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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.

 

 

 

 

 

“Wilderness Road to the Promised Land”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Exodus 16:2-15
Philippians 1:21-30

 

Exodus 16:2-15

The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him—what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.”

Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’”

In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.

 

Philippians 1:21-30

For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again.

Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

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The Israelites have escaped the prison of their temporary home in Egypt.  They have become free!  And that means change, A LOT of change.

 

Though they were enslaved, oppressed, and beaten down, they did have food to eat.
Food fueled the Egyptian labor-force.

And these Israelites do not remember what it is like to be free.  They have acclimated.  They have adapted.  They have their comforts, their routines, their simple pleasure – all of which have been uprooted with this run for freedom.

 

The new generations only know enslavement, so they’ve not gotten to exercise their muscles of self-will, of self-determination, and perhaps of self-respect.  Instead of plotting their own journey, they’ve been going along, following the orders of another.

And so this unimagined freedom now calls on them to grow in ways they may have become weak.  They must forage their own food, build their own dwellings, set their own course.  And if they fail to do so, they will be hungry, they will be thirsty, …they may starve.

And these are precisely their complaints to Moses as they journey through the wilderness.  There is no water.  They are thirsty!  The water is bitter.  They are thirsty!  This miss meat.  They are hungry! 

 

And they start to reminisce back to their days of enslavement in Egypt.  THERE they at least had meat.  Better to die a slave, eating meat, than to starve a free soul, they complain.

 

 

And it strikes me, that as we venture into the unknown territory of freedom, we encounter risks, unknowns, fears, and discomforts.  But if we do not venture into freedom, we will surely die, never having lived.  For what is living, if it is not freedom?!

And I think of our journey as a church of God.

 

We see the path by which we came.  Those who came before built this gorgeous sanctuary at a time when churches were busting at the seams in America.  The wars had ceased, the people had returned to faith and family, and babies were being born.  There was a faith in the church, a faith in organizations, a faith in institutions.  And so we came to this point:  education rooms were built to teach the children, youth, and adults about Jesus.  And this large and lovely sanctuary replaced our beautiful first sanctuary – now the fellowship hall.

We can see the path by which we came.   Just as the Israelites came to Egypt at a critical time – to survive famine and to thrive amidst it all – we came to this place because the times demanded it.

But just as the Israelite’s situation continued to evolve until they were enslaved to the Egyptians, we too have continued to change until we have become enslaved to our own building.  It’s simply far too big and aged and exquisite for our small band to easily maintain.  And so we are compelled to look toward a different future.  We must change or face our eventual death.

 

Like the Israelites, we sit at the brink – our food in hand, dressed, shoes on, ready to go.  We have been researching and preparing, praying and discerning in order to envision the pathway forward for our blessed congregation.

And we do not see the path ahead.  We can only see what came before.

And we are uncomfortable.  For in stepping out into the unknown – in negotiating with potential renters and partners in mission and ministry – we lose our sense of control.  We cannot predict next moves.  We do not yet know where our provision, our water, our food, our provision will come from.  And we grow anxious.

 

And we too start to grumble and complain: If we could just keep doing what we’ve always done, at least we’d be comfortable, but now God, have you brought us out here, that we may perish in the wilderness?  …In the places of discomfort and unknown?

God are you bringing us out in order to smite us more quickly?

God, if we’d just kept going as we were, we would die, but at least we’d die singing our favorite hymns…

 

Does this feel at all relevant?  Does it touch on some of our experiences?

 

Transitions are extraordinarily difficult, especially for some of us.  It often comes down to how we’re wired.  Uncertainties can feel intolerably risky.  Loss of control can feel like a death.

Transitions are hard. 

 

…And yet God calls us out.
God calls us out of darkness and into the light.
God is calling us out of death and into life.

 

And that life together will be different.
It will take time to build up and tear down.
It will take planning and starting.  …Stopping and revising and starting again.  …Over and over.

 

Like the Israelites, we will reach places where we cannot see a path forward, where death feels imminent.  But when its God doing the calling, God doing the inviting, God doing the freeing, God provides.  But not before we complain.  And not always before our discomforts and fear.

 

And so we have choices – to trust or to doubt.  Is God leading us?  And if God is, can we trust God?

We have choices – to trust one another or to doubt.  Do we believe that where two or more are gathered in God’s name that God is there too?

We have choices – do we believe that God is using ALL things for good?  Even our individual and collective mistakes?

We have choices – do we believe that God will continue to direct and redirect us as we take faithful steps?  Are we tuning our ears to hear that still small voice saying, “This is the way.  Walk in it.”

 

 

And so, as we follow God out of the land of the familiar, the land of comfort, and the land of our eventual or sudden death,…will we trust?  Will we trust God and one another?

Will we trust God for our provision – even when we cannot yet see it on the horizon?

Will we trust God to meet our needs – providing familiar comforts, even as we journey outside the lines of our narrow worlds?

 

Do we believe that God is doing a work among us?

 

For if we do, then the invitation is to follow. 

 

The Israelites were blessed, in order to BE a blessing!  They were to be a city on a hill, a light in the darkness.  THROUGH THEM, the whole world would be blessed!  That was God’s plan.  But they couldn’t do it enslaved in Egypt.
They had to step out.
They had to journey through wilderness.
And God would indeed bless them and make them a blessing! 

 

Will we continue to step out?
Will we continue to release control?
Will we choose trust?

 

We cannot follow God if we refuse to move.
We cannot follow God if we refuse to grow, to be changed.
We cannot follow God if we are enslaved…to sin, to fear, to dissension, … or even to our building.
We cannot follow God if we’re intent on being the Leader and not the follower.
We cannot hold the reigns of control AND follow God.

 

But for those who follow,
Who venture into the unknown,
Who choose radical trust and work to build a new way of life,
There is miracle and wonder, halleluia’s and praise the Lord’s,
There is hard-won peace, provision, milk & honey…

 

THIS is the legacy of God’s children. 

Will we follow God boldly into the wilderness unknown?