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“God Shows Up”

Rev. Katherine Todd
John 9:1-41

 

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”


 

This story was won my curiosity since childhood.  This is an incredible story!

In reading the text anew, several details grab my attention.  For one thing, the main characters are already known to us.  This is the same Mary and Martha we’ve read about before, who hosted Jesus, teaching in their home.  Martha was doing all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet.  And when Mary protests and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, Jesus instead commends Mary’s choice and encourages Martha to do likewise.

It is a counter-cultural exchange.  Women are supposed to host and serve.  They are not to BE served.  Martha was fulfilling her social obligations and responsibilities, but Mary was coloring outside the lines, behaving more like a child than a grown woman of her culture.  Jesus’ response to Martha must have come as quite a shock.  This is very likely the reason this story got repeated over and over, making it into our scriptures.

 

These two women love Jesus.

So of course when their brother takes ill-unto-death, they reach out to Jesus, sending someone to summon him.

But when the messenger arrives, Jesus sends him away, saying the illness will not leave Lazarus dead.  Jesus stays another two days where he is, before announcing to his disciples that they will return to Judea to waken Lazarus.  And to his disciples, this makes no sense.  Why on earth would Jesus return to a land so recently hostile to him, and why would he be needed to wake someone up?  None of it made sense.  And so Jesus speaks more plainly to them, explaining that Lazarus has died, and that he must go to him.

 

While Jesus is still in-route, Martha hears that he is coming and goes out to meet him on the road.  Her first words are:  “If you had only been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”  And this is perhaps both a profession of faith and a complaint.  Martha knows that Jesus can heal anyone.  In her approach to Jesus, she likely feels a mix of love, deep sadness, and irritation.  Why didn’t Jesus return when they called for him?

But Martha does not leave it there.  She continues, “But even now, I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”  In this, we sense that Martha still has hope.

 

I have no idea what outcome she was hoping for.  I doubt she would have imagined what Jesus would do next.  Would she dream Jesus would bring her brother, dead for four days, back to life?  I doubt it.  For when Jesus asks for the stone to be rolled away from the cave, it is indeed Martha who protests, saying that there will be a stench since he’s already been dead four days.

It seems more likely that Martha may have been asking for God’s protection and provision for them.  After all, it seems unlikely that these two sisters had husbands.  If they’d had husbands, we would likely have never learned their names, or they may have been known as so-&-so’s wife.  So these two have lost their entire means of a living.  They’ve lost their security and standing in society.  They didn’t have husbands or children, and without a man in their lives, they wouldn’t have access to any societal benefits or work opportunities.  It was a hard world for women who weren’t under the protection and provision of a man.  This family had survived by sticking together.  And the two women left, were at risk of losing everything.

 

And this is the moment of crisis Jesus returns to.

 

Not only are these two women grieving.

Not only are they upset that Jesus didn’t return in time to save their brother.

Not only are they full of faith in what Jesus can do.

Not only are they full of love for Jesus.

But they are likely in a profound social and economic limbo.

 

Do any of you know what that feels like?

 

It kind of changes Jesus’ possible motives, does it not?

Jesus speaks often about caring for the poor, the oppressed, the widows and orphans.  And here we have two friends of Jesus who have been left in a position of vulnerability.  It makes me wonder all that may have been behind Jesus’ own tears, as he weeps in Mary’s presence.

 

Not only would Jesus’ next act – calling Lazarus to get up – to return from the dead – change the outcome for Lazarus himself.  Not only would it profoundly bear witness to God’s presence and power.  It would also change everything for both Mary and Martha.

And Jesus shows up for them

  • Not when they thought he should have –
  • Not before they experience deep pain and great loss –

But perfectly and profoundly.

 

Have you experienced this kind of deliverance before?

Late (in your estimation)

But perfect and profound, full of grace and love and goodness?

