March 29, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Psalm 23 (The Message); 2 Corinthians 4:7-12
It overwhelmed me. It knocked my feet out from under me and swept me under. The wave had come out of nowhere and I had lost all sense of which way was up or down. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except I was holding our two-year old daughter in one of my arms and the undertow was ripping her out of my arms. In stark terror I struggled to hold on. Our family had gone down to the beach in Texas with our youth group to enjoy a few days of surf, sand and group building. Our daughter loved the waves and the water. She would get into the surf and giggle and run away. But most of all she loved having me hold her out in the surf and have me dip her in and out of the waves. On this particular day, the waves were strong but nothing out of the ordinary. I had spent many days of my youth at Texas’ beaches without any issue. But then that wave came. I had never, and have never, experienced anything like it. It totally and completely overwhelmed me. As I felt Katie slipping from my grip I was terrified in a way I never had been before or have been since. It was a moment that is seared into my memory.
This morning I have to wonder how many of us are feeling the same way…overwhelmed. I know that I feel overwhelmed, as if my feet have been swept out from under me and I sense normal life slipping away. At first, this virus was something coming out of Wuhan China, a place few of us knew anything about. That news was like the gentle waves at Lake Michigan, just kind of lapping at your feet. You knew it was there but it was no big deal. It was easy enough to retreat to the shore and have no ill effects. Then the waves began to increase as we were told no more than 500 people can meet together, then no more than 100 people can meet together, then 50 then 10. Soon restaurants were closed. Then other businesses. Then we were told to shelter in place. The waves were growing in power and frequency. Local hospitals began to be overwhelmed and elective surgeries were postponed. The television and internet were filled with pleas from hospitals, doctors and nurses for masks and face shields. It was as if the wave had hit us and were at risk of being towed under, losing our footing and losing hope. If this is where you are my friends, you are not alone. In fact it places you in the company of almost every great hero of the Bible, including the two we are looking at this morning.
We begin with David, who most assume was the writer of the 23rd Psalm. David’s life had begun rather inauspiciously. He was the younger son of a shepherding family in Bethlehem. He was brave enough to protect his family’s sheep from wild animals. We are not exactly sure how he came to the attention of Israel’s first king, Saul. One tradition claims that he came to the king’s attention by using superior military technology to defeat the Philistine giant, Goliath. Another source tells us that David came to Saul’s attention because he was a skilled musician who could comfort the king. Regardless of how he came to the king’s attention he soon became Saul’s most competent general. Unfortunately, people began to say things like, Saul has killed his thousands but David his tens of thousands. Saul became more and more jealous and after trying to kill David with a spear, decided that David had to go. David had to die. Fearing for his life, David fled the palace. He was overwhelmed. He was afraid. His feet had been knocked out from under him and the undertow was about to drown him as Saul and Saul’s troops hunted him. So when David writes, “Even when the way goes through death valley” and “You serve me a six course dinner right in front of my enemies”, he is not merely making a metaphor. He is speaking of those moments when he was overwhelmed with fear and doubt.
Paul was overwhelmed as well. I understand that we all carry with us differing views of Paul. Regardless of those views I think that one thing we need to give him credit for was his willingness to travel to new places, meet new people and tell them about the life transforming power of the love of God in Jesus Christ. One of those places was the city of Corinth. Paul had arrived there knowing no one. But through sheer determination he shared the Good News and created a significant community of Jesus followers. The church, even though it had its issues as all churches do, was one of his prides and joys. But then it turned on him. After he left there to move on to Ephesus, new leadership took over the church and made it clear that not only was Paul a loser, but that he was greedy and incompetent. To counteract these views, Paul journeyed back from Ephesus to Corinth, planning to reorient the church, only to be abused and driven out. He was overwhelmed. His feet had been cut out from under him and as soon as he returned to Ephesus he was imprisoned and wondered if he might be executed. So when he writes that he was afflicted, perplexed, persecuted and struck down, he is not making metaphor. He is speaking of the reality of his life. He is speaking about being physically, emotionally and spiritually overwhelmed. Yet somehow, Paul did not give up. Somehow David did not give in. Listen again.
“Even when the way goes through Death Valley, I’m not afraid when you walk by my side. Your trusty shepherd’s crook makes me feel secure” “You serve me a six-course dinner right in front of my enemies. You revive my drooping head; my cup brims with blessing.” “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.” They were overwhelmed but not defeated. They were discouraged but not defeated. They were fearful but not defeated. And they were not defeated because they realized that they were not alone. God was with them. David talks about God as his shepherd; the one who guides, leads and protects him. God is the one whose beauty and love chase after David every day of his life. Paul, understands that he is merely a clay jar, a frail human being, but that he carries within him extraordinary power that comes from God. That he carries within him the “death of Jesus” meaning the power and presence of God’s love, forgiveness and new life. These two men were not defeated because they understood and experienced the supernatural power of God, and in Paul’s case, of Jesus Christ within them, beside them before them and behind them.
Are you feeling overwhelmed? If so, that is fine. These are overwhelming times. Few if any of us have ever experienced anything like this. Yet at the same time, our task is to not let this crisis defeat us. We should not despair. We should not feel completely lost and alone or allow this crisis to destroy us. And we should not because we are not alone. We don’t go through these times by ourselves. God is present. God is our shepherd guiding us through these dark days. Even when we are home alone, we are not. God is helping us to catch our breath and walks by our side. Christ is present within us, filling us with power so that his own life might be shown in and through who we are; through who we are becoming. We are not alone because we have one another. We have a Jesus community that prays with and for all of us. We have a community that will do what we can to share the love and grace of Christ with one another.
Since most of you know that our daughter is soon to be thirty-three years old, it means I did not lose my grip on her in the overwhelming waves and turbulent current. I somehow managed to hold fast to her. This is the image I want you to hold on to for this week. I want you to close your eyes during the reflection time after my sermon and imagine the strong arms of God holding on to you; holding fast to you in this moment in which it is so easy to be overwhelmed. Allow those supernatural arms to embrace you and lift you out of the waters not only on this day but in all days ahead.
March 22, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Jeremiah 29:4-9; John 21:15-19
What do we do now? That was the question that was running through my head as I sat in my chair at the South Texas Blood Bank in San Antonio. I asked myself that question because on my way to give platelets there had been an announcement on the radio that a small plane had flown into one of the twin towers. By the time I was part-way through my draw another plane had hit the other tower. My chair had a television and I watched in horror as to what was unfolding in New York. It was soon apparent that we had been attacked. In that moment I began to realize that life would never be the same. That the world had radically changed. I began asking myself, “What do we do now?”
What do we do now? My guess is that many of us are asking ourselves the same question in this moment? What do we do now that schools are out, parties are outlawed, the normal places where we eat and gather with friends are closed, layoffs have begun, travel is restricted, our friends and family are becoming ill and people around the world are dying? Just as surely as we were attacked on 9-11, we have been attacked again, this time by a tiny virus, only 120 nanometers in size, covered in spikes that allows it to attach itself where we do not want it to be. It is a silent, invisible enemy that traveled around the world unseen and unwelcomed. It did not need a passport or a ticket to travel. It arrived and has led to the infection of tens of thousands and deaths of many. As we stare at a world few could have imagined the question is, what do we do now?
