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“Unimaginable”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 17
Matthew 14:13-21

 

Psalm 17

Hear me, Lord, my plea is just;
listen to my cry.
Hear my prayer—
it does not rise from deceitful lips.
Let my vindication come from you;
may your eyes see what is right.

Though you probe my heart,
though you examine me at night and test me,
you will find that I have planned no evil;
my mouth has not transgressed.
Though people tried to bribe me,
I have kept myself from the ways of the violent
through what your lips have commanded.
My steps have held to your paths;
my feet have not stumbled.

I call on you, my God, for you will answer me;
turn your ear to me and hear my prayer.
Show me the wonders of your great love,
you who save by your right hand
those who take refuge in you from their foes.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
from the wicked who are out to destroy me,
from my mortal enemies who surround me.

They close up their callous hearts,
and their mouths speak with arrogance.
They have tracked me down, they now surround me,
with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground.
They are like a lion hungry for prey,
like a fierce lion crouching in cover.

Rise up, Lord, confront them, bring them down;
with your sword rescue me from the wicked.
By your hand save me from such people, Lord,
from those of this world whose reward is in this life.
May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies;
may their children gorge themselves on it,
and may there be leftovers for their little ones.

As for me, I will be vindicated and will see your face;
when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.

 

Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”

Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.


 

Imagine this scenario.

Jesus receives news of what has befallen his cousin John, who he later says is Elijah returned.  In gross human tragedy, jealousy, lust, power, shame, revenge, and the needless shedding of blood, John is beheaded – his head delivered on a silver platter to Herod’s niece-now-daughter-in-law.

 

Can you begin to imagine such evil perpetrated against your cousin?  Against someone doing such good and proclaiming truth and justice?

This is where Jesus finds himself – in need of rest, in need of quiet, in need of solitude.

And so they deliberately leave by boat, as quietly as they can.  They head to a remote place.  But the people – yearning for healing, seeking help and guidance and wisdom – they have followed him from the shore, on foot.  And now this usually remote area is filled to the brim, teaming, with people – parent and child, sick and well, men and women and people of every dimension.

Jesus lands only to find a large crowd.

 

I would have been angry at the people, I imagine.  I might have broken down in tears of exhaustion and grief.  I might have instructed the disciples to just keep on going and going – anywhere but there.

But Jesus sees them, and even through the eyes of his grief, he has compassion on them.  And he begins his sacred work, his holy work of healing the sick.

 

As evening approaches, everyone gets a little more restless.  It is mealtime, and there are no provisions, no homes and families or town there.  How shall they all eat?

So the disciples begin to encourage Jesus to send the crowd away.  Perhaps if they go now, they can make it to villages to find food for themselves.  The disciples know that the people will keep waiting their turn to be touched by Jesus’ hand, to be beheld in Jesus’ eyes, to receive and cherish his words.  They have traveled long.  They are tired and hungry.  But the waiting is worth it.

But Jesus does not respond reasonably. 

A reasonable person would come to the same conclusion.

A reasonable person would assess the scenario:

  • No food there to purchase
  • No food there to harvest
  • No money to buy food even if it was nearby
  • AND 5000 men + women and children
  • = bad news

 

This kind of assessment is important, is it not?

It’s how we live and don’t starve.

It’s how we work out housing and transportation and work.

The need to eat is vital and central.  Most other things revolve around it.  Most other things support this one critical human need.

Jesus knows they are a large crowd of deities or super-humans.  Jesus knows they must eat.  Jesus knows the situation.  Jesus knows human vulnerability and temptation.  Jesus remembers they are each made of dust.

 

And yet, Jesus tells the disciples give them something to eat (the CROWD, that is – some 5000+++ people).

I’m pretty sure that if Jesus and his disciples packed a dinner at all, it was likely meant to serve only 13-20, perhaps.  They were expecting a solitary camp, not a coliseum’s-worth of people on shore.

 

Have you ever been in such a scenario?

 

I love camping.  But there are many kinds of camping in this world.

There is the camping that Jesus and his disciples had expected to do – likely laying underneath the stars and cooking fish over the fire.

