The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 1, 2019
Genesis 17:15-22; Luke 1:26-38
The obituary made it appear that this was the perfect family. The deceased was a beloved doctor who gave himself to his patients. In fact, he died suddenly at the home of a patient whom he had gone to treat. His obituary offered a glowing description of Dr. Hodge and of his three sons. Two were physicians and the third was a District Attorney in Rayville, Louisiana. By all accounts his was the perfect, successful family. The only problem was that my grandfather, John Hodge, after whom I am named, along with his four siblings, were missing from that obituary. Why that matters, is that Dr. Hodge with the perfect family, had a first wife, my great-grandmother, whom he evidently never divorced and five other children, one of whom was my grandfather. It turns out that my great-grandmother fled a husband with an explosive temper and raised her children on her own working as an itinerant school teacher, often struggling to put food on the table and shoes on her children’s feet. The most interesting part of this is that this story was buried and hidden from me and my siblings until I came across it last year. I suppose it might remind us that our family is not as perfect as we would like it to be. Our family is in fact, as imperfect as all other families.
The pressure to have and be the perfect family is something that I had assumed was a modern phenomenon. Something that had only arisen in our day and age. Yet, the more I read and research the more I realize this is nothing new. Which for me is fascinating because…and I hate to break it to you…there never have been any perfect families. And this includes the first families of the Bible. What do I mean by that? Let me enlighten you. Adam and Eve. They disobey God. They blame each other for the great fruit incident. Then one of their sons kills his sibling. First, there is Abraham and Sarah. Abraham doesn’t trust that God will give him a son with Sarah and then laughs, as does Sarah, at the suggestion. Oh, and Abraham gives Sarah away twice to protect himself. Next, there is Mary and Joseph. For many of you I may be treading in dangerous waters here…but bear with me. Mary is an unmarried pregnant woman. Joseph is a reluctant groom, who only goes through with the marriage because of angelic intervention. Mary gives birth in a stable because Joseph forgot to go on Inns.com and make a reservation. Once Jesus is born, they become enemies of the state and then refugees. Once Jesus is a little older, they lose him in Jerusalem. At thirty, Jesus leaves home and his mother, abandoning his role as head of the family. Finally, Mary and her other children seek out Jesus to bring him home because they believe, as the Greek says, he is out of his mind. These are not perfect families, which I believe is part of the point of these stories; that it is the point of Christmas, that God uses imperfect families to help save the world.
Adam and Eve are our distant relations and they gave birth to humanity, even though they are imperfect. Abraham and Sarah, for all their imperfections were those who received, and to the best of their ability lived out the covenant, which is still at work today. Mary and Joseph, for all their imperfections, reared Jesus, taught him the Torah and loved him. None of them were prefect and yet God worked in and through them to make the world the way God desired it to be. And by not being perfect, these families made it clear that it was God’s work in and through them, and not their own perfect work, that saved and changed the world. The problem for us is that there is still this pressure to be the perfect family…and especially at Christmas. We are to be Norman Rockwell and not Griswold families from the Christmas Vacation movie. We are to have the perfect tree, the perfect ornaments on the tree, the perfect lights on the house, the perfect family picture, the perfect Christmas Card with the perfect family picture, the perfect gifts, with the perfect wrapping with the perfect tag on the perfect wrapping on the perfect presents. The pressure is on. The pressure builds. So, what I want to do for you this morning is to help you relieve the pressure. I want to do that by inviting you to repeat after me…you don’t have to but you are invited to. Here goes.
“I am not perfect. My family is not perfect. But that is OK. It is OK because God uses imperfect people. Because God uses imperfect families to save the world. So God can use me and God can use my family to transform the world.”
There, the pressure is off for this Christmas. It is off because we know that God can and does use imperfect people and imperfect families to do God’s will in the world. My challenge for you then is to ask yourselves this question over this week. How is God using me as a less than perfect person; how is God using my family as a less than perfect family to help change the world for the better?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 17, 2019
Isaiah 2:1-4; Galatians 3:23-29
A couple of weeks ago my wife Cindy and I learned that our daughter has joined a roller derby team. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with roller derby, but my only recollection of it was from my childhood, when I would watch it in black and white and women would knock each other down and off a banked track at great speeds. I had no idea what the rules were. I only knew it was just fast and violent and perhaps better for our daughter than rugby, which she played in college. When we spoke with Katie, she tried to explain to us the basic rules and what her position would be…which is a jammer and not a blocker. And it is the jammer who tries to circle the track faster than anyone else. Needless to say, I did not understand all the concepts, rules or techniques. But I did understand the bottom line…one team tries to outscore the other. And in many ways, this is how roller derby is like any other sport. The team or individual with the most points wins. So, while I may not be able to appreciate all of the subtleties of the sport, I at least know the bottom line. Score more, win more. And my guess is that this is very much like many things in life. We are not as concerned about all of the details as we are about the bottom line.
I had been pondering that idea of knowing the bottom line this week as I thought about the texts before us, and what kept coming back to me was a question, do we know the bottom of line of this Jesus thing we do? Do we know the bottom line of why Jesus came and what he desired to accomplish? I ask that because we come here on Sunday mornings, during the week, give our money, and it might be good to know the bottom line. Over the years, I have discovered that the answer to what is the bottom line? It is usually two-fold. The first is that this Jesus thing is about eternal life and getting into heaven. This has been the answer for the church for probably about the last 1,800 years. Evangelists, pastors and street preachers all proclaim that heaven is only for those who believe in Jesus. The second answer is that it helps us to be good people. That following Jesus’ example of his life of love, forgiveness and compassion offers us a moral compass for our lives. This answer has also been at the heart of Christian faith. But what if there is a third answer? What if there is a third answer that might actually be more central to this Jesus thing than the other two? Now I am not discounting either of the first two, but what I want to propose for this morning, is that there is a third, biblically based answer which is just as important, if not more important than the other two; and that answer is to create one, new united humanity.
To understand this, we need to return to our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah. Now Isaiah was originally a priest in the great high Temple in Jerusalem. One day about 740 years before the birth of Jesus he had an ecstatic encounter with the God of Israel inside the temple. God instructed him to remind the people of Judah of their obligations to God and to one another. This he did, even though it was not always pleasant. But along the way God also gave him visions of an amazing future…one that was almost unimaginable. And one of those visions was our passage from this morning. In that vision, Isaiah was shown a day when all the nations of the earth would flock to the mountain of God in order to learn to live in the ways of God. The shorthand for what the ways of God were would be to love God and love neighbor. And when the nations learned this way of living, then they would become one new people. We know this because they would beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks and war would be abolished. Though they would all remain different nations, they would, in the end be one new humanity, sharing a way of life and hope.
