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“Gratitude – Bringing Truth into Focus”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Psalm 78:1-16
Exodus 17:1-7

 

Psalm 78:1-16

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
incline your ears to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in a parable;
I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known,
that our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their children;
we will tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
and the wonders that he has done.

He established a decree in Jacob,
and appointed a law in Israel,
which he commanded our ancestors
to teach to their children;
that the next generation might know them,
the children yet unborn,
and rise up and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God,
and not forget the works of God,
but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their ancestors,
a stubborn and rebellious generation,
a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.

The Ephraimites, armed with[a] the bow,
turned back on the day of battle.
They did not keep God’s covenant,
but refused to walk according to his law.
They forgot what he had done,
and the miracles that he had shown them.
In the sight of their ancestors he worked marvels
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
In the daytime he led them with a cloud,
and all night long with a fiery light.
He split rocks open in the wilderness,
and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
He made streams come out of the rock,
and caused waters to flow down like rivers.

 

Exodus 17:1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

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

 

 

We have been following the story of the Israelites, from Jacob to Moses this summer, and it is ever so striking how faithless the people, these chosen ones, God’s people, seem to be.  Is it any wonder they also experience God’s wrath – as they, who have been blessed so abundantly, stray so very far from God’s ways and God’s heart?!

Finally, under Moses’ leadership, the nation has been liberated from the heavy hand of Egypt, but despite having witnessed God’s judgement on Egypt in sign and wonder and heart-break; despite having narrowly escaped the full military power of Egypt, crossing the very Red Sea on foot, while the waters ceased their flow on both sides of them; despite receiving manna in the morning and quail in the evening the people still doubt God.  The people still complain.  The people still fear for their well-being.  They fear they will not have…food and pleasure and provision.

Can you believe it? 
Would you be changed if you’d walked through a corridor of water, held back by the hand of God, saving your life in the nick of time?
Would you be changed if you were rescued out of slavery?!

It is easy to point the finger.

 

And yet,…
What about you?
What about me?

 

As for myself, I was blessed to be raised in a family of God-fearing parents.  I was sheltered from many a storm and heartache because of that.

And each summer, though my parents could not afford anything extra, my church gave me and each of my siblings scholarships to attend the area Presbyterian Camp, where I came alive!  It was there in my final summer, that I felt God’s call to ministry.

And most every summer my church or my family would make their way to Montreat Conference Center, in the mountains of North Carolina.  There we’d rock hop, explore old micah mines, hike, sing, and wade in the cold crisp mountain stream.  The camping option there always gave us a way in, even though the hotel was out of reach.  And to this day, Montreat is where my heart feels home.

When my parents split up and my heart felt it was splitting in two, my youth minister showed me great love, calling me every single morning, before school, to pray with me.  She knew I needed the support.  And she led us in Bible Study, which I was really finding delicious, for the first time.  She taught us that it wasn’t about religion at all but about relationship, a relationship with God, and that made all the difference.

And I was blessed to attend Presbyterian College, where I got to learn from amazing professors in my fields, of religion, philosophy, and music.  There, I got to ask all the hard questions, put my faith on the line, come to end of myself, and find that God was still the most real thing in all the world to me.

A year later I got to attend Union Presbyterian Seminary and explore my faith further – hoping to find all the answers but rather uncovering more and more questions.  Faith would have to grow or fade.  And again I would have the chance to face the demons in our spiritual closets, to face difficult scripture passages, and to continue on my slow journey of trusting God in the process of my life.

And though I’d felt called to ministry at 16, I couldn’t see the path forward at the time.  I was deeply shy, introspective, introverted, soft-spoken.  I couldn’t see how I could be used by God for such work.  I thought being gregarious and funny, outgoing and extraverted were all necessary for the job.  But I trusted that if God called me, God would equip me.  And twenty years from the time of my calling, I was ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA) at Camp Hanover.  Despite many doubts, much time, unforeseen obstacles, and test after test after examination, God fulfilled this call in my life.  What a tremendous gift!

 

Now, most often when I recall my childhood, I will recall how I felt bullied most all the time.  I recall being excluded by church “friends” from events and conversation.  I recall being looked down on as a scrawny kid, the slowest in my age group on swim team.  I recall playing softball and being sometimes lovingly and sometimes meanly mocked for my “positive” way of encouraging each player up at bat.