There is camping my sister and brother-in-law like to do:  carrying everything they need, carefully weighed and planned – on their backs for days or weeks of hiking in the wilderness.

There is camping like Incy’s brother and family enjoy:  where they park RV’s together, decked out with every imagined convenience.

And there is camping I am accustomed to:  car camping.  Whatever fits into the car can come:  a tent, a tarp, cooking gear, sleeping bag, handsaw, matches, pots and pans.  This is how my mother gave us the experience of traveling around the whole united states one summer.  It was crazy and empowering…and magical.

When I shop, I make lists.  When I organize my work, I make lists.  And when I camp, I make a list.  I actually keep a running list – to help with things I might forget between camping trips.  I try to think of everything:  what if it rains the whole time, what if the wood is too wet, what if everything we have gets soaked, and on and on.

For campers like Incy’s brother there is a term:  Glamper.  It means glamorous camper!

For campers like me – there is no term – so she made up one:  Pramper.  It means prepared camper.

 

That is me.
That is how I feel most comfortable operating in the world.

 

I like having everything on ready.  I like to know where everything is – extremely organized.  I organize my snack basket on any road trip so very carefully that I can reach back & easily find most things I want, without turning my head to look.

I am distressed by disorganization.  I feel stressed when my environment is cluttered or unkept.

Basically, I like being prepared in every area of life.

 

But as you might imagine, it hasn’t worked for me very well.  Not only did life throw more curve balls than I could ever imagine, but I have had to walk into the unknown, which I do not like.  I am naturally that person who likes to sit quietly at the back of the room – to study people, to listen, to observe.  I don’t want to say anything embarrassing.  I don’t want to say anything inaccurate.  I want to gauge the room.  I want to think a lot before I speak.

But I’ve had to deviate from my comfort.  I have felt God calling me to speak up – and have churned inside until I obey.  I like to follow, but God keeps calling me out – to speak out, to share vision, to invite others into greater discipleship.

I have had to leave the places of my security and preparedness in order to be obedient to the Spirit of God and in order to love those God calls me to love. 

 

Funny how others don’t walk my plans very well.  Funny how they seem to sabotage my expectations, over and over.  Funny…

What’s truly funny is that I thought I could “control” others.
What’s funny is that I thought I should “control” others.
What’s funny is that I tried to “control” others.

 

And it never worked; in the end it wasn’t loving.

I could not both love and respect others

AND

Control them.

 

And even when I tried to hide my intentions, they could always feel it.
It created wedges.
It seeded mistrust.

 

And I was faced with the call to truly let go of my security blanket.

 

I was called to follow God in faith – not chart out the entire passageway. 

Like Lewis and Clark, I prepare for everything I can foresee.  But then when the rivers no longer take me forward and mountains loom ahead, I have to look around me, I have to listen, I have to humble myself in collaboration and prayer, and I have to step out into the unknown – making it up as we go.

 

And this has been a massive journey in my life:  this journey from my natural prepared – play-it-safe positioning INTO a trusting of God in the process, a trusting of those with whom I take this journey, and a trusting of myself.

And this is HARD because as you know, Jesus was crucified.  Bad things DO HAPPEN to good people.  Jesus Christ is not insurance for the good life but actually told us we would suffer.

This trust has been hard won. 
But it has been life to me.

 

I have had to flee from control like an addictive substance, because it has been that to me. 

And this new experiment of faith – this experience of letting go and letting God – has been absolute LIFE and HOPE and JOY and SURPRISE and LOVE to me.

 

Through the years of heartache along my journey of discovery and learning to let go and to trust, I accepted that there will always be factors out of my control.  And that as scary as that feels, that is also hopeful, because God is ever doing a new thing.  And what we have today will be different from what we have tomorrow.

We cannot accurately assess the future because we do not yet have, all that we will have, at that time.

We cannot accurately assess the future because we do not yet have, all that we will have, when the time comes.

Someone else more eloquently said, “You cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s answers.” 

 

Jesus knew this.
Jesus know of more resources than any others could perceive, moment to moment.

 

Did he physically multiply the loaves and fish to feed that enormous crowd?

Some have suggested that the miracle may have been one of sharing.

