The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 17, 2019
Deuteronomy 24:17-22; 1 Timothy 6:710
Twenty-three billion dollars. It may not seem like a lot of money to some people in D.C., but it seems like a great deal to me. And it ought to seem like a great deal to most of us because it is the value of commercial fishing and recreational boating on the Great Lakes. In other words, the Great Lakes are a significant economic generator for all the states that border the lakes. Unfortunately, all of this could be at risk because of a single fish, the Asian Carp. The Asian Carp, even though it is actually four species of Carp, has the ability to destroy the entire Great Lakes eco-system if it is given a chance. It can do so because it has a voracious appetite allowing it to consume between five and twenty percent of its weight each day. It is an eating machine that knows no bounds. If allowed to do so it would consume almost all the food used by all other species of fish in the lake. In addition, they have this nasty habit of leaping up out of the water at the sound of propellers, and hitting people in the face, knocking them down. Thus, making recreation on the Lakes a lot less appealing. So why am I talking about Asian Carp? I am doing so because I want you to think of Greed as the Asian Carp of God’s relational ecosystem. Let me explain.
The Biblical story is that when God created the world, God created it in such a way that all living beings, plant, animal and human, could flourish. God created an ecosystem in which all living things could live together, share this planet and flourish. In terms of human beings, this ecosystem had two components that would allow them to flourish. The first was a vertical component. The vertical component was that human beings were to look “upward” to God for love, forgiveness, guidance and direction. If human beings did so they could flourish by being open to God’s gifts and by giving thanks back to God. The second component was horizontal. This was the interconnectedness of all humanity. Like tree roots in forests that intertwine for shared support and nourishment, human societies were designed to be able to work together to support and nourish one another. In this eco-system, human beings could reach for and find their purpose and reach their potential, each living into their calling to be God’s children. This time, though, unlike the possible consequences of Asian Carp in the Lakes, Greed has already done great damage to this relational ecosystem.
First Greed has damaged the vertical aspect of this system. To see this, we can go to the Greek definition of greed, which is, “An insatiable desire for more.” When it says more, it means greed is not limited to money. Greed is an insatiable desire for more of anything: money, power, sex, fame, tech-toys. The Roman philosopher Seneca put it this way, “For greed, all of nature is too little.” Greed is like trying to fill a bucket with water when there is a massive hole in the bottom. Regardless of how much one puts in, it will run right out. And this type of greed damages the vertical portion of the ecosystem because those who are possessed by greed never “look up.” They never turn their eyes toward God looking to be filled with the good gifts that God offers; the good gifts that God desires to give to human beings, peace and contentment. Instead, greed causes people to keep their eyes on the horizon always looking for more…more of whatever it is that they believe they must have. More of what will not fill them.
Second, greed damages the horizontal portion of the ecosystem. To see this, we can go to a Hebraic understanding of greed, which is, “a selfish or excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, regardless of the consequences to individuals or humanity.” This understanding lives in the world of the zero-sum game, which sees individual attainment as the only goal. In other words, if you have something, it means there is less for me. Therefore, I must not only desire more than I need or deserve, but I will do whatever is necessary to get it. This damages the horizontal ecosystem because it sees “the other” not as a partner, but as a competitor, an enemy to be defeated so that what they have, I can take because I deserve it. This leads is to injustice. As Julian Casablancas puts it, “Greed is the inventor of injustice as well as its current enforcer.” This is the greed that led to slavery and child labor. This is the greed that allows Payday lenders to charge an average annual interest rate of 400%. This is the greed that damages human relationships, communities and our world.
What ought we to do then? In this face of greed which is damaging God’s relational ecosystem, what ought we to do?
First, we begin by reestablishing the vertical dimension of the ecosystem. We do this by remembering. The writer of Deuteronomy tells his readers that they are to remember that once upon a time they were slaves and that God redeemed them. This reminder is intended to draw God’s people, including us, back into the story of God’s providing love. For it was God who heard the cries of God’s people. It was God who freed them. It was God who clothed and fed them. It was God who gave them this land flowing with milk and honey. It is God who waters the land. In other words, we are to restore the vertical by remembering that all that we have is a gift. And as gifts are not to be greedily sought, they are to be thankfully received. When we do this, we look up and we connect again with the God who desires to fill our emptiness with the goodness of love and communion.