I recall how my family never had new things.  We never had new school supplies or clothes.  We frequently window shopped – which meant looking and not buying.  And if we did buy, it was at the discount Sears store, but most often we merely window shopped,…there.  I recall our stopping at the day-old bakery to buy almost-gone goodies – where you were in a race with time to eat it before it molded.  I still can recall the taste of moldy powdered doughnuts!  I recall the way my Mom made a little last a long, long way  – cutting mold off cheese, making milk from powder, and eating week-old leftovers.

I recall my hatred of sixth grade when I was bused to a magnet school for music – two hours there, two hours back – only to be a magnet for other’s abuse.  I recall how the Assistant Principal at my middle school called me into her office one day to ask if I was okay.  I was shocked that she could see how very depressed I was.  Ostracized by my peers, I had learned to make friends with the friend-less, but I felt very alone.

And I can go on and on.

 

These experiences of pain and suffering make their indelible mark, do they not? 

And yet, through-out all the food-stretching, I saw my mom make jam & the best cookies on the planet.  We enjoyed dollar movies at the discount movie theater and my Mom would carry in all kinds of snacks for us to enjoy – smuggled in, in a baby diaper bag (long after diapers were a things of the past!).

Through-out all the school isolation, I did know friendship.  I had a best friend in 1st grade, till she moved away.  I had a best friend in 2nd and 3rd, until a new student convinced her that it was not okay for her, a black girl, to hang with me, a white girl.  And in late middle school, a new girl transferred to the school who was already “pre-engaged” to a high schooler.  It seemed she had done all the forbidden things, as she was from the countryside where it seemed folks had nothing else to do but drink and make out.  So she started out at our school as a pariah, but she became my friend.  And in high school, I finally made the best friend I’d ever had:  Jane Trexler.  She lived in my neighborhood & was the opposite of me.  I was invisible.  She was popular.  I was shy.  She was student body president.  I was skin and bones.  She looked lovely and mature.  And we walked – walked around our neighborhood – we shared life and faith and friendship.

I did find my way. 

I knew friendship. 

I had food to eat. 

I had shelter. 

 

I was blessed. 

 

What about you?
When you look back, what do you recall?

 

It is easiest to recall the pain.  It is easiest to recall the injustice, the unfairness, the times we’ve felt slighted and hurt.  That is natural.

 

But do we also recall the times we are blown away by God – like when my youth minister called me every morning at 6:30 am, just to pray with me?

Do we recall when we are surprised by God – like when my family went to the state fair and a church friend happened to show up, giving us free tickets?!

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters that the befall us – like when the Presbyterian Board of Pensions helped me pay unexpected medical bills?

Do we recall when God rescues us from the disasters we may bring on ourselves – like when God woke me up from my slumber and led me out of a marriage where I endured continual emotional abuse and was slowly dying to my true self?

 

Our God is alive.
Our God is moving.
God is showing up for each of us, in ways big and small.

But if we do not consciously REMEMBER this stories, TELL these stories, RECALL these stories…we forget.  We become lost at sea – terrified by the next dark cloud up ahead.

THESE moments of God’s mighty provision, God’s mighty rescue, God’s mighty presence and power are touchstones – they are grounding, they are re-orienting, they put things into perspective, they bring the truth into focus.

 

If I only focus on the bad things I have endured, I have a big bone to pick with God.  WHY did I have to endure such bullying, such ostracizing, such loneliness?  WHY did I have to endure scarcity and want?  WHY did I have to go through the breaking up of my family?

BUT when I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I know God is with me.  God’s hands are present – in comfort, in manna and quail, in prayer, in friendship, in growth, in meaning, in calling, in overcoming, in drawing me near!  When I choose to remember God’s acts through-out my life, I see how very blessed I am.  I see that God had the past, and that I can trust God for whatever may lie ahead. 

 

REMEMBERING grounds us.
REMEMBERING sheds light on the truth.
REMEMBERING helps us not loose our way, through the stormy seas of life.

 

Like the Israelites, we too have been mightily blessed, mightily rescued, mightily known, mightily loved and called.  But just like the Israelites, unless we choose to recall God’s mighty acts, we too become ungrateful, entitled, fearful, demanding,…lost.

 

We must choose remembrance.

We must choose to share.

We must choose to recall.

 

That’s what these gratitude stories have been about.  For it is in building a spiritual practice of gratitude, that we remember and give thanks.  And these are the stories that remind us who we are and whose we are. 