You know the idea of stone soup, do you not?  The host says, “Come on over.  I’m making soup.  Bring whatever you have to put in the pot.”  And as each guest come, carrots are added, potatoes, celery, some chicken…and eventually it is a wholesome, nourishing soup – even though the host only had water and a stone in the pot to start with.

Might the miracle have been that everyone shared?  That everyone let go of their precious food to share with others?

 

Perhaps.  That would be miracle – in their day or in ours!

 

I do not know how Jesus did it.  But whether the miracle performed was in the hearts and hands of the individuals such that they opened themselves to share with one another OR Jesus in his power turned two fish into twenty thousand, I believe Jesus CAN do that.

I believe.

 

There are many lessons we will glean from this account in our lifetimes.  But today may we be attentive to Christ’s provision – unexpected, unimagined, unfathomable, yet delivered right on time. 

 

And as Christ’s disciples long ago, may we – Christ’s disciples here and now – leave room for the unexpected.  May we not limit the possibilities of what can be by what we already see or what has been.  For our God is still creating.  Our God is still providing.  Our God is still renewing and remaking all things.  And we cannot yet imagine the miracles and visions God will make reality, in us and through us. 

 

Thanks be to God!!

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

PRAYERS

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

I keep projecting my present condition onto the future.  If I feel dark, the future looks dark.  If I feel bright, the future looks bright.  But who am I to know what life will be like for me tomorrow, next week, next year, or ten years from now?  Even more, who am I to know who you will be for me in the year ahead?  O Lord, I will not bind you with my own limited and limiting ideas and feelings.  You can do so many things with me, things that might seem totally impossible to me.  I want at least to remain open to the free movement of your Spirit in my life.  Why do I keep saying to myself:  “I will never be a saint.  I will never be able to overcome my impulses and desires.”  If I keep saying that, I might prevent you from healing and touching me deeply.  O Lord, let me remain free to let you come, whenever and however you desire.

Chippewa Song

Sometimes I go about pitying myself
While I am being carried by the wind across the sky.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)

As swimmers dare to life face to the sky and waters bears them,
As hawks rest upon air and air sustains them,
So would I learn to attain freefall,
And float into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
Knowing no effort earns that all-surrounding grace.

 

 

 

“The One God of All”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Genesis 21:8-21

 

Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God.
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
Turn to me and be gracious to me;
give your strength to your servant;
save the child of your serving girl.

 