This is not a new question. I say this because it forms the back story for both of our morning’s lessons. In the Jeremiah passage, the people who are receiving this message from the prophet are those Jewish leaders who had been taken into exile in Babylon. The situation was as follows: with the defeat of the Assyrian Empire around 600 BCE, the nation of Judah had become a vassal state of Egypt. And for almost ten years Judah was poorly run and heavily taxed. Ultimately Babylonians pushed the Egyptians out of the area we now call the Holy Land. Judah with its capital at Jerusalem, surrendered to Babylon and became its vassal. Not content with this situation, the leaders in Jerusalem rebelled. It was not long before Babylon’s power asserted itself. The Jewish leaders were taken as prisoners into exile. There they asked themselves, what do we do now? What do we do now that we are powerless? Again, that same question was being asked by Jesus’ disciples in our story in John. What is interesting about this story is that the disciples had already seen the risen Jesus. They had watched him be arrested, tried, crucified and then raised. One would think that they should have a clear idea of what they ought to do, but this was not the case. We know this because they had gone back to their old jobs. For Peter and others this meant back to the Sea of Galilee and to fishing, which is where we find them. We might suppose that their attitude was, well it was a great ride with Jesus, and we are glad that we escaped with our lives. So what do we do now?
The gift of both passages is that they can help us see what we should do now. But before we allow them to answer that question, we need to allow them to tell us what we will not do now. Let me explain. In both of our stories the assumption of the people involved is that the answer to the question, what do we do now, is we will go back to our old ways of life as if nothing ever happened. For the Jews in exile in Babylon, we know this is the case because of the cryptic words at the end of the reading. Listen again. “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them says the Lord.” What is this about? It is about the fact that among the exiles were those claiming that God would immediately destroy Babylon and return God’s people to their old lives; return them back to Jerusalem and the Temple. They were being told that they would return to the good old days. Jeremiah disabuses them of this notion. The world had changed and would not be the same. This is also true for the story out of John. As we saw a moment ago, the disciples had returned to their old ways of life. It was as if they were pretending that their three years with Jesus had been a nice diversion from an otherwise average life. That his life, death and resurrection had been interesting but not life changing. Jesus, however, will have none of that. He understood that the world had been fundamentally changed in his death and resurrection. He understood that life would, and should never be the same, and so when he engages in this conversation with Peter, Jesus is inviting him to leave the old life and to do something different.
There is an old saying that you cannot step into the same river twice, meaning that rivers are always changing, always flowing. This is the same for our lives which are ebbing and flowing, such that they will not be the same after the virus has run its course. Just as lives were not the same after 9-11, or after Vietnam and or after the Great Depression and Great Recession, they will not be the same now. Life changed. And it will change for us. I will never look at toilet paper on the shelf of a grocery store and not wonder if I ought to buy it. I will think about people around me and wonder if I ought to have my hand sanitizer with me. For better or worse, life will never be the same.
So, what do we do now? The answer is simple. It is at the heart of both of our passages, we bless the world. That’s it. We bless the world. This is what God’s people have been called and tasked to do ever since Abraham and Sarah were asked to leave everything that they knew and loved and travel to a far distant country. We can hear this in the Jeremiah story. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God’s people, even during the terror and upheaval of exile and loss, were to seek the welfare of the place in which they were taken. They were to remake their lives and remember that God was with them helping them to be a blessing, which they did, for more than two-thousand years. The same can be seen in the John story. Jesus not only tells Peter to feed Jesus’ sheep, meaning to care for all of God’s people, but Peter is to leave his own life and follow. What transpires from that following will be the creation of an inclusive, loving Jesus’s community that will feed the hungry, clothe the naked and welcome all. The followers of Jesus, if you will, were to seek the welfare of the world.
So what do we do now? We bless the world. We seek the welfare of the place and the time in which we live. And this is what you all are already doing, which is one reason I am so proud to be your pastor. I say this because so many of you are finding ways to bless the world. You continue to bring in food for families in Pontiac, call friends and family, make cards for shut-ins, do “drive by greetings”, go to local mom and pop restaurants to help keep them open, take meals to friends and leaving them on the doorstep, shop for others, make masks and praying for all of those in need. you get it. You understand what we are to do now. And so this is my challenge to you for this week, to continue seeking ways that you can bless the world and work for the welfare of the community in which God has placed you.
March 15, 2020
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
Mark 4: 35-41
In seminary they taught us a sermon writing schedule that took four days. Monday read and reflect. Tuesday research. Wednesday begin writing. Thursday finish and polish. Since seminary I have followed that structure once….this week. But then Governor Whitmer gave a press conference about the Covid-19 virus and the response she wanted Michigan to take. And then University of Michigan and Michigan State University moved all classes online and told students to go home. And then local schools closed for two weeks. Our world changed, and the message I had for once in my life not procrastinated to write did not make much sense. I had to start all over on Thursday.
We got into a boat on Monday, thinking it would be a normal trip across the week, and now we find ourselves in the middle of a wind storm. The past few days for me have felt like someone is slowly turning up the dial of my anxiety. I wake up optimistic and refreshed, but as the day goes on a tightness begins to grow in my chest. I flip flop between thinking “this is all an overreaction” and “We need to act swiftly and completely.” One article tells me the situation is going to be worse than we can imagine and then the TV tells me we have everything under control. The speed and intensity of the competing claims makes me feel like I have emotional whiplash. I’ve gone to bed at night exhausted and unsure and frankly afraid.
The disciples in our second lesson today are in a panic too. Their boat trip has turned into a nightmare. The Sea of Galilee is well known for its sudden and terrifying storms. The writer here did not need to give much detail for the audience to understand the kind of danger the disciples were in. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. Metaphorically this sounds very similar to our week.
Fear takes hold of the disciples as they all respond in their own way. Some grab ropes and begin to help the crew, some take the ropes and tie themselves to the boat, some assess if they think they can swim to shore. At least this is how I imagine their reactions would be. In this chaos, someone spots Jesus at the back of the boat…asleep. In great fear they rush and fiercely shake Jesus awake screaming “aren’t you afraid we are all going to die!?” Jesus calmly sits up, looks and the wind, then the water, then the disciples. To the wind he motions to be quiet, to the water he whispers “peace,” and to the disciples he asks “what are you afraid of.”
Jesus always asks the best questions. He does not say “do not be afraid” he knows their fear is based in a powerful reality. Jesus does not think fear itself is the problem. It’s okay to be afraid. What Jesus is asking them to do is pin point where their fear is located. That’s what Jesus does when he wakes up. The wind was too loud and he told us to shush. The sea was a bit wild so he told it to be still. Jesus identified where his fear was located and found what was in his control to manage and took action. Because Jesus does this so quickly, he doesn’t even look like he is afraid and the disciples are in awe of his calm presence.
Jesus wants the disciples to be able to respond this way too. The first step is to identify what they are afraid of. If they are afraid the boat will capsize then the next time they get into a boat they need to assess if they think the boat will stand a storm, and if they trust the captain to make good choices. I would venture that Jesus made these assessments before he got on the boat because he was resting really well. He must have been confident in the boats soundness and the captain's ability. If the disciples can identify concretely what they are afraid of then they can find if there is anything they can control to lessen or eliminate their fear.