 

Quite often when God doesn’t show up in the moments we think God should, we grow discouraged and resentful.  If you told me you had some beefs with God over things, I’d tell you that you are not alone; I do too.  I wrestle with God over the presence and seeming victories of injustice.  I wrestle with God over the pain and suffering.  I complain to God about all the loss of color in my hair, the new streaks of white and gray.

But God has nonetheless, shown up in ways mighty and profoundly loving.

 

When Mr. Rogers was growing up, his mother used to tell him that in times of trouble, he should look for the helpers.  There are always helpers, she would say.

 

And so I ask you:  who have been your helpers?

 

I invite you to take 3 minutes right now and to remember and write the name some of these who have brought grace and provision, mercy and deliverance, love and compassion, healing and justice into your lives.

Please take a moment to actively remember. 

 

Through-out the Old Testament, God is instructing the people to remember, to write of God’s acts on their doorposts, to tell it to their children and children’s children, to erect monuments, and to enact rituals and holidays of remembering.  God knows how IMPORTANT it is for us to remember.  God knows how very scatter-brained we each can be when it comes to focusing on our blessings and giving thanks.  And God knows how easy it is for us to focus on our troubles instead of on our blessings, on our gifts, on our helpers.

 

Our God does not always show up when we think God should.

Our God does not always deliver us from pain and suffering.

But our God does show up.

And our God does deliver.

Our God does heal.

Our God does see.

Our God does weep with you and with me.

Our God does act, with righteousness and with justice, with mercy and with grace.

And our God does breathe life into the long dead, into dry, dry bones.

 

Heavenly Father, Holy Mother,

We believe.

Help our unbelief.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“The Command, as Invitation”

Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 13-15
Luke 6:38

 

Deuteronomy 26:1-11, 13-15

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.

 When you have finished paying all the tithe of your produce in the third year (which is the year of the tithe), giving it to the Levites, the aliens, the orphans, and the widows, so that they may eat their fill within your towns, then you shall say before the Lord your God: “I have removed the sacred portion from the house, and I have given it to the Levites, the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows, in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me;…

Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the ground that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Luke 6:38

…Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.


 

This passage from Deuteronomy is interesting.  It talks about the tithe – giving the first fruits of one’s labors to God.  Now it isn’t as though they just set baskets out before an invisible God and left them there, no.  Their gifts to God were to be given to the Levites – the family of Israelites charged with teaching about God and leading the people in their relationship with God – to the aliens – those outsiders residing among them with little means, acceptance, or connection – to the widows – those women not permitted to work who had lost the man in their lives – and to orphans – obviously the children without parents and therefore a means of survival.

So their gifts to God were to go to those in professional service of God and to those in need in their communities.  All of these groups were those who could not own land, hold jobs, farm the land, etc.  All of these groups were those whose calling or circumstance in society made them dependent on the charity of others.

These gifts were the gifts of their labors.  They were the produce of the good land God was giving them to inhabit and tend.  But it wasn’t just any produce.  It was the first produce.

 

There is something holy and sacred about giving of one’s first fruits.  First fruits are long awaited.  They are anticipated.  They are watched and waited for.  Giving thanks and remembering the Giver of these good things is a holy and life-giving act.  And we are called to give thanks first, at the start.  We are not to wait till we have forgotten God’s work.  We are not to wait until we are satiated and feel secure.  We are not to give of our leftovers.

No, we are called to give of our first fruits.

We are called to give as this holy act of remembrance and gratitude.

We are called to remember that all we have has come from God

And to remember our calling to care for the outcast, the disenfranchised, the needy among us.  We are called to use these gifts to provide for those who serve us and our communities in remembering and being still before our God.

And we are called to do this first,

Before we know what will be,

…An act of trust.

 

God’s commandment to the people to bring their first fruits to God puts remembrance, gratitude, and trust at the center of their lives.  With each new season’s produce, they come before God to remember God’s deliverance and generous provision, and to make loving provision for those dependent on God for their daily bread.

 

What a loving commandment.

