The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 25, 2019
Deuteronomy 24:10-13, 17-18; Matthew 25:31-40
Over the past several weeks we have been studying Jesus words about how we are to show the love of God to those Jesus calls, the least of these…meaning those who are in need. We have talked about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick. Today we talk about clothing the naked. Now I realize that this is probably the strangest of all of the acts with which we are to show the love of God. After all, why would people be naked. However, this situation of persons being without clothing was a reality in the ancient world. And so in order for us to understand this phenomenon, we need to talk about clothing and money. Let’s begin.
In the ancient world, unless people were the Bill Gates of Bible times, people only owned two pieces of clothing. The first was like a long T-shirt like inner garment that draped down to around the knees. It was easy to make, wear and clean. When you worked you would tie up the bottom and you had a pair of shorts. The second article of clothing was a cloak. This was a heavier item made from a single piece of cloth. It did not close in front and had two arm holes. Again if you were rich you might get sleeves as well. The cloak served as a person’s coat in the cold, a rain coat in the rain, a cover for sleeping and a protection from the wind. It was the most essential piece of clothing a person could own…and because of this, it was valuable.
Now let’s talk about money. Money in the ancient past was coinage and most people had little if any ready money. More often than not people dealt in trade and barter. However, there were those who found themselves in dire need for seed to sew, supplies for their trade, an animal to raise, or money to pay for food. So the question became where did you get the money you needed? The answer was you borrowed. And to borrow, you need something to use as collateral; something that had value. Since people often had nothing large of value, say a home or land, they would offer their clothing as collateral. First, they would offer their cloak. The person doing the lending would take the cloak and give money in return. The Torah made it clear that the cloak was to be returned at night to keep the one in debt warm and safe. Often though, those who were in debt could not repay that debt on time and so the lender would not only keep the cloak but they would lend more money with the inner piece of clothing as collateral. What this meant then was that the person in debt was naked. This was a humiliating state. Everyone would know that they were poor and in debt. People would make fun of them. They would be forced to work in the heat of the day with no cover. They were robbed of their humanity and dignity.
This condition was made even worse when the Torah was ignored and the lenders did not return the clothes but kept them. It would not only cause these people to be seen as being unworthy of care, or compassion, or a second chance, or even of God’s love. It would risk their health and their lives. We know this because in a book called Job the writer talks about this. He writes: The needy are kicked aside; they must get out of the way. Like the wild donkeys in the desert, the poor must spend all their time just getting barely enough to keep soul and body together. They are sent into the desert to search for food for their children. They eat what they find that grows wild and must even glean the vineyards owned by the wicked. All night they had to lie naked in the cold, without clothing or covering. They were wet with the showers of the mountains and lived in caves for want of a home. The wicked snatched fatherless children from their mothers, and took a poor man’s baby as a pledge before they will lend him any money or grain. That is why they must go about naked, without clothing, and are forced to carry food while they are starving.”
And so when Jesus tells his friends that they are to clothe the naked, these are the people they are to clothe; those who have fallen on hard times, those who are poor, those who have no dignity. And their friends were to clothe them because by so doing it welcomes them back into community, into family and reminds them that God still loves them.
In today’s world we seldom see people walking around naked. What we do see are those whose clothes are dirty, ragged and insufficient to protect their wearers from the elements. If we are honest with ourselves, we look at those folks and we think that they must be poor, homeless, perhaps because of drug addiction. If they came to us for an interview, we would be hesitant to hire them. If they came in a light jacket in the winter, we might wonder what is wrong with them. And so our task, rather than clothing the naked is to insure that all persons, young and old, have the clothes that they need. Warm clothes in the winter. Decent clothes with which to get a job. Clothes that give them their dignity and remind them that God loves them. One ministry we support that does this is The Open Door at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit.
For more than 50 years, Fort Street Presbyterian Church’s Open-Door Program has been a beacon of hope for those most in need in our downtown Detroit neighborhoods. This open-door program feeds nearly 1,000 people each month, provides hot showers, fresh clothing, social service referrals, medical and dental screenings, flu shots, eye glasses, and health care information. But, most of all, they provide hope. Every Thursday, they open their doors to serve a hearty meal to more than 200 people who are homeless, need a hot meal or just want to enjoy the camaraderie and support of others. They also offer a Soup and Sharing Session on Wednesdays. Guests participate in small-group faith sharing, pray together and support each other with advice and words of encouragement. Food boxes are prepared bi-weekly for individuals and families who are food insecure. Pickup is on a designated day and time. Recipients are referred by churches, schools or agencies; self-referrals from those in need are also accepted.
