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“Make Space for the Unexpected”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Jeremiah 31:1-6
Matthew 28:1-10

 

Jeremiah 31:1-6

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.

Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.
For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
in the hill country of Ephraim:
“Come, let us go up to Zion,
to the Lord our God.”

 

Matthew 28:1-10

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”


 

Even more-so than we did not see Covid-19 coming, the Disciples and all of Israel and Judea couldn’t see Jesus’ resurrection coming.

Now they foresaw his death.  In the weeks before his death, when Jesus resolved to return to Judea despite his disciples’ warnings not to return to a land so recently hostile to him, we hear Thomas resigning himself to death with Jesus:  “Let us return with him, that we may also die with him.”  The tension is rising.  The conflict is mounting.  Discomfort with Jesus’ identity and power and authority have reached their natural boiling point, and the disciples want to keep Jesus miles and miles away from it.  But Jesus returned.

Jesus returned. 

And he would not be safe.  Not at all.

 

But despite the fact that Jesus had been alluding to his resurrection… despite the fact that many truly believed him to be the Messiah… despite the fact that Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead… no one could begin to imagine what God had in store next.

Death was to be avoided at all cost.
Death marked the end.
Death had finality.
Death was the end of the movement.

And so when Jesus is crucified on a cross, for all to see, many of the disciples hide in fear.  They have given the last years of their lives following Jesus, and now Jesus has gone and gotten himself killed.  Will they be next?

And so, in classic moves of survival, they turn their gaze inward.  They hunker down and button the hatchets.  They tighten their inner circle.  They spend their days in a dark room.  They look back upon their former careers and wonder if there’s still a place for them there.  They start to worry about their next meal.  The fishing begins again…

 

Do you know what it is like to hunker down in fear?

 

And no one – no one – saw a future past that cross.

How could they?
How could they imagine a future never before seen in all the world?!
That Jesus would arise from death’s strong grip?
Flesh and blood?
Asking for a bite to eat??

No one.

Now the Israelites were a nation occupied.  They had been colonized by Rome.  They paid the emperor taxes.  They had known victory and defeat, power and exile.  But most common to their experience was uncertainty, change.  They ever faced threats of annihilation.  They built and others tore down.  Nothing seemed sure.  And the people were antsy.  Some were ready to bring on a bloody war with Rome, a war they surely would not have won.  Others played the system, buying their power with purchased Roman citizenship.  And others still tried to exercise their religious power and authority while ignoring the occupying forces (until they found ways the occupiers could carry out their will…such as in the condemnation of Jesus).  Herod had razed the holy city in order to rebuilt it, bigger and better and mightier, with Roman architecture and Roman authority.

It seemed like everyone else was pulling the strings of this nation.  And the people of Israel yearned for independence and autonomy.  They yearned for liberation and power.

But at the very least, couldn’t they just plant a fruit tree and own it long enough to eat of its fruit?  At the very least, couldn’t they reap what they sowed? 

Could they have control over their lives enough
To know the reward of their labors, their energies, their affections?
To build a house and live in it?

To this nation who has known plenty and known want… to this nation who has known both power and powerlessness… to this people who yearn for something to place their hope in, comes this prophetic word:

“Again you shall plant vineyards
on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
and shall enjoy the fruit.”

What this describes is hope.

And isn’t that what we’re grasping for now?

 

Will our mortgage companies allow us to defer payments?
Will our jobs hold out?
Will all those we love, still be here when all this passes?

Will this pass?

 

We are grasping for hope.

 

Are the efforts I’m taking enough?
Can my body overcome the virus if I catch it?
Can my family overcome it, if I spread it to them?
Will there be enough beds and staff and masks and ventilators if I need medical intervention?

And what is the world becoming?

So many are rediscovering simple joys –
writing letters and postcards,
riding bicycles,
taking long walks,
slowing down,
sitting on porches,
making music,
reading and writing poetry,
calling friends and family,
taking advantage of online tools we’ve had for years yet seldom used.

We are more aware than ever that each one affects us all, for better and for worse.  We are more aware than ever that our life and healing is bound up in our working together, whatever our differences.  We are more open to outcomes we wouldn’t have before considered.

But

Is this the world we want to live in, bound up, each in our own house?
How long can we sustain?
Will new and even designer viruses hijack life, over and over again?
Will we again know the touch of a grandchild’s hand in ours,
the loving embrace of a true friend,
the gathering of the body of Christ?

 

We need hope… hope that we will eat of the fruit trees we’ve planted… hope that we will continue to dwell in the homes in which we’ve labored and loved… hope that our diligent service will be remembered as company’s consider cuts…

Hope that our children will once again gather together to learn and to play… hope that love for neighbor won’t be eclipsed by fear of neighbor… hope that we may once again gather to worship and serve in the community of Forest Hill…

 

It is easy to see our fears.  We practically manifest them as we ruminate on all the ways we might meet our demise or experience loss and pain.  It is easy to worry.  There are way too many things out of our control right now.  It is easy to despair….when we cannot see a path forward.

