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“Into the Potter’s Hands”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

 

Acts 19:1-710

While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.

 

Mark 1:4-11

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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John the Baptist,

He preached repentance for sins and alerted the people to watch for the one more powerful to come – who will baptize them with the Holy Spirit.

Well, that’s what we’re told, and yet here in Ephesus, Apollo finds some believers who did not hear or understand that part of the message – the part about the One to Come and Baptism by the Holy Spirit.

– Doesn’t this sound familiar:  part of the message getting lost in translation? –

 

This is often what we experience in our relationships with one another.  We hear some but not all.  We remember this, but not that.

And in John’s day, folks weren’t recording his speech by phone or taking notes on their pocket-notebooks or planners.  They weren’t documenting events by email or even tablets.  His words were to be experienced.  The whole experience was one – not to be preserved but to be lived.

And yet, these believers are still doing the hard work.  They are doing that work of repentance.  And that means they are actively and intentionally making room for Christ in their lives – whether or not they know or foresee Christ’s coming.

 

Despite missing a significant part of John’s message, they have done what most find hardest:  repentance.  And for Apollo to be finding them, we know Christ has already been crucified.   Time has passed between their hearing John’s message and their hearing Apollo’s:  years, most likely.  So they have been LIVING John’s teachings…all this time.

Therefore they are in a position of readiness.  And when they finally DO hear the good news, when they finally DO learn about Christ and the Holy Spirit, they receive the Spirit fully – receiving the Spirit’s gifts! 

 

This story reminds me that it isn’t about getting everything just right or remembering everything just perfectly.  They were seeking God.  And God was seeking them!
GOD was seeking them.
And Christ himself taught us, “Seek and you shall find.”
Indeed they find what they are looking for!
What mercy!
What love.

The part of the message they had remembered and been practicing was repentance, and repentance is that returning to God.
It is that taking responsibility for our flaws and failures.
And it returns us to the only true and honest relationship we can have with God and one another – a relationship based on humility.
Humility.

Humility is a seeing ourselves AS WE TRULY ARE.
For if we are not humble, the truth is not in us.
If we think we are without sin, the truth is not in us.
If we think we SEE, then we do not see.
If we think we know, then knowledge is not in us.
And GOD is the TRUTH.

We see, only in part.
We know, only in part.
We do good, only in part.

To have any kind of right relationship with God, AT ALL,
The starting place is to humble ourselves.
And repentance is the beginning of humility…of TRUTH.

We cannot be a cup, open to the rain of heaven, unless we are empty. 
We cannot be taught, shaped by truth, unless we are open. 

 

I share with you this poem by Christine Lore Weber:  Mother Wisdom Speaks.

Listen for God’s words to you:

Some of you I will hollow out.
I will make you a cave.
I will carve you so deep the stars will shine in your darkness.
You will be a bowl.
You will be the cup in the rock collecting rain.
I will hollow you with knives.
I will not do this to make you clean.
I will not do this to make you pure
You are clean already.
You are pure already.
I will do this because the world needs the hollowness of you.
I will do this for the space that you will be.
I will do this because you must be large.
A passage.
People will find their way through you.
A bowl.
People will eat from you.
And their hunger will not weaken them to death.
A cup to catch the sacred rain.
My daughter, do not cry.
Do not be afraid.
Nothing you need will be lost.
I am shaping you.
I am making you ready.
Light will flow in your hollowing.
You will be filled with light.
Your bones will shine.
The round open center of you will be radiant.
I will call you brilliant one.
I will call you daughter who is wide.
I will call you transformed.

 

We do not live for ourselves alone.
We are not saved for ourselves alone.
We are not chosen for privilege but for purpose.
Purpose. 