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

~~~~~~~~~~

 

I’ve always found this story rather distressing.  In age-old feelings of jealousy, it appears Sarah decides Hagar and her son should go.  It says she didn’t want Ishmael to inherit with her own son Isaac.

In a land of plenty, in this family with no other heirs, Sarah’s jealousy is most disturbing; why can’t she share?  Does she not trust Isaac will have enough?  …Even though we are told that Abraham is a rich man?  Is this a class war, where she doesn’t want her son playing and associating with Abraham’s son by her slave Hagar?  Or could it be anger and resentment, since – as soon as Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s child – we are told Hagar gloats and looks down on Sarah.  After all, Hagar had surpassed Sarah in her apparent “womanhood” with Abraham, or so the culture would have said.  There was (and even still is) a lot of shame wrapped in a woman’s inability to bear children.

 

But even more disturbing:  wasn’t it Sarah’s idea all along that Abraham sleep with Hagar in order that he might have a descendant that way?  And now she wants to undo what she did?  This feels audacious and cold.  And yet, as judgmental as I feel toward Sarah in this moment, what options did a wife have in those days?  Women were valued by their ability to produce heirs, and this was something she could not yet do.  She was nearing a century of life, without the blessing of having her own child.  Perhaps she turned to her servant Hagar, as her way of trying to fulfill her wifely duties.

 

Whatever Sarah’s feelings or her reasons, we hear that Abraham is greatly distressed by Sarah’s wish to send off Ishmael.  So God speaks into this moment and directs Abraham to do as Sarah wishes.

And so, despite his distress, Abraham does what he has done before.  He believes God.  He obeys.  He sends Hagar off with Ishmael and only bread and a skin of water by which to survive.

But God has told Abraham that God will indeed make a nation of Ishmael also.  So not only will Ishmael survive, but it would seem that he will indeed thrive.  He too will become numerous, having many descendants.  And so Abraham obeys.

 

And this is when we look upon the dire situation in which Hagar finds herself and her son – with no more water, and expecting the end for she and her child.  She leaves Ishmael underneath a bush, farther off, so she might not have to witness the death of her child.

But just as God speaks with Abraham when he is distressed of soul, so an angel of God speaks to Hagar in this moment of deepest despair.  The angel tells her not to fear; that God has heard the cries of her son, and that God will actually make a great nation from Ishmael.  Hagar is to go back to her child and hold him fast in her hand.  And when she obeys, as Abraham had done, God opens her eyes and she sees a well.  She goes and refills the empty skin full of fresh water, and she offers this water of new life to her son.

 

Can you imagine the emotional journey Hagar has been on?  Can you imagine being someone’s servant, their slave?  Can you imagine that someone telling you to sleep with her husband?  Can you imagine the fears that must have entered her mind?

Can you imagine the position in which she finds herself?  Truly she appears at the mercy of her masters.  She does what they will.  She sleeps with Sarah’s husband.  She bears his child.  And when tensions grow between she and Sarah and Sarah wants her gone, she is cast out to fend for herself in lands and cultures where not having a tribe means certain death.

 

But this is not the end of Hagar’s story.  God has a plan for Ishmael as well.

Hagar’s story, tragic on so very many levels, does not end with the death of she and her son in the wilderness.

…For God hears,
God speaks,
And God provides.

 

To this woman, used and abused, God speaks of a future for her son that is magnificent and hopeful.

 

Now I must say that I am still very uneasy with this story.

It seems that, as in so much of life, the rich get richer and the poor poorer, the powerful remain strong while the powerless are jerked around and mistreated.

 

But I am also encouraged by this story.

For God does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as disposable, as trash, as pawns.

For apart from Abraham and Sarah, Haagar and Ishmael will prosper.  Their stories intertwine, but her story branches off here in its own direction.

God is with Ishmael, and he becomes strong with the bow.  He lives in the wilderness, and he marries a woman his mother finds for him from her homeland of Egypt.

They survive.

And they prosper. 

 

This is the character of the God we serve.

Imperfect servants of God, Abraham and Sarah,

They are still used by God.

God remembers that they are made of dust.

 

And yet God’s love doesn’t stop with the family of Abraham who he has chosen.

No God’s presence and love follows Hagar and her son Ishmael,

even into the lonely and vulnerable wilderness.

 

God has mercy on Sarah, who could never bear a child – her one main duty as a wife.  And God works in the life of Hagar, providing for she and her son in the darkest place of their lives, that they may one day form a nation of their own.

 

 

It is a common misconception that God’s choosing of Abraham means God does not love everyone else.  But it has always been for the sake of the whole world that God chose Abraham.  It has always been that THROUGH HIM all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  Abraham is blessed TO BE a blessing…to the rest of the world. 