Fear is the signal that something needs to be changed. Jesus knows fear is helpful, so he does not reprimand them for feeling fearful. But he also knows sitting with that fear in the chaos and panic is not helpful. He wants them to find a way to take action. Action is the vaccine to fear. Jesus wants them to name their fear specifically then find a way to improve the situation. Jesus then asks them if they have any faith. I always get a little offended when Jesus asks the disciples this question, because I think “these are your guys Jesus!” They have left everything to follow you, how can you keep calling them out on their faith. What this question does though, even with its slight offense, is to make the disciples answer unequivocally, “we do have faith!” Which then makes them realize they forgot to engage that part of themselves in the crisis.
It’s hard to remember to engage our faith because the net around us gunked up. Remember how I said I have been waking up optimistic and then throughout the day I get more and more weighed down by the news and decisions and interactions. That’s my net getting gunked up. At the end of each day I have so much information and feelings to sort through I’m overwhelmed and can’t think straight. By morning I’m rested and can logically think about what I experienced the day before. My net is refreshed.
We all walk around with a net around us. You can imagine a net right, a string like rectangle with other strings tied vertically and then some connecting them tied horizontally. This net lets some things pass through, and collects other things. When we have a moment to reflect and reel in the net we can assess what has been caught and throw some things back and keep the more desirable moments as memories. This net we walk around with everyday collects the things we see and hear. It can collect the feelings of others and captures ideas we interact with. At any point in the day we can assess what is caught in our net. We might find a dark and negative interaction which is not so great to carry around. We can look to see if there is anything we can learn from it. If there is we keep that piece and unburden ourselves from the rest. We also might find a lovely story that we want to keep all of for a little while to encourage us and make us smile. Every day we pick through our experiences and process what we have been through.
In times of crisis though we lose our understanding of what to keep and what to toss. When we get a chance to reel in our net we think “This person said it’s no big deal but if they are wrong I should keep this information.” Did you hear the hook? IF…..if is a hook that is very hard to untangle from our nets. “If” hooks in unnecessary information and weighs us down. Our nets become cluttered with information and it becomes harder and harder to identify the stuff we can toss and the stuff we should keep. The weight of living with these gunked up nets can cause all sorts of personal and social atrocities. We have seen this already happen. When news about the corona virus began to spread Chinese restaurants saw a sharp decrease in guests because people thought “Chinese food” was the problem. This came from hearing reports that said the virus may have started in food in China and the public made the assumption that all Chinese food was dangerous. The fear of the new virus gunked up our nets and we could not tap into a reasonable response and so fearfully some avoided Chinese restaurants. That fear quickly became fear of anyone of Chinese descent, and racism against that population is growing. Even though new information is out there this old gunk is still caught in some people’s nets. This is why it is so important to pay attention to how much you are carrying around and what you are allowing to stay caught in your net. We can’t always avoid wrong information, we might not even know the information is wrong till later, but when we consistently clean out the gunk we give the truth a chance. We may need others to help us sort through the information we have collected. To talk through the different reports.
I have been on a number of Facebook feeds and group texts listening to others and asking questions. It stings a little when something I thought was right is actually outdated or a bad piece of information. It is hard to not become cynical and defend my comment, but in the end I am not a doctor or a virologist and I need to stay open to hear the changing information. I need to clean out the old gunk that is in my net to make room for more useful information. This will help me lessen my fear and stay the person God is asking me to be. Fear is not going to help me be the blessing I need to be in this world. I think we are all walking around with very heavy nets this week. “If” hooks have gotten tangled in deep and we need to begin the process of detaching the excessive information. That process begins with asking “what are you afraid of” and “do you have faith.”
Before my trip to Kenya last month I had some fears. I knew I was very excited but I was also a little afraid. I have a lot of experience with anxiety and fear, so I cleared some time, sat down and reflected on where the fear was coming from. I realized my fear was more about my parents and my cat. I was afraid my parents would be left with my student loans if the worst happened and I was afraid my cat would be sad since I would be gone for two weeks. Once I realized this I knew what I could do. I looked into my life insurance, took out some travel insurance, and bought a camera that spits out treats I could log into from abroad and see my cat. My fear disappeared. I asked myself what I was afraid of and found things I could control to dissipate that fear. I do this a lot because I also know what I have faith in. God has gifted me with a really good gut instinct. It has saved me from a few very scary situations. The problem is my gut and my anxiety feel very similar sometimes. So I have learned I need to stop and assess if the strong feeling I am having is my fear or my faith.
It’s hard to remember our faith in a crisis. It is hard to calmly wake Jesus up and ask for assistance. We usually end up acting like the disciples and screaming “Where are you!” what are you doing! Sleeping!?” But there is so much power in our faith. That is the thing Jesus wants the disciples to realize they had control over. They wasted too much time sitting in their fear when all they had to do was wake Jesus up. If they had faith that he was who he said he was they would have known he could quiet the wind and calm the water. The thing the disciples could do, the action they could have taken before resorting to fear, was to engage their faith and get Jesus involved.
We need to ask ourselves what we are afraid of. Once that is identified I think we will be pleased by the variety of options we have to take action against the fears that have been stirred up this week. Some of those actions will feel like we are doing nothing. Working from home, watching worship from the comfort of your couch, but for this moment in these circumstances those are courageous actions to take. Jesus is asking us “what are you afraid of” so that we can hone in on the action we can take. If you are afraid of getting sick there are bullet pointed lists all over the internet how best to prevent getting sick. Washing hands, wiping surfaces around you, keeping social distance, not touching your face, staying home if you are in an at-risk population. There are things you can stock up on just in case you do get sick. Cough medicine, fever reducers, vix, soup, Kleenex. If you are afraid of a loved one getting sick you can buy these items for them, call them more often, encourage others to stay home. If you are afraid your favorite small business will not make it through an economic downturn call your representative and encourage them to enact some safety measures, buy a gift card from the company and use it later. If you are afraid students in Pontiac will go hungry if they aren’t getting free lunches, oh boy do I have an action item for you! We are starting an emergency food pantry in partnership with First Presbyterian in Pontiac. We have bags with grocery lists on them for you to fill and return to the church. You can also order from our amazon wish list if you are self-quarantining at home.
Fear tells us we have no control, that there is nothing we can do but in fact we have a lot of control in this storm. But if we just sit in our fear never identifying what the source is we will feel out of control. Our net will weigh us down until we don’t even have the energy to take action. What are you afraid of? And what do you have faith in. The most powerful action item we have available to us is our faith. The most impactful thing we can do in this crisis is produce love not fear.
1 John 4 verses 17-19 say (The Message Translation) ‘God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and matures in us, so that we are free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—fear is in one not yet fully formed in love. We, though, we are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love.’
Love is the power we wield in any crisis. When Jesus wakes up in the middle of a terrifying storm and calmly cares for the people around him the disciples are in awe. They have no idea where we got this strength. They ask themselves who is this guy!? How is he not freaking out? Jesus has faith in God and in his power, a power that we have access to as well. We have the power to push out the fear. The fear in us and the fear in the world. That power is rooted in our love. Our love listens, our love takes action against fear. That love needs a free path into the world. A gunked up net will act more like a shield around us. Sure it may keep hurtful information from getting in but it will also prevent our love from getting out.
