Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 27, 2019
In this bag I have what some people believe to be one of the most destructive forces in modern American society. I Googled social concerns about this abomination and it turned up more than eleven-million possible articles or references. Cable news programs have spent countless hours speaking out against its evil influences. According to many, it destroys the very inner souls of children and youth and keeps them from striving to be their best. I can’t believe that we had one in the house, but as I was digging through our daughter’s boxes of stuff buried in our basement, there it was. And it was not alone. There were, in fact, more than one, hidden among the decent memories of her childhood. I would ask parents to shield their children’s eyes from this golden-calf of corruption, but they need to see it. So here it is, a participation trophy. Yes, your pastor’s child had a participation trophy that she received in her very first year of playing soccer where she preferred to pick flowers rather than kick the ball. As Cindy says, she was in it for the uniforms and the snacks. Not for victory at all cost. I realize that many of you may be shocked that I brought this into this sacred space…but I do so for a simple reason. If participation trophies are bad, why does God not only give us one, but actually goes one better in that God gives us a pre-participation trophy.
Yes, that is correct, God gives us a pre-participation trophy and this is it (take cross out of the bag)…let me explain. Today our vocabulary of faith word is grace. Pastor Bethany mentioned it at the end of her sermon last week, but today we will take a deeper dive into what it means. To begin with, a simple of definition of grace is the gift of God’s unearned love and forgiveness. Meaning, that all of God’s love and forgiveness are offered to us without conditions attached. This is what the Apostle Paul is referring to in his letter to his friends in Rome. He writes, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What this means is that while we were on the wrong side of God, when we were on the losing team, when we had not done anything worthy of being loved by God or Jesus or the Spirit, God poured out God’s love and forgiveness upon us. God handed us that that trophy that said you are a beloved child of God. God handed us the trophy that said you are forgiven. God handed us the trophy that said you are beloved. Grace tells us that even when we had nothing to offer God, God offered us everything.
Grace, this unearned love and forgiveness of God, has been at the heart of the Biblical
message from the beginning to the end of the scriptures. It is supposedly also at the heart of who most Christians in this world claim to be, people saved by grace. Yet, we have often hedged our bets. Just as many are suspicious of giving participation trophies to those who did not win it all…they are suspicious of giving God’s love and forgiveness to just anyone. Surely, they say, we must do something to earn it. For some, grace comes when we are baptized in a particular way by particular people in a particular church. For others grace only comes when we believe particular things about God, Jesus, baptism or communion. For others grace comes when you do particular actions or don’t do other actions. What this means is that if grace, defined as the unearned love and forgiveness of God, only comes to us because we have to say, do or believe certain things, then it is not free and thus it is not grace. Yet Paul reminds us that before we could earn God’s love, Jesus gave his life for us so that we might be enveloped by the love and forgiveness of God.
To show you what grace looks like, I want to go back to one of the stories Pastor Bethany mentioned last week, and that is the story of Cain and Able. If you recall the story, Cain and Able are the twin sons of Adam and Eve. They each make an offering to God and for some reason, God accepts Able’s but not Cain’s. Cain is understandably upset. God tells him to hang in there and ultimately his offering will be acceptable. Unhappy with this response, Cain plots his revenge upon his brother. Cain invites Able into the fields and there kills him. As the story continues, God asks Cain, “where is your brother?” The uppity answer is, “How should I know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Needless to say, God knows where Able is. He is dead, and Cain killed him. Two things then happen. First God makes sure that Cain suffers consequences for his actions. God sends Cain out to wander the earth alone, a fitting punishment for the one who killed his brother. Cain’s response is to cry out to God when he realizes that by being alone he will have no one to protect him (as his brother had no one to protect him) and he might suffer the fate of his brother…this is, by the way, the definition of irony. It is in this moment that the second thing happens. God, without being asked, places a mark upon Cain to ensure that no one kills him. In other words, God’s grace, God’s free gift of love and forgiveness comes to Cain, when Cain has done nothing to deserve it. This is grace.
