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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.

 

 

 

 

 

“The Growing Edge”

The Growing Edge
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

 

Romans 8:1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

 

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”


 

I have mixed feelings about this parable of the sower.  In some ways it feels anticlimactic for me, because Jesus just comes right out & interprets the parable in a specific way.  In other words, there is not much left to discern or discover.  It is unique, because usually we do not hear Jesus explain.  Usually the hearer is left to dive deeper and wrestle with God in her heart.

But I find several observations interesting.

Though I could tell this parable in my sleep,…

Though my brain starts to check out when I hear these familiar words,…

Life’s experiences have made this story more interested because I can think back on people in my life who have lived lives, as different as the soils in this story.

 

For Jesus interprets the soil as each of us:  our lives and our habits, our ways and our values, our focus and our priorities.  And I have met folks who have been the path, the rocky soil, the thorny ground, and the good soil.   I’ve met folks who are an easy mark, like the path where the birds come and quickly snatch up the seed before it takes root.  Jesus says these folks do not understand the Word of God.  Perhaps they are quickly deceived by shallow and reductive thinking.  Perhaps they favor certainty over mystery, the illusion of control over surrender.  Perhaps they think in black and white, perhaps they never do the work of self-reflection and improvement.

I have met folks who are like the soil around the rocks and boulders.  When they hear the Word of God, they receive it with joy, but they have not done the work.  They have not wrestled with the text.  They have not faced their own demons, questions, and doubts.  Perhaps they have fallen for the  trending lie that life with God is one of bliss and abundance.  Perhaps they’ve come to believe that bad things do not happen to good people… But whatever it is, when the sun beats down and the wind doesn’t blow and rains don’t come, they wither up and die.  Their faith – quick to spring up is also quick to wilt, swift to fade.

And then there are those whose lives mirror the soil of thorny ground.  The Word of God planted in their hearts must compete with all sorts of temptations.  Perhaps it is wealth, or the desire for it.  Perhaps it is power, or the desire for it.  Perhaps their lives are being consumed by the insignificant.  Perhaps they are distracted beyond recognition, and never water the soil of their lives and hearts.  Many simply go and go and go and go…never stopping, never resting, never listening, and definitely not following.

Finally there is the good soil – those who hear the Word of God.  The Word takes root in their hearts and lives.  It grows in depth and breadth.  And as it matures, it begins to produce fruit.

 

 

I have been nurturing my very own, first vegetable garden.  And for the first month, it felt like the growth was minuscule.  I wondered why friends on facebook were already showing pictures of large leaves and vines.  I wondered what was wrong with my patch.  But then, when I wasn’t looking it seemed, suddenly there were leaves and there were vines.  They filled the patch, and they began to overtake it, moving outward and into the yard.

But still there was no fruit.  I checked under vine and leaf, day after day, but I couldn’t find any.  Again I was watching friends post pictures of squash and zucchini, peppers and cucumbers.  So was I missing it?  Was it hiding?  Would it bear anything more than leaves?

And then, again, when I wasn’t looking, the fruit began to grow.  Before I knew it, I discovered a small cucumber and then a small squash.  And now, just a week or two later, we’ve eaten one of the largest squashes I’ve ever seen – grown from our yard!

And in such ways, the Word of God grows in our hearts, minds, and lives.  With nurture and intention, we watch the vines grow, and when we aren’t even looking, something clicks.  A conversation, a connection, an opportunity, a choice – we suddenly notice we’re not the same anymore.  We realize that the very thing that used to snow us under didn’t even ruffle our feathers this time.  In the familiar territory of anxiety and fear, we remember God’s Word and place our trust in the Lord.  We discover a peace, before the storm has even passed.  In a conversation, we hear ourselves treating another with compassion and respect, and suddenly it occurs to us that we ought to also treat ourselves with that same compassion, that same respect.  We finally set down our yearnings for control and see what God will do with our surrender, what serendipity may surprise us, what provision will come where they was nothing before…

Or perhaps we let go of our striving toward perfection.  Perhaps we set down our expectations.  Perhaps we surrender our fears and anxieties, and we take one step back, to observe them, to look upon ourselves with the compassion in which God has looked upon us – as we are made of dust!

Perhaps we let the Word unsettle us.  Instead of shoving down our questions and doubts, maybe we give them voice.  Maybe we dig a little deeper.  Maybe we open ourselves in vulnerability to someone else and find that together we are made stronger.

Our roots have begun to grow.
In seasons of drought, we have dug deeper.

And then
our yield, our fruit, our harvest begins.

 

And THIS is God’s purpose for us.  To BE BLESSED and to BE A BLESSING.  We ourselves are to be food for the hungry, shade for the weary, nector for the thirsty.  Following the lead of Christ, who gave himself that we might live, we too answer God’s call to live for God and not ourselves alone.  We answer God’s call to join in something bigger and broader, fresher yet more ancient, than our life alone. 

 

And we cannot make this happen.  We cannot will it to happen.

It is GOD who plants the seed.  God is the Sower.  God is the actor.

 

WE have received.

WE have received.

We have all been blessed.

OUR CALLING is to receive. 

To Receive.

 

We are always responding to God.

We are making choices that determine the state of our lives, the state of our soul, the state of our soil.

 

So
what kind of soil are you?  What is your temptation?

What
is your growing edge?

 


 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE                  (Book of Common Worship, adapted & expanded)

O God, you are our life and breath, our light and fire our teacher and healer.  We praise you for your handiwork of shaping creation.  We commit ourselves to serve you for the sake of the Gospel.  We devote ourselves to prayer with and for your people.  We offer ourselves with vulnerability and look to you alone for strength.  Be our rest.  Be our rock.  Be our Lord.

God of compassion, keep vigil with us these days.  We grieve for the dead and pray for the afflicted.  We watch and wait with those who writhe in love and helplessness, as they cannot hold the hand of the one they love or say their goodbyes.  We remember those who serve others – rescue workers and police officers, nurses and physicians, civic and community leaders, and volunteers of every kind.  Fill them with your breath of life as they bind up the brokenhearted, heal bodies, and bury the dead.  Flow through them in the power of your Spirit, as they make snap decisions, as they enter charged situations, as they pray and work toward a more just and equitable world.  Enfold us all in your tender care.  We lay ourselves at your feet.

You give us prophets, holy God, to cry out for justice and mercy.  Open our ears to hear them, and to follow the truth they speak, lest we support injustice and seek to secure our own well-being at the expense of our brothers and sisters.  Give prophets the fire of your Word, but give them love as well.  Sow in us the awareness that there is far more that unites us than separates us.  Remind us all of our ever-present need for your steadfast love and mercy.  We all stand bare before you.