When we return to God in repentance,
humbling ourselves before God,
God does this most holy work in us:
growing our hearts,
t
eaching our minds,
e
xpanding our capacity,

SO THAT our own mortal being might be shaped, more and more, into God’s divine proportions.
WE will never reflect God wholly in this world.
We will never perceive God wholly in this world.
But when we position ourselves, at the feet of God, in humility
w
e offer ourselves to be shaped as clay in God, the Potter’s hands.
And Christ shapes us to be vessels of God’s nourishment,
p
athways to God’s unending grace, expanses for God’s light. 

 

The more and more we humble ourselves in God’s presence,
the more and more God shapes us to be bright lights in the Kingdom of God.

 

So fear not, missing a part of the message.
God is not like that.
God is not arbitrary.
God does not expect us to be perfect, to be God.
That isn’t what any of this is about at all.

Fear only
passing up the chance
to be surrendered truly
and wholly
into the loving and most skillful
Hands of God.

 

And so may we, like these Ephesians,
Follow the truth we have received,
Trusting God to reveal more and more truth as we are ready,
Trusting Christ’s words that
when we seek God, we shall find God,
when we seek with all our hearts. 

Thanks be to God!!

 

 

 

“Facing Truth – the First Step”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11
2 Peter 3:8-9
Mark 1:1-8

 

Isaiah 40:1-5, 10-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

 …See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

 

2 Peter 3:8-9

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.

 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

 

These infamous words of scripture, “Comfort, comfort, Oh my people”…they cause my heart to sing, strait away.  I am transported into Handel’s Messiah, just like that.

And famous they should be, because they are gospel!  They are good news!

But what we oft’ fail to notice is the Lord’s discipline, which precedes this voice of glad tidings.  The message of comfort is precisely so entirely comforting BECAUSE it comes on the heals of suffering.  It comes on the heals of sleeping in the beds we’ve made for ourselves.  It comes after we are eating our words, after we have our foots in our mouths, after we are ashamed and exposed.

God’s light reveals truth.  And truth shows both our beauty and our haggardly appearance.  We have both.  And by the rules of this world alone, we are stuck, beholden to our own sins, trapped in the cycles of sin and death, willing to do good but seemingly powerless to do it!

And THIS is the place into which the good news comes. 

 

Amid injustice, amid pain and suffering, amid disconnect, amid dissension,…
Amid othering, amid coldness and cruelty, amid oppression and rampant fear…
Jesus comes,
a little baby.
And the earth breaths a sigh, the heaven’s burst forth, and both near and far God’s inbreaking is on display.

 

In 2 Peter, we are reminded that time is but a moment to God.  What we may perceive as God’s slowness to act, is in fact God’s desire that ALL might be saved.  God is patient – more than any of us can comprehend – for God wills that all might come to repentance and enter into that fullness of life!

And so God WAITs until the fullness of time – until the right time.
AND – to aid those still needing a change of heart, still needing a nudge, still needing to grow in humility, God sends John the Baptist.

 

John the Baptist lives in ways most unconventional.  Some only come to see him in order to gawk.  But he is doing the unsettling work.  He is helping folks connect with their yearning, their need, THE REALITIES OF WHO THEY TRULY ARE, fluorescent lights ON.

No wonder some didn’t like him.
No wonder his life would be cut short by a powerful couple who did not like the truth he’d publicly spoken about them…

He spoke truth to power – bringing the things we hide in the dark, out into the light.

 

For it is in the light, that we may find healing…
IF we do not retreat into darkness: defending ourselves, denying the truth, spinning the facts, controlling the news, cutting off the heads of those who speak what we’re intent on hiding.

Because if we think we have no sin,
the truth is not in us.

And where there is no truth there is no life.

 

Christ has come that we might have life,
and have it to THE FULL. 

The full

 

God is not content with facades.
God is not pleased by our outward shows of holiness.
God is not impressed by our score-keeping:  one-upping one another, judging ourselves by one another (and one another by ourselves). We might as well be arguing over various shades of gray; it’s ALL gray.
We have ALL sinned.
We are ALIKE sinners before a Holy God.