Second, we then move to reestablishing the horizontal dimension of the ecosystem. We do this by restoring. Again, the writer of Deuteronomy tells his readers, including us, that we are not only to look up to God and remember God’s mighty work for them with thanksgiving, but that we are then to restore the fortunes of those who have little hope. We are to ensure that aliens and orphans, those with no power, are given justice, meaning that they are not taken advantage of or harmed in any way. We are not to take a widow’s garment in pledge, meaning we are to insure that the widow is warm and protected. When we take for ourselves the fruits of our work, like wheat and grapes, the very sustenance of life, we are not to take them all, but we are to share them with those who do not have. And by doing all these things, we reestablish the interconnectedness of humanity, which will according to the writer, allow God to bless all of our undertakings.
A tendency to greed is in us and around us. It is part of the context of human existence. Yet it does not have to rule us, which is why this church community matters. For it is here that each week we work to reestablish our vertical connection with God. And it is here and from here that we work to reestablish our relationships with those who struggle by sharing what we have, that all might have enough. Today there is a special opportunity for all of us to help rebuild that wider community of humanity. And that is, at 6pm at the Muslim Unity Center there will be a vigil in support of the Muslim community of New Zealand. I would encourage as many of you as possible to attend as a way of moving away from Greed and toward a greater humanity.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I healing God’s relational ecosystem through looking up to God and sharing what I receive with others.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 10, 2019
Exodus 32:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4
I am going to begin this morning by reading you a list of things and I would like you to figure out what these all have in common. Here we go. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, crucifix, statue of the Virgin Mother, drugs, rap music, cell phones, iPads, video games, the Trinity, movies, pornography, sex, nice clothes, expensive cars, church, cross jewelry, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and all their stadiums, Nike apparel, money, military power, border walls, guns, the flag, restaurants, relationships and my favorite, Alexa. And for those of you who don’t know Alexa, she is not a she, but a voice activated personal assistant. What do these things have in common? They are all, according to the internet, idols. They are things that we worship other than God. While some of these may not come as a surprise, chances are that many of them do. And they do so because we know what an idol is. It is a statue that people worship. It is the Golden Calf of the Great Golden Calf Incident in Exodus 32. However, I believe that a retelling of the Golden Calf story, and its basic theme, meaning the saving work of God, will help us make a connection between that calf and all the things mentioned above.
Let’s begin. The Israelites initially arrive in Egypt because God is saving them from a famine. Unfortunately, they become slaves and their life is hard. They cry out to God for deliverance. God hears their voices and sends Moses and Aaron to negotiate with Pharaoh for their release. The negotiations do not go well, but then God sends a few plagues and the people are given their freedom. As they leave, God has the Egyptians give the former slaves all sorts of parting gifts including gold jewelry. Once the people were in the wilderness, God provides them with water and food. Knowing that the people need guidance by which to live, God calls Moses to Mt. Sinai to receive the law. While Moses was gone, the people began to be afraid. God didn’t seem to be around, and Moses was running late. Rather than wait for either of them to show up, the people melt down their rings and make an object, a calf, which they then declared to be their god, and they worshipped it (note the theme…everything they have is a gift of God). What this means is that they chose to worship the gift rather than the giver (Calvin’s definition of idolatry) and in so doing made something other than God the giver the primary object of devotion. Thus, anything or anyone we make the primary object of our devotion, can be an idol.
Making something or someone, other than God, that is the primary object of devotion; that is the working definition I would like to use this morning to describe idolatry. What I mean by the primary object of our devotion is not simply describing that one person or thing to whom we bring a valentine card, or flowers on their birthday. Something becomes the primary object of our devotion when it becomes that something or someone on which we focus most of our time, talent, treasures and trust because it is the one which we believe will give us meaning, purpose and protection. (Jesus reminds us of this when he says that our hearts are where our treasure is.) Looking for someone or something other than God to become the primary object of our devotion makes sense because, as human beings, we live a tenuous existence. As corporeal beings, we live in a world we cannot control and one from which death will one day take us. This leads to anxiety and insecurity. Because of these two realities we seek that which can organize our lives in such a way that we find meaning, purpose and protection. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is far easier to find that security in something we can see, touch and perhaps taste, than it is in an invisible God. This seeking explains Calvin’s statement that the human mind is an idol factory…always looking for the next thing that can be the primary object of our devotion in which we can find meaning, purpose and protection. What this means then is that all those things I first listed, if we allow them, can be idols.