The question for the people of God, as the years went by, was how would this come about? How would God bring all of these nations to learn about God’s way of loving God and loving neighbor. The answer for the Apostle Paul, was that God would accomplish this, and had done this in and through the work of Jesus on the cross. In and through Jesus death and resurrection, God and made it possible for all nations to become one new people. In order to make this image come alive for us, I want to bring us back to this moment. So, let me ask, how many of you have ever rooted for a particular sports team at any level? High school, college, pro? How many of you have ever owned a jersey, cap, shirt or pin from one of those teams? Now one more, how many of you have ever seen people wearing the afore mentioned garb? Good, because what that garb shows is that people are divided over whom to root for. They root for their team and against the other team. We could see this vividly yesterday at the Michigan, MSU game. Now picture an entire society that is divided in that way. A society divided by their clothing. This was the Roman Empire. In the Empire different classes dressed differently, not simply by wealth or custom, but by law. So when you walked down the street, you could tell who was upper class and who was a slave and everyone in between. They were a divided people with some being considered more valuable than others.
It was into that divided world that Paul then said that when someone is baptized in Christ they put on Christ. In other words, regardless of what clothes one wore in the outside world, in the new world of Jesus, all those who were baptized put on the same clothes. This is why Paul could say that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. He could say it not because they had changed religion, or gender or status, but because they wore the same clothing. They were clothed in Christ. One way to think about this would be to imagine all of the baptized wearing a single white jersey with the words, “Beloved Child of God” written on it. They were a new people because they were a new team; a unified team; a team that had learned the ways of God together in Jesus Christ.
Why does this matter? What does it matter that in our baptisms we become one new people? That we become part of this new humanity? For me, it matters because of what is going to take place over the next twelve months. Over the next twelve months our nation will be put through incredible stress, first because of the impeachment inquiry and possible trial, and then through the election. Under normal circumstances this would not matter. But we have become a polarized society, torn apart over our president. And we are not only a polarized society, but Christianity in this nation is also polarized. Some Christians claim that our president is God’s anointed. Others claim he is the anti-Christ. And so what is going to happen as we move forward is that Christians will begin to look at each other as the enemy. We will define Christian as someone who believes like us. And this will have the potential to tear apart friendships, churches and our nation. We will all be tempted to do this. And so this is what I want you to do when you feel that urge coming on. I want you to picture those people with whom you disagree wearing their generic, white jerseys with “Beloved Child of God” written on them. I want you to remember that all of the baptized have been clothed in Christ and that there is neither Republican or Democrat, conservative of liberal, because we are all one in Christ.
The Rev. Joanne Blair
November 10, 2019
Exodus 6: 1-8; Ephesians 1:3-14
This morning we continue our four-part series on the “Images of Jesus,” today viewing Jesus as transformer. For those of you who were here last week, you’ll remember that John said the scripture he was reading from Colossians was packed full. Well, here we go again. As we read today from Ephesians 1:3-14, consider that in the original Greek, this was written as one long enthusiastic sentence of 202 words … the longest sentence in the New Testament. Gratefully, the translators broke it down into smaller sentences. Listen for God speaking…
Ephesians is the most impersonal of Paul’s letters, as he was not addressing any particular situation or crisis. This letter was intended to circulate among the churches of Asia Minor, and is a bird’s-eye view of one theme after another. It is rich with some of Paul’s reflections on God’s purposes for the world. It is challenging to reflect on today’s scripture without preaching into the whole letter, so just to give you a launch pad (should you want to delve into the whole letter when you get home), chapters 1-3 tell the story of God, and chapters 4-6 spell out the nature of our participation in greater detail.
Today’s reading, the opening piece of Ephesians, is a kind of “table of contents” to the rest of the letter. It is also a prayer, a prayer which begins and ends with praising and blessing God for what God has done, is doing, and will do. Hidden within this prayer is the story of Exodus. God chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be the bearers of God’s promised deliverance and redemption for the world and to be part of God’s plan to rescue that which became broken through human rebellion. We, too, have been chosen by grace, not for our sake, but for the sake of what God wants to accomplish. By using the word “we,” Paul is including all who believe in Christ. Those who believe in Jesus are now part of the fulfillment of God’s purpose, and that includes us. Just as God chose the Israelites to be God’s people, God has now adopted us as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
We are all familiar with the patriarchal structure of Biblical times. In ancient Roman law, the family was based on the father’s absolute power. The father had power over his daughters until they were married and had power over their sons as long as they lived, and everything they owned belonged to the father. Sometimes, in order to carry on the family line, an elaborate process of adoption was carried out. When someone was adopted, they acquired the rights of their new family and gave up all rights to their old family, including any inheritance. Legally, they were considered a new person.
This is what Paul is saying God has done for us. We are a new creation in Jesus Christ. The allusion to Exodus says that we, too, were in bondage. Not to Egyptian tyranny, but to the ways of the world. And this is the new Exodus, the new inheritance, and the new wilderness wandering. “Paul sees the church doing what Israel did in the desert: coming out of the slavery of sin through God’s action in Jesus the Messiah, and on the way to the new promised land.” (Paul, The Prison Letters, N.T Wright, 2002)
We were under the power of sin and of the world … and through Jesus, God took us out of that power and into God’s. This adoption wipes out the past and makes us new. We have been transformed in Christ. God’s choice of Israel did not depend on their impressiveness or righteousness, and God’s choice of us certainly does not depend on our impressiveness or righteousness. But now, in Christ, God blesses us as God once did Abram. God destined us for adoption as God’s children through Jesus Christ.
Hopefully, we each have a personal relationship with God. But today Paul is calling us beyond that to also be the Church. The Church has been called to make known by word and example the forgiving, healing, and unifying love that is ours in Christ to all the world. And just as the wandering Israelites were led by the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, so we are led by the Holy Spirit.
The mystery of God’s will has now been revealed. It is to bring the entire universe - heaven and earth - into unity in Christ. We are part of God’s great initiative of redemption, reconciliation, and the healing of God’s broken world. In Christ, we have been given a part in God’s eternal plan. God has drawn us into God’s work of uniting all things in Christ. We are not incidental to God’s story. By grace, we are participants in God’s story, sharing together in God’s work of redemption in Christ. This gift of God, which was given to the first few, is meant for all. Paul continually invites us to see ourselves, and God’s work among us, as a community of people, for this story is to be lived as God’s people.
I often reflect on the story of my life as a Christian, how my faith and relationship with God has evolved, and how it has affected me. I am so grateful! But Paul is calling me to step back and realize that this is God’s story and I am but a part in it. “I” am a part of “we” and we have been chosen by God to be a part of God’s unifying plan for the cosmos. With this gift comes responsibility. We are to live as representatives of Christ. We need each other to do what God has called us to do. We cannot do it alone.
