buy this land, knowing full well he would never enjoy it, he obeys.  He follows.

And God uses it to speak a message of hope to the people.

 

Now of course, this wasn’t the message of hope they were likely looking for.  I’m fairly certain they wanted to hear that the entire Babylonian army would die from a plague and they would be set free.  I am sure they wanted to hear that the army would be recalled to fight some other battle in some other land.

 

This was not Jeremiah’s message.

But Jeremiah’s message was one of hope, profound hope.

EVEN THOUGH, they would be exiled for many, many years…  Even though their tears would be their food…  Even though they would be with strangers in a strange land, they would survive.  And they would once again return to their home,… and buy and sell land.

 

Now I realize that folks have many opinions and feelings about the nation of Israel today and the much-contested promised land.  I do not pretend to know the solutions to all that plagues this corner of our world today.  And I ache for those who have known long-suffering and instability.

But let me invite you to look past all this for a moment, and to imagine how Jeremiah’s words might stick with you

…when you are stripped and chained to your neighbors, marching one by one to another land against your will

…when you are resettled in a place you don’t want to be, despised and discriminated against.

…when your life is on hold for years, waiting for some deliverance than never seems to come

…when your children are starting to marry and make this foreign land their home…

How would Jeremiah’s words stick with you? 

 

Through the incredible obedience of his servant Jeremiah, God has gives his people a vision of the end, that does not lie.  God gives the people a question mark over all the upsetting events of their present day lives.  God gives the people a ray of hope in their darkened tunnels.  God gives the people the audacity of hope.

 

Now I do not know the situations and circumstances and people who have your insides turning into knots.  I do not the know what armies besiege your wellbeing, your finances, your families…  I do not know how you have felt trapped, no movement in, no movement out.  But our God does.

And our God continues to speak to us, out of the depths of our pain and waiting.

 

I invite you to open yourself to God, to ask God to speak into your circumstances and relationships and then to wait, to be quiet, to invite your mind to slow and pay attention, and to listen …for God’s word to you.

For “’I know the plans I have for you,’

says the Lord,

‘plans to prosper you

and not to harm you.

To give you a future

of hope.’