The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 29, 2019
Psalm 86:8-13; John 14:1-7
I am a gadget guy. I love all kinds of gadgets as long as they are not too expensive, or I can buy them refurbished, I will get them to play around with. One gadget I bought years ago was this small, square piece of electronic amazement…my first GPS. In my previous church I drove thousands of miles to visit churches all across south Texas. I thought that this would come in handy, but as it turned out, I never actually used it, until Cindy and I went on a visit to visit friends living in Olympia, Washington. We were arriving at the airport after 10pm and would have to find our way not only to a street address but to their condo, buried deep within a large condo-complex. When Cindy asked about finding our way, I told her it would not be an issue since I had a GPS, as I secretly kept saying to myself, “Please work.” Well we got our car, set up the GPS, plugged in the address and dutifully followed the instructions. It got us to the complex and then navigated us deeper and deeper into the condo darkness. Finally, there was no more road. Frustrated, I asked Cindy to use the cell-phone and call. Our friends answered and said that they would turn on their porch light…and right in front of us this light came on. At that moment I could hear the technology angels singing.
How many of you have used one of these things…or these days used your phone, or one in your car? They are amazing, aren’t they? They can tell you not only your route and where to turn, but let you know when you are at your destination and then what services are available when you get there. Over the years, as I have pondered this technology, what has come to me again and again, is that I wish I had one for showing me exactly what God would like for me to do. One that I could punch in my dilemma and up would come the appropriate instructions for doing the will of God in my life. One that would accurately take me to God. Sort of a God positioning satellite. Any of you ever wish you had one of those? Well if you, like me, wish you had one…you do…we do. We have Jesus of Nazareth. He is our GPS, our God Positioning Son. This is in fact the claim that he is making in this 14th Chapter of John, when he and the disciples are about to head out into the mess of his arrest and crucifixion. He tells them that he is the way, and the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the father except through him. In saying these words Jesus is not giving us a password to heaven, but an invitation to a life-long journey. He is inviting us on a journey in which we discover how to live as human beings who reflect the image of God into the world.
First, Jesus is the way. I don’t know about your GPS, but mine has a blue line showing me the way I ought to go. If the little, here-I-am icon is on the blue line, I know that I am on my way. This is how that “the way” is used in scripture. The way describes a journey into the heart of God. If we look at the Psalm from this morning, we read. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in truth.” We will come to the truth in a minute. What the Psalmist is asking for are the directions, the way, to God in order that he or she might walk, might live, in the right manner. The image in Hebrew and later in Greek for “the way”, is literally the right path. So, when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, he is telling them to follow him, follow his way of life, if they desire to encounter God. We know this because Thomas, earlier in the upper room said, “we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus reply is, follow me. And what does that following look like? It looks like what Jesus had just done for the disciples, he had taken off his outer garment, taken up a towel and washed their feet like a servant. After which he said, as I have done for you, do for others. In other words, Jesus is telling them that the way to God, is the way of the servant. We can see this in the other Gospels when Jesus tells his friends, I have come not to be served but to serve. And in Philippians Paul writes that Jesus humbled himself becoming a servant. Our GPS, our God Positioning Son says follow the way of Jesus; the way of the servant.
Second, Jesus is the truth. One of the great things about GPS is that it helps me not only with my route, but it reminds me of best practices while I am driving that route, such as staying within the speed limit…which I have to say is irritating, but still necessary. Perhaps surprisingly to many of us, that is what the truth is all about. It is about helping us practice a life that is true, or faithful, to God’s desires for humanity. I realize that this may sound odd. Normally when we think of truth, or what is true, we think of facts, or things that are provable. This is not what truth means in scripture. One way to understand this is to return to our Psalm. “Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart…” The truth in this case has nothing to do with facts, it has to do with living, or practicing faithfulness. It is practicing the way of loving God and loving neighbor. It is a reminder for us not just to stay on the main route following Jesus as a servant, but to follow the practices Jesus showed us. There are many of these practices; compassion, honesty, humility, prayer, acceptance of outsiders, among them. But perhaps the greatest of these is forgiveness. I say this because Jesus makes it clear that forgiveness is an act of God. We can see this in the story of the Prodigal son, in Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery and in forgiving Peter after his betrayal. For John then, one of the practices of Jesus that we are to follow, is that of forgiveness, because forgiveness demonstrates the image of God, as the one who forgives. Our GPS, our God Positioning Son says follow the way of the servant and practice forgiving.