Thankfully, God has not left us alone to our own devices, nor are we here without meaning and direction for our lives. We have been marked with the seal of the promise of the Holy Spirit. We belong to God. We are a new creation. In Christ, we have been transformed. We are a part of that new formation to whom Paul writes – the Church. As the Church, everything we think and say and do should represent God. The Holy Spirit will lead us. And we can be the people we are made to be.
May it be so.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 3, 2019
Genesis 1:26-27; Colossians 1:15-20
They always took it to the dealership. My in-laws were dealership people. Whenever they needed their car looked at before a trip, or the oil needed changing, or the tires needed replacing, they always took it to the dealership. I have to say that I always found this to be curious because it was more expensive, and it always took more time. Yet they insisted on continuing this tradition. My impression from my conversations with them was that if a car company made it, then that same car company would know how to fix it. Which actually makes sense. After all, how many of us have hired someone to repair something because they were “factory trained”? I suppose we trust that if those who made it know more about it, then they ought to be able to fix it better than anyone else…which is why, actually, the believers in the city of Colossae had decided that Jesus was of little use when it came to fixing the world and so they had set him aside as being unnecessary in God’s restorative work.
I realize that that sounds a bit cryptic and perhaps even confusing, so bear with me. The church in the small city of Colossae, which is in modern day Turkey, was founded by some unknown evangelist or disciples who told the Gentiles there about this Jesus of Nazareth who had died, was raised and through whom a new kingdom was being established. This kingdom of the God of Israel would fix all that was wrong with the world. Instead of war, there would be peace. Instead of a socially stratified society, there would be equality. Instead of slavery and oppression, there would be freedom. And in this new kingdom, the Colossian’ Christians would be able to enjoy a fixed world. So far so good. But then something began to change. As Paul describes it, “a philosophy” began to creep into the teachings of the church. What this philosophy suggested was that only God could fix creation because only God made it; only God could initiate the Kingdom. This would make sense because the only scriptures they possessed were the Jewish scriptures that spoke of creation as an act of the God of Israel and not of Jesus. So even if Jesus were a great wisdom teacher, or a wonderful rabbi, and even if he were raised from the dead, he was still just a dude. He was simply a faithful human and nothing more. This led to the Colossians to set Jesus aside, believing that only the God of Israel could set things right.
It was into that situation then that Paul wrote his letter to them. And what he wanted them to know is that Jesus was not just a dude, though he was human. That he was more than a teacher of wisdom, though he was. That he could indeed help fix what was broken because he was the part of the creative team that brought it into being. Let’s listen again to some of his words. “He is the image, or ikon, meaning likeness, of the invisible God…for in him all things in heaven and earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers; all things have been created through him and for him…for in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” What Paul wants them to understand is that Jesus was central to this remaking of creation because he was not only mysteriously present with God from the beginning but because he was intimately involved in the creative process that organized the universe. And not only that, but the restoration of a good world was possible because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As Paul puts it, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” This was so because on the cross Jesus broke the power of sin that distorts the image of God in us all, making it possible for all persons to love God and neighbor. In the resurrection, he broke humanities’ ultimate enemy, the power of death, by becoming the first born from the dead. The result of these two actions made possible the reconciliation of all things, meaning all peoples, nations, races, genders and even creation itself. In other words, the ones who brought this world into existence, are the ones who are fixing it. Jesus, the ikon of the living God, gave his life for the world, and he and the God of Israel who raised him from the dead, are working together to fundamentally change not just the world but the universe itself. Reconciliation and restoration are possible.
As I prepared this sermon, the title, Images of Jesus: Creator sounded about as interesting as dirt. It sounded like one of those esoteric discussions such as how many angels can you fit on the head of a pin, which was actually an ongoing discussion in the late Middle Ages. However, if we are to believe Paul, Jesus as creator is one of the great sources of hope for us and for humanity. He is a source of hope because as part of the creative creation team, Jesus not only had the power to begin the process of restoring this broken world but has begun its restoration. And, Jesus not only began the restoration work, but continues it in and through each of us. As Malcomb Gordon in his song, “Our Father is Waiting” sings, “how life is now is not how life will be.” This is the message of Jesus as creator, that in his infinite love and grace, he is working in and through each of us to help remake this world into what it ought to be. Jesus as creator is fixing this terribly broken world.
My challenge to you for this week then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I continually connecting with Jesus, that he might fix what is broken in me, and through me to help fix the world?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 27, 2019
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; 1 Timothy 6:17-19
We begin with story one. He never had much money in his wallet. Whenever Dr. Mauze and his staff would go out for lunch he barely seemed to have enough to pay for his food. This always seemed a bit odd to his staff since he was the senior pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, and even though in the 50s and 60s when he was there, he was not paid a great deal, he was paid well. No one quite understood this until one day a staff member happened to mention this in passing to Mrs. Mauze. “Oh,” she replied, “That’s my doing. Each day I carefully count out how much money he needs for lunch and I put it in his wallet.” Curious, the staff member asked why. “Because,” came the reply, “George is a man with a big heart.” As you know, he loves to get out of his office and wander around downtown. The problem was that everyone there knew that George was a soft touch. People would come up and ask him for money and he could never say no. So what he would do was that he would give away everything he had with him. I decided that if we were to have anything to retire on, I need to give him only what he needed, or he would give away everything we had.”
Dr. Mauze was a man with an abundant attitude. He always believed that he had enough and more than enough to give to those in need. And you could see this in the two qualities that make for an abundant attitude; and open heart and an open hand. What is interesting about the scriptures is that those two qualities, an open heart and an open hand go hand in hand and they are both desired by God. I say this because whenever it is mention that one ought to give, it is always done in the context of giving willingly, giving joyfully, giving lovingly. We can see this in verses seven and eight in Deuteronomy where the writer says, “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.” Later in verse ten, the people are told to, “Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so.” In a sense, it is the attitude of an open heart that allows for the action of an open hand. Why do these two go together? Because human nature is that the more we have the less, open our hearts become to others.