For God’s love doesn’t stop with Abraham.  God’s love can be shown and grown through a servant like Abraham who listens, believes, and follows.  Through his obedience the families of the earth will find blessing.  But God’s love is for the whole creation, the people of every land and place, all those who wander and run themselves ragged in fear, like sheep without a shepherd.  God has mercy on us, despite our sins, and graces us with undeserved favor and blessing.

 

THIS is the God we serve:
The God who speaks to the rich nomad
and the spurned and abused servant girl,
making them both ancestors of great nations.

Despite all our human-divisions of power and vulnerability, gender and opportunity, wealth and poverty, …master and servant,

GOD is God to all.

 

We are alike,
beloved by the Most High God.

Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

On this Father’s Day, let us speak aloud the names of those who are and were father figures to us. 

                                                (Psalm 72, excerpts)

Give to your Leaders good judgement, O God, and a sense of what is right.  May they govern your people with justice and do right for those who are powerless.  May the mountains bring peace for the people, and the hills bring forth justice.  May they defend the poor among the people, save the children of those who are needy, and crush the oppressor.  May they endure as long as the sun, like the moon through all generations; like the rains that fall on the early crops, like the showers that water the earth.  May justice flower in their days, and peace till the moon is no more. May they have pity on the week and the powerless; may they save the lives of the poor.  May they redeem them from oppression and violence and regard their blood as precious.  Let grain be abundant through-out the land, and wave on the the tops of the mountains.  Let the crops blossom like Lebanon and the people flourish in the cities like the grass of the fields.

(Iona Abby Worship Book)

Liberator Christ, you came into a holy place and read the sacred word about sight for the blind folk and freedom for prisoners.  Come to this place now.  Read these words to us till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked, and we can see the world as it is, and as it could be; till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously, and the visions of the young are valued, and the potential of the old is released; till you Kingdom is celebrated everywhere, and your church is good news to the poor.

Amen.

“To Be Channels of God’s Goodness”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23

 

Acts 2:42-47

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


 

Reading this passage from Acts about the apostles and early believers sharing everything they have in common, I am struck anew at how very, very counter-cultural this act is.  One could even say it is subversive.

We buy and sell.  We own and transfer ownership.  We own land.  We build and own property.  And back in Jesus’ day, even women, many servants, enslaved persons, and children were all considered property.  As capitalistic as we are today, there was an even bigger spectrum in Jesus’ day of what and who people thought could be bought and sold, owned, possessed.

Frankly the idea of a person owning another person causes a visceral response in my body.  I find it so very offensive.  Nonetheless, the culture and world to which Jesus came and gave his life saw ownership as a sign of wealth and power, much as we do today.

So when the disciples ask new believers to share everything freely with one another, to sell their possession and give to the poor, to hold nothing back – it is most certainly subversive.  It is a hard ask.  Can you imagine asking that of another person?

 

I cannot.

I truly delight in ownership.  I love owning a car.  I adore owning real estate.  I love the items that I’ve purchased or found and now call my own.  I love the memories.  I love the resourcefulness.  I love being prepared.

And yet the disciples learned a very different way of living from Jesus.  They travelled from place to place, without ownership, without provision, without knowing where their next shelter or meal would come from.  Sometimes they picked wheat and produce from the fields through which they wandered.  And sometimes Jesus asked them to feed people, when they themselves did not have anything on them to offer another.

But Jesus had shown them the power of this way of life.  They’d been challenged to wholly lean on God for their well-being.  When they split up to go and witness to the Kingdom of God in neighboring towns, Jesus had instructed them to go empty-handed.  They were to take nothing but the tunic on their backs.  And they were to rely, wholly, on the generosity of those they met.  Can you imagine?

 

Some in our culture know this way of life.

There are a few who also know not where their next meal will come from or where they will find shelter and rest.  There are some who travel without provision, wholly reliant on those around them to survive.  Many hustle in their own way – trying to sell goods or services to make a buck.  And others beg on street corners, traffic islands, and even grocery store parking lots.

We tend to look unfavorably on these folks.

They are not being responsible, we say.  They are mooching off the rest of us.  We are paying for their laziness, we feel.

We don’t know what to do when we see them.  Are they truly in need?  Are they a victim?  Are they victimizing me?  What will they use my gift for?  Will they use it for life-crushing substances?  Will they use it for food?  Will they use it wisely?

Our questions are left unanswered, as we each try to make up our own minds.  And this discomfort weighs on us, especially as we pass by those we choose not to help.  Are we doing the right thing??

 