Finally, Jesus is the life. As I got used to using my GPS, one of the things that I appreciated was that you could see your destination and you knew how long it would take you to get there. It was kind of fun when my daughter and I used the GPS when we drove her to college in Oregon. However, on one stretch though, it said take a left in 324 miles, which meant the distance seemed to take forever to traverse. Even I was asking are we there yet? And I think that in some ways, this is the way getting to God seems…it takes a life time. But what Jesus offers that differs from our trips with a GPS, is that we get to enjoy the destination now. We get to enjoy the life God offers us now, because Jesus is the life. And what is this life? It is being enfolded in the very love of God. It is experiencing the ever-growing love of God the more that we follow in the way of Jesus and live the practices that Jesus taught. I say this because as we discovered three weeks ago, in part one of the Five Part Story, that God is love and that God pours God’s love out for the world.
Jesus is the way to God and Jesus invites us on the journey. What I would like you to do this morning with your sticky note is this, to think of one Jesus’ practice…compassion, forgiveness, humility, prayer that you would like to work on this week as part of your journey, write it down and then take it home, to remind you that Jesus is the way to God and that you are on the road with him.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 22, 2019
Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 11:17-24
Today we are looking at the third part of our five-party story. God chooses a family. Now the idea of family can be complicated for many of us. For some, family is not a particularly inspiring or joyful word. But this family we will be talking about today is more than genealogies and 23 and me. This is a chosen family.
Our chosen family can have traditional family members in it, but it also includes the friends who are more committed to us than others. The ones who have stuck by us through things that make them more like family, in our eyes, after the struggle is overcome. A regular friend is someone we know and like to hang out with. Normal friendships come and go. When times get hard, regular friends leave, but when you are part of a chosen family there is a deeper commitment to stay in the relationship through those hard times. Often there is a shared goal or ideals. There is even an expectation that they will help each other become better people. When God puts together a family this is the commitment it is founded on. They will stick together through the hard times and help each other be the best version of themselves.
When God chooses a family, the world is a mess. Humanity has wandered far from God and sin has spread fast and taken a strong hold on creation. God has tried many different ways to get through to humanity.
In fact, by chapter 12 of Genesis we are already on plan E. Humanity has messed the other plans up. Plan A was Eden, Adam and Eve messed that up with a quick snack. Plan B was not to restart everything. Instead God let Adam and Eve live with their new knowledge. That ended up with a flood and Noah started Plan C. Plan C worked for a while, but then humanity tried to invade heaven with a huge tower and God had to send them to different corners of the earth to think about what they had done, Plan D.
God’s original plan hasn’t ever changed, the implementation has just been adjusted. The plan has always been to bless the whole world. The problem is the channels through which God blesses the world keep getting gummed up by sin. So, God gets to thinking again about another way to bring blessings into the world. This time the plan is a family, Plan E. God wants to start a family like none other. A family that would be the example to the rest of the world of what life is like with God.
One group of people on whom God can lavish with blessings, who God can teach to dispense these blessings to others. God will bless this group, this family, so that when the world sees them it will be clear how good and powerful God is. This family will be a bright spot in the middle of a sin stained world. They will learn from God how to spread their brightness just as far and fast as sin can travel. God will give the family a set of rules, the Law, and these rules will help them live in a way that will bless the world.
You may wonder why God doesn’t just remove sin from the earth and get us back to Eden. After the flood, God is not too keen on removing things anymore. There was a lot of loss in the flood that God would rather not repeat. Sin has become so enmeshed in creation it would be hard to clean it up without losing creatures and people God loves. When sin came into the world it did not take hold of 100% of some things and 0% of others. We all have some sin in us and some good. To ask God to take sin out of the world like that (snaps finger)? Well we saw how that worked out in the Avenger movies. No, the solution must be an antidote to counteract the effects of sin, even as sin lives on and thrives.
The formula for that antidote is God’s chosen family. God starts with Abraham and Sarah’s family. It’s small, just the two of them. They haven’t been able to have kids yet, but God promises them they will start a great nation and their descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. This is an incredible blessing for God to give. But that is the plan, to bless the family so they can spread blessings around the world. SO, it’s a good idea to make sure this family grows!