I know that sounds strange, but it is noted in scripture and in a wide variety of recent studies. I will offer two studies. The first is the candy jar study. Researchers began by having subjects think about whether they saw themselves having more money or less money than other people. Following that, the subjects were shown a bowl of candy. They were told that they could take as much as they wanted, and whatever was left would be given to children in need. The results were that those who thought of themselves as having more money than others, took more candy, while those who thought of themselves as having less, took less candy. The second study is one in which people were give VR glasses…you know those glasses where you are seeing in 3-D? The video shown to the subjects was of a street scene in which the subjects were walking down a street. Along the way were a variety of people, all trying to make eye contact with the wearer. The less money the subject had, the more eye contact they made with people, especially those who might appear to be needy. The more money someone had, the less eye contact they made, not only with those in need, but with anyone. These studies, along with many other ones, show that as our income increases, we not only begin to close our hearts to others, but also we don’t actually see others. This is the reason the scriptures remind us that we are to nurture having an open heart, so that we can see not only the needs of others, but we can see their worth and value, as did Dr. Mauze.
Now for story two. When we lived in the Panhandle of Texas, I was asked to do a memorial service for a former member of my congregation. He had been one of the few physicians in the town and was much beloved. People talked about him with great affection because he was always willing to make house calls and was always available. In addition to that, at his death he had left a large bequest to the community foundation in order to assist the town that he loved. As I was meeting with his daughter to discuss the service, I commented on those two things about her dad. Her response took me by surprise. “Do you know what that bequest is?” she asked. Before I could respond she continued, “That was the bicycle I never got. That was the vacation my mother never had. My father never took a day off, ever. My mother begged him for even a few days to go someplace. He always said no. And he said no to Christmas gifts and birthday gifts. Sure, he cared for all those other people. But not us.” To so many this was a dedicated man with an abundance attitude, that he always had enough to give away, but somehow not to himself, or to his family.
I bring this up because an attitude of abundance is about having an open heart and an open hand to all. It is not only about giving away to strangers, but it is about giving to family and self in order to enjoy life. We can see this in those often overlooked verses seventeen and eighteen in 1 Timothy. “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share…” Notice that an open heart and an open hand to others is there, but there is also the reminder that what we are given by God is to be enjoyed. This is a very Jewish and not a very Puritan concept. I say this because within Judaism there is always a call to enjoy life. The writer of Ecclesiastes states that there is nothing better in life than to eat, drink and enjoy the fruits of our labor. Think of Fiddler on the Roof and the wedding scene. Think of Jesus first miracle in the Gospel of John where Jesus turns water into wine for the wedding. Life within the Biblical tradition is not to be a dreary, ascetic journey…which our Puritan ancestors seemed to think it was to be. Instead it is to be enjoyed by family, friends and community.
What Paul is trying to tell Timothy and the church he serves is that as God’s people we are to find the balance in our attitude of abundance. We are to find an attitude of abundance that as Paul puts it elsewhere, does not cause us to be in need, but insures that others have what they need. This is the balance of an attitude of abundance. It allows us to see ourselves and others as equally worthy of having the blessings of God’s bounty on this earth. It allows us to find a balance between loving ourselves and loving neighbor. My challenge to you then on this day in which we make our financial commitments to the church is to ask yourselves, “Where is my balance? Where is my balance that allows me to have an open heart and hand toward strangers and toward self?” Then to work toward that balance in such a way that you live with an attitude of abundance toward all.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
October 20, 2019
Genesis 1:29-31; Mark 12:41-44
There are special moments in every teacher’s life when they see the lightbulb turn on in a student’s mind. All the hard work explaining and demonstrating and running through the concept over and over finally pays off. The student gets it and the teacher swells with joy.
This story in Mark is a joyful moment for our teacher, Jesus. He has just arrived in Jerusalem with everyone else for Passover. As the crowds grow, Jesus finds a spot in the temple to “people watch.” He should see righteous displays of faith from the people of God. This is a festival that attracts all the religious celebrities to one place and all their fans. If you want a good example of how to worship God, this should be the place to take notes.
What Jesus observes is not very encouraging. He sees people taking on far too much work in the temple because they think it will somehow win them friends, or respect, or a place in heaven. He hears loud praying so everyone will know exactly how religious that person is. He sees people dressed in their glitziest robes, passive-aggressively positioning for the best seat in the courtyard. He hears offerings being made one coin at a time, so that the clinking of their donation fills every ear. Clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink, clink. Jesus gets frustrated with the missteps of God’s people. How are they still not getting this?! Abraham explained it, Moses explained it, the prophets explained all of this. Why are they still treating God in this way? He hears it again, clink, clink…then nothing. Jesus looks up to see why this person has delayed putting in the rest of their coins and sees a widow walking away from the offering jar. A smile spreads across the teacher's face. She gets it.
She gets it! This woman understands what an offering is and how to give. Jesus quickly gathers the disciples and points her out. “This woman has given the biggest offering of anyone here,” he tells them. We easily understand that Jesus does not care about the amount of an offering, but we struggle with what he does care about. Many interpret this scripture to mean we should all give until it hurts. Jesus says these others will not even miss the money they have given, but she will, so we think he is saying we should all give until we would miss the money we give. However, I think Jesus is holding this widow up as an example for a different reason. We don’t know anything about this particular widow. We only know from the context that she is probably very poor, as most widows were. We know widows had a low standing in the community and had no power to speak up for change. Widows were dependent on the kindness and generosity of others to survive. But that doesn’t mean they were worthless. Widows were probably reliable childcare, surely some of them made the best soup in town, and maybe others were great storytellers. In the best-case scenario, widows were still a part of the community, maybe not valued like Jesus would have liked, but they were still included. This widow was included in the Passover events. She was allowed to come into the temple to participate in the festivities, so she was still an active member of the community.
Jesus has watched the life of this community all day. Jesus isn’t against what the temple stands for in theory. Jesus likes that this is a place for people to gather, he loves that they feel close to God here. The temple is a place where people come to learn. Even Jesus, as a child, learned in the courtyard and is now teaching there. If he hated the temple he would not go there to participate in the life of this place. Jesus likes the general ministry of the temple and the community it supports. So, let’s assume this community was doing its best to support the widows in their midst because they knew these women were valuable members, and God wanted them to care for the widows. If that was the case the temple probably took up an offering for a widow’s ministry. A ministry this widow would have been a benefactor of. Then she finds herself with two extra coins at festival time. She could go and buy herself a celebratory pomegranate. Yet, she gets it. She gets that she has received blessings from this community and heads to the temple to drop her two coins in the jar.
When I first started working for a church, I had this awkward realization. If I give my tithe but then get a salary from which the tithe comes from, am I giving at all? It was this weird “catch 22” dilemma I still wrestle with from time to time. I think this widow at some point wrestled with the same thing. If I give these two coins today but then get a full meal tomorrow, am I even giving anything? In a roundabout way am I just giving to myself? Yes… and that’s what she understands. Giving to a community that supports you and benefits you is just giving to yourself. This is a good investment strategy too. Buying stock in products you need and purchase is a good idea. Giving to a ministry that offers something for you ensures the community will still be able to do the ministry it is doing, and you will continue being supported. Jesus holds this widow up as an example because she understands this concept. Not because she gave until it hurts, she donated to what helped heal her.