 

The people of Israel who have followed Jesus from shore to shore, see their hope dying on the cross with Jesus that day.

The disciples who have seen Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah, now fear their own deaths.

Mary, the Mother of Jesus, breathes her last goodbye to her beloved son.

 

But JESUS returns. 

Jesus comes back.

 

When we could not see any hope, our Lord overcame the grizzly bonds of death and blew us all away, in life after death! 

 

Friends, I do not know your particular fears in this time.  I do not know your particular worries.  I do not know how the waters rage around you.

But I do feel the waters rising.  I know the gravity of fear.  I have known the sting of loss.

 

But JESUS returns.  Our Lord God popped the top clear off of our greatest imaginings and made hope where there was no hope, made life where there was death, made a future of hope where there was once despair. 

 

Let us leave room for the unexpected.
Let us open ourselves to the unimaginable.

Is there room in your mind for a new uncovering of Truth?

Is there room in your heart for God’s expansive love of neighbor…and stranger?

Is there room in your day for meeting someone new.

 

A gift of this dreadful pandemic is the shaking up of our days.  Because it gives us all a chance to re-evaluate and to decide WHAT is important.

 

Without openness,
Without space,
Without humility,
Without intention,
We can miss God’s resurrection power,
God’s word of HOPE spoken over our lives, and all creation.

 

We serve the crucified, yet Risen Christ,
the Christ who returned.

Whatever your despair, make room for the resurrection power of God. 

Make room for hope

“Do You Hear God’s Whisper?”

Reverend Katherine Todd
Matthew 4:12-23
Isaiah 9:1-4

 

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
light has dawned.”

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

 

Isaiah 9:1-4

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation,
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden,
and the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.


 

 

In our passage today from Isaiah, I recognize this beautiful proclamation that those who have walked in darkness have seen a great light, but what I’d never before noticed was the sentence just before:

But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

 

I have poured over commentaries and Biblical scholarship on this verse, because this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” is unique.  In fact the only other time it occurs in scripture is in Matthew, the other scripture we read today, where the apostle is quoting this very verse from Isaiah.

So what does it mean, “Galilee of the nations.”

 

Some look to the state of that area of Israel during Isaiah’s lifetime.  The Assyrian empire had overrun much of Naphtali & Zebulun, so it is reasoned that Isaiah is foretelling of a time in which this area, overrun & disgraced, will become glorious.

But this phrase, “Galilee of the nations” harkens to other phrases like “city on a hill” and “light of the world.”  Usually we think of Jerusalem specifically or Israel generally as being called to be this light for the nations.  So why here is Galilee being lifted up specifically as “of the nations”?

Is it because Galilee had been so overrun by people of other nations?

It is because Galilee itself will become this light to the nations?

 

Scholars are not in agreement about how to interpret this phrase.

But I find it noteworthy that wherever Jesus goes, there is transformation.

 

This remote area of Israel, not firmly secured, overtaken is worthy of mention because it becomes the land of hope.  It becomes the place from which those who have lived in deep darkness will find a great light.

 

A number of years ago several books came out by Bruce Wilkinson.  In them he walks the reader through more obscure texts of the Bible and opens them in a real and personal way.  You may be familiar with his most famous of these books, “The Prayer of Jabez.”

Well, I found his book, “The Dream Giver,” most encouraging.  In it he describes a character who is given a dream by God and allows us to accompany them on their journey of faith and doubt, support and resistance, hope and fulfillment.  What struck me most was that the character, upon reaching the promised land of his dream, is distressed by the terrible shape in which he finds the place.  While his dream had shown a city shining and bright, he instead finds a city dingy and dirty.

He is discouraged.  This land does not look like the promised land of his dreams.  But the author’s point is that dream, the vision, is of what God is doing THROUGH the character.  In other words, the city looks dingy & dirty now because it has not yet been touched by the gifts and vision of this person.  The place isn’t already brilliant.  Rather, the character will make this place brilliant.

 

And this passage from Isaiah paints much the same picture.  Isaiah is hailing Galilee as a city of the nations, but it isn’t anything great.  In fact it is rather despised.  But because of Christ, that whole land where Jesus spends most of his time ministering will become bright and shining, a land of hope and joy and freedom!

 

Christ has a way of transforming things.

Christ has a way of transforming us.

 

This is so very hopeful, because it means that indeed life and hope and joy and freedom can come into the most devastated. 

What are those places today?

What are those places in this city?

Can you name the neighborhoods in which you hesitate to go?

…to drive through?

…neighborhoods where the need outweighs the means,

…where loss is a daily experience?

 

So what if, a prophet today lifted one of those placed up, as a light to the nations, as a road to hope, as a place of hope and transformation.  Would you be amazed? 

Or if the outback of Australia, ravaged by fires, was lifted up as a verdant land, flowing with milk and honey…, would you be amazed? 

 

What situations has God laid on your heart?

What people has God placed on your heart?

What skill has God given you?

What connections has God provided you?

 

Because Christ lives in us, God is transforming the world still.  Today.  Through you.

