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)
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.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 28, 2019
1 Kings 17:7-16; Matthew 25:35-40
I want to begin this morning with a poll. You can respond by simply raising your hand. First, how many of you had dinner last night? Second, how many of you had breakfast this morning? Third, how many of you still have food in your pantry. Finally, how many of you have access to a close-by grocery store? Your polling results show that you are food sufficient and so probably would have a difficult time fully relating to our morning’s story in 1 Kings.
As a reminder, this story is part of the Prophet Elijah cycle of stories. As this story begins,Elijah has been hiding to save his life. He is hiding because the King and Queen of Israel have essentially put out “Wanted Dead or Alive…Preferably Dead” posters. While he hides, a severe drought has enfolded the nation. He survived by drinking water from a wadi and getting his meals from ravens…long story. Finally, though the wadi dried up and he was forced to leave. Following God’s instructions, he headed to a local town to meet a widow who would feed him. When he arrived and asked for food, the widow told him that she had only enough meal for herself and her son, and that when that was gone, they would starve because there is no more food. What this meant, was that Elijah was at risk of starving as well. For most of us, the thought of starving to death is simply not on our radar. Yet in the ancient world, starvation was always near at hand. It was part of life. All it took to unleash hunger and starvation was a drought, a plague of locusts or a foreign army taking crops and livestock. But for us, with ready access to food, this story probably doesn’t resonate…yet it would probably resonate with more than forty-million people in the United States.
I say this because forty-million Americans struggle to have enough food to feed their families. Fifteen million are what the government calls food insecure, which means that they are not sure where their next meal is coming from. One in six children in this nation do not know where their next meal is coming from and those children have higher rates of asthma, depression, anxiety and do more poorly in school. Though there is a higher percentage of households with children that suffer from food insecurity, still one-in-ten working adults struggles with hunger. Through a combination of rising rents, higher foods costs, lack of medical coverage and low wages, food is often the last thing to be paid for. And just a note, food insecurity is not simply an inner-city problem. There are higher rates of food insecurity in rural areas than in urban areas and the suburbs are quickly catching up. What this means is that the hungry are all around us. So as followers of Jesus, what are we supposed to do?
The answer simply is to help to feed them, because this is what God does. Whether it is God sending Jacob’s family to Egypt to avoid starvation. Or God feeding the people in the wilderness. Or Jesus feeding the 5,000. God’s desire is for people to be fed. And this is the outcome of the story this morning from 1 Kings. Elijah tells the woman to have courage, and if she is willing to share then God will make sure that her meal and oil never run out, until after the drought is over. She shares, God provides and none of them starve. And I want to pause for a moment to be sure that we don’t miss one of the most important aspects of this story, and that is that the widow is a foreigner. She is not a worshipper of the God of Israel. She is a worshipper of another god, and yet our God feeds her and her son. It is these kinds of stories that form the basis for Jesus statement about feeding the least of these. For when the righteous ask the Son of Man, “When did I ever feed you?” the answer comes back that you fed me when you fed the least of these. The challenge then is for us to find a way to serve the least of these by offering food. One way to do that is through our Shop and Drop Program.
(the following comes from an interview with Anne Barauskas who heads our
Shop and Drop Program)
Shop and Drop is a program started by Elizabeth Gumbis about three years ago. The program is intended to assist food-insecure families at Alcott Elementary School in Pontiac with enough food to cover their weekend needs. We focus on weekends because the children can receive free breakfast and lunch at school during the school year, but there is often little or no food for the weekends. Those participating in Shop and Drop are asked to buy enough food for ten families, spending a total of $100, or $10 per family. The shoppers then either drop the food at Alcott on Thursdays of find someone to drop it for them. The Social Worker at the school, identifies families in need and then distributes the food accordingly. Shop and Droppers can then turn in their receipts and be reimbursed for their expenditure by the church. All one has to do is to bring the receipts to Jan or Martha at the church. In the 2018-2019 school year, this food made a difference in the lives of 104 children. We know that it matters to the families because the children are always excited to get the food and the parents are always appreciative. You can help by signing up to shop and drop, to shop or drop (partnering with someone else) or by making donations to help keep the program running.