God goes to Abraham and establishes the relationship. The exact reason why God chooses Abraham over every other human is not entirely clear, but I’ll bet is has something to do with the way Abraham responds to God.
When God asks Abraham to leave his home and go somewhere new, Abraham obeys. His willingness to trust God and be a good partner in this plan solidifies his place in God’s family. Abraham is not perfect, he has sin in him too. He has moments where he distrusts God’s promise to give him a son. But every time Abraham wanders, God reminds him of the promises and reaffirms God will continue to bless Abraham and his family so the family can bless the world.
Abraham does have a son and his family grows; God’s family grows.
Now because this family is blessed there are others who see them and want to be a part of that, and guess what? They can join the family. That is the beauty of a chosen family!
It also can get ugly when the family members don’t agree on who can join. This problem pops up in our new testament reading. God’s family is still going strong. It is even stronger since Jesus came to do some extra teaching and defeated death. The family plan is more or less still working. But since Jesus, more and more outsiders want to join the family. And some who were in the family have chosen to leave. There is a lot of confusion about who should be in and who should be out.
This is especially true in Rome. Paul writes to the church in Rome and uses a well-known practice of grafting one plant onto another to show how God’s family works. (Read Romans 11: 17-24).
Olive farmers would cultivate plants for the best output of olives. They picked plants for their size of fruit, flavor, and color. As they worked with the plants they would run into a common problem: a highly cultivated plant would stop growing olives all together. Plants produce fruit to survive. When a farmer tends to a plant’s every need it can lose its survival instinct. Wild plants are in hyper survival mode and put a lot of energy towards producing fruit. When a cultivated plant stopped producing fruit the farmer could graft cultivated branches onto wild plants and jump start fruit production again.
Paul compares this to God’s family. If gentiles want to join the family, they will not only be welcomed but grafted onto the main trunk of the tree to receive the same blessing as everyone else. And if a branch no longer produces good fruit to bless the world then that branch will be cut away to make room for another producing branch.
Again, we see God’s family receiving blessings, but also being expected to bless others, to produce fruit. Paul warns those who are receiving God’s blessings to not look down their noses at fallen branches. Instead they should be in awe of how God’s family works. Those who were outside the family can be integrated thoroughly into God’s family. He also reminds them that just because someone does not believe now does not mean they will be rejected later. Even if a branch falls off, God can graft it back on at any time.
And here is where I think God’s family gets really compelling. Yes, we are blessed, but there are times we do not feel particularly blessed. Those hard times will come. But if God’s family works like an olive tree it means we are allowed to have a bad season. When we aren’t feeling the sun shining on our branch, the branches around us are still collecting the sun and turning it into food for the whole tree. If I am feeling wilted, I still get fed! I still can produce good fruit because of the nourishment of the trunk.
There will be seasons where we feel like we are accepting more blessings than we are giving but it takes two to make a blessing work: one to give the blessing and one to receive it. Yes, we all want to be the giver, but the system doesn’t work that way. You do your part in the family just as well when you are a recipient too.
If I am in a down season, that does not make me any less a part of the family. What matters is a person’s commitment to the call to be a blessing when the opportunity arises. And blessing others comes in a million forms. A smile, letting someone merge on the highway, sitting and listening to someone, playing with a child, these are all ways to be a blessing and no one is greater than the other. We may feel short on blessings but can still offer these things to others. Blessings are funny things too. The more you give, the more you have.
This week Forbes had a piece about giving back as a good business model. Scott Moorehead is a coauthor of Build A Culture of Good: Unleash Results by Letting Your Employees Bring Their Soul to Work. In this book, Moorehead and his coauthors make a case for promoting philanthropy in the workplace.
Moorehead is the CEO of his family business and started seeing employee turnover skyrocket. He discovered that most employees only saw the business as a paycheck and had not developed a deep sense of loyalty. Moorehead decided the solution would be to connect and give back to the community where the employees lived. This “culture of Good” as Moorehead calls it, has cause their employee turnover to become just half of what peer companies see in a year. And it’s bringing new customers to the cash register. The more you give the more you have.
