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“Vision Unimpaired”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Isaiah 40:27-31
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

 

Isaiah 40:27-31

Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.

 

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

 

Can you imagine a life like Moses’?

 

The different chapters hardly seem like they should hold together in one person’s story!

He is born to a Hebrew family, amid genocide – the killing of all the Hebrew baby boys by the Egyptian government at Pharaoh’s command.  He is finally abandoned into a carefully lined basket left in the bullrushes along the side of the Nile, his sister left to keep watch, for he has become too big and loud to keep quiet and hidden.

Moses is then found by one of Pharaoh’s own daughters.  There he gets his name “Moses” – as one drawn out of water.  He is first raised by his own family – as his sister quickly offers her family as one to care for the boy while he nurses and is young, and the princess accepts.

Then he moves in the palatial grounds where he grows up among the Egyptian elite, as one of them, the princess’s adopted son.

But this time reaches its abrupt ending, as he loses his temper with an Egyptian task-master, beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses is enraged at the injustice, rises up, and kills the Egyptian.  And for this he knows he must flee.  And so he does.  He flees into the wilderness.

And it is there that he finds Herders and Farmers.  And he finds a woman whom he marries as his wife.  And there he lives a good long time.

…until he sees that bush on fire – on fire yet not burning up!

There is where GOD speaks to him.

There is where GOD calls him back to Egypt – to be used by God to set the Hebrews free.

 

And so this man…

born of a Hebrew slave,
narrowly escaping infant death by adoption into Pharaoh’s own household,
enraged by the mistreatment of his people, the Hebrews, he kills an abuse and must flee.

This Hebrew, raised an Egyptian, murderer of an Egyptian slave-master over the Hebrews, then flees these disparate parts of his past and takes refuge in the wilderness, tending flocks, starting a family.

He’s become a family man, a quiet man, an invisible man, an immigrant, a refugee…
Until GOD calls him back,
back to his past and everything stirring, everything enraging, everything unjust and evil.

GOD calls him back IN ORDER TO lead the Hebrew people OUT, out to life and freedom and a future of hope.

 

And so this Hebrew, Egyptian, Murderer, Immigrant, Refugee, Husband…

is CALLED by God. 

 

This man –
already having lived decades of three different lives entirely –
is called to a new chapter:
one of miracles, signs, terrible wonders, great evil, and great deliverance.

 

And if that doesn’t already sound like enough, he is THEN called to lead the people AFTER their deliverance – another whole skill-set ENTIRELY.  He must seek God’s face for the people.  He must convey God’s Words to the people.  He must lead the people in their long, arduous journey through the wilderness.

He faces complaining.
He faces mutiny.
He faces idolatry.
He faces utter faithlessness.
He faces disobedience.
He faces disputes.
He faces good intentions and frail follow-through.

He is now in the role of pastor, president, interceder, judge, and navigator.

 

-A Hebrew-born, Egyptian raced, righteously indignant murdering, Immigrant, Refugee, Husband, Prophet, Diplomat, Freedom Fighter, Navigator, Interceder, Spiritual Guide, President, Pastor, and Judge-  

Ughhhhhh.

It makes me tired thinking about it.
It makes me tired saying it.

How about you?

 

And yet,
in Deuteronomy 34,
to the end of his life,
Moses’ vision is unimpaired.  His vigor has not waned… to the end. 

 

Wow

 

Judging by Moses’ outrage at the merciless, Egyptian slave-master,…

Given Moses’ fury when returning from long communion with God on the mountain – to break the stone tablets of the word,…

Judging by Moses’ slamming of the stick upon the rock – in anger at the faithless, entitled, short-sited, ungrateful complaining of the people who wanted water.  Right.  Then…

I’m guessing Moses was a passionate man.

I’m guessing he had two settings – on and off.  When he was in the wilderness, he could turn it off.  We don’t have any stories of him fighting off nomads or raiders.  But when in the middle of the cultural-political-enslaving-exploiting-murderous drama, in which he was raised and from which he had been spared, he could not turn it off.  His sense of justice was acute.  His anger would swell.  And when he watched as the people swiftly forgot God’s faithfulness, deliverance, signs, and wonders – no wonder, he lost his cool.  He felt things deeply.  He had a keen sense of right and wrong.

 

And speaking from experience, this is a hard road to walk.  To open ones eyes to injustice; to be present to the oppressed, the violated, the exploited; to confront fear-filled and death-dealing regimes of power IS EXHAUSTING.

