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“Family in the House of God”

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

 

Philippians 3:4b-9

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

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

 

Matthew 5:21-22

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


 

 

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

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

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

God is like that.

 

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

 

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

Goodness.  In the darkest super-villain.

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

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

And we relate.

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

And that is perhaps what Jesus is leading to.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Do we mirror the heart of God toward one another?

Do we mirror the heart of God toward ourselves?

Have we set aside jealousy and competition?

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

 

Christ is calling each of us

to come in,

to set down our loads,

to pull up a chair,

to know and be known…

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

 

 

 

 

“Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 15
Micah 6:1-8

Psalm 15

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?

Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbors;
in whose eyes the wicked are despised,
but who honor those who fear the Lord;
who stand by their oath even to their hurt;
who do not lend money at interest,
and do not take a bribe against the innocent.

Those who do these things shall never be moved.

Micah 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses,
Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?


This passage from Micah is a curious one.  Micah paints this picture of God in court.  God has a controversy with the chosen people.  And the mountains and hills, the foundations of the earth, are hearing the case.

In this case, God asks the people, “What have I done to you?  In what have I wearied you?  Answer me!”  And then God goes on to list time after time in which God delivered and rescued the people.  All along, God had instructed the people to remember their history, to tell the stories, to keep God’s saving acts at the forefront of their common memory.  But in all likelihood, they haven’t been doing this, for God has to lead them, story by story, through a remembering of God’s generous and saving acts.

I hear this exchange, and I cannot help but hear it like the conversation of a parent & child.

In my wife’s parent’s home, if you use the restroom (which inevitably you’ll have to at some point), you will see an array of inspiring poetry and anecdotes pinned to the wall directly in front of you.  And they all hail the mother:  the mother who provides, the mother who sacrifices, the mother who loves unconditionally, the mother who is always there…  On and on you read accolades to a mother’s love!

And can you guess who put them there?

Yes, her mother!  😊

In this courtroom scene painted by Isaiah, God’s frustration with the people, reminds me of a mother who is simply put out with the entitlement, lack of gratitude, and forgetfulness of her children.  After all, she has provided, she has been there, she has rescued, she has had mercy, she has had compassion, she has given and given and given…  Yet still her children want more.  Still her child feels slighted.  Still her child is irritable when asked to do something for the family…

Can you imagine the scenario?

God has rescued, saved, provided, showed compassion, taught, healed, guided the people.  And yet, they are weary.  Yet, they have a chip on their shoulder.

And so the listing begins.  From a child’s perspective, this could be what they’d call “guilt-tripping,” but the Mother, the Father, they start to list all the ways they’ve poured themselves out for this child (much like those must-reads on the bathroom wall at Incy’s childhood home).  And even this feels like a concession because what had God instructed them to do?  To REMEMBER the deeds of the Lord, to write them on their doorposts, to tell them to their children, to erect monuments to remind the people of God’s love and salvation.  AND YET STILL, GOD is having to remind the people of all the ways they have been blessed.  GOD.

Can you sense the irritation?  Can you sense the long-suffering of the parent?

God has rescued time after time.  God has delivered.  God has guided.  God has provided…

And yet, it is never enough.

Never enough.

Does that ring a bell?

And then the flavor in the courtroom changes.  For the first time, we hear from the people.  And they say:

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

Again, in this I hear the plea of a child, “What can I do that will ever be enough?  Will this be enough for you?  Will this?”  And the child lists thing after thing…to the extreme.  It’s not, “Will a ram be enough for you, God?” but “Will thousands of rams be enough for you?”

And what are children doing when they talk in these extremes?  What are we doing when we talk like this to our parents?

We are actually making a statement about how picky they are, how demanding they are, how difficult they are, how impossible they are!

So I am not sure whether the people are actually feeling remorseful at this point, or if they are simply complaining back to their heavenly parent, defending their actions with the complaint that God is too picky and impossible.  And maybe it’s a mixture, as most things are.  Perhaps they feel a bit guilty but defensive, as it feels impossible to meet God’s expectations.

And this is where God boils it down for them. 

Yes, God has taken the firstborn of sinners in the past.  God did that in Egypt when the Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go out of slavery…

Yes, God has instructed the people to bring sacrifices:  the fruit of their fields and flocks.

But what God is truly wanting is

Justice,

Kindness, &

Humility. 

Justice.       Kindness.       Humility. 

And isn’t this what most parents are wanting too? 

Do what’s right.

Be respectful and kind.

And don’t start thinking more highly of yourself than you ought.  We all make mistakes….

So brilliant about this instruction is it’s mercy:  injustice is never okay, but we all go there from time to time, so be kind, make it right, and stay humble.

Since none of us will ever completely and fully do justice, we need humility to keep us open for correction, for repentance, for growth.

THAT is what is pleasing to God. 

My grandfather was a minister as well.  And while he was passionate and articulate, he also embodied many of the societal sins of his day.  He would not allow his wife to study alongside him, though she very much wanted to.  He wouldn’t allow her to speak in church.  He required her to eat just as much as him, which wreaked havoc on her body, and he was a harsh man to live with.  But as he aged, he kept on growing.  He was passionate in his beliefs, but at some point he knew better than to think he knew it all, and so he held even his most beliefs up to the light.  And over time, God was shaping and molding him, polishing the beauty in him and sluffing away the evils, making him a much kinder and more open person to know.

When I was young, we were all afraid of him.  But in his final years, we could talk with him.  And he would share what God was teaching him – that women too were preaching, full of the Spirit, for example.  And in the end, he gave me his entire library.

It is never enough to get everything right. 

It is never enough to be resolute and passionate. 

We always need humility. 

…Because God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and God’s ways are higher than our ways.

God is giving the people a touchstone.

God is giving the people a way.

No they will not get it right all the time, but they are to try.

They are to try because it absolutely matters that we do what’s right, what is just.

But knowing that they will not always get it right, kindness and humility are a must.

The whole package.

Are we…

DOING justice?

LOVING kindness?

And WALKING humbly with our God?

Like a loving and understanding parent, our God knows we are made of dust.  God knows we are both full of beauty and harm.  And so God has given us this guide.

May we,

In our homes,

In our families,

In our workplaces,

In our schools,

In our neighborhoods,

Behind the wheel,

In our society,

In our political life,

In our hearts,….

DO justice, LOVE kindness, and WALK humbly with our God.