It seems God was onto something with choosing a family that would live their lives to bless others. Not only does that work help others, it makes for a better sense of self and belonging. It feels good to belong to a family that is committed to creating a culture of good. A family that will help each member be the best version of themselves and support each other through hard times. God’s family wants a culture of good to take over the world and works every day to keep the ripple of blessing moving in the world.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 15, 2019
Genesis 3:8-13; John 8:1-11
Our training was pretty much the same though we joined the Peace Corps 32 years apart. I joined the Peace Corp in 1977 and my daughter joined in 2009. We had language school six days a week, eight hours a day. We were given cultural sensitivity training so that we knew how to dress and act in ways that would not offend our host country citizens. We were given lessons about and exposed to local foods so that nothing would surprise us…that one did not work. All of this was the same old, same old…except my daughter received one extra unexpected bit of instruction and that was uxo training; uxo standing for unexploded ordinance. They were given this training because in Cambodia where she had gone there are somewhere between four and six million live landmines and unexploded ordinance. This is how she explained it to me. The training was pretty basic: don’t walk across fallow fields with no cattle or people walking on them. Don’t go down paths or roads that look abandoned, if you see a mine or a uxo (unexplored ordinance), call the trainers organization and tell someone in the village. Keep kids away from uxos and don’t let them touch them. Ask the elders in the village you are moving to about land mines and where not to go. Always obey signs that say keep away (not that there were too many of those- it was mostly just word of mouth where the mines were). I have to say that this is not what most Peace Corps parents wanted to hear about.
I tell you that story this morning because I want you to lock that image into your brains; the image that to be safe you keep to the paths that people know are free of uxos. I ask you to do that because it will help us understand the second part of the Five Part Story, We Wander Far from God. One of the most often used images for what it means to be faithful in the scriptures is the image of following God, meaning to walk in the paths that God has established. These paths are those that lead to life giving ways and away from death dealing ways. They are the paths that keep us safe from the “landmines’ that are scattered about us in the world that would diminish our humanity. The paths, the safe paths, are defined in the Old Testament by the Torah, or the Law of Moses and in the New Testament by the life and teachings of Jesus. They could be summed up as love God and neighbor. Granted, there is no guarantee that if people follow these paths they will have perfectly pain free lives but following these paths will allow folks to find the life, love and joy that God desires them to have. Unfortunately, as human beings, we have a nasty tendency to go down other paths, paths that look enticing but are filled with a variety of uxos, waiting to be tripped. We can see this in both of our stories this morning.
Our Genesis story picks up after the “don’t eat that fruit” incident when Adam and Eve decided that they didn’t need to listen to God’s warning about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They knew better but they still ate. Then the uxos began to explode. There was the uxo of fear. There was the uxo of shame. There was the uxo of blame. The same is true for our Jesus story out of the Gospel of John. In this story there is a group of people who are out to get Jesus. They are trying to trap him. They decide they can do this by catching a woman in the act of committing adultery and bring her before Jesus to see what he would do. If he condemned her, they could call him a rigid legalist. If he let her go, they could say he did not love the law. Both the woman and those who were trying to use her to trap Jesus had wandered off the path and into a minefield. The woman, by breaking her marriage vows, had blown up her marriage and her reputation. The people trying to trap Jesus had become those who violate the Torah’s command to love neighbor, by using her as a thing, rather than treating her as a human being. In the end of the story as they all slink away, we can see that they understood that they had stepped on uxos as well.
It would be nice to believe that humanity has learned how to stay on the path of loving God and neighbor and to avoid uxos over the past two-thousand years. Unfortunately, it would seem as if this wandering off the path is somehow hard-wired in us and in our cultures. This reality occurred to me as I was looking back over last week’s sermon about God Loves the World, in which I mentioned the four ways that we know God loves us. God gives us creation, community, leisure and love…and yes for those of you who were here last week, I changed the third on to leisure…sounds a bit better than couch. As I thought about those four ways of receiving God’s love, I realized that rather than allowing that love to keep us on the path, we have taken those gifts for granted and used them for our own ends, leading us to wander into fields of uxos that have harmed us and harmed humanity. Let’s do a quick review.
God loved us and gave us this amazing creation which has the ability to sustain us with air, water and food. As human beings we have clear cut and burned off the forests that provide us with oxygen. We have polluted the air and the water. We are in the midst of epic global warming, that is melting glaciers, increasing world temperatures and raising sea levels. We have not treated our God’s creation as we should and so we stepped on the uxos of floods, rising sea levels, asthma, inedible fish because of mercury poisoning…and I could on and on.