Take care of your net in the weeks to come. Help those around you who show signs of a gunked up net, who are fearful, clear their nets too. Care for the people around you calmly and courageously. Social distancing does not mean isolation. Call friends and family more often. Ask those who need to self-quarantine if they need any help. In these ways love will cast out fear and our standing in this storm will be identical to Christ’s.
March 8, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Leviticus 6:1-5; Luke 19:1-10
The attorney told us that our action would be unwise. It would put us at risk. We should just let things ride and see what happens. It was an interesting moment in the life of the Coordinating Cabinet of the Presbytery of Detroit. We were faced with a rather unprecedented situation. A young man in the presbytery office who is African American, was working with his white supervisor, when the supervisor used the “N” word in a way that was intended, we found out later, to cause the young man “pain.” The young man had tried to go through the chain of command to deal with this and two more similar incidents, but according to a later inquiry, had had them essentially swept under the rug and his pain and concerns minimized or dismissed. Finally, he resigned and lodged the complaint on his own, without an attorney. The question before the Cabinet, which is the closest thing to a board of the presbytery, was what ought we to do? Some people said that we should issue a public apology. The attorney said we should not because it would admit our guilt and put us in a position of being unable to defend ourselves if the young man was to sue us. There was a choice to be made…
Isn’t it amazing how after almost 2,000 years of Christianity, we followers of Jesus still manage to say and do things that hurt other people? Sometimes we say or do things without thinking, without any malice, yet we still bring pain and shame. Other times we say or do things with intent, believing that we are justified in our use of words or actions, and so the other person ought to learn from it, or perhaps we think that they even deserve it. And so, we leave a wake of damaged lives, damaged relationships and damaged churches. If we are honest with ourselves this morning, we know what it is we ought to do in response to the pain and damage we have caused. We ought to repent. We ought to remember what we have done and then feel remorse and return to the way of God. To bring everyone on board who was not with us last week, we talked about repentance beginning with remembering those times when we have sown damage around us. And when we remember them, we are to experience remorse, sadness for what we have done, and then we are to return to the way of God; the way of loving God and neighbor. But what I want us to see this morning is that while remembering, remorse and return are essential to repentance, there is another step in the process, and that is engaging for repair.
When we have done damage, when we say or do what harms others, it is not enough for us to get our act together, meaning remembering, being remorseful and returning. We are to take the next step and engage with those we have harmed in order to help repair their lives and our relationship. We can see this in our passage from Leviticus that when a harm has been done, the one doing the harm must work to make the situation right again. “When you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found, or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it. You shall pay it to its owner when you realize your guilt.” I realize that we might say, but I did not rob someone, I merely was unkind, or angry. Yet notice that the passage says, “or anything else about which you have sworn falsely, which includes anything we say or do that harms another. The Torah makes it clear what we ought to do, we ought to engage with the other and do our best to repair what we have damaged…so why don’t we do it? Why is it so hard for us to admit our guilt and begin this process? I ask because there appears to be this very human tendency to not want to apologize or take responsibility for our hurtful actions.
I have wrestled with this, and after much thought and research have concluded that we struggle with apologizing and admitting guilt for two reasons; loss of face and loss of power. The first thing we fear if we admit our guilt is loss of face. This concept may not be one with which everyone is familiar. One way to think of loss of face is to see it as losing the respect of others and feeling shame in the process. To see it visually, think of a child who is caught doing something wrong and is forced to admit it. They hang their head, not wanting to look at the parent. They have lost face because they have lost the respect of the parent and feel shame. This loss of face is painful and thus is to be avoided. The second reason is loss of power. As human beings we live in a world in which we are often powerless. Things happen to us that we cannot control. We seek to find control and one way is to say hurtful things to others because it places us in a position of power over them. To admit that we have done damage, that we have erred toward others and offer an apology is to give up that power. It is to say that we are in the debt of someone else and they can call in that marker. We are powerless and at their mercy. These are both frightening possibilities.
The question then confronts us, how do we get beyond these fears and move to repentance? How do we engage and work to repair the damage we have done? The answer is that we do a Zacchaeus. Let me explain. Zacchaeus was, as the story tells us, a tax-collector, meaning he was not only an enemy of the people because he collected money for a corrupt and oppressive regime, but he was also a tax-farmer which meant his living came not from a salary, but from the excess taxes he could force people to pay. The more he gouged the people, the richer he became. And according to Luke, he was very rich and very hated. In an unusual series of events, Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’s house for dinner. We know nothing of the conversation between Jesus and Zacchaeus and Jesus over the meal, but what we do know is that during that dinner, something happens to Zacchaeus. He remembers, he returns, and he promises to engage and repair what he has done wrong. Listen to Zacchaeus. “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Zacchaeus does not worry about losing face or losing power. He gets it. He understands that he needs to engage with those he has damaged and begin the repair. Jesus’ response is telling, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” Repentance did not make Zacchaeus lose face or power, it healed and saved him.
So, what ought we to do? That was the question before the Coordinating Cabinet. Should we listen to the attorneys or do something else? After some discussion, the vote was taken and an apology was not only sent to the young man, but it was entered into the record of the Coordinating Cabinet, and then read aloud at the next Presbytery meeting so that it is public record. We did a Zacchaeus, which by the way did not end with the apology, but is continuing with reforming how we supervise, how we are aware of the systemic racism in the presbytery and how we become more and more the beloved community God desires us to be. Repentance opened the way of healing for the presbytery and it can do the same for us, if we will allow it to so do. My challenge to you then for his week, is to look at your words and deeds, and if any of those did damage to others, ask yourself, how am I engaging with those persons to bring about repair, that both that person and I might find healing and hope?
March 1, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Isaiah 24:4-13; Hebrews 11:32 – 12:2
So what kind of history should we teach? What should we remember? These are two questions that are at the heart of debate not only in our nation, but around the world. I realize that many of you may not be privy to this discussion, but it is one that raises peoples’ blood pressure and the decibel level of conversations. There are two basic kinds of history, if you will, that are engaged in this debate. One is what has come to be known as civic history. This view says that the only purpose of history is to increase one’s love of and pride in country. Civic history then, focuses on the grand ideals and accomplishments of a civilization, while minimizing any portions of history that might detract from a positive picture. Though we are engaged in this debate here in this country, I want to use an example that will raise blood pressure a little less, so I will use Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is engaged in this debate as we speak. On the one hand you have those who want to focus on civic history, telling the story of the brave revolutionaries who defeated the white regime of what was known as Rhodesia; then distributed land to black farmers and created a new nation. On the other hand, you have those who want to tell the scientific history of Mugabe’s dictatorship, cronyism, hunger, political oppression and inflation that reached over a thousand-percent per year. So, which should they teach? Which should we as Christians teach? The answer, if we look to the Biblical writers, is both; both because it takes both to lead to repentance and it takes repentance to be faithful followers of Jesus.
To understand the need for repentance, we need to unpack the concept of repentance. Repentance is a process that begins with regret and ends with return. The repentance process begins with the emotion of regret. It may be that most of you have said something that you wish you had not said; or have done something that you wish you had not done. Or maybe you didn’t do something you know you ought to have done or didn’t speak up when you should have. And because of those actions or inactions, you have caused hurt or allowed hurt to continue and thus caused regret. If you have not, I wish I was you, because in my life there are those moments when I should have spoken up but didn’t. Or words came out of my mouth that I wished to instantly take back but couldn’t. They caused me regret and this kind of regret is step one in the process of repentance. Step two in the process of repentance is returning. To understand this, we should remember that God has set before us a path that leads to life. God has set before us a path in and through Jesus Christ that leads us to love God and neighbor. When we do things that we regret it means we have left the path. We have wandered off. What regret is intended to do then, is to cause us to return to the path. It reminds us of how far off course we are. And if we are to engage in this practice then we need to remember both the bad from which we want to turn and the good to which we desire to return.