Volunteer opportunities are available in serving food, operating the clothing closet and in giving administrative support. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 961-4533, x107, for more information about volunteering.
You and I have been called to clothe the naked. The Open Door is one way to do this. I hope that you will consider how you might carry at this command and serve the least of these in this world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 18, 2019
2 Kings 4:32-37; Matthew 25:31-40
She heard a faint knock at her hospital room door. “Come in” she replied. But instead of the door opening, she heard a voice say, “Jamie, how are you doing?” She knew exactly who it was. It was her pastor. “I’m doing better,” she said. “That’s great,” came the voice from the other side of the door. “Would you like a prayer,” the voice continued. “Sure,” Jamie replied. Then the pastor would offer a prayer, say a quick good bye and head off down the hallway. One of the things that happens when you go to a new congregation as the pastor is that you hear stories about your predecessors. This was a story about one of mine in a former church. People said that he was a good preacher, but he had this thing about not being able to go into hospital rooms. In fact, he would have preferred not to go to the hospital at all if it had been possible. Even so, they like him and actually preferred his hospital visits more than that of another pastor they knew. This other pastor would not knock, but would walk in, pull up a chair, put his cowboy boots on the bed and proceed to chat until the cows came home…regardless of how badly the person felt.
I would guess that when it comes to visiting or caring for the sick, most of us are somewhere between these two pastors. For some of us this activity comes naturally, for others it is learned and for many it is something to be avoided. And this is not a criticism. Being with and around those who are ill or those who are dying is not a gift many of us naturally possess. In fact, there are many reasons it could make us uncomfortable. We may be uncomfortable because there may be viruses or germs that could cause us to be ill. We may be uncomfortable because we are unsure what to say or do. We may be uncomfortable because we cannot fix the person and make them better. We may be uncomfortable because death makes us nervous. And this discomfort with being around those who are ill is nothing new. Whether it is in the Old Testament or the New, people avoided the sick as well. They may have avoided them because they believed that their condition was contagious. This would have been the case with leprosy or the plague. They might have avoided someone because they believed that the person was ill because God was punishing them, and being honest, how many of us would want to hang out with someone God does not particularly like? Or they may avoid those who are ill because their illnesses are caused by demons…and let me say that demons in the time of Jesus meant “lesser gods.” What I mean by that is that while Jews believed that YHWH was the highest God, many still believed that there were lesser deities who could interfere in one’s life. This is the case in the Gospel story of the Gerasene demoniac who was inhabited by multiple demons. So, again, who would want to hang out with that kind of a person? Finally, people would avoid those who were dead or dying because to be in contact with a corpse made one, at least temporarily, unclean. And so, across the millennia people avoided being around the ill and the dying. That reality then is what makes our stories this morning so extraordinary.
Let’s begin with our Elisha story. The woman in the story had a long history with Elisha. She had welcomed him into her home, think about last week’s story of welcoming and feeding him. Elisha realizing that she was childless, tells her that like Sarah and Hannah, she would have a child late in life. Her child is born, but seven years later he dies. Believing that Elisha can do something about this, she grabs a donkey, rides out, finds him and refusing to take no for an answer, shames him into returning with her. When he arrives, Elisha enters the room, which would make him ritually unclean, and prays. Then he lays upon the child, and the child warms. Getting up Elisha walks around the room, bends over the child and the child is revived. Elisha then calls in the woman and returns her child to her. Why God chose to bring this child back to life and chose not to bring others back I cannot say, but once again, what we witness in this story is that God cares for the whole personand their health and wholeness.