How many of you here this morning have ever watched an awards ceremony like the Oscars or the Emmys? If you have, I hoped you noticed how the winners held their statues. Usually at first, they had one hand under the base and another around the statue itself. What I want you to do this morning is to hold your hands like that (one flat the other as if grasping what your other hand is supporting). Now I want you to imagine that in your hand is God’s trophy of grace, God’s trophy of love. Feel its weight. Feel the weight of God’s love and forgiveness in your hands. Then, slowly feel it become lighter and lighter as the effects of that love and forgiveness lighten your burden and fill you with peace. Feel it? I hope so because that is your challenge for this week. It is, every morning, to hold your hands in that fashion, for just a couple of minutes, and say to yourself, “I am a beloved child of God, loved and forgiven by the free grace of God.”
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 20, 2019
Psalm 32; 1 John 2:1-6
Sins, trespasses, debts, the use of these words has caused all sorts of chaos in ecumenical gatherings. Well-meaning Christians begin to pray together with the words of the Lord’s prayer…our father who art in heaven… then around the time we are praying about daily bread the panic sets in. Are we going to say sins, trespasses, or debts? If you were an outsider listening in, you could probably hear the subtle pause after forgive us our … s… tr… d… debts. No one needs this kind of stress in their lives, especially during a prayer.
One reason for all the confusion is that the Bible uses tons of different Hebrew and Greek words and each word describes a slightly different kind of sin or characteristic of sin. When we boil all these words into a small three-letter word we lose the depth of meaning the Bible is trying to convey.
Sin is complex. When we hear people use it today it usually turns into a weapon. Shouts from megaphones hurl “sinner” as an insult on crowds. Sin becomes an excuse for bad behavior, Satan made me do it. Sin becomes heavy with no way to unburden ourselves. I’ll admit when I saw my word for today was sin I was not looking forward to this sermon. But my preaching professors assured me in every text of the Bible there is always grace and after this week I agree.
The three most common words translated as sin are Pesha, Avah, and Khata.
Our first Hebrew word is Pesha. This is the word we best translate into trespass. This specifically is used for sins that break trust in a relationship. If a nation breaks a treaty with another nation that is Pesha. Pesha also highlights the difference between being violated and being betrayed. If you were robbed you would feel violated, but if you found out the person who stole from you was a friend that would be a betrayal. The relationship you had with the person would cause the robbery to hurt even more. Pesha is used a lot by the prophets because their job is to tell the people about how they have broken their relationship with God. When Israel builds idols, or forgets to look after those in need, prophets point out their Pesha, the ways they have turned away from their relationship with God.
The next Hebrew word, Avah literally means to be bent or to make crooked. The Bible uses this word to talk about crooked roads or a person physically becoming crooked as in their back is Avah. But it also refers to a person becoming figuratively crooked. Avah is used most often as a metaphor for how humans have bent the world out of shape. Through lying, killing, stealing, and other destructive sins we have Avah’ed our purpose. The straight line of goodness and rightness has been made crooked. Each kink in the line is sin.
Avah is most commonly translated as iniquity. Iniquity is a word we only see on SAT tests these days. It describes not only the act of the sin but all the junk that comes after. The pain, the unjust structures, the negativity ripple that sin starts into motion. Iniquity is something we must trudge through every day because the remnants of past sins are still around us.
I read an article this week about how golf balls are killing sea turtles. If you don’t already know I have a not so mild obsession with turtles. This article was in one of my turtle magazines - yes there is more than one. These golf balls are not harming turtles in a way that would be obvious. The problem is all those missed and banked shots made by golfers that end up in the ocean. Golf balls are made of plastic, they are resilient, but they do degrade. When they do, they break up into micro plastic. Shards of plastic less than 5 mm in size and they float around the ocean. Micro plastic is a problem because it is very hard to clean up, you can’t see it and when animals digest it it messes with their hormone production. Worse yet, it also messes with human hormones when we end up eating a fish that has lived in an area heavy with micro plastic shards. Missing a shot on the back 9 may not feel like a sin, but it is Avah. It causes a negative ripple of destruction in its wake.