And until we come to that realization, we cannot begin to perceive our need for Christ.
And so God sent John the Baptist. 

 

Now, there are those in your life, and in mine,
who tweak your nerves.
There are those in your life, and in mine,
around whom you behave your worst.
There are those who point out your faults,
whether openly or covertly,
And despite our deep desires to be done with these individuals,

God has promised us blessing THROUGH all things.  God can use these moments, these folks, these circumstances as our teachers, our friends.  Around them, we learn more about ourselves.  Our growing edges are made plain, our sensitivities exposed, our triggers on display.

 

And in this way, we oft’ serve as John the Baptists for one another. 

 

Every moment, every person, every circumstance presents us with a chance:  to lean into reality or to retreat, to accept the world on its own terms or to deny it, to accept one another as they are or to try to control them.  When we allow our God-given feelings – especially those angry, uglier ones – to teach us, we too step into the light.  We too allow ourselves to be exposed, as in fluorescent light.

And we have the opportunity to engage the truths about ourselves, others, and the world; or to hide from them. 

 

But if we trust that God is using all things for good in our lives,
then we begin to look for the lessons, the truths.

If we believe that God has given us our feelings and that they are inherently good,
we can make peace in ourselves and allow them to teach us.

And if we believe that Christ is coming still today,
that God is present and alive today,
then we are ever on watch, ever seeking, ever waiting.

 

 

Who may God have sent into your life to be a John the Baptist?

You may be drawn to them, as were the multitudes who traveled out to the wilderness from the city to be baptized by him.
You may be repulsed by them, and come all that way from the city just to gawk and make fun.
You may feel threatened by them because they expose truth.

 

But God has sent them.
God has allowed them.

And in these circumstances you might rather avoid, God is providing you the chance to prepare the way of the Lord, by listening for God’s voice of truth and turning from sin. 

 

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our hearts?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our minds?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord
…in our openness, in our listening for God – even in the faces of those who irritate us?

Will we prepare the way of the Lord? 

 

There was a good reason God sent John the Baptist ahead:  we don’t like to admit when we’re wrong, we don’t like to sit with our failures, we don’t like to get real with ourselves or others about our shortcomings, we DO NOT LIKE to change under fluorescent lights.

But when we listen to the voices of John the Baptists,
when we look ourselves over in honesty and truth, in the mirrors of our changing rooms,
we are made ready: 
ready for God-with-us! 

 

So repent! Let us turn from our life-diminishing, truth-denying, sin-sabotaged ways, and prepare the way of Christ, the Lord. 

 

 

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PRAYER                (Psalm 85:8-9a)

Let me hear what You, Lord God, will speak,
for You will speak peace to your people,
to your faithful, to those who turn to You in their hearts.
Surely your salvation is at hand for those who fear you!

“Others…in God’s Eyes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 1:18-22, 1:32-2:11

 

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. 10 Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

11 So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites 13 and worked them ruthlessly. 14 They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, 16 “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” 17 The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. 18 Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live?”

19 The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.”

20 So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own.

22 Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

Now a man of the tribe of Levi married a Levite woman, and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket[a] for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.

Then Pharaoh’s daughter went down to the Nile to bathe, and her attendants were walking along the riverbank. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her female slave to get it. She opened it and saw the baby. He was crying, and she felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said.

Then his sister asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?”

“Yes, go,” she answered. So the girl went and got the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this baby and nurse him for me, and I will pay you.” So the woman took the baby and nursed him. 10 When the child grew older, she took him to Pharaoh’s daughter and he became her son. She named him Moses,[b] saying, “I drew him out of the water.”

 

Romans 1:18-22, 32 and 2:1-11

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools…

32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

 

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things. Now we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth. So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?

But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.”[a] To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.


 

Can you believe the story from Exodus!?

If you hadn’t heard this story before, there are so many things wrong that are so wrong with this picture.