To deliver, to lead, to teach, to guide…  To console and exhort, to seek God’s face and speak God’s words…  and yet be met with such short God-memory, such flighty faithfulness, and such ungrateful demand is outrageous.  Moses knows this bad behavior won’t fly with God, and Moses can hardly contain himself.  He breaks things.  He hits things…sometimes.  And yet he implores God to give them yet one more chance…again and again.

It is amazing.  Crazy amazing.

 

I am not endorsing Moses’ break-downs.  I am not excusing them.  God didn’t.

It’s because of his outburst smacking that rock with his stick – from which water gushed onto the complaining people – that he is not allowed to enter into the promised land.  He only sees it with his eyes…his eyes which have not diminished, which have not become impaired.  He gets to SEE the promised land, but he doesn’t get to enter.

 

No Moses’ bad behavior – his murder, his outbursts – hitting and breaking things – none of this was okay.

But if we, for even a minute, imagine the road he walked, I imagine few – if any – of us could have done as well!  Could we have walked as long or as far?  Could we have led for so long, amid such stress and turmoil, conflict and complaining?  Could we have worked until we passed – not retiring?  Could we have worn so many different hats?  Could we have returned to the land of our oppression & anger & fear, in order that others might be set free?  Could we have confronted the mightiest power of the land?  Could we have stood, our arms raised in obedience, in the face of the in-coming Eyptian army, while the people walk across a lake-bottom by foot, chased by horses and chariots?

 

Moses did all these things and far more.  These are only the stories that have reached us.
And yet when he died, he was still full of vigor, his vision unimpaired. 

 

And I wonder, is this the kind of eternal life – quality of life – that God gives? 

Could it be that – as we obey, as we press in, as we face our fears – that God gives us wisdom and unimagined strength?

Could it be that service to God is the best kind of life we can have?

 

Despite all that stress and wear, Moses remained full of vigor. 
By reports in fact, he shined.  He shone with the light of God – for he spent time, face to face with God – and so he glowed. 

 

Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, scripture proclaims.
They shall mount up with wings, as eagles.
They shall run and not grow weary.
They shall walk and not faint.

They shall walk and not faint. 

 

May WE be so bold,

So attentive,

So obedient,

So faithful,

So returning to God,

So taking refuge in God,

That WE TOO GLOW.

 

May WE TOO know

That eternal life – that quality of life
that makes life worth living
that is the nectar and sweetness of life.  

 

Here I am, Lord. 

Is it I, Lord? 

 

 

 

 

 

PRAYER                                                                       (Ted Loder)

Gentle me,
Holy One,
into an unclenched momento
a deep breath,
a letting go
of heavy experiences,
of dead certainties,

that,
softened by the silence,
surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
I may be found by wholeness,
upheld by the unfathomable,
entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy

that is you.

                                                                                    (Tomas H. Tellez, Nicaragua)

Lord, free us from falling into the sin of believing that the slavery in Egypt is better than the struggles in the desert.

                                                                                    (Frederick Buechner, adapted)

Lord Jesus Christ, help us not to fall in love with the night that covers us but through the darkness to watch for you as well as to work for you; to dream and hunger in the dark for the light of you.  Help us to know that the madness of God is saner than men and that nothing that God has wrought in this world was ever possible.

Give us back the great hope again that the future is yours, that not ever the world can hide you from us forever, that at the end the One who came will come back in power to work joy in us stronger even than death.

(Psalm 19, 13-17)

Turn, O Lord! How long?  Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let your favor, O God, be upon us, and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!

  (Daniel J. McGill)
Bless, O God, my enemies with sunshine.
Upon their crops come shining.
May green grass grow in their meadows,
Sweet crops within their fields;
Send rain upon their soil,
Fill their children with joy,
Bless their grandparents with peace.
May every woman of them know delight;
May ever man of them be loved.
May the birds of their air never hear bombs;
May their rivers run clean, their air smell sweet in the morning.

May all things with life be blessed!
For if my enemy is not blessed,
How can I, O Lord, be blessed?
How can I?
For earth shall cry if they shall weep,
And I shall cry if she is hurt.

 

 

Sending                                   (Numbers 6:22-26)

22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 23 Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,

24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

 

“The Church of God, for Today”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 20:1-20
Matthew 21:33-46

 

Exodus 20:1-20

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

 

 

Matthew 21:33-46

“Listen to another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower. Then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the harvest time had come, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his produce. But the tenants seized his slaves and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other slaves, more than the first; and they treated them in the same way. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and get his inheritance.’ So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures:

‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord’s doing,
and it is amazing in our eyes’?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them. They wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.