Why is that a problem? Why shouldn’t we make something we can see, touch or taste the primary object of our devotion? There are two Biblically based answers I would offer.
First, making someone or something other than God the primary object of our devotion will ultimately bring disappointment, fear, anxiety and not joy. Let me ask, how many of you have ever had buyer’s remorse? Right, and we have it because the things we cannot live without, that we must have, that will make us complete, always let us down. They will let us down because they do not, in the end, possess the power to give our lives meaning, purpose and protection. While they may claim to do so, sooner or later they will fail us, and we will have idolater’s remorse. People will not live up to our expectations, objects will break, politicians will let us down, those things that we believed we could not live without…there will be something better next week. What happens then is that we go looking for the next thing to take their place with a sense of disappointment and not joy. If you want to see how this works, simply look at our beloved Detroit Lions. At the beginning of each season we invest ourselves in them, don our liturgical sports clothing, visit their downtown temples, perform the appropriate liturgy (the wave, making noise when the other team has the ball…you get it) and believe that this will be the year. However, somewhere toward the end of the season we begin to feel disappointment set in once again, leaving us unfilled, disappointed and empty. This is what happens every time we make something or someone other than God the primary object of our devotion...we end up with idolaters remorse.
Second, making persons or things the primary object of our devotion, gets in the way of us receiving what God wants to give us. When I was a child, we only had one television. I know, it is hard to imagine such deprivation, but it’s true. And whenever I would wander in front of it and become mesmerized by its glowing images, I would stop and stare, which proves that some things never change…and then my father would say, “John you make a better door than a window.” At which time I would realize I was blocking the view. This is what idolatry does. It blocks our view of God. It keeps us from seeing and receiving all that God has to offer. For God desires to give us a love that is deep, wide and eternal. God desires to gives us safety that will watch over and care for us regardless of what happens in our lives. God desires to fill our lives with meaning and purpose as God’s own children, called to love and be loved. When we allow objects, people or things, to come between us and God, they become better doors than windows and keep us from receiving all that God desires for us.
How then do we keep the appropriate perspective? How do we keep our minds from making things in this world the primary object of our devotion? The answer is to look up. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Colossians, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above.” What he means is that we keep our eyes, our minds and our hearts appropriately oriented toward God in Christ, such that it is only in God that we seek meaning, purpose and protection. It means that we consciously orient ourselves daily to the One from whom all life and love flows. The gift of doing this is twofold. First, it allows us to receive all the gifts of meaning, purpose and protection that God desires we receive. We can become people who live with hope and not disappointment, with peace and not anxiety, with joy and not sorrow. Second is allows us to enjoy the gifts that God gives us. We can enjoy the Lions without being depressed when they do not win the Super Bowl. We can enjoy our relationships, our tech and our travels for what they are, knowing that we are not dependent on them to make us whole.
My challenge to you then is twofold this week. First, I ask you to make a personal inventory of your life, looking for those things that you might have made into the primary object of your devotion and when you find them, remind yourself that they are gifts and not the giver. Second, it is to daily look up; to look up to God throughout the day, reminding yourself that it is in this giver alone that we can find meaning, purpose and protection.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 3, 2019
Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
This morning I want to test a hypothesis of mine, but to do so I need some polling data. So I want to begin this morning by asking you about some popular television shows. How many of you watch Dancing with the Stars? The Voice? Project Runway? Jeopardy? America’s Got Talent? American Ninja Warrior? Your answers confirm my hypothesis that Americans love competition. We love to watch as people compete to be the best in whatever area in life it is in which they excel. What we need to realize though is that this is not only not just an American phenomenon, but it is a world-wide phenomenon. I say this because most of these shows have counterparts in other places in the world. What we also need to realize is that this is not a modern phenomenon. Almost all societies have had forms of competition in which people try and prove themselves to be best, including in the time of Paul in the Roman Empire. And if they had named one of the most popular competitions it would have been called “Who’s Got Wisdom.” It was a show in which philosophers from across the Empire tried to demonstrate that they were the ones who had more wisdom than anyone else.