The third word is the most commonly used word for sin. Khata. I was surprised to find out the first use of the word sin is not in the story of Adam and Eve but in the story of their children, Cain and Abel. In their story Cain and Abel give offerings to God. God knows Abel gives out of a right motivation and gives a good offering. Cain however does not give his offering with good intentions and holds back a bit. God makes it obvious that Abel is right, and Cain needs to improve. This makes Cain angry, and God sees the anger and knows where that anger will lead. SO, God steps in and tries and guide Cain back to the right path. God says, “Why are you angry, if you do good you will be accepted, but if you keep on this path SIN lurks at the door with the desire to devour you. You must overcome this anger.” Cain does not and he kills his brother, committing the first sin post-garden.
Like our other words, Khata does not mean sin in any literal way. Khata means to fail or miss the goal. The next time your favorite teams botches a field goal, or 3-point shot try screaming Khata at the TV instead of the other four-letter words you might feel like screaming in that moment. Khata means missing the goal but it gets translated over and over as sin, so there must be some goal we are supposed to be aiming for but when we miss it is sin. SO, what is the goal?
In short, the goal is Love. The ten commandments are a rubric of how not to sin and can be lumped into two categories, how we love God and how we love others. Loving God means God is number one in our lives, we use God’s name with good intention, and we remember a day to worship God. Loving others means we honor our parents, we respect life, we respect other’s bodies, we respect their property, we tell the truth. Loving others is important because Genesis tells us everyone is made in God’s image, which means everyone represents God here on earth and is worthy of respect.
There is a man in the Bible named Joseph, you might know him better as the guy with the colorful coat and mean brothers. He is sold into slavery by his brothers but works his way into the trust of his master. Joseph is also very attractive, so his master’s wife invites him to have sex with her. Joseph’s response is “how can I sin against God.” This might seem like an odd response. Accepting the offer would obviously be a sin against the master, but how is that sinning against God. Joseph recognizes that his master carries the image of God. That image may be Avah, or crooked because the man owns slaves, but even so Joseph knows a sin against any human is also a sin against God. Against that image of God that the human contains.
Considering that everybody is made in God’s image, the ten commandments are really all about loving God. Because when we disrespect a person, we are also disrespecting God. We miss the goal of being fully loving[MVL1] . Khata is also used for moments people miss the mark of love without knowing it. When Pharaoh saves Egypt’s economy through building projects and better infrastructure but does so with the use of slave labor, the Bible says this is Khata. This word highlights that sin is not just the actions we choose to take knowing they are wrong. Sin is also the way we spin our bad actions into thinking they are okay.
Recently in the news, pictures surfaced of Joshua Tree National park. Visitors had caused a fair amount of damage to the trees, and terrain. Some visitors probably intentionally came into the park to cause damage. Some brought spray cans to tag rocks, but they may have explained away their actions as “harmless.” It’s just a rock. Other visitors drove off the paths hoping to see a part of the park usually off limits. But then others may have innocently followed later in their tire tracks, thinking it was part of the path options. All of this is categorized as sin. And it may seem unfair that the ones who didn’t know the path was wrong still get a mark against them, but that points us back to how desperately we need Jesus to help us out of the mess sin creates.
Therefore, God tells Cain sin is ready to devour you. In the Old Testament sin is represented as a beast prowling and ready to pounce. It is a force outside ready to overtake any human who is not vigilant. In the New Testament Paul introduces the word Hamartia. It is also translated as sin. But this sin understanding of sin is not something that lurks out there. It is a powerful force within us so that even the things we know we shouldn’t do the things we do not want to do, turn into the things we do. We are stuck.