 

In a classic political move, the new Pharaoh does not have a relationship or connection with Joseph and his family.  So all he sees are TOO MANY of THEM.  He worries.  His rationale is this:  “The more there are of them, the riskier it is for us.”

Does this sound familiar?  Does this bring to mind today’s political strategizing, and political back-room talk?  Does it bring to mind profiling and even voter-suppression?  OTHERS are viewed with suspicion.  Scarcity is one’s view of the world:  more for you means less for me.

 

This is an age-old fear, age-old strategy….yet still so very much alive even today.

I find it alarming that this age-old fear still lives and breathes in us today.  After all, didn’t Joseph show the people way back when that we are stronger together?  Didn’t an Israelite boy, formerly enslaved, formerly imprisoned, save the entire nation of Egypt and beyond?!

And instead of being viewed as the asset that the Israelite people were to Egypt, they were viewed as other, as foreign, as untrustworthy, as a liability.

Does this sound familiar?

 

But this isn’t where it stops.  Of course the new Pharaoh has a plan.  And it’s not even veiled:  kill every Israeli baby boy, as soon as he is born.  Outright genocide, or infanticide more accurately.

It is out of this horrific time in Israel’s history that the baby boy Moses is born.  He is hidden for as long as he can be, and when it becomes no longer possible, he is abandoned – with great care – in the reeds along the edge of the river Nile.  His mother seals a basket with tar, places her baby boy in it, and sends his older sister to watch out for him, to see what would become of him.

Can you imagine this?  The heartbreak of a mother – where child abandonment is the most loving possibility?

I never want to experience such a heart-wrenching choice as hers.

 

But Moses’ life is spared by the compassion of the Pharaoh’s daughter, the daughter of the very Pharaoh ordering infanticide.  She is moved in compassion and decides to save this Israelite infant’s life, raising him as her own.

 

Israel truly has had a dramatic history:  so much strength, so much color, so much pain.  Can we take a moment here to acknowledge the depth of pain in their stories?

 

And in this one story, we have OTHERING, Xenophobia, Political Back-Rooming, and Infanticide.  It’s a play for power; garnering fear in order to remove one’s perceived threats from the playing field.  This is a move as old as time.

And it’s as fresh and relevant as tomatoes grown on our summer vines.  This same strategy is still employed by all our current, major political players.  Is it not?  And though our methods for the removal of others is not always so overt, that goal still in play.

 

America has a long history of OTHERING.  Those original residents of our beloved country were OTHERED and demonized – “savage, barbarians, uneducated, crazy…”  Their demise was rationalized – “we must save them from themselves, we must Christianize them, we must civilize them, we must save their children from their savage and barbaric culture.”  As humans we are so very good at convincing ourselves of the righteousness of whatever-it-is we want to do.

And so children were forcibly stolen from parents and communities.  And the people were outright, systematically butchered.  And then when the bloodshed ceased, America decided to isolate the rest of them, lumping them all in their infinite tribes, into a few tracks of land – without citizenship, without rights, without resource, without representation.  …to this day.

To this day.   

 

The earliest immigrants to America brought unpaid, enslaved workers.  And these persons were the human-power behind the building of this nation.  In our earliest hours of freedom from England and becoming a nation, these words were written and adopted:  “We believe that all men are created equal.”  And even as Thomas Jefferson penned those inspiring words, he worried that slavery – at the heart of the southern states’ success – would destroy the federal union, this new nation he had helped birth.   He intimately knew the contradiction.  His compelling words, those adopted as the heart of this nation, were not being fully lived.  It would become a crisis of national identity and integrity.

Once enslaved Americans were finally set free, local laws were passed to limit the involvement of former enslaved persons in the work of government.  They came to be known as “Jim Crow Laws.”  And these laws stayed on the books for 95 years.  During that time, persons of color were lynched en-mass and disenfranchised, with no accountability or justice.