God loved us and gave us community in which we might find care and support. Instead of offering our support to others, especially those who are not exactly like us, we became tribal. My tribe is better than your tribe. My tribe is superior to your tribe. My tribe can conquer and enslave your tribe. In becoming tribal we stepped on the uxos of division, racism, sexism, homophobia, war and violence.
God loves us and gave us leisure because God did not want us working ourselves to death. Biblically this is called sabbath. Yet we Americans anyway, have found a way of ignoring sabbath and working ourselves into the ground. The Japanese have a word for working oneself to death. It is Karoshi. Unfortunately we don’t have such a word even though we work more hours than the Japanese. When we work this hard, we step on the uxos of depression, burn-out, shortened life spans and ill health.
God loves us and gives us love. God pours God’s love into us that we might love God and neighbor. Yet we have kept this love for ourselves, or at best only offered it as a friends-and-family plan. And when we have done this, we have stepped on the uxos of unforgiveness, isolation, anger, hatred and so many more.
In one way or another we all wander off these paths and into the uxo fields that lead us and the world away from the life, love and peace God offers. I say this not to shame us, but to remind us that wandering is part of the human condition. It is what we do. But I don’t want you to go away feeling depressed. And you shouldn’t for two reasons. First you shouldn’t feel depressed because wandering far from God is the second part of the Five Part Story. The first part is God Loves the World, meaning the foundation for our faith and life is always that God loves us. The second reason we should not go away depressed is that We Wander Far From God, is only the second part of the Five Part Story. What this means is that we have three more parts, each one focused on getting us back on God’s path…each one focused on how God’s love refuses to let us wander forever and offers us forgiveness and new life on each and every day.
My challenge to you this morning then is to have you take out your super-sticky note…then ask yourself, in which of the ways we wander far from God, do I need to be more self-aware of not doing so well? Do I need to care more for creation, do I need to be less tribal, do I need to practice more self-care or do I need to allow God to love me more so I can love others more? Once you have decided, write that down, take the sticky note home, and put it next to your note from last week…then remember God’s love for you, and practice staying on the path in an intentional way.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 8, 2019
Genesis 1:26-31; 1 John 4:7-12
They were back. Regardless of all the time and money my parents put into their home, they were back. The “they” that were back were cracks in the walls and gaps between the walls and the ceiling. They were there because in Houston, homes are built “slab on grade”, meaning that the land is graded, rebar is laid and concrete poured, much like people do with driveways here in Michigan. The problem in Houston is that the soil is like a sponge. When it gets wet it expands and when it dries up it contracts. In addition, the soil does not rise and fall evenly, so that over the years, the soil under foundations is shifting at different rates, thus twisting and turning the foundation in different directions. Twice my parents had holes drilled in the foundation and piers and jacks put under the house to stabilize it. Both times it failed. So, when my father finally sold his house two years ago, the cracks were still there. I have to say this image has become my perfect metaphor for life. If we don’t have good foundations, cracks are going to appear. It doesn’t matter what part of life we are talking about; relationships, businesses, educational institutions, if they do not have a firm foundation on which to exist, cracks will appear and regardless of our best efforts to fix them, they may crack and fail.
The same is true for our faith; that if our faith does not have a firm foundation on which to stand, it too will crack and perhaps fail. I say this because just like my parent’s foundation was continually stressed, so is our faith. Our faith is twisted and turned by stressful moments in our lives; stressful moments when we deal with difficult relationships and jobs; with vacillating health and illness; with painful layoffs and interviews; with stresses in society of war, recession, politics and uncertainty. Any or all of these can call into question what we believe or why we believe it. It can even cause us to lose our faith, as with one pastor I knew who quit believing in God because of the horrific tragedies that encompassed the world. The question before us then, is what sort of a foundation do we have that will ensure our faith can weather the ever-occurring stresses that life brings? The answer can be found in scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and that answer is, that God loves the world. Yes, the foundation that will support us in all times, if we allow it to do so, is to personally see and experience God’s love for the world and for us. I realize that in the face of what we have witnessed over the past several weeks, shootings, hurricanes, and the like, it might be hard to speak about God loving the world, but if you will walk with me, I hope you will see this that this foundation is present around us and in us.