Essentially, we are horrible judges about what is right and what is wrong. We call a rouge golf ball and a naive left turn fine, but they are not fine, they cause destruction just as bad as the intentional spray can, and a well-aimed gun[MVL2] . We are terrible judges because it is hard to ignore our own desires for safety and self-improvement. When our desires say I want to eat, it is hard to find the strength to share our food with others. When our desires say I want to be safe, it is hard to welcome in the stranger. When our desires say I want to protect my reputation, it is hard to tell the truth[MVL3] .
It[MVL4] is said you can love anyone if you only knew their story. This means that any mean, rude, obnoxious person probably has a reason they act that way. And if you knew that reason you would feel sympathy and offer them another measure of love. Well we can’t know everyone’s story. We can’t map out the consequences of every action. This mess we are in is why God starts off creation with us not having to worry about it. But that got messed up and now we are stuck with free will and choices and sin.
These words Pesha, Avah, and Khata are also used to describe God’s unimaginable grace.
In the Old Testament Avah is just as often used to describe God’s grace. Hebrew poets describe how the negative after-effect of sin can gather on us like weights carried on our backs. Making our backs crooked, more Avah, but God offers to carry that weight. In Psalms we learn that when we confess God offers to carry our Avah. And there is a promise of a servant who will come to take all our Avah on himself. Isaiah tells us this servant will take on all the Avah of the world, allowing it to crush him, but that he will survive and come back to offer that same survival to us.
Pesha may have broken the relationship with God, but God’s response is to send Jesus to live as a human. To step into the other side of the relationship and literally put on the human predicament. God as Jesus lived in our shoes and saw how the force of sin inwardly and outwardly affected us. The amazing thing is that he did not, Khata, or miss the goal, yet also didn’t blame us or punish us for our Khata.
Jesus took on the punishment of those who Pesha and Khata. Jesus’s example showed us clearly what the goal is so that we know when we have missed the goal. He also gave us a way back into a good relationship with God when we inevitably Khata again. Sin in Biblical texts is not described or talked about so that we would feel bad about it. It is not used as a weapon to bring people down. The Bible describes sin to show us how vast God’s grace is.
Every December when we plan for Christmas Eve we discuss how dark the sanctuary should be during the candle lighting so that the glowsticks and candles really shine. Every year we decide we need to turn off all the lights and be in total darkness. Knowing darkness helps us appreciate the light. We need to know the reality of sin so that we can really see God’s grace shine. We need to recognize sin is a powerful force within us so that when we wish for God to blot out all evil in the world we pause and remember that would mean our destruction as well. We need to know there are unintentionally consequences to seemingly innocent acts. We need to feel their weight on our shoulders but only for a second before giving the weight over to God so that we can appreciate the lightness of that lifted weight. We need to remember any act that is unloving toward another human hurts God so that when God offers us forgiveness, we are inspired to forgive those who….Pesha, Avah, Khata…against us.
Dr. John Judson
January 13, 2019
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 2:1-13
We stood on the sidewalk and felt utterly defeated. We thought that we had helped to save a life, yet it was not to be. The year was 1978 and I was living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I lived in a communal house with other volunteers, some Filipinas and a Japanese volunteer. Several months after moving in, a young woman with a baby on her hip came to our door. She did not speak English or Tagalog which we all spoke. But through some patient interaction we realized that she was looking for work as a lavandera, meaning she wanted to wash our clothes. At first, I was resistant, but then my friends convinced me that it would help her and that we could quit spending hours washing our clothes by hand in a tub. As time went by we discerned parts of her story. She lived in Manila’s largest slum. Her husband had deserted her, and she was forced to live with her in laws. One day though she arrived in tears. As best we could make out, one of her children was dying. We told her to bring the child to us. When she returned with him, we were shocked. His entire body was covered with open sores. Gathering what little money we had, we found a dermatologist who told us he had scabies, a creature that burrows in under the skin. She quickly prescribed some medicine but warned us that unless it was applied exactly as noted, he would die. With our last few pesos we purchased the medication, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and then realized that we had no way to tell her how to use it. We were defeated. But then, a woman walking by stopped and asked if we needed help. We told her the problem. She then asked the woman a question in a language we did not understand. They conversed. The