When we get to stewardship season, church leadership starts to trip over themselves to try and teach this idea in a new way. We think somehow stewardship is such a foreign concept that members just don’t get it. But we aren’t doing anything in the church that isn’t happening in every store in the world. Money is exchanged for a need or a want. The concept is easy, the problem is when we give to the church that feeling of mutuality gets blurred. There isn’t an immediate exchange of goods or services. Here in our church, we can take for granted that money comes in and great ministries thrive. The link between the two gets lost.
For the widow, it was very tangible. Without the temple’s widow ministry, she would be hungry and so she feels a strong pull to give what she can to keep the temple open and working. She depends on it being funded. That isn’t something just the widow or the needy can feel. If we take a moment to reach out for that link and find it for ourselves, find what we depend on here in this community, we realize we are all beneficiaries of the ministry of this church. Some of us come here to learn, from staff who spend their working hours planning the education. Some of us receive a “Basket of Love” at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of us have been visited by a Pastor or a Deacon, that without a paid church phone bill would not have happened. Some of us have met lifelong friends here, or have children who have supportive, loving friends here because this building is a safe and clean place to gather. We are all beneficiaries of the ministry of our pledges, tithes, and offerings. Giving to this church is giving to ourselves.
Let me take a quick, side tangent to explain three words. Tithes, offerings, and pledges. Tithes - we usually have some sense of its meaning. A tithe is 10% of a person’s income. That percentage was established by a few Biblical texts that suggest 10% is a respectable amount to give to ministries doing God’s work in the world. There are hundreds of sermons written about the tithing texts. This is not a sermon about those verses. All I want you to have in mind is 10% is a tithe. An offering, then, is anything given above 10%. It is above and beyond what is sufficient. Offerings were and are taken for special causes or needs in the community. We recently took an offering for Hurricane relief.
That leaves pledges. Pledges started when churches realized they needed to have a clue about what was going to be donated in a year to set a budget. Pledges are the commitments we are willing to make, and the expectations we place on ourselves for the coming year. We are lucky that we operate in a pledge structure. For the widow, she had to have money at the ready when the jar ran out. We get a little more wiggle room on the timing. So, knowing about tithes and offerings, we make a pledge. It is the declaration of the commitment we feel we can uphold over the next year to support the ministry of the community we value. And just like Jesus gathered the disciples to learn from the widow’s offering we are being asked to look at her example today too. Because she gets it.
When Jesus saw that woman give her two coins, he must have swelled with joy seeing someone get it and live it out. I felt the same way when I heard about Jack. Jack gets it too. Jack is five years old, and he goes to our Hand-in-Hand day school. Another ministry we can take for granted, thanks to your pledges, tithes, and offerings. Jack comes here to learn and to play with his friends. Every day after school he doesn’t head straight to the parking lot, he actually comes into the sanctuary to say hello to God. If you haven’t heard your voice echo in this room when it’s empty, I highly encourage you to try it someday. After Jack has met with God he walks into our administrator, Jan’s office, and gets a piece of candy from her candy bowl. With sweet in hand, or more likely in belly, Jack heads to the parking lot to go home. Someone in Jack’s family has realized that it takes some effort to keep the candy bowl full. Since it is one of Jack's favorite things about this place, they have taught Jack that he should support the candy bowl stash. Every so often Jack brings a bag of candy for Jan. This is not an easy thing for Jack to do. Holding that big bag of candy, even a five-year-old can work out, “If I keep this bag, I get it all. If I give this bag, I have to share.”
The link between giving and receiving in the church gets blurred because one donation gets spread between so many different beneficiaries. It’s like ordering fries for the whole table. Everyone benefits, but the temptation to feel like we have lost something because we didn’t get to eat every last fry sometimes sneaks up on us, and we second guess if we want to order fries next time.
Taking the time now to think about what we love about this community and making a pledge to keep that ministry thriving helps us defeat that temptation. We ask ourselves now, how much do I value the ministry of this place? Do I want to be the kind of person who buys fries for the whole table, who gives to the ministries I value? Just like Jack must ask himself. Do I love getting candy enough to hand over the excess of candy I have this month? Hopefully, the answer is yes, and we can all benefit from the gifts we all give.
I heard someone in a podcast this month say, “A sermon is not the words a preacher prepares over the week, it is the moving of the Holy Spirit in each person’s heart and mind.” I want us now to sit and listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to each of us individually.
May we be as brave as that widow to live out what the Spirit has taught us today.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 13, 2019
Isaiah 58: 6-11; Mark 10:17-27
They had it all. They were millionaires with all the trimmings. They could go where they desired. They could have anything they wanted. But something was missing. Their marriage was a mess. Their lives were not their own. They sensed that deep inside something was not right. So they gave it all up. They sold their home, gave away all of their money and committed themselves to doing whatever it was that Jesus desired of them. They took literally Jesus’ command to sell all and follow him. Their journey took them to Africa as missionaries, to a communal Christian community called Koinonia Farms, and then ultimately to found Habitat for Humanity. Millard and Linda Fuller had it all, but they gave it up in order to share their lives with the world…and now Habitat is the largest non-profit home builder in the world having constructed more than 800,000 homes housing more than four million people. It is an amazing story. So how many of you are ready to join me in doing this? Giving away all we have and doing something amazing for God? Yeah, me neither. I am afraid I love my possessions a bit too much to give them up. And that being the case, what are we to do with this story from Mark…and the Fuller’s story?
What I hope that we will do with it is to see it as Jesus’ attempt to help this young man, and by extension all of us, reach his full potential as a God follower by helping him begin his journey into the very heart of God’s love. To understand this, we need to return to the story. Jesus is hanging with his homies, when a young man rushes up, kneels and asks, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” For most of us, we would assume he is asking how to get into heaven. But this is not the case. For Jews in the first century, eternal life was something that one would receive here on earth when God’s eternal kingdom arrived here (on earth) and not there (in heaven). And since Jesus had been preaching and teaching about this coming Kingdom, the young man figured Jesus was the go-to guy. Second, we might assume that the young man is trying to earn his way into the kingdom. Again, this is not the case. He understands that as a Jew his inheritance is the kingdom, if he is righteous…if he stays true to Torah. Surprisingly Jesus does not disabuse him of this notion. Instead Jesus asks the young man if he had stayed true to the way of God by following the commandments. When the young man replies truthfully that he had indeed done so, Jesus loves him. What this means for me is that Jesus saw in this young man extraordinary potential; extraordinary potential to be a God follower. The same potential Jesus had seen in Peter, Andrew, James and John. Such potential that Jesus invites him to join the other disciples on their amazing adventure for God. The only thing the young man must do is to sell all he has, give the money to the poor and come along.