That even the most devastated, desperate, fearful places may become rivers of hope and refreshing, places of justice and healing.

 

Can you imagine?

 

Jesus is still healing hearts, even those most devastated.

God is still causing people to dream dreams.

God is still planting vision in the heart of people everywhere.

Jesus is still transforming the world,

even and especially in all the most broken and ravaged places.

 

Do you hear God’s whisper?

“Blind Sight”

Rev. Katherine Todd
1 Kings 17:1-16
Luke 4:16-30

 

1 Kings 17:1-16

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

 Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.

 

Luke 4:16-30

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.


 

I love this passage about Jesus in the synagogue at his home town.  I love the passage he reads from Isaiah.  That passage has always resonated with me.

But this passage is loaded.  One minute Jesus is reading from the scroll of Isaiah and the next he is evading an angry mob of the villagers he grew up with, who are leading him out of town and to the edge of the cliff, that they might hurl him off it.

This is serious stuff.

 

What made them so angry?  Jesus has said so little.

But has he?

 

First off, after reading the part of Isaiah about how God’s Spirit is upon him to do all these good things, Jesus boldly says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled, in your hearing.”  Jesus is essentially claiming God’s power and presence with him to do good works among them.  Jesus is speaking the truth.

Everywhere else, folks are saying as much about him.  Everywhere he goes, folks are amazed at God’s presence in him, God’s works through him, God’s Word spoken to them.  But here, the crowd is harder to impress.  Still, at first, they are enjoying his words and feeling quite pleased.  But only a sentence or two more, and the whole dynamic shifts.

And why?  Jesus’ own explanation is that a prophet is not accepted in his hometown.

And why is that?

I think it’s because we think we know the person.  We think we have them figured out.  There is not mystery.  There is no wonder.  We know who their parents are.  We know all their siblings.  We’ve been to their house.  What’s there to get so excited about?!?

 

Well, perhaps Jesus’ words so far wouldn’t have gotten him killed.  Perhaps they would have.  He’s definitely claiming to be a prophet, at the very least.  But it doesn’t sound blasphemous to them, as it would in later days.  No, I think what got this crowd all riled up is in the words that come next.  Jesus says,

“But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

Here, Jesus alludes to two Old Testament stories.  These are scriptures the people would have known well.  Most likely these Israelite listeners would have heard them and wondered at God’s mighty works through this most famous prophet Elijah.  But Jesus points to another thread in these stories:  the fact that the beneficiaries of God’s mighty acts were all OUTSIDE the nation of Israel, people from Lebanon and Syria.

The widow of Sidon (current-day Lebanon) and the leper from Syria are the beneficiaries of God’s mighty acts here through Elijah, not any of the many lepers or widows from among the people of Israel.  Jesus hones in on this point.  And without words, the offense is palpable.  Jesus seems to directly point out the lack of faith of the people of Israel, and particularly his own hometown.  Instead Jesus is lifting up outsiders as models of faith.

The author of Hebrews has defined faith as,

“the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

 

These hometown neighbors have known Jesus, his whole life.  They think they know him.   And so they have no faith.   And their lack of faith means that Jesus cannot perform any acts or wonders among them.  They are not in a position to believe or receive the working of God, standing in their midst.  And all because they think they see.  They think they know. 

 

Just as with Elijah, others are benefitting from God’s mighty works, because they have come in hope and faith.  They have come open.  They have come seeking.

And GOD meets them.

 

We are a community of faith.  We come from many different walks of life.  We come from different backgrounds and faith experiences.  Some of us are brand new to this place.  Others of us have been here since we were born.

But we all come to faith,

We all come to community,

We all come to church,

With our set of baggage.

 

Many of us have “been there, done that” so much, that we are sure we can predict an outcome with a fair amount of certainty.

But do we also realize that our predictions,

Can seal our fate?

Do we also realize that our foresight,

Can restrict our outcomes.

Do we also realize that our SEEING,

Can be our blindness?

 

In life, the ability to predict outcomes can protect us from many things.  It has in fact probably kept us alive until this point.

But reducing our lives of faith to natural, human outcomes completely eliminates God from the mix.  Assessing the situation using the facts and circumstances we can see, leaves out the possibility of what GOD may do

THERE IS ALWAYS MORE TO THINGS THAN WE CAN SEE.

 

So will we be those

Who stand in the presence of the living God

Closed, and certain, and offended?

 

Or will we be like the Lebanese woman and Syrian man,

Seeking

Open

Watching

Waiting

Hoping for God.

 

Can we be a people, ever mindful that there is more to this life than we can see

Ever mindful that there is more to God than we can know

Ever mindful that there is more going on that we can perceive…

 

And will we be a people hoping and expecting, watching and waiting for God to show up?

And shake things up

And leave us amazed?

…In our lives

And in this place?

 

When the voice of God calls to us,

As it did through Elijah to that Lebanese widow gathering sticks to cook her final meal,

     Will we have ears to hear?

Will we dare to hope?

Will we take the leap of faith?

 

Who will we be?