How do we know God loves us? We know because God has given us this creation. The writer of Genesis makes it clear that this creation is a gift of God intended to supply the needs of every living thing. It is good, meaning that it serves the purpose of bringing forth and sustaining life in all its fullness; in all its richness and diversity. This planet provides us with air to breath and water to drink. It provides us with soil to till and minerals to extract. It provides us with seeds to be sewn and rain to nourish them. This year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. And while that was an amazing feat, what amazed me as much were the pictures of the earth, this blue-green ball floating in a sea of darkness; a globe teeming with life in the midst of a seemingly endless field of stars and galaxies. We can make God’s love a foundation for our lives when we realize just how miraculous is this creation on which we live. Want to see God’s love…look at the beauty of creation.
How do we know God loves us? We know God loves us because God has given us community. The Genesis’ writer offers us a theological account of the creation of the physical world whose penultimate act is the creation of human beings. The writer states that we are created male and female, and in God’s image. This description is not about who we are to marry or about sexual orientation, it is about community, that we are not made to exist alone. It is a reminder that God did not make isolated individuals who were to live apart from others, but that God created us to be in intimate communion with one another. And one of the great gifts of God according to the Bible is that God did not just create one kind of people who looked and spoke and acted alike. Instead scripture tells us that God created the nations, or in Greek the ethne…from which we get the words ethnic and ethnicities. What this means is that God created us in a wide variety of skin colors, languages, sexual orientations and cultures. And these nations, God’s children, are intended to be a tapestry that is as vibrant as the tapestry of the physical world around us. This vibrant diversity of humanity is what enriches the world. Want to see God’s love, look at the people around you.
How do we know that God loves us? We know that God loves us because God has given us couches. What I mean by that is that God has given us rest. Had we continued reading this passage we would have heard the story of the final day of creation, when God rested. The scriptures read that “on the seventh day God finished God’s creation and rested.” Chances are God was not worn out or tired. Instead God was making clear in the beginning that rest, time away from work, time to enjoy the company of community, time to enjoy this amazing creation, time to give thanks to God, is a gift that we are supposed to take advantage of and enjoy. What that means is that God wants us to take some time and appreciate all that we have been given. God wants us to take some time and experience the love that God offers. God’s love for us is so great that God does not want us to work ourselves to death, but instead to rest and recharge, or to use Biblical language, God wants us to enjoy a sabbath. Want to see God’s love, take a nap and relax.
How do we know God loves us? We know because we can love others. We know because the love we give to others is the love God has given to us. And for us as Jesus’ followers, we trust that the love we have comes through Christ. John 1 puts it this way, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love…In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In other words, we know God loves us because we are capable of loving others. In college I was a business major and though I don’t remember much of what I learned I remember two things. First there is LIFO (last in first out) and FIFO (first in first out). This morning I want to give you another four-letter concept, LILO. This is love in, love out. We believe that we are capable of loving others because God loved us; because God has poured God’s love into us. And this means that not only can we love those who love us, but we can love those who are difficult to love. We can do this because this is what God does. God does not just love people who look like us, think like us, speak like us. God loves the world and everyone in it. We can also do this because Jesus told us we can. Jesus speaks about this when he says, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…but love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:32, 35) LILO means that we have been given enough love to love God, neighbor and stranger.
Our faith has been given a firm foundation in God’s love for the world. My challenge to you then is to take out your sticky note and write two things on it. First, I want you to consider which of the ways of experiencing God’s love, creation, community or couch, is most meaningful to you and then write it down. Second, I want you to write down the name of a person, or perhaps a group of people that you would not normally love, or find hard to love, it can be their initials, on the sticky note as well. We will give you some time to do this. Then I want you to take these notes home and place them somewhere where you will see them every day. Then as you read them, first give thanks for God’s love that comes to you. But also, to ask yourselves, how can I work to love this person.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
September 1, 2019
Genesis 39:19-23; Matthew 25:31-46
This week we conclude our series on Matthew 25 and our focus is on visiting the prisoner. By now this scripture should be very familiar to you. As we hear it yet again this morning, I invite you to close your eyes while I read it and listen for God speaking to you. These words are Jesus’ last discourse before the final days of his earthly life. In today’s scripture, the image of Jesus shifts from shepherd to king, and we are reminded that no power can match the power of the reigning Lord. And we are reminded that loving God and loving others as oneself is set forth as the linchpin for life in God.