Why does he have to do this? I would argue that he needs to do so in order that he take his foot off the brake and begin his journey toward fulfilling his potential as a follower of God. I realize it might sound strange that this young man needed to begin his journey, considering that he was already keeping many of the commandments. But the commandments the man was keeping, aside from honoring his parents, were the “Thou shall nots”; thou shall not lie, cheat, steal, defraud and so on. But those commandments are not the journey. They are the guard rails that protects us while we are on the journey. They keep us from wandering off the road and into a ditch, or from running into and hurting others along the way. The journey on the other hand is the “Thou shalls”; thou shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and thou shall love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, the journey is what happens when we live Isaiah 58 by sharing our bread with the hungry, covering the naked, and housing the homeless, we are fueled for reaching our potential as followers of God. The journey is what happens when we share what we have. This lack of forward motion on this young man’s journey, raises the question of why hasn’t he gotten started? Why hasn’t he shared his bread with the poor and shown concern for his neighbors. Why has he kept all his wealth for himself? I believe the answer is because he has his foot on the brake and not on the accelerator, meaning he was living with an attitude of scarcity.
Like so many people in this world, this young man had found that treasure, rather than giving him an attitude of abundance, had given him an attitude of scarcity. What is an attitude of scarcity? It is, the more treasure I have, the more I realize what I have to lose. The more treasure I have, the more treasure I believe that I need to stay afloat. The more treasure I have, the less, if any, can I share, because then I will not have enough. This is seeing the world with an attitude of scarcity. It is fearing that I will lose what I have, so I hold on to it more and more tightly with each passing day. My favorite story of this is of a friend in San Antonio, who was a wealth manager. One of his clients, in their early nineties, single, no family had assets in the millions. One day they were discussing what to do with the money, and my friend, who is very generous, asked, “Have you ever thought about giving some away?” The response was immediate and angry. “How dare you ask me to give any away. I may need it all.” This is an attitude of scarcity. This is the attitude that the young man brought to Jesus.
What Jesus was hoping to engender in the young man, in order that the young man reach his full potential, was to shift his attitude about treasure from being one of scarcity to being one of abundance. What does abundance look like? It looks like: I have enough, and enough to share. I have enough, and don’t need so much more that I cannot love God and neighbor. I have enough and do not fear giving some away because I believe that just as God has provided in the past, God will provide in the future. It looks like Isaiah 58:11. “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.” This is the attitude that allows people to take their foot off the brake and put the pedal to the metal and fully engage the journey; to fully live into our potential of being followers of God.
God wants us all to reach our full potential as men and women who follow Jesus along the journey to the heart of God. For some of us, in order to reach our potential, we need to sell all and give it to the poor. For others of us, who are already on the journey and are living with an attitude of abundance, it is simply to keep our foot on the accelerator. As I look out at you all this morning, I don’t see anyone whose foot is on the break. I see generous people, willing to live into Isaiah 58. The challenge then for us is not to sell all that we have, but it is to continue along the way, along the journey of faithfulness. My challenge to you then is to simply ask yourselves this question, “How fast am I going and could I go bit faster by sharing a bit more of what I have with those in need?”
he Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 6, 2019
Genesis 41:37-40; John 14: 15-17, 25-26
“Why do you ordain women? Don’t you know the Bible doesn’t allow it.” That statement was not something I expected to hear as Cindy and I were waiting in line at Greenfield Village for a 4th of July event, several years ago. We went with friends and being there early were waiting in line with a thousand other sweating attendees. Someone how I struck up a conversation with a man behind me. We exchanged pleasantries. I learned he had worked for the State Department in Cambodia and he learned that I was a Presbyterian Minister. When he discovered my true identity, he wanted to know which Presbyterian denomination I worked for. When I told him, he said that he belonged to another Presbyterian denomination, one that only ordains men and then proceeded to ask why we ordained women. Over the years I had developed my elevator speech to answer that question, though I have not used it since I left Texas, where I used it a lot. My answer was the Paul said that there are neither male nor female in Christ; that Paul had affirmed the ministry of the pastor couple Pricilla and Aquilla; and that there had been a female Apostle, named Junia. None of that seemed to matter as he trotted the usual Bible verse that seem to oppose women’s ordination. Realizing that this conversation was not going anywhere productive. I finally said something to the effect of, “Sure there are those passages, but sometimes the Spirit teaches us something new.” As He considered how to respond to that thought, the gates opened, Cindy grabbed me and we left before his head could explode.
The Spirit teaches us something new. For many Christians this is a frightening idea. It is frightening because many of us see our faith as having a nice, neat set of rules that have been handed down from the saints of old, and that those rules are etched into stone and so therefore the Spirit has nothing new to teach us. It is as if there came a time when an iron curtain descended upon the Christian world, such that those ideas and understandings of the past could never be changed. So to say that the Spirit might teach us something new is, for some, heretical. Yet that is not at all what Jesus says in the upper room. As he and the disciples are leaving Jesus says, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will (and this is my translation) continually teach you everything and continually remind you of all that I have said to you.” What does this mean? Let’s pull it apart back to front. The Spirit will remind them of all that Jesus has said. What has he said, “A new commandment I give you, love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus sums up all of his teachings in this one new commandment. They are to live as servants of one another, loving each other as Jesus loved them. The Spirit will continually teach them everything. What is it that they need to be taught? How to love one another in new and different situations. Jesus, I believe, understood that the church would find itself facing new and unexpected situations with each passing year. No manual of operations or rules cut in stone could cover them all. What was needed was the Spirit to be present to continually teach them how to apply the love of God in each new moment. This is why we say that the Spirit helps us live God’s love.