Once Lynching and Jim Crow laws were finally outed, a new strategy emerged:  literacy.  No one could vote unless they passed a literacy test.  And in the Black community, even professors were being dismissed and disenfranchised as illiterate.  Just like the Pharaoh of Moses’ day, keeping people down was seen as critical to the holding-on of power.  The same goals, taking on ever-new strategies.

And once this new literate-only voting strategy got outed, the criminalization and over-imprisonment of an entire demographic population gained traction in its place.   And if one has been imprisoned, one’s voting rights are then revoked…

 

Do you see a pattern?

 

The holding-on of power has led leaders through-out time to grave evils. 

Scripture has documented this Pharaoh’s great evil.  It has documented grave evils of the Israelite people, of neighboring people,… and the list goes on and on.  The Bible exposes truth.

 

In our passage from Romans, Paul goes on to list all those perceived as evil or bad in chapter one.  Then immediately in chapter two, right when the whole crowd is saying, “Yes, THOSE people are bad,” he changes course and says, “YOU are no different.” 

YOU are no different.

 

Paul holds everyone to account for their sins – for NONE are without sin.

Paul knows how to meet the people where they are.  He knows all the ones folks despise and reject, he knows who the people judge and ostracize.  And he meets them there.  Paul speaks about all THESE PEOPLE, but he does so, only to then shine the light of accountability on the very people doing the judging.

 

After Rachel & Jacob’s son-switch – tricking Esau out of his birthright…
After Naaman’s wife-switch on Jacob – tricking him out of his promised marriage to Rachel.
This letter by Paul to the people of Romans is perhaps the next biggest switch in scripture!

 

Paul – ever the visionary pastor – walks the people into an honest look at their own indictment:  in judging others – they themselves are rightfully judged, since “you yourselves do the very same things,” Paul says.

 

LET US NOT repeat the mistakes of the past.

LET US NO LONGER other those different than ourselves.

MAY WE see other people as the assets that they truly are.

MAY WE choose to believe in God’s abundance, over the lie of scarcity.

AND MAY WE head Paul’s warning – owning our own sins and those societal not-yet-righted sins, and recognizing that we are no different than those we so often and so readily judge.

 

God has given us good guides, good leaders, good teachers.
May we heed their warnings.

MAY WE finally learn from those who have come before,
and regard others as God regards us –

as family. 

 

Thanks be to God!

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PRAYERS

Iona Abby Worship Book

God of history, you share our joys and crushing sorrows, you hear the cries of the afflicted, you fill the hungry, and you set free the oppressed.  We pray for the end to all injustice.  Inspire us with the all-embracing love of God, challenge us with the sacrificial love of Jesus, empower us with the transforming love of the Spirit, that we and all God’s children may live and be free!

 

Spirit of integrity, you drive us into the desert to search out our truth.  Give us clarity to know what is right, that we may abandon the false innocence of failing to choose at all, but may follow the purposes of Jesus Christ.

 

Spirit of truth and judgement, who alone can cast out the powers that grip our world at the point of crisis, give us your discernment, that we may accurately name what is evil, and know that way that leads to peace.

 

Iona Abby Worship Book

Creator Spirit, wellspring of our lives, as the refreshing rain falls on the just and unjust alike refresh us with your mercy, who knows our own injustice.  As the stream flows steadily on, defying all the odds of stone and water, flow over every boundary and border that separates us from each other.  As the waters of our baptism washed us and welcomed us, renew us now in newness of life and unity of love.  As we were once held in the waters of our mother’s womb, hold us in the power and peace of your abiding presence.

 

The Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland

O God, since there is no distinction of race and origin, in you we are all one.  Empower us to break down the barriers that still divide us, so that we may work in harmony with each other and with you.

            Iona Abby Worship Book – adapted & expanded

God, write your message on our hearts,

bless and direct us,

then send us out, living letters of the Word,

for we are yours.  Amen.