Our second story follows suit. As Jesus is teaching about how we ought to act toward others, he tells us that we are to care for the sick. “I was sick, and you took care of me.” Remembering the belief that sickness is either the result of God’s displeasure or of demonic presence, the affirmation of caring for the sick is again, rather remarkable. It meant putting oneself in harms way. But what I think is critical about Jesus’ command is the word he uses for this type of care. I say that because the vast majority of other translations use the term visit. I was sick and you visited me. The implication is that one’s obligation is to drop by in the hallway and pass on a prayer, or perhaps put your cowboy boots on the bed and chat. This is a visit. But the Greek word used here comes from the root of Episcopoi, from which we get the word, bishop, or shepherd. What this means is that we are not simply to visit the sick and dying, but we are to care for them and about them on God’s behalf. We are, in other words, to be God’s presence with them. We are to be the embodiment of God’s love for them and with them. In other words, this is more than a pop-in visit, it is to seek their welfare as best we can. This reality opens a wide range of possibilities for what it means to care for the ill. It could be praying for them. It could be writing them a note. It could be dropping off a meal. It could be running errands for them. And it could also mean, sitting with them and letting them feel God’s presence through our presence. All of these are ways in which we can follow Jesus’ command to care for the sick.
This morning there is one more way of caring for the sick which many of us have probably never considered, and that is caring for the dying. To talk more about this, I have invited Sue Bay to speak with us about N.O.D.A., or No One Dies Alone. What is N.O.D.A.? Let me explains. For many people, their last few days or hours of life are spent surrounding by family and friends, where the love of those that they know fills their dying moments. For other people, this is not so. There are those who have no family or friends to be with them, or their family cannot get to their bedside or there is estrangement, or perhaps their death comes so suddenly that no one can travel quickly enough to be present. It is in these cases that N.O.D.A. volunteers become the loving companionship that might not otherwise be present at the time of death.
No One Dies Alone (NODA) provides emotional support to patients who would otherwise be alone at the time of their deaths. Volunteers offer a comforting presence to patients that are expected to pass away within 48-72 hours. Volunteers go through an extensive training program in order to be comfortable with sitting with those who are dying and to be present with a clear mind and an open heart. The volunteers are on call for service, usually serving two hour shifts which may involve holding the hands of the patient, soothing rubs of arms or foreheads, reading aloud, playing soothing music, and saying reassuring words. Persons interested in learning more about NODA or becoming a volunteer at Beaumont Royal Oak, may contact Kevin Hickey at 248-551-1338 or by email at email@example.com.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
August 11, 2019
Genesis 18:1-16; Matthew 25:35-40
Biblical interpretation is a serious matter. Differing methods have caused churches to fracture. Learning the various methods is a first year requirement in seminary. It’s the first step your pastors take each week on the journey towards a sermon.
One of the methods I find particularly helpful is to look at what actions God cherishes and what actions God despises. I figure if I can live my life in a way that leans towards the cherished actions, I’m doing pretty good. Matthew 25 is a treasure chest of cherished behaviors. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the prisoner. All these actions are so cherished by God that God says Thank you to the people who have done these things. The people are confused because they don’t remember doing these things for God but God tells them if you did them for ANYBODY you did them for me. It’s a big deal God saying thank you.
This week we are looking at welcoming the stranger. Before we get to the old testament text I want to visit a town with you. This town had it all, safety, plenty of food and water, plenty of space. It was a great place to live. One day a few friends show up in town wanting to see the greatness for themselves. They are strangers but one man welcomes them into his home. Soon the welcoming man’s neighbors hear about the strangers. They become fearful. They worry there is not enough room in the town for the strangers, They fear there is not enough food, or jobs, that the strangers may be dangerous. They worry the strangers will bring more people to their town, more strangers. Their fear grows and grows until the whole town is convinced the only solution is to rape and kill the strangers. That will send a clear message to anyone else wanting to join their community that they are not welcome. The town marches to the welcoming man’s door and demand he send the strangers out.
The man who welcomed the strangers refuses but the town insists. As their violent intent grows they miss the clouds forming over head. The name of that town…Sodom. Sodom’s sin was inhospitality. They had plenty. They could offer a welcome to these strangers but their fear lead them to a ruinous end. This story tells us that God despises inhospitality.
Hospitality is important to God because for most of their existence God’s people have depended on the kind welcome of others. They wander in wildernesses, they leave homes, flee for their lives, follow rabbis on a whim. God’s people depend on the faithfulness of God and the welcome of strangers to survive. God will always provide faithfulness but humanity does not always follow through with their welcome.