So what is it that we have learned that those before us did not know? What is it that the Spirit has taught us? For the church, we learned that slavery, though affirmed in the Bible, is wrong. We learned that women do not need to be subservient to men, though there seems to be that tendency in scripture. But we also learned some things here at First Pres. I say this because over the last 185 years of our history, the leadership has been almost all white men, because women were not allowed. But then about fifty years ago something began to happen. The Spirit began to teach us that God gifts men and women not only for faith but leadership. Eventually that led to women in leadership, not only as elders but as ministers, such as Louise Westfall, Amy Morgan, Joanne Blair, Kate Thoresen, Julie Madden and Bethany Peerbolte. The work of the Spirit did not end there though. It changed our understanding of inclusion and the best way to see that is to remind ourselves of our inclusion statement. “As Everybody's Church we strive to be a faithful, open and inclusive community. We welcome the full participation of all people of any ability, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other life circumstance.” In other words, the Spirit has helped our church become a place where God’s love and welcome in Christ is poured out to all. It has helped us live God’s love in new and amazing ways with each passing generation.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 29, 2019
Psalm 86:8-13; John 14:1-7
I am a gadget guy. I love all kinds of gadgets as long as they are not too expensive, or I can buy them refurbished, I will get them to play around with. One gadget I bought years ago was this small, square piece of electronic amazement…my first GPS. In my previous church I drove thousands of miles to visit churches all across south Texas. I thought that this would come in handy, but as it turned out, I never actually used it, until Cindy and I went on a visit to visit friends living in Olympia, Washington. We were arriving at the airport after 10pm and would have to find our way not only to a street address but to their condo, buried deep within a large condo-complex. When Cindy asked about finding our way, I told her it would not be an issue since I had a GPS, as I secretly kept saying to myself, “Please work.” Well we got our car, set up the GPS, plugged in the address and dutifully followed the instructions. It got us to the complex and then navigated us deeper and deeper into the condo darkness. Finally, there was no more road. Frustrated, I asked Cindy to use the cell-phone and call. Our friends answered and said that they would turn on their porch light…and right in front of us this light came on. At that moment I could hear the technology angels singing.
How many of you have used one of these things…or these days used your phone, or one in your car? They are amazing, aren’t they? They can tell you not only your route and where to turn, but let you know when you are at your destination and then what services are available when you get there. Over the years, as I have pondered this technology, what has come to me again and again, is that I wish I had one for showing me exactly what God would like for me to do. One that I could punch in my dilemma and up would come the appropriate instructions for doing the will of God in my life. One that would accurately take me to God. Sort of a God positioning satellite. Any of you ever wish you had one of those? Well if you, like me, wish you had one…you do…we do. We have Jesus of Nazareth. He is our GPS, our God Positioning Son. This is in fact the claim that he is making in this 14th Chapter of John, when he and the disciples are about to head out into the mess of his arrest and crucifixion. He tells them that he is the way, and the truth and the life, and that no one comes to the father except through him. In saying these words Jesus is not giving us a password to heaven, but an invitation to a life-long journey. He is inviting us on a journey in which we discover how to live as human beings who reflect the image of God into the world.
First, Jesus is the way. I don’t know about your GPS, but mine has a blue line showing me the way I ought to go. If the little, here-I-am icon is on the blue line, I know that I am on my way. This is how that “the way” is used in scripture. The way describes a journey into the heart of God. If we look at the Psalm from this morning, we read. “Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in truth.” We will come to the truth in a minute. What the Psalmist is asking for are the directions, the way, to God in order that he or she might walk, might live, in the right manner. The image in Hebrew and later in Greek for “the way”, is literally the right path. So, when Jesus tells his disciples that he is the way, he is telling them to follow him, follow his way of life, if they desire to encounter God. We know this because Thomas, earlier in the upper room said, “we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus reply is, follow me. And what does that following look like? It looks like what Jesus had just done for the disciples, he had taken off his outer garment, taken up a towel and washed their feet like a servant. After which he said, as I have done for you, do for others. In other words, Jesus is telling them that the way to God, is the way of the servant. We can see this in the other Gospels when Jesus tells his friends, I have come not to be served but to serve. And in Philippians Paul writes that Jesus humbled himself becoming a servant. Our GPS, our God Positioning Son says follow the way of Jesus; the way of the servant.
Second, Jesus is the truth. One of the great things about GPS is that it helps me not only with my route, but it reminds me of best practices while I am driving that route, such as staying within the speed limit…which I have to say is irritating, but still necessary. Perhaps surprisingly to many of us, that is what the truth is all about. It is about helping us practice a life that is true, or faithful, to God’s desires for humanity. I realize that this may sound odd. Normally when we think of truth, or what is true, we think of facts, or things that are provable. This is not what truth means in scripture. One way to understand this is to return to our Psalm. “Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Give me an undivided heart…” The truth in this case has nothing to do with facts, it has to do with living, or practicing faithfulness. It is practicing the way of loving God and loving neighbor. It is a reminder for us not just to stay on the main route following Jesus as a servant, but to follow the practices Jesus showed us. There are many of these practices; compassion, honesty, humility, prayer, acceptance of outsiders, among them. But perhaps the greatest of these is forgiveness. I say this because Jesus makes it clear that forgiveness is an act of God. We can see this in the story of the Prodigal son, in Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery and in forgiving Peter after his betrayal. For John then, one of the practices of Jesus that we are to follow, is that of forgiveness, because forgiveness demonstrates the image of God, as the one who forgives. Our GPS, our God Positioning Son says follow the way of the servant and practice forgiving.
Finally, Jesus is the life. As I got used to using my GPS, one of the things that I appreciated was that you could see your destination and you knew how long it would take you to get there. It was kind of fun when my daughter and I used the GPS when we drove her to college in Oregon. However, on one stretch though, it said take a left in 324 miles, which meant the distance seemed to take forever to traverse. Even I was asking are we there yet? And I think that in some ways, this is the way getting to God seems…it takes a life time. But what Jesus offers that differs from our trips with a GPS, is that we get to enjoy the destination now. We get to enjoy the life God offers us now, because Jesus is the life. And what is this life? It is being enfolded in the very love of God. It is experiencing the ever-growing love of God the more that we follow in the way of Jesus and live the practices that Jesus taught. I say this because as we discovered three weeks ago, in part one of the Five Part Story, that God is love and that God pours God’s love out for the world.
Jesus is the way to God and Jesus invites us on the journey. What I would like you to do this morning with your sticky note is this, to think of one Jesus’ practice…compassion, forgiveness, humility, prayer that you would like to work on this week as part of your journey, write it down and then take it home, to remind you that Jesus is the way to God and that you are on the road with him.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 22, 2019
Genesis 12:1-4; Romans 11:17-24
Today we are looking at the third part of our five-party story. God chooses a family. Now the idea of family can be complicated for many of us. For some, family is not a particularly inspiring or joyful word. But this family we will be talking about today is more than genealogies and 23 and me. This is a chosen family.
Our chosen family can have traditional family members in it, but it also includes the friends who are more committed to us than others. The ones who have stuck by us through things that make them more like family, in our eyes, after the struggle is overcome. A regular friend is someone we know and like to hang out with. Normal friendships come and go. When times get hard, regular friends leave, but when you are part of a chosen family there is a deeper commitment to stay in the relationship through those hard times. Often there is a shared goal or ideals. There is even an expectation that they will help each other become better people. When God puts together a family this is the commitment it is founded on. They will stick together through the hard times and help each other be the best version of themselves.