 

“Sin’s Obscurity and God’s Purposes”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Romans 8:26-39
Genesis 29:15-28

 

Romans 8:26-39

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

Genesis 29:15-28

Then Laban said to Jacob, “Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.

Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” Laban said, “This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.


 

The fact is that almost any behavior can be justified using the Bible.  In the Bible, there is rape; there is murder; there is mob mentality; dismemberment; racial discrimination; genetic engineering; magic; divination; genocide; the stealing of land and possession; slavery; concubines; polygamy; royal, live versions of “The Bachelor,” stonings; rebellions; terrorist attacks; deceit; human trafficking; executions; child sacrifice; and even the sanctified killing of babies…

Now you may say, “Yes, but we know those things were wrong; they are only in there to teach us that they are wrong.”  And you may be correct.  But how do we know which is which?

 

In the Bible men are not to have long hair.  Pork is not to be eaten.  Women must have long hair and wear a head covering.  Women must separate themselves from community and isolate during their seven days of menstruation.  Animal sacrifices are to be brought.  Circumcision is a thing.  Animals are not to be cooked in their own milk…

The lists of do’s and don’ts are extraordinarily long.

And why?
Most of us would say we are now exempt from this long list of rules.
Why?
Because in Christ the old is gone and the new has come.
But this also does not mean we simply drop all the stories.  They still have value.
But it places a particular burden on the reader. 

And this burden is that of prayer, study, and discernment.

For without prayer, without the leading of the Spirit of God, our own minds and hearts can rationalize and excuse any plethora of behavior.

The Bible was used in support of slavery.  It was used in support of keeping women silent.  I has been used to justify slaughtering entire nations, burning “witches” at the stake, and it is probably still used my some today to justify polygamy.  After all, even this story of our beloved patriarch Jacob, we hear of how he takes two wives – both Leah and Rachel.  And though he did not ask for this, he nonetheless walked this path.  And this is a path so many of our Fathers in the faith walked.  Abraham had one wife, but he slept with his wife’s slave.  David had many lovers, including one he stole from one of his most loyal and honorable servants.  Solomon had many lovers.  …And these are only the examples we know about.

The responsibility of reading the Bible prayerfully – opening oneself up to God in a listening, in a conversation – is most imperative.

 

And then we must read it intelligently.  It is our responsibility to learn the cultures in which these passages were written.  Context absolutely matters when interpreting scripture.  We need to be able to take a step back from any one particular passage and begin to see the meta-narrative – the overarching themes, direction, point of it all.  We need to read enough of scripture that we can allow them to inform one another, to converse, to challenge, to be in tension.  Just like we are strengthened by those with whom we disagree, scripture is best heard in tension with other contrasting scriptures.  This is part of how we tease out and understand the deeper meaning.  For example, Paul says, “Women keep silent.”  But then he praises Eunice, who was a church leader.  Paul says, “Slaves remain as you are.”  But then he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, man or woman, slave or free.”

When heard together, these passages can be quite bewildering, but it can also lead us to dive deeper, to ask the questions.  And in the asking, in the seeking, God says we will find.

 

In my own seeking on these questions, I came to believe that Paul was both pastor and prophet.  He would, at once, see the end vision AND nurture the people on a path to get there.  The path and the end vision are not the same.  One is stark, the other gradual.  But in the end, both aim in the same direction.  Paul also believed Jesus would return within his lifetime, and so he encourages people to set down their own needs and to instead focus on God, compromise, lay down their own lives for the sake of others.  And while these instructions stand well on their own over the test of time, they also help us understand why Paul did not try navigating faster toward the final vision of equality, the final vision of family unity, the final vision of freedom.  He felt the time was short.  So he cut to the chase; “better to loose ones life and save ones soul.”

 We are called to read the scriptures with discernment.  Discernment is a coming together of everything:  prayer, listening, studying, comparing…

 

In our Old Testament scripture passage today, we witness deceit; polygamy; the possession, trading, and bargaining of men over women’s lives; and the possession and trading of enslaved persons.