What was wisdom? It was the ability to discern the fundamental nature of reality and to show people how they ought to live in harmony with that reality. Let me say that again. Wisdom is the ability to discern the fundamental nature of reality and to show people how they ought to live in harmony with that reality. In this game there were Stoics, Epicureans, Platonists, Pythagoreans and others who attempted to convince their audiences that their conception of the fundamental nature of reality was the correct one. They did so with incredible eloquence. They did so with erudite arguments. They did so through particular forms of argument. They did so at great length. Which is why, the Christians were in trouble. They were in trouble because it would be more than two centuries before they had someone who could compete, on Who’s Got Wisdom. What about Paul, you might ask. Well, unfortunately his lack of conventional wisdom and ability to express it was leading the Corinthians to not only vote him off the show, but out of their lives. This Corinthian church, as we discover in this letter, which he had started, was looking for new leaders with a new message who would do more than, “preach Christ and him crucified.”
The Apostle could have walked away and allowed them to abandon their faith, but he refused, and instead, made the argument, even if it was in a very sarcastic manner, that he, and not the arrogant Corinthians, or the local philosophers had true wisdom. This is how Paul puts it. “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” What Paul is saying is that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection demonstrated the fundamental nature of the universe. And that fundamental nature, as the Apostle will go on to say, was God loves the world. In other words, God’s sending of Jesus demonstrated that there was a loving God who so desired the restoration of creation that this God sent the only Son, in order that humanity could live in right relationship with God and each other as renewed human beings who are free from the power of sin. This is what he means by righteousness, sanctification and redemption. This world-wide transformation then would allow humanity to live together peacefully, as a single community, regardless of any differences in worldly conditions. And it would allow them to do so in peace and harmony. This was real wisdom.
If we were to continue reading this letter, we would see that Paul does not stop with the first half of the wisdom equation. He continues by telling them how they were to live in harmony with this fundamental reality of the universe, God’s love for the world. The way in which they were to do so was to respond with love of God and of neighbor. I realize that we spend a great deal of time talking about this love of God and neighbor, but its importance cannot be over stated, because it mattered to the Corinthians as it matters to us. It mattered to them because the Corinthians were a community divide by wealth, social station, education, freedom, religious background and citizenship. Each of these differences diminished the church’s ability to live wisely; to live in harmony with fundamental nature of the universe by loving one another. And this inability meant that the members of this divided community could not experience life in all its fullness. They would be less than the God of the universe designed them to be. This my friends, I would argue, is where we find ourselves. We find ourselves in families, communities and a nation divided in the same way. We live in a time in which the wisdom of God is not transforming us or the world. Thus, this is a moment when true wisdom from God is needed more than ever. The question is, will we listen to and be instructed by it.
My friends, we have been given a gift, true wisdom. We have been given the insight that true wisdom from God is the willingness to be loved by God and to love in God’s name. These two realities are what will allow this world to live fully into its potential as a recreated world. The challenge that I want to give you this morning is this, as you partake of the elements, ask yourselves, how am I living wisely such that I might help my family, my community and my nation live in harmony with God’s love for the world in and through Jesus Christ?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 24, 2019
Genesis 15:1-6; Romans 4:1-8
I want to begin this morning with a math problem. For some of you this will be easy and for others, perhaps, it will cause you to dig deep into your past. And when you have the answer just say it out loud. No need to raise your hand. Here it is. What do you get when you multiply negative one times negative one? That is correct, you get positive one, because a negative-number times another negative-number yields a positive number. We all know that this is the way negative numbers work…but I have to say, that for me, it makes no sense at all. After all, how can you take less than nothing, multiply it by less than nothing and get something? Would that work with bank accounts? If two people were both overdrawn and they multiplied their accounts together would they then have money? I ask this because this is the way I feel about the way that the church has used the word “Righteousness.” They use it in a formula that seems to work, but which again, never made any sense to me. Let me explain.