In our first lesson today we find Abraham and Sarah in the wilderness. God asked them to leave the comfortable home they cared for and cultivated for a life on the road. They have depended on the kindness of strangers to keep them alive and healthy. When Abraham sees these strangers outside his tent he is elated. Finally he is in a position to offer welcome to strangers. To give back to others what he has received. He has some extra food and water, he has room for them to rest. He doesn’t take a single moment to question the action he jumps at the opportunity to offer a stranger his welcome.
Abraham does not know who these men are. We know because scripture gives us a spoiler that the Lord was near and these are probably angels. Abraham does not know that. But not knowing everything about these men does not cause him to spiral into fear and worry. He does not worry about who they are, he does not worry if they have weapons, or if they are high or drunk. He does not question if they are there legally or if there are 100 others on the other side of the mountain who will also want food and water, Or if they will take advantage of his welcome and use the resources offered appropriately. All Abraham knows is that he has enough and can be a blessing to these strangers.
Well Abraham does know one other thing: he knows God has asked him to be a blessing to others. So when he sees people and he sees his full packs he does not hesitate to offer the welcome he knows God cherishes. He does not let the fear that Sodom had take hold in his heart. That does not mean he was completely unafraid but his faith in God gave him the strength to choose courageous hospitality over fear.
And the most amazing thing happens. The prayer that Sarah and Abraham have been praying for years, their cries to God to send a child are finally answered. These strangers say to them you will have a child. Now Sarah laughs at this because she can see how outrageous their claim is. She has been praying for a child for decades. She has offered every offering imaginable, put together every pattern of words in her pleas to God. She has tried trust, she has tried schemes, she has tried everything to get a child, but no child has been granted. And now she gives one cup of tea to these strangers from who knows where and that is going to tip the scales. Yeah Right! Well it is. This moment of welcome is the moment God chooses to announce she will be blessed with a baby. God cherishes welcoming strangers. This story reminds us that welcoming the stranger means something to God, it get’s God’s attention and warms God’s heart. Welcoming the stranger is worth choosing courage over fear.
A common ice breaker, which you may have been asked at some point, is “if your house was on fire what one thing would you rescue.” This question is designed to get at the core of our values, do we get the iphone or Grandma’s quilted blanket. Unfortunately for many in Paradise California they did not even have the luxury of grabbing one item. You may remember last year the wild fires spread so quickly, thousands were evacuated within minutes of their houses being consumed. The nearby town of Chico was spared. And in their relief and broken hearts for their neighbors Chico welcomed in nearly 20,000 people. They offered lower prices for houses, apartments, hotel rooms. They gave free food to people with Paradise addresses on their license. The town rallied around the displaced strangers with an overwhelming welcome.
One year later, fear is taking hold of the original residents and burning away their welcome. Each time their favorite restaurant is full and they can’t get a table, the fire of fear burns away a little more of their welcome. As housing prices rise, the fear takes another acre of their hospitality. Do the police and fire departments seem to be responding slower? The fire spreads farther. Have you seen how many of THEM are sleeping in the park? The fire rages on. Inch by inch their welcome is burned away by fear. Even though their officials and city planners say the town is great! The economy is up, infrastructure is being funded, housing has been approved, crime is down. Every measurable point says Chico is thriving, but the fire of fear is hard to put out. Sodom knows that very well.
Chico could be anywhere. I feel annoyed handing out yet another blessing bag on the same corner every week. The church gets calls from people in need constantly and having to pick and choose who the church can help quickly extinguishes even the most giving of spirits. I fear what will really happen to the money I give out. It is hard to choose courageous welcome in the face of these fears. And yet….it is what God cherishes.