And though these wanderers and sojourners differ in some ways from Jesus’ disciples, they also have enough similarity, that it behooves us to pay attention.

 

In America we have some exposure as well to a culture that did not believe in land ownership:  the Native Americans.  The earth and all its fullness is seen as a gift – not to be grasped, but to be received with gratitude and respect.  The earth and all its fullness is not for us to use and squander however we choose.  Rather, we are given its keeping for a little while, and it is our great and holy responsibility to keep it thriving for our children and our children’s children.

Frankly, this view of creation sounds far more in keeping with Christ’s manner of living than our own.  And sometimes, the manner of living of the homeless and wanderers among us, seems much more in keeping with Jesus’ manner of living.  Jesus was, after all, homeless.  He did not have money.  He was not beholden to the systems and powers that be.  He was not part of the economic engine, the machine.  So in this way, he was uniquely free, a freedom many of our homeless brothers and sisters have also known.

 

So where does this leave us?

I’d like to think that our society is just what Jesus would have designed, but I cannot imagine that is true.  I appreciate capitalism.  I love home and land ownership, but this is not what we see in Jesus’ own life, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I believe you and I are responsible to God for how we life, be it for good or for ill.

So whether we own or use land, whether we own or use resources, whether we buy or borrow goods and services, we are responsible.  And our actions reflect, in some way, our levels of trust, in the good shepherd, with whom “I shall not want.”

 

We give lip service in the church to trusting God.  We give lip service to trusting God with our money, our goods, our lives.  But when it comes down to it, our actions most accurately reflect our trust. 

Do our gifts of money, answer God’s call on our finances?  Have we taken the time to be still and listen for God’s still, small voice speaking over what we possess?  Do we even dare open up ourselves to such a vulnerable position of listening??

How much treasure do we store up for ourselves?  When do we have enough?
How much toilet paper do we store up?  When do we “have enough?”
Isn’t it all relative?
Isn’t it all so easy to rationalize?

 

I do not think there is a one-size-fits-all answer to any of this.  I dare not venture to prescribe how much you should own or give.  And I think God’s answers and invitations to each of us differ widely. 

 

And so, I invite you, to be still before our God, and to listen. 

 

What does God bring to mind?
Who does God bring to mind?
Is there someone in need nearby, whom you can help?
Do you have resources you’ve outgrown that would tremendously bless someone else?

This process is for you and you alone.   Each person, each family, each couple is responsible for how life is lived, what resources are used, what is shared, and whether or not we obeyed God’s private instruction in our lives.

 

The early believers shared all they had in common.  They sold what they had and gave it to the poor.  They shared, wherever there was need.

THIS my friends, is the Kindom of God.
THIS is the radical way of living Christ calls us to.

We are to place our trust in Christ alone, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

 

And I am moved to read this now, because so many of us have been acting more like this of late.  Food Lion issued 1,500 $20 gift cards for school children in impoverished neighborhoods in this community.  Jo-ann’s has been giving out mask-making supplies free to anyone who will make them.  Reservoir Distillery here in Richmond is giving away hand sanitizer every weekday – turning their tasting room into a distribution center.  Celebrities are paying rents for entire low-income neighborhoods.  One is even paying for virtual therapy.  Another has started his own boot-leg broadcast called, “SGN” – Some Good News, and he’s using it to spread stories of hope and courage to lift of the community.

You have made masks upon masks for one another.  You have labored long over financial records and payroll sheets – to find and solicit ways to continue employing those workers who have served in our midst for so very long.  You’ve written cards and letters to one another, especially our home-bound members and friends.  Money for projects and paychecks has been provided, mysteriously, anonymously.  You have rallied to put up and fill a new Little Pantry on our church grounds, to supply the community in this needful time.  When various ones among us have been in a bind, you have responded with help, in time.  When folks call our office asking help to pay a bill, you fund an account that pays portions of these bills.  When folks among us need a ride to appointments, you have shown up.

 

Just as the Israelites long ago were not blessed for themselves alone, WE are not blessed for ourselves alone.  We are called to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world – to be CHANNELS of God’s goodness – of grace and love, abundance and provision, comfort and care.  We are called to shepherd one another, as our God has shepherded us – to love and comfort one another as our God has loved and comforted us.

We are blessed in order to BE a BLESSING. 

 

So as we prepare to leave this gathering,
I invite you,
to covenant
– with yourself and with God –
to set aside a holy moment,
this day,
to listen to your God.

Generous and merciful God,
how are you calling us to be faithful,
here and now,
in this time.