I imagine many have looked upon the tithe and giving to God similarly to how they’ve looked at paying taxes or paying for a service.  It may have felt like an obligation, or perhaps a nagging guilt.  But in this commandment is the wisdom of a parent, a parent who knows that we will never be happy and whole without gratitude.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that invites us into a ritual of remembering all that the Lord has done for us.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that re-frames our labors and energies in the perspective that God is the one who has given us those skills; given us life and health; given us the air we breath, the land we walk, the earth we till and enjoy.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that invites us to pay our gratitude forward in caring for others.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that reminds us we are not whole until all are made whole.  It is the wisdom of a loving parent that challenges us to keep trusting God into the future, so that we don’t loose our peace in that endless fight to go and get ahead and succeed.

For those of us who hear and head this call to bring our first fruits, this is a holy and life-giving act.  It is truly an act of faith.  And in it we are bringing in the Kingdom of God – the world as God intends it to be – both in our lives and in the world around us.  When we give of our first fruits to God, we invite the Kingdom of God into lives and into our communities.

 

And how merciful is this commandment.

Notice the first sentence:  “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you… and possess it, and settle in it…”  WHEN…

Unlike a tax that pays little head to where you are in the journey, this commandment is not one driven by greed.  It is not so God can store up or take from us.  It is not a commandment that disregards our station and place in life.

No these gifts are to be given in proportion to what we have received!  AND we are not asked to give from our emptiness but from what we have already been given.

God does not place this command on them while they are traveling as nomads, wandering through the desert.  No.  God gives them this command for their season of arriving, their season of provision, their season of receiving God’s good gifts.

It is precisely when we receive those long-awaited promises, that provision, those gifts, those breaks, that we become vulnerable to many sins.

It is in those moments that we are most tempted to believe that we’ve gotten there on our own.

It is in those moments that we can forget, by whose grace and mercy, we have arrived.

It is in those moments that we are most tempted to cling to the gifts and to forget the Giver.

It is in those moments that we are tempted to ask more of mere things, that they can ever give us – such as happiness, security, peace…

That God calls us back to gratitude.

 

And God’s invitation, God’s command, is precisely what the Doctor ordered.  It is precisely what we need, so that as we move forward in this new season of abundance, we do not forget who we are and whose we are.  We do not forget those on whose shoulders we stand.  And we continually, in each season, actively remember that all good things come from God.  And we remember that our future, as was the past, is ever in God’s hands.

We remember that God is God, and we are not. 

For peace and happiness, joy and security cannot be earned or bought.  The best gifts in life, come when we remember, give thanks, walk in faith, and pay it forward.

 

God’s command to bring our first fruits, is our loving parent’s invitation to the good life,

the promised land,

…the Kingdom of God on earth. 

“Our Beloved Saints”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Proverbs 27:17
Hebrews 12:1-3

Proverbs 27:17

Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.

Hebrews 12:1-3

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.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

 


 

My grandfather.  My mother’s father.  He was a Presbyterian Minister out in Texas where they lived.  When he was ordained, his presbytery was so small that he was elected to serve as Presbytery Executive in the same meeting, so he signed his own ordination papers!

He liked to tell stories of his ministry – how he’d (or more accurately God had) held together a church deeply divided by listening to everyone each Sunday after church.  I appreciated these stories.  They told me his values.  They told me that it was more important to be in relationship with one another – sharpened as iron sharpens iron – than to be estranged and separated.

In this way my grandfather deeply shaped my faith development.

 

I also learned from his mistakes.  He was a passionate man, and not being able to discipline his grandchildren made him feel totally disempowered.  So what do we so often do when we feel powerless?  Quite often we unearth other more malignant tactics.   So most of us grandchildren have haunting memories of him taking us off to some hallway, kneeling to our level and hitting his head repeatedly in front of us saying, “Since I cannot spank you, I will spank myself.”  This was his way of trying to deter us from doing things he disagreed with.  Talk about psychologically twisted, this definitely qualified!