woman on the sidewalk then said, “I grew up the village next to hers. I will explain to her how to use this.” My friends, I believe that this is the work of the Spirit because how else, in a city of 7.2 million people, could a woman take two buses and a jeepney from an inner-city slum, come to our street and our house and then when all hope was lost have another woman from a remote village of fewer than a thousand people, happen to walk by, stop and intercede? This is the work of the Spirit because the Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities. Let me say that again. The Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. Throughout history, people have struggled to understand the Spirit. Many have seen it merely as the power of God, like a wind rushing forth. Others have seen it as something like The Force, in Star Wars; this generic power that is accessible to all people. The scriptures make it clear though, that the Spirit is more than either of these. It is literally the active presence of God at work in the world. What I mean by this is that just as we talked about last week, that God showed up in Jesus to redeem the world, God shows up once again in the Spirit. God shows up in ways and in times and in places where we least expect to find God, and makes things happen. The scripture has stories of the Spirit ahead of people, making new things possible, such as in the wilderness where God’s people were led to freedom. The scripture has stories of the Spirit within people, applying the work of Jesus in order to transform them. The scripture has stories of the Spirit behind people pushing them along, such as the Apostle’s Paul being pushed to preach to the Gentiles. David Paterson once said that he saw the Spirit as the great annoyer. I think this is right because the Spirit never leaves things as they are but is the active power of God helping to make things into what they ought to be.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. This can be seen clearly in the story of creation. As the book of Genesis opens, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos below. This, by the way, is the Biblical story of creation that God confronts, not emptiness but chaos; a chaos that will not allow life to form and flourish. To create a new life-giving reality out of this chaos was understood as something only God could do. And so the Spirit “hovers” over the watery chaos preparing to give birth to a new creation. I say this because the Hebrew word for hover is what is used to describe a mother hen or dove, hovering over her nest in order to help birth new life. So when the Spirit (in Hebrew the same word “ruach” can be translated as Spirit, breath or wind) hovers, it is God being actively present creating a new life giving reality.
The Sprit is the active presence of God bringing new realities out of impossibilities. We see this in the story of Pentecost. On the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, the disciples were still hiding out. Even though they had seen and experienced the risen Jesus and had been instructed to go into all the world making more disciples, they had no idea how to accomplish this task. They knew it was an impossible task. Who would believe a story of a crucified and risen messiah? Who would believe it from bunch of barely literate Galileans? How would they tell the story such that people would believe them? How could they begin to create this new reality that Jesus had called the kingdom when they had no power and no authority? This task had impossible written all over it. Yet on that Pentecost day, the Spirit invaded their upper room and pushed and pulled them out in power, to create a new reality, the Jesus’ community, by telling the story of Jesus’ work, in multiple languages. That day, according to the story in Acts, more than 3,000 people believed, and the core of this new kingdom community was born.
What does this have to do with us? What it tells us is that our future is not limited by our past. Our future is not determined by our past because the Spirit as the active presence of God can create new realities out of impossibilities in us. We are not trapped in our lives because God can and will be a transforming agent in our lives. This is so both for our personal lives and our corporate life as Everybody’s Church. It means that we as a community of faith are not constricted by what has been but through the Spirit we can continue to become that new reality that God is creating in and through the Spirit. This is especially relevant today as we install our new elders and deacons. It is so because these persons, along with those already on session and the board of deacons are called to listen for the work of the Spirit, leading us into God’s new reality.
Before I close, I want to circle back to my story. The ointment worked. The child lived. And then my friends and I got together more pesos and paid for our lavandera and her children to leave the slum in which she was living and move back to her island community and her family who could help care for them. This too I believe was the work of the Spirit. Through my friends and I and the woman on the street, God created a new reality out of an impossibility for this family.
My challenge to you on this day is this, that as you go through your week, ask yourself, how am I open to God’s active presence in my life, creating new realities in and through me?