When God chooses a family, the world is a mess. Humanity has wandered far from God and sin has spread fast and taken a strong hold on creation. God has tried many different ways to get through to humanity.
In fact, by chapter 12 of Genesis we are already on plan E. Humanity has messed the other plans up. Plan A was Eden, Adam and Eve messed that up with a quick snack. Plan B was not to restart everything. Instead God let Adam and Eve live with their new knowledge. That ended up with a flood and Noah started Plan C. Plan C worked for a while, but then humanity tried to invade heaven with a huge tower and God had to send them to different corners of the earth to think about what they had done, Plan D.
God’s original plan hasn’t ever changed, the implementation has just been adjusted. The plan has always been to bless the whole world. The problem is the channels through which God blesses the world keep getting gummed up by sin. So, God gets to thinking again about another way to bring blessings into the world. This time the plan is a family, Plan E. God wants to start a family like none other. A family that would be the example to the rest of the world of what life is like with God.
One group of people on whom God can lavish with blessings, who God can teach to dispense these blessings to others. God will bless this group, this family, so that when the world sees them it will be clear how good and powerful God is. This family will be a bright spot in the middle of a sin stained world. They will learn from God how to spread their brightness just as far and fast as sin can travel. God will give the family a set of rules, the Law, and these rules will help them live in a way that will bless the world.
You may wonder why God doesn’t just remove sin from the earth and get us back to Eden. After the flood, God is not too keen on removing things anymore. There was a lot of loss in the flood that God would rather not repeat. Sin has become so enmeshed in creation it would be hard to clean it up without losing creatures and people God loves. When sin came into the world it did not take hold of 100% of some things and 0% of others. We all have some sin in us and some good. To ask God to take sin out of the world like that (snaps finger)? Well we saw how that worked out in the Avenger movies. No, the solution must be an antidote to counteract the effects of sin, even as sin lives on and thrives.
The formula for that antidote is God’s chosen family. God starts with Abraham and Sarah’s family. It’s small, just the two of them. They haven’t been able to have kids yet, but God promises them they will start a great nation and their descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. This is an incredible blessing for God to give. But that is the plan, to bless the family so they can spread blessings around the world. SO, it’s a good idea to make sure this family grows!
God goes to Abraham and establishes the relationship. The exact reason why God chooses Abraham over every other human is not entirely clear, but I’ll bet is has something to do with the way Abraham responds to God.
When God asks Abraham to leave his home and go somewhere new, Abraham obeys. His willingness to trust God and be a good partner in this plan solidifies his place in God’s family. Abraham is not perfect, he has sin in him too. He has moments where he distrusts God’s promise to give him a son. But every time Abraham wanders, God reminds him of the promises and reaffirms God will continue to bless Abraham and his family so the family can bless the world.
Abraham does have a son and his family grows; God’s family grows.
Now because this family is blessed there are others who see them and want to be a part of that, and guess what? They can join the family. That is the beauty of a chosen family!
It also can get ugly when the family members don’t agree on who can join. This problem pops up in our new testament reading. God’s family is still going strong. It is even stronger since Jesus came to do some extra teaching and defeated death. The family plan is more or less still working. But since Jesus, more and more outsiders want to join the family. And some who were in the family have chosen to leave. There is a lot of confusion about who should be in and who should be out.
This is especially true in Rome. Paul writes to the church in Rome and uses a well-known practice of grafting one plant onto another to show how God’s family works. (Read Romans 11: 17-24).
Olive farmers would cultivate plants for the best output of olives. They picked plants for their size of fruit, flavor, and color. As they worked with the plants they would run into a common problem: a highly cultivated plant would stop growing olives all together. Plants produce fruit to survive. When a farmer tends to a plant’s every need it can lose its survival instinct. Wild plants are in hyper survival mode and put a lot of energy towards producing fruit. When a cultivated plant stopped producing fruit the farmer could graft cultivated branches onto wild plants and jump start fruit production again.
Paul compares this to God’s family. If gentiles want to join the family, they will not only be welcomed but grafted onto the main trunk of the tree to receive the same blessing as everyone else. And if a branch no longer produces good fruit to bless the world then that branch will be cut away to make room for another producing branch.
Again, we see God’s family receiving blessings, but also being expected to bless others, to produce fruit. Paul warns those who are receiving God’s blessings to not look down their noses at fallen branches. Instead they should be in awe of how God’s family works. Those who were outside the family can be integrated thoroughly into God’s family. He also reminds them that just because someone does not believe now does not mean they will be rejected later. Even if a branch falls off, God can graft it back on at any time.
And here is where I think God’s family gets really compelling. Yes, we are blessed, but there are times we do not feel particularly blessed. Those hard times will come. But if God’s family works like an olive tree it means we are allowed to have a bad season. When we aren’t feeling the sun shining on our branch, the branches around us are still collecting the sun and turning it into food for the whole tree. If I am feeling wilted, I still get fed! I still can produce good fruit because of the nourishment of the trunk.
There will be seasons where we feel like we are accepting more blessings than we are giving but it takes two to make a blessing work: one to give the blessing and one to receive it. Yes, we all want to be the giver, but the system doesn’t work that way. You do your part in the family just as well when you are a recipient too.
If I am in a down season, that does not make me any less a part of the family. What matters is a person’s commitment to the call to be a blessing when the opportunity arises. And blessing others comes in a million forms. A smile, letting someone merge on the highway, sitting and listening to someone, playing with a child, these are all ways to be a blessing and no one is greater than the other. We may feel short on blessings but can still offer these things to others. Blessings are funny things too. The more you give, the more you have.
This week Forbes had a piece about giving back as a good business model. Scott Moorehead is a coauthor of Build A Culture of Good: Unleash Results by Letting Your Employees Bring Their Soul to Work. In this book, Moorehead and his coauthors make a case for promoting philanthropy in the workplace.
Moorehead is the CEO of his family business and started seeing employee turnover skyrocket. He discovered that most employees only saw the business as a paycheck and had not developed a deep sense of loyalty. Moorehead decided the solution would be to connect and give back to the community where the employees lived. This “culture of Good” as Moorehead calls it, has cause their employee turnover to become just half of what peer companies see in a year. And it’s bringing new customers to the cash register. The more you give the more you have.
It seems God was onto something with choosing a family that would live their lives to bless others. Not only does that work help others, it makes for a better sense of self and belonging. It feels good to belong to a family that is committed to creating a culture of good. A family that will help each member be the best version of themselves and support each other through hard times. God’s family wants a culture of good to take over the world and works every day to keep the ripple of blessing moving in the world.