This act of remembering both the bad and the good, that which we regret and that to which we desire to return, are each part of the great Biblical story. We can see this in our morning’s texts. In our Old Testament text, we can find scientific history as we hear the prophet telling the people to remember where they fell short, where they failed and for which they ought to feel regret. “The earth dries up and withers, the world languishes and withers; the heavens languish together with the earth. The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant…desolation is left in the city. The gates are battered to ruin.” What is being described is the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by the Babylonians. The writer makes it clear that this destruction has come not simply as a result of political miscalculation, but because the people failed to remember. They failed to remember that they were the people who were to desire life and not death, mercy and not cruelty, humility and not arrogance. This is history intended to evoke regret and encourage return.
The Biblical writers also offer us the other kind of history, civic history. They ask us to remember those who showed us the way to faithfulness in order to encourage us to return to the path God has set before us. They want us to remember the heroes. This is the purpose of the portion of Hebrews we read this morning. “And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection.” Let me be clear that none of these heroes was perfect. They were all flawed human beings like us, and yet, in faith, they accomplished great things for God and God’s people. And their lives remind us of what we can do when we return to the way of God. They help us to remember what is possible through repentance.
This Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter, is intended to be a time for self-reflection leading to repentance. My challenge for us all for this week is to examine our own lives and find those moments of regret and return that we might repent and more faithfully follow Jesus with each passing day.
February 23, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 14:13-21
Why didn’t Jesus just feed them? Why did he even have to get the disciples involved? After all, if God could feed the people in the wilderness with manna, couldn’t Jesus just have showered the people with bread? They were all good questions, and questions I have gotten over the course of my ministry. The basic premise is that if God is omnipotent, meaning God can do anything God desires, then why does God need our help? I must admit that I am not sure how I answered that question over the years, though I’m sure my answers must have been stunningly unbrilliant because they didn’t satisfy anyone. So where I have landed is that I cannot answer the why, of why does God do this? I can only answer the what; that what God does is to work in partnership with us. From the moment of creation when Adam was given the responsibility of tilling the garden, to Abraham and Sarah who were tasked with taking a journey in order to bless a broken world, to Moses, to the disciples, God has always chosen to engage in joint ventures with human beings in order to heal humanity and to recreate God’s one-world family. And today is no exception. For you see, we have all been called to that same task, of healing humanity … and to do so through serving compassionately. Let me explain.
First, a visual. This morning I have brought with me the basket of blocks our children played with…which are like the blocks my brothers and I enjoyed. There are red blocks, blue blocks, yellow and purple cylinder blocks and even square blocks with letters on them. They are, for the moment, all together in this single basket…which is a way of seeing God’s desire for humanity. We are to be one family, composed of all shapes and sizes and colors. We are to be together, living in unity. Yet as human beings we could not do that. We began to kick certain blocks out of the family. Red blocks hated blue blocks, who feared the yellow cylinders, who thought they were better than the purple cylinders … and I think you get my point. Soon there was no, one human family, only clusters of blocks, fearing, hating, enslaving and destroying other clusters. Yet this, as I said was not God’s plan. God’s plan was for a one world family. So how to get everyone back in the basket? I suppose there are many ways, yet one of the most effective is through serving compassionately.
Let me be clear here, that serving compassionately is not simply doing something for someone else. Serving compassionately is a four-step process that not only puts compassion into action to help those in need but helps to heal the world. And the steps are laid out for us in our Exodus story:
Step one, we observe. God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.” One of the great problems with humanity is that is that we tend to categorize those we don’t know and then apply stereotypes to them. Oh, we know what those red blocks are like. We know how blue blocks think. And yellow blocks, well they are lazy and dangerous. Our stereotypes do not allow us to see beyond two-dimensional characterizations of other blocks. How do we move beyond this? We move beyond by observing. Observing here means more than simply looking at something, it means seeing others as blocks with their own stories, hopes and dreams. It means seeing others for who they are and not as cardboard cutouts of blocks, but multidimensional creations of God. We are called to observe because in so doing, we begin to connect with others in new ways, thus bringing some of us back into the one basket of God’s family.
Step two, we hear them. God says, “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters …” Just as we often see other blocks through stereotypical lenses, we often believe that we know what those blocks need. We know how to serve them and give them what they need. Unfortunately, this is not always so. One of my favorite stories about this comes from our own Terry Chaney. Terry, who is blind, once visited a church where someone decided that they would help him to a pew. And even though Terry tried to tell the person that what he was really looking for was the rest room, the person never asked. What we are called to do is to hear the other blocks. Hearing here means more than simply acknowledging the sounds around us. It means to listen deeply to those in need and discover what it is they need and desire. Not what we think they need. Granted, this takes time. It takes a willingness do more than drive-by serving. But this is what God does, God listens and so are we to listen too. In so doing we not only hear about the real needs of those blocks, but we connect more deeply with them, thus once again, moving more blocks back into God’s basket family.
Step three, we are to know their sufferings. God says, “Indeed, I know their sufferings…” As I said last week, a better translation of this part of the verse is, to feel their pain. In some ways this is the most difficult part of serving compassionately. It is difficult because we cannot get inside someone’s head, we cannot feel what they are feeling, we cannot know exactly what it is like to be a blue block or a red block. But what we can do is share their space, if they will let us. My image for this comes from the book of Job. In the book of Job, Job loses everything; his home, his flocks and herds, his family and his health. He ends up sitting on a dung-heap. But he does not sit alone. His friends come and sit with him. Sharing his space and his pain. This is what it means to show compassion … to suffer with, to suffer beside. And when we sit and share space block to block, we begin to connect and heal the block brokenness, thus one more time bringing blocks back into the basket.
Step four, we act. After observing, hearing and knowing, God acts. God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians …” I realize that so often what we want to do is do for others, yet I believe that what most people want is for us to do with them. Over the years, I have observed that people want a “hand-up” and not “a handout”. They don’t want pity, they want self-respect. They don’t want to be dependent but interdependent. This is the theory behind Habit for Humanity. With Habitat, no one is “given” a home. They work with others to build or rehab it. They take on loans to pay for it. Habitat is blocks working together to serve those in need. It is compassion in action to change the lives of blocks of all colors, shapes and sizes. And when blocks serve together, it unites them and draws them back into God’s one world basket block family.
I believe that this theory of serving compassionately was behind Jesus command for the disciples to personally feed the crowd. By so doing the disciples were forced to see each person there as more than a face in a crowd. They probably heard their words of thanks for the food, they were physically present with them in their hunger on the hillside and then they shared what they had. The people became more than a nameless, faceless set of blocks, but they became real and a deeper connection was created.
