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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…

 

“Carrying On the Calling of Christ”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 10:34-43
Isaiah 42:1-9

 

Acts 10:34-43

Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

 

Isaiah 42:1-9

Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.


 

“See the former things have come to pass and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

 

Isaiah is telling the chosen people about what God is about to do.  He is tilling the soil, fertilizing it…  He declares to the people that this chosen one – in whom God delights and has placed God’s spirit – this one will not raise his voice in the streets.  This one will not break the backs of the weary or the spirits of the weak.  Unlike so very many who have come before, this one will not despise the weak and weary.

 

The people need this heads up because God is doing something new.  God is coming in an unimaginable way.  God will meet them in power and love never-before-seen.  And they would need clues in order to discern that this mild-mannered, gentle teacher was the long-awaited one.  The God of creation – mighty and holy – was also steadfast in loving, slow to condemn, and quick to show mercy.  These aspects of God were not widely understood or known.  God was preparing their hearts to recognize Christ when he came.  Or at least to begin to put the pieces together after the fact.

God was equipping the people, those who were listening, with eyes to see and ears to hear God when God came and dwelt among us.  For God would break the molds of our expectations, and we would need to have warm and ready hearts.

 

What also strikes me about this passage is the statement that this chosen one would not grow faint or be quenched until justice was established in the earth.  This is a very encouraging statement.  It is assuring us that the chosen one will establish justice.  The chosen one will be successful.  Christ will not fail.

And I find this very encouraging.

 

It doesn’t say justice in heaven.  It says justice in the earth.

And that is a hard bit to swallow, given that it’s now been 2000 years and injustice still seems to reign and have the day, in so very many instances.

So what does this mean?

 

I cannot be sure.  This is a question on my heart as well.  But I remember that even when the powers that be sought to stop Christ, crucifying him on a tree, even then, Christ conquered death and rose again.  Even then, Christ was not quenched.

In fact, Christ returns from the grave and appears to the disciples, teaching them even more.  And when Christ finally departs from them, it is not to death, but to ascension.  Christ is taken alive up into heaven.  Christ still lives.

And with Christ’s ascension into heaven, another person of the Trinity would come:  One who would intercede for them with sighs deeper than words.  This One would guide them, comfort them, and empower them so that THEY THEMSELVES would become Christ’s hands and feet on earth.

 

So perhaps the work is simply not yet done. 

Could it be that Christ is still living and active, working and moving, restoring and healing, working justice and loving mercy….through you and me?

Could it be that the reason we don’t see justice covering all the earth is that Christ is not finished through us yet?

Could it be that we are called to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?

Could it be that we – who have believed and received the Spirit of God – we have been uniquely and purposefully equipped to bring about justice on the earth, the Kingdom of God, here and now??

 

God continues to amaze.  Our God is beyond our conceiving or imagination.  God’s ways are higher than our ways.  God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

But God has started something in Jesus Christ that has changed the course of history.  We have known love that was before unimaginable.  We have known unparalleled forgiveness.  We have experienced an acceptance that the world does not know.  We have been made part of God’s family, before our lives were holy or full of goodness.

GOD has begun something marvelous.  And it is not over.  The work is happening still. 

 

So if you look around you and see injustice…  If bitterness and strife dominate your landscape…  If you, like the prophet Habakkuk, cry out to God asking, “why do you let my eyes look upon this iniquity?”…  Perhaps God has given you eyes that see and a heart that protests, for such a time as this!  Could it be that God has equipped YOU to be part of the solution, the healing, the reconciliation, the justice, the forgiveness?  Could it be that God has filled you with the Spirit, that you might follow God’s lead, in being Christ’s hands and feet here and now, so that miracles might happen, truth might be spoken, and deliverance might come to the people?

 

Could it be that we have been called by name, loved and forgiven, healed and equipped, and given Christ’s same calling: 

I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.

 

If you don’t feel up to this task, that is perfectly normal.  None of us are.  Not on our own, that is.  But by the Spirit of God, WE TOO are given as a covenant to the people, to be a light in the darkness, to open the eyes of the blind, to set the prisoners free. 

 

We have a divine calling.  By the loving mercy of our God, we have been brought into the holy work began in Christ Jesus over 2000 years ago.

WE are part of carrying out Christ’s work of justice, healing, freedom, and wholeness through-out the earth.

 

Do not underestimate the value and significance of your life.  Christ saw you as worthy, as he hung there on the cross, refusing to save himself that he might save each of us.

 

YOU are divinely loved

YOU are called by name

YOU are made like none other

And YOU have a divine calling in this world

 

May we each spend such time in the presence of God that we are radiant with the Spirit of God, and that God’s work and presence might flow freely and fully through each one of us – setting the captives free, and shining the light of God’s unbending love to all who sit in the shadow of darkness.