My hope is that each of us will take the time to find out about Shop and Drop or another program that feeds those in need.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
July 21, 2019
2 Samuel 15:13-23; Acts 28:11-15
He was unbelievably lonely. He felt isolated and forgotten. His loneliness was taking a toll. But then, unexpectedly he made a friend. It was if his friend just appeared in his life. Suddenly life was worth living again. He and his friend ate together. They had long, if sometimes, one-sided conversations. They walked together. Soon they were inseparable. Days, weeks and months flew by, yet they never grew tired of each other. But then the unthinkable happened. They were out in the surf when his friend was swept away. He called to this friend over and over but to no avail. Wilson was gone. They would never meet again. If you are not familiar with this story, it is the outline of Tom Hanks movie, Castaway, in which Hanks plays a Fed-Ex systems engineer who is on his way to Malaysia to resolve an issue, when his plane crashes in the Pacific and he manages to float to a deserted Pacific island. Desperate for company he finds some packages, one of which has a volleyball inside…made by, you guessed it, Wilson. Hanks paints a face on a volleyball, names it Wilson and they become best friends. While to some people this might seem a silly plot line, I find it plausible because I believe that we human beings are genetically wired for community, for companionship and so we will go to almost any length not to be isolated and lonely.
When I say that we humans are hardwired for companionship, for being in community, I say that first because humans have always gathered into clans, tribes and communities. In fact, this past year there was a discovery of a highly organized nine-thousand-year-old Neolithic community. I say this second because study after study shows the deleterious effects of loneliness. What loneliness does is that it causes the body to produce stress hormones such as cortisol. And over a long period of time those hormones do damage to the body. It leads to high blood pressure, increased inflammation and a weakened immune system. One study showed that it has the same effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In addition, without a support system people slip into bad habits, depression and become more politically polarized because, as Senator Ben Sasse wrote, when we are isolated from one another all we can do is shriek at each other. And my friends this matters because we are in a loneliness epidemic. This was first pointed out in Putnam’s book Bowling Alone in which he described the slow but steady erosion or social capital and networks. Other studies showed that from 1985 to 2009, the average American’s social network shrunk by more than one third. Some people argue that social media helps connect us, but the top consumers of social media in the age group of 19-25 feel lonelier than their peers. With all that having been said I need to note two things. First loneliness is not new. It is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. Second, while both of our stories offer us a look at loneliness, they also offer us a possible way out.
First, the story of David. By the time of our tale, David has grown old and is losing his popularity and his hold on the Kingdom. Sensing this, David’s eldest son, Absalom, plots a takeover of the Kingdom, a palace coup if you will. It is only by God’s grace that David learns of this plot and escapes. His escape is not a hurried exodus from Jerusalem, but it is almost a farewell tour, as if he expects to be caught and killed. The only people who go with him are this loyalists. His loneliness can be seen in the moment when Ittai the Gittite, and his six-hundred men try to go with David. The king essentially says, no you stay, I will be fine, just let me get caught. David is surrounded by his friends, yet he feels so all alone that he rejects the offer from Ittai. Second the story of Paul. Our story comes from the end of the book of Acts. Paul has arrived in Rome accompanied by, we assume, a few close friends. But he arrives in Rome, not because he was on vacation, but because he was under arrest. Along the way he had been shipwrecked, threatened with death, bitten by a poisonous snake, and otherwise inconvenienced. I’m not sure we can imagine as well how small he feels when he arrives in pagan grandeur of Rome. It must have made him feel small and insignificant. We can surmise this because we are told in verse 15 that he takes courage, meaning he had lost his. Both famous figures felt lonely, yet at the same time they discovered a way out of their loneliness…and that was to remember that they had companions along the way.
I realize that what I am about to say is one of those “duh” statements, but I will say it anyway. Loneliness can be helped by realizing that we are not really alone…that we do have companions on our journey’s. David believed himself to be alone, even with his royal household all around him. But suddenly in his response to Ittai’s offer, I think that he realized he was not alone. When he said to Ittai, “you also are an exile from your home”, it began to trigger something in David. It made him realize that he an Ittai shared a common journey. They were both exiles searching for companionship. And so when Ittai signs on to go with David, the king relents and finds a Wilson to go with him; a Wilson to be his companion along the way. This same process happens with Paul. He has arrived in Rome feeling low and alone. But then people come from as far as the “Forum of Appius and Three Taverns” to meet him, it dawns on him that the Spirit has not left him alone. The Spirit has given him companions on this dangerous and difficult journey. In that realization, then he takes courage. He has been given a bunch of Wilsons.