Dr. John Judson
January 6, 2018
Genesis 12:1-3, John 1:1-14
So, who is he? Who is this Jesus that we claim to believe in and follow? The scriptures tell us that Jesus is the savior, messiah, Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, rabbi, teacher, prophet, King, Lord, bread of life, sheep gate, shepherd, way the truth the life, bread of life, living water, light of the world, redeemer, lamb of God, true vine, King of kings and Lord of Lords and the Word made flesh. Later writers have said he is a demi-god, a good god as opposed to the evil creator god, a spirit who was never real, the world’s greatest salesman, greatest CEO and model for all small group leaders. He is the laughing Jesus and even what my daughter calls, Rambo Jesus. He is also the sender of crusaders, the hater of all non-Christians and the lover of all people. So who is he? The answer seems to depend on each of us. What I mean by that is that across the centuries we have made Jesus in our own image and used him to defend our own beliefs. This is the reason in the Civil War, Jesus was both the one who approved of and condemned slavery. But again, who is he? Though we could spend years unpacking this question, since I am time limited this morning, I want to offer you what I believe are the two critical understandings of Jesus that scripture offers.
First, Jesus is us. Jesus is fully human. What I mean by that is that Jesus experienced the absolute fullness of life. He experienced birth and adolescence. He experienced love, adoration and rejection. He experienced temptation that he had to work to resist. He had to learn and grow in both experience and outlook. He had to seek his own destiny. He was at times, angry, sad and frustrated. He showed compassion for some and righteous indignation against others. He was neither a card-board cutout of a human being nor was he an unearthly figure floating through life. And he experienced pain and death. What this means is that there is nothing that we will experience that he has not. He is the one who understands what it means to walk around in these mortal bodies enmeshed in complex cultures and relationships. Even so, Jesus managed to be the one who continually oriented his life to God, always seeking God’s will and direction for his life. He therefore becomes the model for life, the one whom we are not only to follow but try to emulate. Jesus is us.
Second Jesus is God. This reality is what is at the heart of John’s opening words about the Word was with God, the Word was God and the Word become flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. For many of us in the 21st century, this is the most difficult aspect of Jesus for us to wrap our heads around. In fact, in a recent survey of self-identifying evangelical Christians, a significant percentage did not believe that Jesus was God. But for the early church this affirmation was essential to the faith, and here is why. Only God can save. Let me say that again, only God can save humanity and so unless Jesus was God then regardless of all that he did in life or death, humanity would still be stuck in the mess sin created. One way I have taken to explaining this is to use the image of an operating system…meaning the software code that runs your computers, phones and tablets. The Biblical story is that God wrote the operating system of love that was to run creation. People were to love God, each other and creation. Human beings however introduced a virus, called sin, into the operating system and God’s desire for love was hijacked by hate, jealousy, violence and greed. Throughout history men and women, prophets, priests and saints have tried to restore the original OS but have been unable to restore the code. This is something only the original coder could do. This is something only God could do. Thus, it was necessary for God to become one of us, so that through his life death and resurrection, he could restore the original operating system of love, so that humanity could once again flourish.
So who is Jesus? He is the intersection where heaven and earth meet. He is the intersection where humans and God meet. He is, if you will, the person in whom Eden exists, meaning in him we discover what it means to be fully human and oriented toward God. And what it means for God to be the one who is oriented toward humanity desiring the restoration of creation. As such he is the one who makes possible the reprogramming not only of our lives but of humanity itself. This is why the Apostle Paul said that when we put on Christ, we become new creations. We become those who are no longer programmed by sin, but by Spirit (of which we will learn more next week). And there is no greater way to experience this intersection than at this table (the communion table) where we witness the fully human one dying for us, and the fully God one offering us new life through the bread and cup. The challenge that I want to put before you this week is this, to ask ourselves, how are we allowing that fully human and fully divine One to reprogram our lives, such that we reflect the love of God and neighbor that is at the heart of this mysterious intersection of heaven and earth?