May it be.

 

 

 

“Children of the Promise”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Genesis 15:1-6
Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Genesis 15:1-6

After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.” But the word of the Lord came to him, “This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.” He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

 

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.


 

How many times have I read this scripture from Hebrews  – to run the race that is set before us – without reading the scripture before it.  And now that I am reading the verses that come before, what a different way I’m hearing it!

The writer of Hebrews lists name after name of those who lived their lives by faith, and then he continues by listing those more recently who have lived by faith and suffered dearly for their lives of faith.  In all these cases, he claims that these faithful ones did not receive what they were promised because God had something better – us!  Yes, US!

Their lives of faith were for a purpose.  Their sacrifices and risks and losses were for a purpose.  And that purpose was all of us!  Through their lives of faith, we have also heard, Christ has come, and God has poured out the Spirit on all flesh!

 

Could these faithful ones – who gave it all, who risked it all – have ever imagined that God would use their acts of faith to reap a harvest of faith in believers to come, for generation after generation?!?

Could they have known how their acts of faith would unclog righteousness that justice would flow down like the mighty waters?

Could they have known how their acts of faith would carry the torch so future generations could see and receive the Messiah, Christ among us?!?

Could they have known, how many would be set free?!??

 

The writer of Hebrews explains that WE make THEM perfect.  WE are the inheritance God promised them.  We are the land of promise.  WE are the fruit of their labors!

 

These champions of the faith have been given us, as their reward.  They have multiplied the Kingdom!  They have helped to usher in the Kingdom on earth!!!

 

 

So, how does that make you feel?

 

It sounds crazy – that the writer of Hebrews would be talking about us, as if we were so great.  But we are!  We are the substance of things hoped for, of things not yet seen.  We are the fulfillment of God’s promises to these faithful ones!  We are what so many labored and loved and worked and sacrificed for.

 

Can you believe it?

 

 

Who do you labor and love and sacrifice for?

Do you ever wonder whether or not all your efforts are in vain?

What if God showed you how your acts of faith have impacted, not only those you love, but also the many who will come after you?

 

We all affect one another.  When we carry the torch of faith, it is not about us.  It is about the God who we serve.  It is about all those God loves and is seeking out.

 

And how many will know God’s love because of us?

How many will hear of God’s mighty acts because of our lives?

How many will know God’s freedom and truth, because of us?

How many will walk in righteousness and do justice, standing on our shoulders?

 

 

It is a humbling thought.

Our lives are more than just our own. 

 

 

And knowing that as we walk in the ways of our God, we are standing amidst a great cloud of witnesses – how does that make you feel?

We are not alone.  All who have come before and ran this race are among us still.  They reside now in the presence of God, and they cheer us on.  They are witnesses to our lives, as we have taken up the torch of faith they carried and continued on.

 

We are not alone.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.

Even when we are alone.  We are not alone.

 

Can you see it?

Do you believe it?

 

If we remember that all those we’ve known and loved and lost are with us still, coming around us, cheering us on, what would change about our lives? 

 

Is it possible

we would finally lay aside all the doubts and fears,

sins and distractions that cling so closely?

Is it possible

We would remember what really matters?

It is possible

We would take courage from their courage?

Is it possible

we would live as though our lives really matter?

 

…because they do. 

“Christ Be Our Center”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Colossians 2:16-19
Mark 9:42-50

Colossians 2:16-19

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Mark 9:42-50

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


 

This teaching from the gospel of Mark is difficult.  There seems to be no grace.  And if one horrific image weren’t enough, we’re given multiples!

I think this is our cue to take this teaching seriously.  Jesus is speaking about those of us who put a stumbling block in front of another who believes.  And following the listing of dire scenarios comes this analogy about salt losing its saltiness.

I imagine it is easy for any of us to feel pretty good about ourselves when it comes to this matter.  After all, we go through so many motions to love and serve others.  It’s hard to imagine any of us putting stumbling blocks in front of other believers.

But the reality is that we have all probably done this at one time or another.

 

One of our neighbors up the street grew up in this neighborhood and going to this church.  Now she doesn’t go to any church.  With a grimace on her face, she tells of the days when church members were far more concerned about what one wore than who one was.  After her youth she had left and never come back.  At that tender age, she knew that judging one another by our outer appearance and airs was wrong.  She was disgusted by it, and it became an obstacle to her.

Now I imagine if you’d spoken to those church-goers about whom she spoke, they would have said something about showing respect to God.  For a very long time in churches, nice dress was perceived akin to holiness, as though the outside order and refinement reflected an inner order and righteousness.  And if not a reflection of holiness, one’s dress was very much perceived to be a reflection of our love and reverence for God.