The way righteousness has been used by the church goes something like this. The first part of the righteousness formula is that, God is, by definition, righteous, which means God is perfect; perfectly holy, perfectly loving and perfectly just. And because God is perfect, God cannot be in relationship with that which is imperfect. Instead God must condemn that which is not perfect, which leads us to the second part of the righteousness formula, us. This part makes clear that we human beings are not righteous, because we are not perfect. And regardless of how hard we try to be righteous, we cannot be. Thus, we cannot be in relationship with God, and so deserve God’s judgment. The third part of this formula is that, God, because of God’s love, wants to do something about this broken relationship. God does so by sending Jesus, who as the only fully righteous human being, can, by sacrificing himself on the cross, balance the formula. And this is how he does so. First, he “covers our sins”, meaning he hides them from God’s view. Second, he shares his righteousness with us. Thus, when God looks at us, God no longer sees our sins, but only Christ’s righteousness. As a reconciliation formula it works, but for me, it never made sense. It never made sense for several reasons. First, in Genesis, Abram is declared to be righteous without Jesus or the cross. Second, I think that God is smart enough to still see our sins for what they are. Third, I don’t think righteousness is a commodity that can be shared. Even so I had no better way to understand righteousness until two scholars led me back to the original Biblical meaning of righteousness…which is to be in right, or appropriate relationships.
It was in the writings of N.T. Wright and Paul Achtemeier (one of my professors) that I “discovered” that righteousness was not an inherent condition, perfection, but was instead a description of appropriately ordered relationships. One way, I hope, to make this clear is to look at my relationship with my mother. My mother was righteous. She was righteous not because she was perfect, but because she lived out her appropriate role as mother in relationship with me and my brothers. She loved us. She prayed with us. She disciplined us. She encouraged us. She kept her promises to us. She did what mother ought to do. At the same time my brothers and I were righteous…certainly not because we were prefect, but because we were appropriately related to our mother. We loved her. We listened to her (most of the time). We obeyed her (most of the time). We learned from her. We prayed with her. We were all righteous because we lived out our relationships in appropriate ways and so, most importantly, this righteousness allowed us to live in loving, growing relationships.
Now back to the scriptures. We begin with God’s righteousness, which is the foundation for our righteousness. God is righteous, not because God is someone who is this distant, perfect unapproachable being, but because God lives in right relationship with humanity. This right relationship is based on the reality that God is God and we are not. God is the creator. God is the redeemer. God is the promise maker and the promise keeper. God’s righteousness is based on what Hebrew calls, hesed. Hesed is covenant faithfulness, meaning that God makes promises and keeps promises. We see this in the story of Abram and Sarai, when God promises them if they leave their home and travel with God, they will receive land, offspring and blessing, and through them all the nations of the earth will be blessed. This is the promise that God will keep not simply in the birth of Isaac, but in the entire Biblical story, culminating in the birth of Jesus. This promise keeping is the Biblical basis for God being referred to as righteous.
God’s righteousness then leads us to our righteousness. If God is righteous because God rightly relates to us as creator, redeemer and promise keeper, then we relate rightly to God when we follow Abram’s example of trusting and obeying. This is the point that Paul is making in Romans, that we become righteous not by some mystical formula, or by perfect obedience to some religious laws, but we become righteous by trusting that God, in and through Jesus the Christ, has begun the recreation of the world and then living as if that new creation has begun. This is where righteousness and faith meet. If you remember from last week, Joanne spoke about faith as trust and faithfulness. The result of that trust and faithfulness is that our lives are lived in appropriate relationship with God. We can see this in the use of a word which has caused more theological debates than Amazon has products, and that word is “reckoned”, as in God reckons righteousness. In the Greek and Hebrew it is a legal term that means to be declared innocent, or if you will, to be forgiven. But I would like to offer a slightly different take, and that comes from my Texas roots. That when God reckons someone righteous, it is God saying, “I reckon we understand each other now and so we’re good,” meaning both sides in a relationship have worked out the problems of the past and through God’s faithfulness and our trust and obedience, we are living in a loving and growing relationship; that our lives are set on the right trajectory.
God desires that all humanity be in appropriate loving and growing relationships with God’s self and with one another. God desires to say to us, I reckon we’re good. In other words, we are invited to be righteous. And we can be when through faith, we trust in God’s recreating work in Jesus Christ and we live as if that new reality is coming into existence, even when a world event seems to say otherwise. Which leads me to my challenge. The challenge for this week is to ask ourselves, How is my righteousness reflected in my trust in and obedience to, the world-renewing work of Christ in the world in what I say, do and believe
Rev. Joanne Blair
February 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-8; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
As we continue our series on “The Vocabulary of our Faith” – looking at the words we use regarding our faith and what they mean – it only makes sense that we look at the word “faith” itself. What does faith mean?
Needless to say, I “googled it.” Faith is:
The common denominator here is that faith is believing in, or believing that, something is true without concrete evidence. According to these definitions, there must be some room for hesitancy or questions – otherwise it would be defined as “knowledge” instead of “belief.”