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It strikes me that the 10 Commandments are getting a lot less air-time than they used to.  When I was a child, they were one of the first things you learned in Sunday School.  But as we are all aware, we live in a different time and culture today.  Our children and their children are not getting the same Christian Education.

I am grateful that some of this is our realization that indoctrination is not the end-all, be-all.  We in fact want our children and our children’s children to come to know and love and the Lord God, with all their hearts and souls and minds and strengths…  And this does not come by rote.  It does not come intrinsically by Sunday School attendance.  It does not come by perfect church attendance.  It does not come by memorizing all the rules.  It does not even necessarily come from following all the rules.

 

Loving and knowing God simply cannot be educated into a person.  Being loved by God cannot be earned or deserved.  And the journey of faith is a journey of the heart, a journey of living.

 

But the education piece was nonetheless valuable – invaluable in fact.  We were learning more about God by studying God’s word, memorizing those words, and discussing them in Bible Studies and Sunday School classes.  We were learning from one another, as we sought God’s face together in church.  And much of these gems of Christian life are no longer part of the next generations’ experiences.

 

We mourn this loss in the church.

We can wistfully look back on the good-ole-days.

 

As for me, I miss the long table full of food – on church potluck evenings!  I miss playing out in the church yard, while my parents had choir rehearsal.  I miss the nursery – the nursery! – where there were always cheerios to be had, building blocks to stack, and comrades to play with and arm wrestle.

I miss youth group!  I miss the ridiculous games we played.  I miss our trips to Montreat Conference Center.  I miss our Habitat builds.  I miss the lock-ins…

I miss my college fellowship group.  I miss “Walk to Emmaeus,” or “Chrysalis,” an intensive faith formation weekend for disciples and church leaders.  I miss fall retreats.  I miss the holiday dances…

 

But there have also been gains:

  • we now understand that dressing to the nines is not a pre-requisite of holiness and respect,
  • we now know that church is meant to bolster a LIFE of faith (and not be the end-all, in and of itself),
  • we now accept that there are a myriad of ways to serve God – both inside and outside the  church,
  • we are much more attuned to listen to God’s voice in our everyday – rather than expecting our entire spiritual nourishment to come on a Sunday morning,
  • we have stopped shaming those who drink on Sundays,
  • we have stopped shaming those who must work on Sundays,
  • we’ve stopped forbidding folks from playing cards on Sundays,
  • we’ve mostly stopped judging people for having tattoos,
  • many have stopped shaming our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,
  • women have been accepted into more of the leadership of the church – and less cloistered to the halls of the “Presbyterian Women” and other alternative, segregated, branches of leadership,
  • we have begun to open ourselves to learn about God from folks who do not look like us, share our background, or meet our own educational status,
  • persons of varied colors and races are more able to gather in one place to worship God,
  • we have opened to new experiences of worship,
  • we have allowed greater diversity of faith expression – in music and liturgy and practice…
  • Pastors are no longer living in manses, where they were expected to be at everyone’s beck and call.
  • Pastors are setting aside and guarding time with their families and with their God – with intentionality – recognizing that the former ways of neglecting family and self are lacking in God’s faithfulness and love to family and self.

 

There have been both loss AND gains.

 

The new generations have begun to question things that were never questioned before.  They cringe to tell children the story of Noah’s ark – since most creatures and people were simply wiped off the face of the earth, drowned by God.

They are concerned by stories of a vengeful God.

They do not know what to make of God’s commands to kill all the Gentile unbelievers off the promised land.

They don’t know what to make of a “Father” God who sends his son to be killed, sacrificed!

And many are concerned about how modern day Israel is interfacing with the Palestinians and their geographic neighbors.

 

They don’t want to proceed with blind faith.

They don’t want to walk with blinders on.

They don’t want abject obedience – without thoughtfulness and mindfulness.

 

And I must say, that frankly, I respect this authenticity, this honesty, this courageous truthfulness.

I respect all who choose to press into the harder questions of faith.

I respect those who choose to employ the brain God gave them – trusting God to lead them to truth.

I respect those who do not simply lean on conventional wisdom, but who investigate things for themselves and do their homework.

 

It is respectable.

 

But is also means we don’t have the former full-load of attendees in worship.