 

May we be a people,
Chosen and beloved
Who remember and share,
The mighty acts of God.

 

 

 

 

 

“You Are Light”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Matthew 5:1-16
Isaiah 49:1-7

 

Matthew 5:1-16

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Isaiah 49:1-7

Listen to me, O coastlands,
pay attention, you peoples from far away!
The Lord called me before I was born,
while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword,
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my cause is with the Lord,
and my reward with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
who formed me in the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him,
and that Israel might be gathered to him,
for I am honored in the sight of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says,
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Thus says the Lord,
the Redeemer of Israel and his Holy One,
to one deeply despised, abhorred by the nations,
the slave of rulers,
“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”


 

Isaiah is a book full of so many things.  But most often I am drawn to passages in Isaiah.  God’s commitment to justice and healing alongside God’s discipline and compassion is moving.  I get a real feel for God’s heart for the people.

The prophet has been addressing the people of Israel in their exile in Babylon.  They are a people fractured.  Hardly set-apart, they are rather smooshed in between the people and gods of a foreign land.  Their whole rhythm of life and faith has been de-railed.  Their culture and heritage is in question as some start to assimilate, others hold to their old ways rigidly, some become opportunists, others writhe in their anger and angst, and others still wither away in despair and depression.  We all respond differently to having our entire lives and worldviews uprooted, and they were no different.

So Isaiah is speaking to a people that run the gamut of emotion.  And their faith – very rooted in custom and ritual, holy sites and holy days – has lost its center.  Some are questioning everything.  Some believe God has turned on and rejected them.  The landscape of feeling and faith is messy, and Isaiah is calling them back to a God who has never forsaken or stopped loving them.  Isaiah is calling them to trust that their lives are not simply at the mercy of whomever has the mightiest army of the day, but that God is working and moving through every event.

And his message is a hard sell.

 

But he is calling them back to trust.

 

And the verses we read today mark a significant change.  Because in this chapter, Isaiah shifts from addressing the people of Israel to addressing the wider community:

“Listen you peoples from far away…” 

Isaiah goes on to speak as a representative of the people of Israel.  He describes how God has called the people from before they were even born and how God has made their mouths like a sharpened sword and their lives like a polished arrow.

Israel

This nation that has been decimated, divided, driven into exile and slavery…  This nation is a polished arrow?  This nation’s words a sharpened sword?

They hardly feel like a mighty weapon.

They feel rather pitiful.

But Isaiah is inviting them to widen their gaze.

 

If they look only on their own misfortunes and feeling of disorientation, estrangement, and dispossession, they feel rather pathetic.  Some would say they have lost the love of God altogether to be experiencing this misfortune.  They feel like they’ve failed, like everything has been in vain.  But Isaiah is inviting them to see how their lives interface with the lives of the nations.  God did not call them and prepare them just for their own people’s sake.  God’s instructions to be set apart was not because God loved them and hated others.  God indeed loved them!  But God also loved the world, and had a plan for the people of Israel, that they might become the Light of God to the world!

God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

 

While they are focused on their own misfortunes, they are missing the entire point, because God’s will is still playing out.  God is still on the throne.  God is still working their lives for good.  And God has much higher work for this war-torn nation:  they are to bring light and salvation to the entire world! 

Isaiah invites them to widen their gaze.  The prophet invites them to trust that even this misfortune is within God’s loving hands, and that even though they feel defeated, God is in fact being glorified through them – in all the earth!

Isaiah presents a shocking re-frame of all their suffering, all their angst and pain.  For all their feelings of decimation, GOD is in control, and GOD is working through them still.

While they are the abhorred of the nations now, while they are despised and rejected ones now, while they are the slaves of rulers now,…

“Kings shall see and stand up,
princes, and they shall prostrate themselves,
because of the Lord, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

Because of God’s working in them, because of God’s choosing them, because of God’s faithfulness to them, even though they are despised and hated and enslaved now, they will be revered, they will be honored, they will be respected…because they will bring light and salvation to the ends of the earth.

 

The people of Israel are part of God’s bigger story.

The people have not been abandoned.

They have not been disinherited.

They are not forgotten – far from it!

God is weaving a tapestry of salvation and light for the whole world,

and they are at the heart of the story. 