Loneliness can and often does come to us all. And when it does, it can create its own self-reinforcing cycle. It is only when something happens to remind us that we are not alone, that the cycle can be broken. This morning then I want to offer everyone here an opportunity to be reminded that they are not alone. That we are surrounded by Wilsons. We are surrounded by companions along the way. What you are invited to do is to come forward to renew your baptism; to be marked again with the waters of the font as a reminder that the Spirit has made us all to be part of a single, world-wide family. And as you come forward, or remain where you are, to look around you at all who come to the font and know that they are your companions, they are your family.
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
July 14, 2019
2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Before I get to the reading from the new testament, I wanted to spend some time with David. The overriding impression David has left on history is that he is the epitome of a godly man and king. As a boy he is chosen by God to be King. When David is just a lowly shepherd God helps him to care for his flocks by blessing him with a deadly aim against bears and lions. When his older brothers go off to fight in the war David is too young and small, yet God brings him to the frontline, gives him the courage to volunteer to fight Goliath and then God flushes David’s muscles with the strength to defeat the giant enemy.
David then goes to serve the King – even though he has this call to BE king, David must first serve the king, which he does well. He is humble and helpful and stays in his lane even when he could step up and take the throne for himself. Through all the trials of getting to the throne David remains level-headed and worthy of the title God’s appointed king…until he sees Bathsheba.
When David sees her bathing he loses all level-headedness. He plots ways to meet with her, he schemes ways to kill her husband, and eventually he successfully makes her his wife. He succumbs to lustful and murderous temptations and commits outrageous sins. Yet, we still remember him as a great king of God’s own choosing. Why? Because of confession.
After David has had Bathsheba’s husband killed, a prophet named Nathan comes to the palace to report a terrible crime and sin against God. He tells David about two men: one who is rich and has everything he could ever want, and one man who is poor and only has one little lamb. Then the rich man has a friend visit, and instead of taking one of his own lambs for a feast, the rich man takes the poor man’s one possession in life, his little lamb.
David is furious to hear about this injustice happening in his nation and demands the rich man be killed for his crimes. That’s when Nathan reveals the rich man he was talking about is David. David had everything, yet stole the wife of a man who only had her. David stole from the less fortunate to fulfill his own sinful desires.
David immediately feels the shame and guilt rise in his stomach and confesses that he has indeed sinned against God. The psalms tell us exactly how David felt. In them he writes that staying silent about his sins make his bones feel brittle, that his energy was taken out of him like the sun on a hot day. Psalm 51 is David’s plea to God after hearing Nathan’s truth
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
This is the cry of a broken heart. Someone who is fully aware of the monster they have become. Nathan has held up a mirror and David sees a fearsome monster staring back at him. A monster with horns and claws, ready and willing to devour anyone in his path.
We have all had a moment where the person looking back at us through a mirror bears more resemblance to a monster than to ourselves. And if we haven’t seen that monster, then maybe the monster looking back is too prideful to even notice its horns and claws.
Becoming the monster happens little by little. Unconfessed sins sit in the shadows of our soul, becoming stronger and a more dominant part of our personality secretly and quietly. We let sins sit because the process of confession is distressing. Confession means lifting out of ourselves all our guilt, shame, and regret, and looking at the mess we created. It can hurt so much that sometimes we think it is easier to let the stain of sin sit where it is. It’s easier to cover it up, ignore the stiffness in our soul, and live another day without confessing.
Letting sin sit inside us allows the sin to change us. A sin left unconfessed can quickly become a part of our identity. It overrides the image of God we have been gifted and the sin can take control of our actions.