Would you have wanted to be deceived as was Jacob?

Would you have wanted to be secretly switched out with your sister for a bridal night with her betrothed?  Unwanted, yet forced into the middle?

Would you have wanted to have your betrothed, given secretly to sleep with your sister, on your own wedding night?

Would you want to be the property of anyone, much less such a deceitful man, and then all of sudden given as property to his daughter?

 

None of this is good.

None of this is fair.

None of this is right.

 

And yet, God still speaks to us through it.

God meets us in the mess of the world – the messes we’ve made and those that have befallen us – and is present…in healing, in restoration, in mercy, in justice, in growth, in redemption.

And are we ready for the whole shebang at once?!?

Though I have long yearned and cried and prayed for God to make all things right.  If God did, then I too would be wiped out, for I too participate in societal sins – many of which I am not even aware of.

Will my children and my children’s children look back on me and condemn my depletion of this world’s fossil fuels, the littering of our oceans, the cutting down of our forests, the wiping out of entire species?…

Will my children or my children’s children look back on me and condemn how long it took me to realize that I am gay?  The fact that my lack of self-awareness took a toll on my former husband?  The fact that it took me so long to speak God’s words to me, those words spoken into my theoretical questions from Seminary 20 years ago about whether or not it was right to be gay.  Those words God spoke into my heart saying, “I have made people this way.  And it is pleasing in my sight.”  Will they look on my silence on the matter for so long …with indictment?

Will my children’s children be able to tolerate the abuse I bore?  Will they have compassion on the slowness of my own empowerment?  Will they shake their heads at how I silenced myself, made excuses for my abuser, put my own needs last, discredited my own emotions, failed to listen to my own heart and soul,…for so very long?

Will my children or my children’s children look back at the trash I created, at the possessions I owned, at the chemicals I used on this earth?

Will they look back on the segregation I tolerated, the privileges I received?

Will they look back on my ignorance to my own state and sins?

Will they look back and be able to see in hindsight all my flaws?

 

They probably will.

 

God is walking us all toward a more just and whole world.  Our rates of growth vary.  Some of us walk.  Some of us run.  And some of us lie down and refuse to move.

God loves us and all of creation.  And this love comes through in our continued awakenings, openness, growth, and change.  This love comes through in discipline, in turning us around, sometimes gently and sometimes most abruptly.  God gives us vision of the end AND paths to get there.  God has compassion on us, in our becoming.  God loves us, just as we are.  AND God is calling us to lay down the sins and weights that cling so closely and to run this race set before us – with intelligence, energy, and love that covers all things!

 

Thanks be to God for working all things together for the good of all those who love God and are called to be part of God’s purposes in the world.

Thanks be to God for not giving up on us – for correcting us as a parent who loves her child and running like the father of the prodigal son, welcoming his wayward son back home with great joy and gladness.

Thanks be.

 

May we fulfill the purposes God is working in our lives.

 

 

~~~~~~~~~

 PRAYERS 

                                                                                     Psalm 126
O Lord God,
May those who sow with tears
Reap with joy.

Thomas a Kempis (Germany, 1380-1471)
Make that possible to us, O Lord, by grace, which appears impossible to us by nature.

Martin Luther (Germany, 1483-1546)
O God, we believe this life is not a state of being righteous, but rather, of growth in righteousness; not a state of being healthy, but a period of healing; not a state of being, but becoming, not a state of rest, but of exercise and activity.  We are not yet what we shall be, but we grow towards it; the process is not yet finished, but is still going on; this life is not the end, it is the way to a better.  All does not yet shine with glory; nevertheless, all is being purified.

9th century Latin Hymn
O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death’s dark shadows put to flight

Emmanuel, you have come to us.  You dwell among us.  You make all things new.
Come, O come, Emmanuel!
And hear our prayers…