Over the past eight weeks we have explored what it means to follow Jesus. We have learned that we are called to love radically, forgive unconditionally, share lavishly and serve compassionately as followers of Jesus. And in so doing we are made part of God’s grand rebuilding plan for humanity. For with each of these actions we are building connections block to block, neighbor to neighbor, and stranger to stranger. We bring more and more people back into God’s one world family. My challenge to you, then, is to ask yourselves, “How am I bringing blocks back into the basket of God’s family by loving, forgiving, sharing and serving?”
February 16, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 3:1-12; Philippians 2:1-11
It was a movement that almost failed to launch. It almost failed completely. It didn’t fail because the members were afraid to share their story because they were willing to tell anyone what they believed even if they risked their lives doing so. It didn’t fail to launch because they didn’t have a great cause because they believed that the one they followed was the Son of God, the messiah, the savior of the world, the King of Kings. It wasn’t because they weren’t empowered because the Spirit was in their midst. Not this movement, called the Way, the early church, almost failed to launch because of a single word ... doulos. Their leader had spoken of himself and they continued to speak of him as a doulos. And being honest no one would think that someone calling themselves a doulos could possibly be God’s long-awaited king and messiah. No one would want to follow a doulos. Oh, sorry, what’s a doulos? It is the Greek word for servant or slave. So when Jesus said things like, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” Or when he did doulos-like things such as washing his followers’ feet. Or when Paul says that Jesus gave up heaven in order to be a doulos, a slave, few if any people would leap for joy and say, sign me up. To be a doulos was demeaning. To be a doulos was to be subservient, submissive, menial and barely human. Why would anyone want to follow a doulos? Who would ever believe that a doulos could be the messiah ... the King ... the savior? No, this was a problem and it almost caused the church to fail from the beginning.
I would like to say that Jesus being a doulos is no longer an issue, but I am not sure things have changed much. Jesus being a doulos was always and always will be seen by many as the weak point in Christianity. I say this because the church is perfectly fine having a cosmic Christ who rules the universe. It is fine with “Buddy Jesus” who is always sunshine and happiness and two thumbs up. It is even fine to have an angry Jesus; a Jesus who is angry with liberals if you are conservative, or angry with conservatives if you are liberal. But the idea of Jesus being a doulos, a servant, has long rubbed against the grain of the church. The church, like all of us, loves a winner. As one pastor in Seattle put it, he could not follow a Jesus that he could beat up. The pastor also regularly wondered aloud about who Jesus could smack down. And speaking of smacking down, there is a church here in Michigan, that holds Mixed Martial Arts tournaments, so people can see the power that real Christians ought to have. What then are we to do with this doulos identity? How are we to talk about serving compassionately in this kind of an atmosphere? I would suggest, that what we do, rather than letting society define what it means for Jesus to be a doulos, we let the Bible define it. And here is how I believe scripture defines a doulos ... a doulos is putting compassion into action in order to help people in need themselves. And we can see this in both of our stories this morning.
We begin with the story of the burning bush. The backstory is that the people of God had been in Egypt for four hundred years. For most of that time things had gone well. The people multiplied and prospered. The more they multiplied and prospered, the more the Egyptians feared these foreigners and so they eventually enslaved them. Then when enslaving them did not slow the Hebrews multiplication and prosperity, the Pharaoh ordered the murder of every boy child. In other words, he ordered the genocide of the Hebrew people. This is where our story picks up. Moses, who has fled Egypt, is hanging with his sheep, sees a bush that is burning, but not burning up. He wanders over to check it out. Suddenly a voice speaks from the bush. The voice identifies itself as the God of Abraham's ancestors. Then we hear these words, and this is God speaking. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.” Observing here is not simply glancing over but means to fully take in what is happening. “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.” Hearing here does not mean simply receiving sound but means internalizing what was said. “Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Notice that God does not say, “I know of their suffering,” but “I know their suffering.” A better translation would be, “I feel their pain.” This is what compassion is; to feel with. God shares in the pain of the people and then out of great compassion, “comes down” and acts. God is not a remote observer of things. God is one who will be with God’s people and so God tells Moses that God will deliver God’s people from bondage and send them to a land flowing with milk and honey. God is being a servant because God is putting compassion into action, helping the Hebrews do what they cannot do for themselves ... be free.
We see this same pattern working itself out in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. But this time, those who need help are not simply the Hebrew people, it is all of creation; that because all of creation is trapped in the cycle of sin and death there is only one person who can set it free, and that is Jesus. Though the sense of compassion is not as straightforward in this passage as it is in the Exodus text, the vision of Jesus as doulos certainly is. What I hope we will note in this hymn of praise that Paul offers is that it reminds us that Jesus chose to be one of us; that no one made Jesus give up his place in the midst of heaven and “come down”; no one commanded him to take up human form. No one commanded him to become a doulos. No one forced him to humble himself. This was Jesus’ free and gracious choice. I would argue that Jesus came because of his great love for the world; that Jesus saw the suffering of humanity and even of the creation itself, and so was willing to experience a fully human life and death, in order set creation free. This is a demonstration of putting compassion into action, helping humanity, by doing for it what it could not do for itself. This is how Jesus was a doulos.
What does this mean for all of us to be douloi ... the plural of doulos ... well you will have to come back next week to find that out. Today though, here is what I would like for you to do. I would like you to take a moment, perhaps if you want, to close your eyes and think back on your life. Think back to a time when you were in need and then God intervened ... maybe not directly, but sent you the right people, opened the right doors, offered you compassion and presence. And then keep that image in mind this week as you remember that being a doulos is at the heart of who God and Jesus are.
February 9, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Romans 12:9-21
I am not sure if you have noticed this or not, but Christians, churches and denominations disagree about a whole host of things; things such as sharing. In other words Christians now and in the past, have disagreed about how to share, how much to share, and even if to share. What I have discovered is that there is a spectrum of sharing on which all churches and believers find themselves. To help us get at the heart of what it means to share lavishly, I want to begin by describing the spectrum. On the one end we have what I call “Just Jesus” Christians. These Christians believe that the only thing we ought to share is the good news about Jesus. We are not to share anything else, including money, food or shelter, because we will either be making people dependent on our help or we will interfere with the lesson God is trying to teach them; meaning if someone’s life has come apart it is because God is trying to teach them something. The other end of the spectrum is that we are to share everything. The perfect example of this is the Bruderhof communities. These communities are modern day Christian communal associations in which people share everything; childcare, work, homes, schooling and incomes. No one owns anything. Those then are the ends of the spectrum ... share just Jesus or share everything.
The questions these extremes present to us are: where ought we to be on this spectrum? What does it mean for us to share and share lavishly? Fortunately for us, Paul, in our passage from Romans gives us some insight into answering these questions. But for us to truly understand the radical and multifaceted nature of sharing that Paul puts forward, we need to take a moment to understand the context of his comments, which means gaining a better understanding of the Roman Empire. I want us to begin by imagining a pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid is the Emperor. Just below him are his family and close advisors. Below them are the ruling class including the Roman Senate. Below them are the generals, then the wealthy, then workers, then foreigners, then the slaves at the very bottom. In this pyramid all power flows from top to bottom. Those on the top are to be worshipped and those on the bottom are to be ignored, oppressed or killed. While there may have been some movement between these levels, Roman society was clear. The upper classes were everything and the lower classes were nothing. And woe to anyone at the top who treated those on the bottom as equals and those on the bottom who presumed they were equal to those on top. Got the image? Ok, so here we go.