It means folks are not just giving money to the church, but also to beautiful, new non-profits.

It means folks are not always present on Sunday, because they are finding spiritual nourishment in a variety of places.

 

Again, we have gains and losses.

As a people, we are at once growing and shrinking – learning and regressing.

 

And what of these 10 Commandments?

They do not have the following they used to.  Or at least folks do not study and memorize them as often.  And I do think that is a loss.  Many outside our walls (and some of you within them) dismiss the Old Testament altogether.  The God portrayed there seems vengeful and petty, re-active and harsh, unforgiving and playing favorites.

But the Old and New Testaments – while different – are not meant to tell two different stories.  Rather, they tell one story.  And when we hold that story as one whole, we can begin to better understand the difficult parts of the Old Testament.

We believe that Christ is the greatest revelation of God!  And so through the lense of Jesus Christ, we are to re-visit these Old Testament stories, these texts.  And we are to understand them from the perspective of this greatest revelation of God – the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!

And so we can begin to piece together God’s purposes.  We begin to piece together God’s heart.  We begin to understand that these rules – the 10 Commandments – are not legalistic.  Rather, they are for the purpose of blessing.

Over and over, God explains why – that you may be blessed, that you may live long in the land God is giving you, that you may not sin and endure those consequences but rather obey and experience God’s steadfast love – from generation to generation to come.

 

Just as our earthly parents wish to guide us in goodness that our lives may be full of happiness and spared of pain, our heavenly Father wishes to guide us in living lives of righteousness – that we might not miss out on the goodness and blessing God intends for us!

How do you feel when your child just won’t obey?
…when they fight your best intentions,
…when they mistrust you and deliberately rebel – thinking they’ll miss out on the best by being obedient…

It’s heart-breaking, is it not?

We watch as they make tragic, life-diminishing, enslaving, harmful, and hurtful choices.

 

And God’s heart too breaksbreaks for us all.
For we have all gone astray.
We have all doubted God’s goodness and heart.
We have doubted God’s future of hope – both for ourselves and for our congregation. 

 

But what would happen if we learn these rules?
What would happen if we study the scriptures?
What would happen if we choose to believe God’s Word over our own fears and wistful feelings of loss?

What would happen?

 

Might we finally experience,
For ourselves,
God’s mighty provision,
The blessings of obedience,
The relief of trust – replacing doubt,
The assurance of faith?  …in this, our journey with God?

 

For everything there is a time and a season. 

We are not in the same season as the one that built our beautiful sanctuary.

We do not have the same folks who gave of all their free-time to decorate and maintain and plan and serve in this place.

We do not have a host of members, pledging money and volunteering their free time.

We do not have a full-time pastor, who is always available.

 

But what is God’s calling to us, in THIS season?

Could it be that we are called for such a time as this??…

  • Might we be a place where the disillusioned can come to God honestly, and without pretense?
  • Might we be a place where the disconnected can experience the steadfast and unconditional love of the Father?
  • Might we be a place where the discouraged, hear a word of encouragement and find strength for their journeys?
  • Might we be a place where the angry can come as they are, in honesty, and be heard and validated?
  • Might we be a place where the hopeless begin to hope again?
  • Might we be a place where the seeking can find?
  • Might we be a place where truth is spoken, and freedom is found?
  • Might we be a place where sin is recognized and released?
  • Might we be a place of forgiveness, seventy-seven times?
  • Might we be a place with our eyes SET on the goal – the heavenly calling of Christ?
  • Might we be a place that does not get bogged down in the weeds, but keeps our gaze onward?
  • Might we be a place where we can agree to disagree – where each one is valued because God made them, and not because they hold to all of our beliefs and value systems?
  • Might we be a place where grace is given and boundaries are set – where we find undeserved blessing, while also fiercely protecting all that is sacred and holy among us?
  • Might we be a place where folks can explore their scary questions of faith -without judgement or condemnation, but with encouragement and support?
  • Might we be a place where folks are not valued and sized up by how often they attend, how much they give, or how much they volunteer.
  • Might we be a place where each persons journey and choices are respected – while we each seek to listen for and be faithful to God’s invitation to press in, step up, take responsibility?
  • Might we be a place where the Spirit of the Living God is mightily felt and swiftly obeyed?
  • Might we be a place where God’s unfathomable, unconditional, undeserved love is experienced and shared?

 

Might we be a place where folks

encounter

 

…the Living God?!?!

 

 

“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?