I think we’ll all agree that Joseph, in our reading from Genesis, is a good man. And while God’s sovereignty and God keeping God’s promises are key points in Joseph’s story … we can imagine ourselves visiting Joseph in prison. Because Joseph is a good man, and a sympathetic character. And as our scripture from Matthew talks about giving food to the hungry, giving something to drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, giving clothing to the naked, and taking care of the sick... we can pretty-well wrap our heads around that, at least from a distance.
But what about the person who is hungry because they spent all their food money on booze? What about the person who is naked because they gambled away their clothes? What about the person who is a stranger because they were kicked out of their home? What about the person who is sick from using dirty needles? It becomes a little more challenging. And what about the person who is in prison? Often, when we think of prisoners in the Bible, we are sympathetic toward them. We think of Joseph, Samson, Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Peter, and Paul. We think of those who were imprisoned for their boldness of faith and speaking truth to power.
But today, in the United States, that is not why people are in prison. People are in prison for committing crimes, and most of them are guilty. Some of the crimes seem rather petty by comparison, and some are quite ugly. Some of the prisoners seem rather sympathetic, and some are not very nice people. If the United States’ prison population were a city, it would be the 5th largest city in our country.1 But rarely, if ever, do we think about prisons or prisoners unless we know someone who is incarcerated. Yet despite prisoners being shut away from the world, God does not want those in prison to be forgotten. God forgets no one, and so we are to forget no one. We are all God’s children. And God loves all of God’s children. Today I really want to push us… because I need to push myself. Those in prison are part of the needy.
Forty-three years ago, my life changed dramatically. One evening I had a 7-hour conversation with a man I knew slightly but liked, and it left me feeling uneasy about his current mental state. The next day, he committed a serious crime, called the police to report himself, and has been incarcerated ever since. Obviously, I became a key witness in his trial. I was only 23 at the time, and I was not prepared for how this shook my world. When I went to check on him, I learned that not one person had reached out to this man. Not his friends, and not his family. And so, I made a promise that this man would not be forgotten. It was the first time I really felt God calling me to something.
I visited him every week in jail for a year until he was sent to prison … and then I wrote him regularly and visited him as often as I was able. I learned that we are all fragile … that we all have a breaking point … and that some people have absolutely no one to offer them a bit of compassion. And I was reminded again that we are all, indeed, God’s children. As the years go by, my friend has shared in my meeting my husband, having a family, going to seminary and being called to this church. He knows of my passion for ministering with people with disabilities, and he will sometimes send me articles on the subject. And I remain his only link to the outside world.
Today’s scripture is a reminder to me that in the past few years, I have not been very faithful in keeping the promise I made … and I am the worse for it. Loving those who are undervalued is not only a key expression of our love of God … it is a vital demonstration of God’s love for us. We cannot understand God’s love for us if we don’t continue to share it with others. And we do it with “real-life, this-world” deeds. And sometimes those deeds can be as simple as writing a short note.
Our daughter, Katie, is opposed to the death penalty. And so, she went to Michigan Law School and now works as a federal attorney whose only clients are on death row. Her goal is to have the death penalty removed, case by case. Let’s be honest, she serves those whom society considers the “least of the least.” I have to say, I am very proud of the work she does. Though I am not exactly thrilled with some of the circumstances … she is following her passion and her beliefs. But even more than that, I am proud that she sees beyond the crime committed and seeks to know the person she is representing.
While still in school, Katie did an internship in New Orleans, and lived in Sister Helen Prejean’s office. You may remember Sister Helen as the nun portrayed in the movie, “Dead Man Walking.” One of my favorite quotes by Sister Helen is, “We are not the worst moments of our lives.” That is how our daughter relates to her clients, and I believe that is exactly how Jesus is directing us to live and reach out to others.
I’ve said it here before: We are not commanded to like each other. We are commanded to love each other. Each and every one of us is a child of God. And we are called to see Christ in the other … and let the other see Christ in us. That is what Matthew 25 is about … and this passage offers relief from the pressure of having to have all the answers before being able to act. When you serve the needy, you are doing it unto Christ. And you see the Christ in them. And they see the Christ in you. And that includes those in prison. Just ask Jesus.
1 CNN, April 21, 2019
(To learn a bit about prison ministry, visit: crossroad.org or prisonfellowship.org)