 

 

And so, for all of you today who are feeling cut off…

For all you who feel forgotten…

For all of you who misfortune, heartache, and headache on all sides…

 

This Word is for you.

 

Like God was working through the chosen people of Israel so long ago, God is working through people all over the world, today.  And it’s bigger than the original people of Israel, for Jesus Christ has adopted us into the family of God, grafting our branches onto God’s family tree.  The family of God is no longer defined by race or nationality.  It is no longer defined merely by blood.  It is defined by God’s love, which broke down every dividing wall and fence.

God is accomplishing what God set out to do all those years ago – to spread God’s light and salvation over all the globe.

And every heart that believes and receives God’s unfathomable love is grafted onto God’s family tree, is adopted into the family.  God’s family keep growing and growing.  God’s light shines deeper and further.  God’s salvation and hope is spreading.  You and I are a part of God’s love in this world.  Like the Israelites long ago, you and I are part of God’s story of unstoppable love. 

 

So if you find trouble closing in all around…  If tears have been your food…  If you’ve lost too much, and hurt too badly, and suffered long, hear these words of Jesus from his sermon on the mount, the Message translation:

You’re blessed when you’ve lost it all.
God’s kingdom is there for the finding.

You’re blessed when you’re ravenously hungry.
Then you’re ready for the Messianic meal.

You’re blessed when the tears flow freely.
Joy comes with the morning.

 “Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me… You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don’t like it, I do . . . and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this.

 

You, dear ones, are in good company.  For God’s people through-out history have known trial and tribulation, yet none of that has de-railed God’s redemptive work, God’s light and life.  And none of that will separate us from God’s love.

 

You are loved.

God is with you.

You are light.

“Keep Alert. The Expectant Shall See.”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2:1-20

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


 

So much surrounding Jesus’ birth is extra-ordinary.

A virgin birth.

An unwed mother still engaged, though her child is not his own.

A girl, the chosen one, from the no-good, backwater town of Nazareth.

Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, pregnant with John, after a lifetime of barrenness.

Elizabeth’s husband Zephaniah made mute until his firstborn and only child John is born.

Angel visitations – to Mary, to Zephaniah, and to Joseph in a dream.

The first-ever world census, it says.

A star directly over the barn, where Jesus is born.

The wise men who study the stars and travel from other kingdoms to pay homage to Jesus.

The glorious host of angels alerting the shepherds to the Christ-child.

A holy child wrapped in mere bands of cloth – not a blanket – and lying in a feed trough.

 

Here the long-awaited Messiah is born and who comes but the foreigners,

The social outsiders – shepherds who spent more time with animals than with other people.

 

It says Mary pondered all these things in her heart.

And as she should!  Because WHO could have foreseen this bizarre series of events?

Who would have guessed those whom God would call to witness this great act of God – the outsiders, the unclean, the foreigners…ALL people God’s chosen were taught to keep their distance from.

 

But WHO is ready?

Is it the people of Israel?

 

Certainly it is not the people of Bethlehem who have relegated this very expectant mother to the animal barn.

 

No.  Foreigners are among the first to see.

And among their own people, it is not all the well-dressed,

The put together,

The wealthy,

The well-connected, no.

Shepherds.  The smelly shepherds.  Those whose work keeps them on the fringes.  Those who are not clean or presentable.

These are among the first to hear and see.

 

And WHY did they see?

Could it be because they were open and available?

Could it be because their socially isolating work required that they be open and ready, listening and waiting, on guard for the sheep – alert to any change or danger?  Could it be because they were among the few lying on their backs under the open stars?

 

 

For those who are paying attention, there is so much to witness, so much to see and hear, extraordinary happenings!

There is so much to ponder in one’s heart.

 

But those who witness,

Who hear and see,

They are the expectant.

The expectant are witness to this extraordinary in-breaking of Mystery into our world, the Son of God, born a tiny babe to a virgin, wrapped in scraps of cloth, and lying in a feed trough.

Those who hear and see are the expectant, the alert, the watching and listening and waiting ones.

 

 

How vigilant are you to protect and preserve moments of waiting,

Moments of listening,

Moments of openness and expectancy,

In your day by seemingly-ordinary-day life?

 

This tiny babe, is still breaking into our lives, in extra-ordinary ways.

The watching ones.  The waiting ones.  The seeking ones.

The expectant ones SEE.  Halleluia!

 

Our Lord is here.

Do we see?