While we may now dismiss these ideas, we must acknowledge that they were held by some of the most sincere and devout believers.  I know, because one of them was my mother.  😊

Over time, many churches have conceded that requiring members to dress to the nines was not essential and that it was even an obstacle to many.  And so less and less attention is paid to dress, though the ideas that started it and those habits and admonitions from our childhoods are often still with us.  As we can see, this idea that dress matters, is still with us.

 

Several weeks ago we addressed the question of Christ and culture.  For those of us who have lived most of our lives in a dominantly Christian culture, the lines between Christ and culture are dim and blurry at best.  Is a Christmas tree Christian or secular?  It’s origin was pagan, but it has been adopted and reinterpreted by Christian and secular culture alike.  Singing hymns is something most mainline churches do, but the hymns we still sing today were originally borrowed bar tunes, outfitted with Christian lyrics.  Many of the Church buildings we have inherited are modeled after Roman courts of law.

The lines between the holy and secular are blurry because Christian and secular culture borrow and build on one another.  And we know that God is not contained in any structure or place, but rather we meet God in the world and all around.  So imagining that there are lines between the holy and the secular is conjecture at best.  God is out and about, all around us, in all created things.  But not all things are of equal importance to God.  Through-out scripture we are coached in what is good and what is not, what matters and what does not.

And this particular scripture reminds us that we must take care not to elevate to center anything that is not central.  The cross is central.  Christ is central.  God’s love for the world shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central.

 

But then there are a host of other matters which are not central.  Jesus speaks to this when he says of the Pharisees and Sadducees:

 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear,[a] and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matthew 23:4)

And like the words of Jesus spoken to the Sadducees and Pharisees from our worship a few weeks ago:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied rightly about you when he said:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’”

In the history of the church, more often than we’d like to admit, we have made peripheral or associated things central.  As Jesus said to the religious leaders in his day, “You teach human precepts as doctrine” and “You tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others.”

 

And because Jesus has very explicitly made us aware of how very important it is to NOT put any stumbling block in front of another believer, we need God’s help to accurately assess and take stock of where we are and what we are doing.

Those ladies who shamed our neighbor and turned her away from this church years ago based on how she was dressed were likely very well intentioned.  And each of us has beautiful intentions.  But sometimes when we are so immersed in a thing, we can become blind to how we come across to others.  We don’t realize the subliminal and explicit messages we are sending.  Furthermore, we can get so engrossed in our traditions and rituals that we scarce realize when those memories and habits have taken over center stage, eclipsing our very mission and reason for being.

 

But this is not a new problem, for it was occurring even in the early church:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

This issues we fight over keep changing, but the fact of the matter is the same:  we have been putting up obstacles in front of one another, judging and disqualifying others, teaching human ways of thinking, and condemning one another from our earliest days as church.

And it is wrong.

 

None of us is very good at this work of self-examination, but we know that this is very important.  So thanks be to God for giving us the Spirit!  We need God to bring to our awareness those things that have taken center stage, center attention.  We need to know if we are, intentionally or unintentionally, setting up obstacles between others and God – in our words, in our actions and in-actions, in our habits and traditions…  And we need the Spirit to speak all this to our hearts and minds in ways we can hear and understand.

It is our job to ask.  It is our job to listen.  It is our job to pause from all the hurry and “to do’s” long enough to hear God’s still small voice saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

 

We do not want to lose our saltiness.  In other words, we do not want to lose our purpose and reason for being.  We are made to be salt and light for the earth, but we cannot be these transformational agents unless we ourselves have been transformed!  We cannot bring light, unless we are reflecting the light of Christ.  We cannot season the earth with God’s love and justice unless we ourselves are radiating Christ’s love and justice. 

 

And none of this will happen if all our energy and attention is tied up in lessor things.

And in fact it is precisely when we get distracted by these lessor things that we put stumbling blocks in front of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

 

And so I ask you, in this life we share as church,

What has your time?

What has your worry?

What has your attention?

 

Children will be the first to tell us what is important to us.  They know what steals our precious time and attention.  Without a word, they perceive how important they are to us.  They feel it in the time we give or do not give them.  They feel it in our choices and priorities.

On what do we focus our attentions?

 

We will only be effective as Christ’s body insofar as we are focused on the call of Christ in our lives. 

We need the Spirit of God to impress upon our hearts

the ways we are

and the ways we are not

living into that call.

 

And more and more,

may we BE the church,

sharing the Good News and making disciples,

and growing with a growth that comes from God

as we HOLD FAST to Christ, our center.