To help us find a channel for our desire to welcome the stranger I invited Ben Ogden to join us today. Ben is the director of the Welcome Inn and has on the ground experience in welcoming strangers. What does the program do? Why is it needed and who does it serve?) How has it helped (a success or feel good story)? How can our people help?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
August 4, 2019
2 Kings 2:19-22; Matthew 25:31-40
April 25, 2014 was an ordinary day, just like the days that had come before and days that would come after. The news was filled with stories that never seem to go away. Secretary of State Kerry was warning Russia about its incursion into and activity in Ukraine with pro-Russian separatists. The number of measles cases had hit a nineteen-year high. President Obama was pledging that the United States would support South Korea if the North developed nuclear weapons. And Israel ended Peace talks with the Palestinians. Nothing really old or new. Except there was one event that no one noticed, that did not make the headlines until years later. That was the city of Flint Michigan, at the order of their Emergency Manager, switched its water source from the Detroit Water System to water from the Flint River. The Manager knew that the water was corrosive. He ordered it anyway. He was aware that spending one-hundred dollars a day on chemicals could solve the corrosion problem. But that was not part of the order. Just switch. And that single decision would cause the water for hundreds of thousands of people to become unusable, and cause lead poisoning in thousands of children.
Water is the essence of life. While a person can live three weeks without food, a person can only survive three days without water. And there are two ways in which water has played a key role in scripture and in the world. The first is that without it crops will not grow and people and livestock will die. Civilizations rise and fall because of water or a lack of it. Extended drought during the depression in the great plains caused more than two-million people to flee to California. Drought was probably the cause of the end of the Mayan civilization and the great mega-drought of the 1500s forced several Native American tribes in the southwest to migrate. Drought was at the heart of our Elijah story last week because it was what forced him to leave Israel and go to Zarephath. The second way in which water plays a role is in its being unhealthy to drink. In the world today there are more than seven-hundred and eighty-million people do not have access to clean water. Their water, if they have any, is infected with bacteria and microorganisms that cause a host of diseases that claim the lives of more than eight-hundred-thousand children under the age of five every year. As we know from Flint, many people are still afraid to drink from their taps. This reality of unclean water is also at the center of our Old Testament text. The people have water but evidently it is making people and animals ill and killing crops. So where do they turn?
They turned to Elisha the prophet. They asked him to do something about their water because it was bad both for them and for the land. I have to say that this is an interesting choice as to who might deal with their water problem. Elisha was a prophet whose task it was to call the people back to faithfulness in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was supposed to be focused on spiritual, ethical and moral obligations. Yet Elisha healed the waters. No one is sure what he actually did, yet the memory remind that through the man of God, God made the waters wholesome. God once again made the water life-sustaining. And it is that sense that God desires all human beings to be sustained by the waters God created. That is at the heart of Jesus statement that you serve the least of these when you give a cup of life-sustaining water to one who thirsts. It is an affirmation once again that God cares not only for the souls, but for the bodies of God’s children. And so, where do people around the world turn for this cup of water; for clean and abundant water? Some of them turn to us, to the Presbytery of Detroit for help. I want to invite Tim Ngare up to tell us about how we participate in giving this cup of water.
East Africa is one of the areas most affected by a lack of available clean water. In Kenya, two of the rural areas most affected are Kwa Mukasa and Kitui. The situation in both locations is that water is scarce most of the year. The rivers and streams dry up soon after the rainy season. This forces the women in the villages to walk up to ten kilometers to obtain water. They must do this several days a week. Because the women are seeking water, it means that the children must look after each other, thus preventing them from going to school. It also means that women are not able to assist in the fields, with the livestock or with creating their own small businesses. In addition, the water that they obtain is often unclean, which causes all the people of the village to become ill. The Presbytery of Detroit decided to do something about this by creating the Thika Water Project within the village of Kwa Mukasa. They raised money from the Presbytery’s budget as well as individuals and congregations to build a well. Our First Foundation, created by gifts from members of our congregation, donated $10,000 or almost 20% of the cost of the well. The well is so expensive because to reach water, the well needs to drill as deep as 300 meters. Once water was struck, a pump house was built, a holding tank put on the roof, solar panels and an electric generator were installed, and the water began flowing. The water has improved the health of the community (as one community leader put it...our children no longer get sick), allowed for community gardens, the expansion of schooling opportunities (a new intermediate school was built, and a high school is planned) and many of the women are starting a home based businesses to bring in money for their families. Currently the Thika team has raised most of the money for the second well at Kitui, again with a $10,000 donation from First Foundation.
If you would like to assist with this project, which includes not only the well, but many ancillary projects such as piping to the schools and gardens, books for the new schools and assistance with well-upkeep, you can make a check to First Presbyterian Church and simply put Thika Water Project in the memo line. In this way you will be a partner in changing people’s lives by offering the thirsty a cup of water.