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“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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

“You Prepare A Table Before Me”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Deuteronomy 31:1-8
Psalm 23
John 14:1-7 and 10:10b

Deuteronomy 31:1-8

When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: “I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, ‘You shall not cross over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the Lord promised.  The Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them.  The Lord will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you.  Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: “Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it.  It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

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.

John 14:1-3 and 10:10b

14 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

 


 

Have you ever gone out of your way to surprise someone, to honor and celebrate someone?  The careful planning.  The details and arrangements.  The coordinating.

Can you recall a time when someone when out of their way to surprise you?

Some of us have these kinds of memories.

Others of us may not.

But I want to tell you that God has done just this for you.

You prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies.

You anoint my head with oil.  My cup overflows.

I’ve always read this line and immediately switched out of the sheep/shepherd analogy and back to real life.  It is a beautiful image, and one I believe to be true, of God preparing a place for us, at a table of abundance, in the presence of our enemies.

But I hadn’t before thought of this image in relation to sheep.

The Shepherd, Phillip Keller, who wrote the book “A Shepherd’s Look at Psalm 23” tells that the word table is often used in reference to high country:  the tablelands.  The Spanish word “mesa” is often used to refer to such lands, and mesa literally means “table.”  When one thinks of how a table is where we find our sustenance, nourishment, and fellowship, it is most appropriate to think of the highlands in this way as well.  The tablelands are the place where the sheep find their nourishment, sustenance, and closeness with the shepherd during the hardest, hottest season.

And in the same way, the assertive shepherd will go ahead of the sheep, making several trips to the tableland, before even all the spring snow is melted, to determine the best route, the best camp, the best bedding grounds, the best pasturage, and the areas of danger.  He or she goes before.

Carefully planning.  Each detail.

The shepherd will likely take with him or her some salt and minerals, to place in certain areas, for the benefit of the sheep, and he/she will scout out poisonous plants, sometimes even going to lengths to eradicate them.

Phillip Keller tells of his own experience at his first range.  When he bought it, he didn’t know the ranch was covered in blue and white cammas in the spring.  Though gorgeous to the eye, the white cammas were poisonous to the sheep.  Lambs were especially vulnerable to its poison and would stiffen up like a block of wood and die, if they ate even a few of the leaves.  So Phillip and his children would go into the fields, every spring, on hands and knees and pull each camma from the ground.  It was grueling work, but it was necessary for the sheep’s survival.

 

David was likely familiar with what it took to prepare the land for the sheep, as well.

He prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

He anoints my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 

I don’t know about you, but there’s something about that going before, about that preparing everything in advance for me, that I find so loving.  Our good shepherd will lead us along valley pathways, onto highlands, into lands flowing with milk & honey, good lands.  And the whole journey, our Shepherd has taken before.  The dangers, the temptations, the fears, and hope, and love…Christ has felt it all before.  Christ has gone before us – through the valley of the shadow of death and to glory eternal.  And Chist goes to prepare a table before us, preparing a place at the table of God, for us.

And Christ doesn’t just go ahead, and leave us to try to make our own way.  In John, we hear Jesus speaking of returning, to get his followers, so they will be with him.

In both this image of the Shepherd, who goes to lengths to prepare the highlands for his/her sheep, and Christ, who has gone before us, both in life and in death,…to prepare a place for us…

I feel that deep and abiding love of God for me.

I feel comfort that the Shepherd will come back for the sheep, to lead them through the valleys and into the highlands – that promised land of nourishment and sustenance.

I feel comfort that Jesus promised to not leave us alone but to come back so as to lead us safely home.

 

I read the book “Heaven is for Real” by Todd Burpo a number of years ago now.  I don’t know if you’ve heard of it.  It is a father’s retelling of his own journey through extreme valleys in his life, culminating in his 4 year old son Colton’s major brush with death.  In the time following his son’s recovery, his son would say things, casually and unexpectedly, over time, about experiences with Jesus and heaven and angels…from when he was near death.  And the family was blown away by the Biblical truth, by the details and things their son could not have otherwise known, had he not indeed had such an experience with Jesus, while barely hanging on to life.

Whatever your feeling about the book or their story, I respect that.

Myself, I found it very compelling, overwhelming, profound, and simply beautiful.

One of these moments in which they got a glimpse into Colton’s experience, was when Colton and his Dad went to visit a man in the nursing home, who was very near death.  Colton’s dad Todd is a part-time pastor like myself, so where his Dad went, he went also.  Let me share a bit from this story:

Read p 117-119 of Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo, starting at the last paragraph, “Colton peered out the window…” and reading through the end of the chapter. 

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 1

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 2

11'11'18 You Prepare EXCERPT 3

 

I find it very comforting, that we are not alone.

That our Lord goes before us

And comes back for us

For every season of our journey.

 

From the Israelites crossing over the Jordan and entering the promised land… to now

God has promised to go before us AND to be with us.

 

Our Lord has prepared a table for us.

And Christ leads us to it

 

It is not merely a heavenly table, surrounded by God, in all God’s glory

I believe it is that,

But it is also a table, here and now, in the presence of our enemies…

 

In the midst of our trials and troubles…  In the presence of those who hate, bad-mouth, and look down on…   In the muck and mire of our real, day to day…  In the misunderstandings and hurt feelings…  In the systems we feel powerless to change…  In the battles we fight over and over again…  In the midst of all that would threaten our life and our happiness…

Here,

God prepares a table before us.

In this place,

Our cup overflows! 

 

What a miracle of our Lord!

that our life and healing

protection and closeness

happiness and sustenance

would be given us

in the midst of such adversity

 

Let us pray.

Lord, Christ, we long to be in the tablelands.  We long to know what it’s like that our cup overflows!!!  We want to know your loving preparation and provision.  We want to see your fingerprints all over every aspect of our lives!!!

We want to follow you into the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey.

Thank you,

that you have gone before.  Thank you that you are getting everything ready even still.

Thank you,

that you have not left us on our own to find our way.

Thank you,

that you lead us still

Every step

Every season.

 

Thank you for being the Lord of our life

life to the full!

both in this life,

and forevermore.

 

Lord, do it.  Make it so!!!

We love you.

Amen