We are to share respect. Paul writes, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (vs10) ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”(vs. 16) I hope that you will understand just how radical this sharing was. In a society in which lower classes were understood to be less than human, where the upper classes were to be worshipped and deified, where contempt was shown by each class to those below them, Paul says that we are to share respect. We are to treat each human being as an amazing creation of God; a child of God. This mattered because the Roman church was one with both slaves and members of Caesar’s household, with both Jews and Gentiles, with both citizens and non-citizens. It was a divided humanity, from which God was making one new people ... and if they were to be one new people, then they needed to share respect. What Paul was telling them to do was to flatten the pyramid. This is our charge as well. We are to share respect with all persons regardless of race, rank or religion. We are to share respect with all those whom we serve and who serve us. We are to flatten the pyramid by lavishly sharing respect.
We are to share resources. Paul writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers (vs. 13) ... if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (vs. 20) In these few words Paul not only moves us away from the “Just Jesus” end of the sharing spectrum, but he moves the Roman church away from its moorings in Roman culture. I say this because in Roman culture, taking care of the needs of others was socially unacceptable. If the poor died, they died. If someone found themselves in need, they could sell themselves into slavery. Enemies were to be abused and perhaps executed. Paul instructs the Roman Christians to do the opposite. They were to share what they had with friends, strangers and enemies. They were to do so because, it was what the scriptures call on them to do. It was what Deuteronomy commanded, “If there is anyone among you in need ... do not be tight fisted, but open your hand ... ” Oh, and just a side-note, heaping burning coals on someone’s head was perhaps the most important type of sharing. It was sharing live coals from one’s own fire with someone whose fire had gone out; who could no longer warm themselves or cook their meals. The reference to the head was that the coals were carried in a heavy blanket on the head as they were transported. Paul said that the church was to flatten the pyramid so that the resources of the Empire flowed to all. This is what we are called to do as well. We are called to share our resources, time, talent and treasure, with those who find themselves in a tight spot. We are not to be “Just Jesus” people. We are to flatten the pyramid by lavishly sharing our resources.
We are to share relationships. Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another (vs. 15-16); If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (vs. 18)” The Apostle is asking of the Roman Christians what would have seemed almost impossible; for a socially, culturally and economically disparate community to live as one body, one family sharing in one another’s lives. But for Paul this makes sense of his understanding, which just precedes this section, that the church and the world are not pyramids but living organisms. And if we are a single living organism we will laugh and cry together. Let me ask, how many of you have laughed such that your entire body shook? Or cried such that your whole body cried. Here Paul is not just flattening the pyramid, he is changing its nature into a living being. From my perspective this is the most difficult of the three ways of sharing lavishly for us to accomplish. It is the most difficult because we live in different neighborhoods, work for different companies in different locations, have circles of friends outside of the church and so do not have the connections that say, a Bruderhof community has. Perhaps then the way to understand this sharing is to see ourselves as part not only of this community, but the entire human community. That we are to rejoice or weep with all, whether it is to weep and be concerned for those nations in which the corona virus is spreading or celebrate with the Kansas City Chiefs for their Super Bowl victory. We are to flatten and transform the pyramid by lavishly sharing relationships.
Where does this leave us on the spectrum of sharing? It leaves us in the middle, which is where Presbyterians often end up. And we are in the middle not because we can’t decide what sharing lavishly means, but because on the one hand we know that we cannot be “Just Jesus” people. We are to share our resources with those in need. On the other hand, we know we don’t need to be part of Bruderhof-like communities, so long as we share relationships both in our churches and in the world. The challenge for each of us then is to ask ourselves, how am I lavishly sharing my respect, my resources and my relationships in such a way that the pyramid in our time and place might be flattened and transformed into a single, loving community of God’s people?
February 2, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 26:6-9; Ephesians 3:14-21
“Hey John, are you going to share?” It was a question I had become used to at the ripe old age of ten. It was asked of me on a regular basis in the lunch room at my elementary school. My friends and I would sit at the same table, unpack our lunches and they would quickly glance to see what came out of my lunch-box … yes, I had a lunch box … got a new one every year … then if they saw them … if they saw my mother’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, they would all ask, “Hey John, are you going to share?” I knew what my answer should be. After all, I went to church and Sunday school every Sunday. I learned about sharing with my brothers. I knew what a good Christian would do and so my answer was always, “No I am not going to share.” I say this because I knew what they meant when they used the word share. They meant give my mother’s cookies away. And I knew the instant I gave in and gave one cookie to one friend, then I would have to give a cookie to every friend, and then, eventually, there would be none left for me. Sharing meant giving away … and I was not up to giving away the most precious thing in my lunch.
I must admit until I began working on this sermon about sharing lavishly that I had never thought much about the multitude of ways we use the word share or sharing. Sharing can mean giving things away, like my cookies. Sharing can mean two children taking turns playing with the same toy. Sharing can mean two people spending time together. Sharing can mean loaning a tool or car with the expectation of it being returned. Sharing can mean multiple people using the same car-share service. All those ways of using the word share made me wonder then, what does that really mean when we talk about God sharing lavishly? Which of these ways of using the word explains how God shares? I suppose the most obvious way is one we have talked about before, and that is that God gives us stuff. That God shares with us creation and community. If this sounds familiar, it should be because I talked about it in my opening sermon on how we know God loves the world, that God shares with us, gives us, this amazing planet and amazing communities of care. We can see this if we were to continue reading the Deuteronomy passage that Peter read this morning about the land flowing with milk and honey. If we had continued, we would have read that the people were to regularly give God thanks, for what God has given them. In other words, God gave God’s people stuff … land and all that it contains to help the people prosper. In some ways this use of the word sharing is perhaps most familiar to us, when we give God thanks for our meals, our families, friends, nation and all the other stuff we have been given. God shares by giving. Yet, what I want to offer you this morning, is that there is another critical and often missed way God shares … and that is that God shares God’s presence and power with us, meaning God shares God’s very self with us.
Let me explain. When God shares creation and community with us, God does not simply give us stuff and say, enjoy it, and then check back in with me when you have an issue. God goes before us, behind us, and inside of us. God literally shares God’s presence and power with us. This understanding of how God shares lavishly is at the heart of the Biblical story. To see a great example of this all we need to do is get in our Way-Way Back Biblical Time Machine and return to the time just before the people of God entered the Land of Promise. What we would have seen was a people, seemingly wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Yet, they were not wandering aimlessly. God’s presence was with them. The scriptures tell us that God regularly checked in with Moses in the Tent of Meeting; that Moses would go into the tent and have conversations with God which would help Moses lead the people. God also led the people with fire by night and a cloud by day … not sure how that worked, but God was there. God gave the people the Law. God was present. At the same time, God’s power was there as God protected the people from more powerful enemies, poisonous serpents, hunger, thirst, and even poorly made clothing … ask me later. God shared lavishly with the people by sharing God’s presence and power.