One day, when I worked in a first-grade classroom, I noticed the birthday oreos had been pillaged. At recess, a student came up to me and as they talked to me they kept wiping their mouth with their hand. After a short conversation I asked them why they kept wiping their mouth and they ran away. Later, a friend of theirs came to get me because this student was crying in the slide. I went over to see them and they slid down into my arms, their face wet with tears. Honestly, they were dripping all over because the plastic slide was so hot to be in that day, but they felt better in the sweltering slide then facing the world. The student told me they were wiping their face because they were afraid I could see the crumbs. This was hours after they had eaten the cookie. They had been to gym and lunch. There was no way the Oreo crumbs were still there. But this student had stolen Oreos at home before, and the crumbs had incriminated them then. The ghost crumbs haunted them. They thought I could see them because it was the only thing they could think of. Their actions became odd because the guilt of the stolen cookie told them everyone could see their crime and they needed to keep covering their tracks. The crumbs had become a part of their identity, until they confessed and received forgiveness.
We avoid confession because it is uncomfortable and oftentimes painful, but 1 Timothy shows us what confession feels like for someone who relies on God’s grace. 1 Timothy says, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me trustworthy, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
We should not see confession as a panicking child, but as people becoming stronger, mercy overflowing onto us, The Holy Spirit tickling each horn, and claw and turning us back into the serene image of God’s creation.
From the beginning God has given each human God’s own image to carry and present to the world. God’s image is like the shapes from the children’s book. There is a way to present them that is a welcoming happy scene. But sin twists those shapes out of order and instead of the peaceful home we get a monster. When we sin, and especially when we hold onto our sins, we can’t show God’s image to the world because we are out of order. The peaceful moon becomes a terrifying horn, and the soft trees become fearsome claws.
But once we brought attention and a tickle to each shape it went back to where it belonged. And instead of a monster we have a welcoming home. Confession is that tickle that brings attention to our sin and releases it so that our identity can return to the image and shape God has entrusted to us.
If we confess, we must trust that God’s love shown through Jesus will be strong enough to put us back into the right order. When David talks about confession he says he confesses according to God’s unfailing love, according to God’s great compassion. The size of David’s confession corresponds with the size he believes God’s love and compassion is. Because David believes God’s love is powerful he openly confesses his deepest sins and trusts grace will put him back together.
If you believe God’s love is small you will only be able to confess the small stuff. But if you believe God’s love is huge, abounding, overflowing, then bring it on! Get it out, let it go, and let God overpower your sins with love and compassion. We don’t need to be afraid of confession because we know God’s love is strong enough to handle anything. No matter what shape we have let our sins beat us into, God has the tool to make it right. It still may be painful, especially when our confession needs to be made to other people who will need time to process their own hurt feelings. But if we are afraid of hurting someone with confession, we should be more afraid of who we are letting our unconfessed sins turn us into. When we hold onto our sins will also cause harm as we slowly turn into resentful, defensive monsters. We need to trust that love and forgiveness will win every battle against sin.
Then comes a part of confession we usually forget to do. Our images of confession often look like a business transaction: I unload my sins, you give me forgiveness and we go our merry ways. But in scripture there is another step beyond the dumping of one’s sins and receiving forgiveness.
Every confession of David and even these verses in 1 Timothy have a heavy helping of confessing God’s glory. Confession without affirmations can become a pity fest, “Oh Lord, I am such a sinner. I’m terrible. I’m worthless.” If we stop there it’s no wonder we hate confession. But for every sin confessed, an affirmation should take its place. I have lied, but today I told only truth.
The mirror that used to trigger negative hateful words, where we saw a monster looking back at us, we need to reclaim that mirror for God’s glory. Write words of praise on the mirror. Where you use to show hate for your crooked teeth, affirm that your smile still inspires joy. Where you used to look for flaws to cut and punish yourself, write “Grace happens here.”
The energy you used to spend covering up the crumbs you were sure everyone could see, use that energy to notice the good parts of yourself, and let them thrive in the absence of guilt and shame. When the image of God has been covered by sin we can forget who we are. So, after we unburden ourselves we need to take time to reacclimate ourselves to what that image looks like in us.
I don’t know where each of you are in the confession process. Some of us are just now becoming aware of the dull pain in our soul.
Some of us are fully aware of what we need to confess because we have been actively wiping away the crumbs so no one will learn our secret.
Some of us have been unloading for a while now and need to begin affirming the great things God is doing in us and through us.
Let us pray.
Pastors and Associate Pastors: Dr. John Judson, Rev. Joanne Blair, Dr. Kate Thoresen, Rev. Ted Thode