Speak, in ways we can hear.

And by your grace, may we most surely be, your faithful disciples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Greater Works Than These”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 9:36-43
John 14:12-14

 

Acts 9:36-43

Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

John 14:12-14

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”


 

Just last Sunday, we read about how Peter, having just been through an emotional marathon following Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection, has retreated to the sea to fish and has led 6 other disciples in doing the same.  This fishing expedition doesn’t go well.  They catch nothing, but the risen Christ meets them on the shoreline with hot fish and warm bread, strait from the fire.  The whole encounter ends with Jesus repeatedly asking Peter whether or not Peter loves him.  Each time Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you,” but each time Jesus responds by saying “Feed/Tend my sheep.”

It seems as though Jesus is trying to break through the disconnect between Peter’s affections and his actions.  Peter feels love for Christ, but his actions are less that of a disciple and more reflective of the man he used to be, before he met Christ.  Jesus is challenging Peter to live his love and devotion in service to others – not returning to his former life but continuing his discipleship by the power of the Holy Spirit.

 

So in today’s passage, we finally see Peter DOING the work of a disciple of Christ.  In fact this story, along with several other stories of Peter and the early church, neatly reflects stories that came out of Jesus’ life.  Just as Jesus raised a girl from the dead, so Peter raises this faithful disciple from death.  Just as Jesus heals a paralytic man, so Peter heals a paralyzed man.  Peter is DOING the work of discipleship!

This Peter, who was once looking wistfully back at the fishing life, is now all in.

And I find this very encouraging.

 

We know that Peter was not an educated man.  Luke reports that the religious leaders of the day found Peter ordinary – such that they were amazed as how he taught them with authority and performed deeds of power among the people.  Peter was an ordinary guy.  He was rash and a bit impulsive.  He liked to fish naked, and the sea was a source of comfort to him.  He spoke before he thought.  He couldn’t always follow through with his intentions.  When Jesus was in custody before his eventual crucifixion, Peter denies Jesus 3 times, in order to save his own skin.

And it is this Peter who Christ calls and uses to spread the Good News of Great Joy.

This Peter.

 

Though he has failed over and over, Jesus lovingly pursues him, and keeps calling Peter to follow.  Now, Peter’s words and his actions are finally starting to match.  Peter’s faith is finally taking shape in works.  He chooses to leave Christ’s presence, not just a hearer but a doer.  Peter chooses to tend the sheep – to shepherd God’s people, to lead others in doing good and not in turning back.

 

In the Gospel of John we heard these words of Jesus:  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If in my name you ask me[e] for anything, I will do it.”

Jesus is explaining that we will do greater things than he did – precisely because Jesus will be with God, hearing our prayers and giving us what we ask.

This is hard to believe.  It sounds too genie-in-a-bottle for us.  It sounds too anecdotal to be true.  And yet, in the person of Peter, we see an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

And I would assert that God is calling you and I to do great things by the power of the Spirit.

 

Do you look around and think – we need a miracle!

Do you look around and think – how can we begin to fix the messes we are making?!

Does each new grim report simply pile onto your already-mounting-stack of tragedies-with-no-answers?

 

Well, good.

Perhaps God has made you, for such a time as this.

Perhaps God is using you to do even greater works by the power of the Spirit…

Perhaps God has given you eyes to see the mess, so you can be a part of the solution.

After all, Christ said we will do greater things than he did!

 

We are not alone.  God is not finished with us yet.  There is more to this world than we can see or perceive.  And Christ is still at work, doing miracles, turning tables, raising the dead, healing the sick.  Christ hears our prayers.

 

We do not pretend to control God.

We do not pretend to understand why God acts and does not act, why God heals some and not others.  We do not pretend to know why some suffer all their lives and others seem to walk such an easy road.

And yet,

Paul encourages us to pray without ceasing.  “Cast all your cares upon the Lord, for God cares for you.”  And “the prayers of the righteous are powerful and effective,” scripture reminds us.

 

Therefore,

in all things,…

as we face enormous obstacles to justice and equity,

as we stare down the mountains between us and where we need to go

as we face off against the darkness within ourselves and one another,

May we remember that Christ, who raised Lazarus from the dead, lives in you and in me.

May we remember that the One who made heaven and earth and fashioned you and me has called us precious and beloved.

May we remember that there is more to this life than we can see.

And may we call on Christ,

Interceding on behalf of our brothers and sisters,

Crying out to God in the face of injustice,

Sharing what we have with one another,

…..DOING the work of discipleship. 

 

Who knows what mighty work Christ may do,

in you and in me!

 

“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.