This lavish sharing is also at the heart of the New Testament and it is at the heart of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. The portion of that letter we read this morning is Paul’s prayer that the people will continue to experience God’s lavish sharing by experiencing God’s presence and God’s power. Listen again for Paul’s prayer for God’s presence. He prays that “… Christ may dwell (meaning to pitch his tent) in your hearts through faith …” and that God’s people would be “… filled with the fullness of God …” meaning that the cup would overflow with God’s presence. I want us to think about this for a moment. As I said, the image is that God pitches God’s tent within us. This is one of Paul’s ongoing images taken from the Hebrew scriptures, that just as God met with Moses in the tent, or the people in the Temple, God now meets with us, because we are the new tent of meeting. We are the new Temple. The reason Paul prays for this presence is so that the Ephesians might experience God’s power. “I pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, that God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit.” And, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth … of the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge.” Paul prays that the Ephesians will experience God’s presence and power in order that they know their value and worth as beloved children of God.
The gift we have been given as children of God is that God continues to share with us not only creation and community, but also God’s own presence and power. God lavishly shares these things with us not only to sustain us, but to constantly remind us of our infinite value as those made in God’s own image; to remind us that we are enfolded in a love that cannot be measured. And this morning we are given a gift of experiencing God’s lavish sharing at this table. Before us is bread and cup … creation given to us. Around us is community … the people of God. At the table we have Christ present as our host. In the eating and drinking we find God’s power to know the love we have been given. I hope this morning then that you will allow yourself to be, as Paul puts it, empowered to know the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ.
January 26, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
2 Samuel 19:18b-23; Matthew 18:21-27
I want to begin this morning with two stories…similar and yet each with a different ending. The first is Ron’s story. Ron was a veteran who had learned how to do underwater welding and demolition in the navy. After the service he and a partner had opened a company that did both of those things. They were in great demand and built a very successful and profitable operation. One day though Ron got to work and there was a call on the answering machine. It was a vendor wondering why his check had bounced. Ron was surprised because he and his partner always carried enough cash to cover their bills. Once the bank opened, he called to check. What he discovered was that his partner had emptied all their accounts and vanished. Ron suddenly had no money to pay employees, vendors or to complete his companies existing contracts. It a short time his business went under. He declared bankruptcy. He lost everything. My second story is about Margaret. Margaret was a nurse who worked from almost fifty years at that occupation. She and her late husband had diligently saved for retirement. Her husband invested their funds with a broker that they trusted. Margaret’s husband died young, but she continued to invest her funds with their trusted friends. Finally, in her early seventies, she decided to retire. She requested monthly withdrawals, only to find that after the first couple of payments there was no more money. Their broker had spent it all on himself in a long running Ponzi scheme. She was broke and had to go back to work. Similar stories, yet different outcomes. One of these people never got over the loss and was angry the rest of their lives. The other, managed to find joy in the midst of loss and was a light to those around her. The difference? Forgiveness.
Last week, Bethany talked about God’s unconditional forgiveness. Today we are going to spend our time together learning about our call as Jesus followers to offer unconditional forgiveness as well. But before we talk about what forgiveness is, we are going to talk about what it is not. Forgiveness is not about forgetting or excusing the harm someone has done to us, or as scripture calls it, how they have sinned against us, or allowing that harm to continue. I say this because Peter’s question about forgiveness comes immediately after Jesus had told the disciples how to deal with someone who has sinned against them…or if you will, hurt them. Jesus taught that you are to go to that person and let them know what they have done, asking them to repent. If that doesn’t work, you are to take a friend and do the same thing. If that doesn’t work, you are to go with the elders and do the same. If that doesn’t work, you are to have the entire community speak with them. And if that doesn’t work, you are to exclude them from the community. As I said two weeks about loving radically, it does not mean allowing others to harm and abuse us or others. So, if forgiveness is not about forgetting, excusing or allowing continued harm, what is it? The only way I can describe it, is with a visual image…an image drawn from my work in a petrochemical plant south of Houston.
I need you all to use your imaginations. I want you to see a large vessel or tank that you can see in chemical plants. At the bottom of the vessel are two large pipes. One on one side and one on the other side. One of those pipes is where raw material flows in. The other is where product flows out. At the top of the tank is a third pipe, which also contains raw material. The input pipe on the top has a valve that can allow raw material in or keep it out. Finally, on the side of the vessel is a manhole cover. Got the image? Good, so here we go. The vessel is our heart, our soul, our inner being, our core self. On good days that heart, soul, inner being is filled through the input pipe with God’s love. When this love is processed in our inner selves by the Spirit, what comes out of us is love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness and self-control. These are the fruits of the Spirit which pour forth into the world. We are, as Jesus puts it, light and salt to the world. But all this changes when someone sins against us, hurts us, betrays us, abuses us. What happens is that the valve on the second input line, automatically opens. And what comes from that line is not the love of God, but it is the toxic sludge of hate, anger, bitterness and vengeance. It is a toxic slurry that begins to fill our inner selves, blocking the love God tries to pour into us, eating away at our life…and then it begins to pour out into the world. And this sludge of hate, anger, bitterness and vengeance is as toxic for the world as it is for us. So where is forgiveness in all of this?
Forgiveness is what happens when we do two things, first we intentionally shut off the valve at the top of the tank. When we make a conscience decision to refuse to allow any more hate, anger, bitterness and vengeance to enter our beings. Second, we open the manhole cover and do the hard work of cleaning out all the toxic sludge that is in us. And I say that this is hard work because it is. It takes prayer, meditation, conversation, counseling and more. It is spiritual work. It is psychological work. I say that this getting rid of the toxic sludge is forgiveness, because that is the essence of the Greek word for forgiveness. It means to get rid of, set aside, cast away. In other words, forgiveness is throwing away all that toxic mess and allowing God’s love to once again fill on the inside. This is why forgiveness is unconditional, because forgiveness is self-work. It has nothing to do with the other. It has to do with us
The gift of forgiveness is twofold. First it opens the possibility of finding joy again. Forgiveness frees us. By removing the hate, anger, bitterness and vengeance, it frees us to be able allow God to fill us with all the good things that God desires for us. It allows us to find love, joy, peace, patience, goodness and kindness. It allows us to live as followers of Jesus so that we are a light to the world. Second, what it offers us the ability to restore relationships if those who hurt us are willing to seek reconciliation. For if someone seeks to confess and reconcile, it will do no good if we are still filled with the toxic sludge of hate, anger and bitterness; if we have not allowed God’s love to fill us and the Spirit to refine that love within us. We can see this at work in both of our stories. King David had been humiliated by Shimei as David had fled for his life. When David returns, his companions want David to take revenge, but David refuses because he understands that God has once again made him king; God’s steadfast love has filled him and so the desire for revenge is gone. David can accept Shimei’s apology. The same is true in the parable Jesus tells. The King is owed what in today’s world would be millions of dollars. His first inclination is to sell the man and his family as slaves. But when the man apologizes and declares he will make right the wrong he had done; the King has pity and sets aside the debt (note the similarity to forgiveness; casting aside). The King was able to set aside his hate, anger and bitterness and allow for the possibility of restoration. In neither of these stories is forgiveness about forgetting, excusing or allowing. They are about doing the hard work of cleaning out the toxic sludge so that reconciliation can happen.
And this was the difference between Ron and Margaret. Ron was never able to do this work, and so he remained bitter his whole life. Margaret was able to do this work and she found a life of joy and love once again. She was able to forgive unconditionally and in so doing was set free. My challenge to you then for this week is to be a Margaret; that if you are holding a grudge, if you are angry at someone, if you don’t believe you can every forgive, do the hard work or cleaning out your inner self…and find the peace and joy that unconditional forgiveness offers.