But after my grandmother passed away during my 7th grade year in school, my grandfather changed.  She had been the tender and gentle one.  He had been the hard one.  But after she was gone, he softened.  He stopped hitting his head.  He started being tender with us and kind.  He spent more time with us, telling stories.  And finally unbound by fear, we could enjoy him and get to know him.

 

Several years later, I would attend my church summer camp and find that I enjoyed learning and teaching about God, more than any other thing.  I would deliver my very first sermon, drawing from the imagery of Pachelbel’s Cannon.  And members of the church who had nurtured me from the time I was born were approaching me to say they could hear God’s Word in my sermon and hoped I would consider seminary.

Still new to any critical study of the Bible, I had many questions – such as whether or not women should be in ministry.  And I questioned myself, as I was introverted, and I didn’t think that a very suitable quality for a minister.

But like Mary – after giving birth to Jesus and receiving the Shepherd visitors – I treasured these things in my heart and began to ask the questions of my own calling in life.   I began the long road of scripture study and interpretation.

And as my own calling to ministry began to emerge, I came back to my grandfather, who, a product of his time, had always thought it wrong for women to be ministers.  I half-expected him to shame me for this sense of call, but he surprised me.  Instead he told me that he’d been listening to more and more women preach and that he was hearing God speak through them.  They were anointed.  And if God’s Spirit was speaking through them, who was he to say they couldn’t or shouldn’t be ministers.

And in this, my grandfather gave me the greatest example of faith:  the example of a passionate but humble, living, and growing faith.   With a lifetime full of experiences in the world and in the church, he had every reason to say, “this is not the way that things should be done.”  His contemporaries would have judged me in that vulnerable place where I was considering my call.  But instead, he stayed in a position of openness to the Spirit of God.

And when the time came for him to start considering the fate of his worldly possessions, he took me into his small library room – filled on every wall with books from top to bottom – and gave me the gift to his entire library.

 

This man who had been passionately against women in ministry – keeping my grandmother down, who had longed for him to teach her, and forbidding her from speaking on his behalf at church – this man was blessing my calling to ministry in his final years.

And he started downloading all his experiences into me – so that I would learn from him.

He once said, and it was so funny and moving that I wrote it down, “This does not deny you the right to investigate new visions.  Go to it!  Your old grandpa may roll over in his grave by them, but so what!?”

 

I loved that.

He recognized that God was still moving and working and revealing Godself in new ways.  He recognized that he would never have the corner on the truth.  He trusted the Mystery beyond himself.

And this example has been his greatest gift to me.

 

Whatever our paths and families, we ARE indeed surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.  In the chapter before these verses from Hebrews, the writer reviews all the great faith figures.  He is reminding us that we are not alone in this journeyIt is a hard journey, but we are in good company!  The Bible is full of story after story of our ancestors in the faith – who got things beautifully right and terribly wrong sometimes, and yet who were used by God.

We have them, and we have Christ!

We are not alone.  And we can learn from their experiences – both what TO do and what NOT to do.  God has given us a great gift through their lives.

This gift is not meant to call us back to a time that no longer exists.  It is not meant to keep us in a place of nostalgia.  No, the writer of Hebrews reasons that because we are surrounded by this great company of saints who’ve gone before, we run with perseverance.  We press into the living of these days, of our lives, of our journeys of faith – taking encouragement from these saints and direction from Christ, the pioneer and perfector of our faith!

We look back, in order to move more faithfully forward. 

 

And so today, we take this time to remember those in ours and other people’s lives who have strengthened and blessed us on our journeys, and we take time to give thanks for them!

In just a moment I will invite you to walk around the room (as you feel led), reading the stories of these saints, and giving thanks to God in your hearts.

When the music comes to a close, I will invite you to take a stand or a seat near the write ups that speak to you.  And we will come before God in prayer together – giving thanks for those who have shaped our lives.  During that prayer, we will go around the room, in order, speaking out the names of all these saints.

So I invite you now to spend time in holy listening, silently walking and reading, or seated as you like, meditating on these saints who have blessed our lives.  And after about 4-5 minutes, I will call us back together for a prayer and speaking of the names.