Abraham is the epitome of someone with questions, while still trusting and believing. Earlier in Genesis we learn that God told Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to go to a land God would show him. And based on the promises of land, descendants and blessing, he went. How many of us would leave just everything behind – everything that is familiar to us – and just go without knowing how things would unfold, or at least knowing the destination? The concept of family meant everything to a person living in the time of Abraham, and it was very unusual for family members to live hundreds of miles apart from each other. But by faith, Abraham went.
Abraham’s faith was certainly tested, especially later regarding the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. We can only guess at how Abraham really felt about this command. While we know that God holds him back from the sacrifice, the point is that Abraham’s faith in God was stronger than his love for his son.
We also learn from scripture that Abraham was not without sin and failure, but that God held fast to God’s promises. Abraham’s life teaches us what it is to have relationship with God. Abraham shows us not only what it is to have faith, but what it is to live faithfully. He believed in God without any concrete evidence that God’s promise would come to fulfillment. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is attesting to in his letter. Written to a church in Rome, the writer is concerned that they are drifting away from their faith. While not being persecuted at the time (though they would be later), Christians were unpopular, and the writer is concerned that they will not hold fast, and that many will return to Judaism. The book of Hebrews begins with the statement that God, who in ancient times revealed Godself through the prophets, has in these last days revealed Godself through the life and teachings of a Son.
Leaning on the faith of Abraham (and many other ancestors), the author encourages them (and us) to remain strong in faith. We are told that faith does actually provide substance and reality, giving us a ground to stand upon. Not only that, but faith provides the courage to move forward into the unknown. But again, what is faith? In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg (based on Niebuhr’s work) writes that faith has four primary meanings in the history of Christianity. Faith as Assensus (Assent – assenting to the truth of a claim or a set of claims; believing that a statement or a set of statements is true. This really took off during the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as believers started to write new creeds and doctrines or dissect older ones. Faith as Fiducia (Trust) – having a radical trust in God.
Soren Kierkegaard gives the metaphor that faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. (Ring a bell to any New Testament stories?) Faith as Fidelitas (Faithfulness) – a radical centering in God. Being faithful to a relationship. Not to doctrines and creeds, but to the God to whom they point. Not faithfulness to statements about God, but faithfulness to God. Faith as Visio (a way of seeing) – a way of seeing the whole; of seeing what is. Faith, as a set of eyes through which we see the world. Seeing the world as spoken of by Jesus. For how we see the world affects how we respond to it.
The first meaning of faith, Assent, is primarily a matter of the head. The remaining three: Trust, Faithfulness and Way of Seeing, are primarily matters of the heart. Someone once told me, “I love worshiping here because I don’t need to leave my intelligence at the door.” I couldn’t agree more. It is important, crucial even, to use our critical thinking skills. Faith certainly involves the head. But perhaps more importantly, faith involves the heart.
Faith is taking God at God’s word. Faith is trusting that the promises of God have been, or will be, fulfilled. Faith can include doubting, and questioning, and arguing and challenging God, but in the end, trusting and following God. Faith is not something we can put on a shelf and dust off each Sunday to bring to worship. Faith is not a thing we simply attain. It is not enough to say, “I have faith” and expect God to do the rest. Faith leads to action. Faith is something we live out as faithful people. Faith is filled with momentum, leading where God calls us into the known and the unknown.
Faith is being faithful. It is a matter of aligning our lives with the purposes of God and living in relationship with God involving both our hearts and our heads. And this relationship leads to transformation. Again, faith is taking God at God’s word, and living our lives in active, grateful response. Faith is traveling into the unknown with the trust that God’s promises have been, or will be, fulfilled.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out as he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. There certainly wasn’t any concrete evidence for the end of racial segregation. But his dream of a just and integrated America was not based on fact. It was based on faith. His faith in God’s transformative power was, to him and many others, the assurance of the things they hoped for. He stepped forward in faith, because he was called and he believed God’s promises of justice and righteousness. Being faithful, he traveled into the unknown.
We tell faith stories of Martin Luther King Jr. much the way the writer of Hebrews tells the story of Abraham. The hope of heaven is not separate from the hope of a transformed earth. Neither King, nor Abraham, nor the other ancestors mentioned in Hebrews saw the promise of their call fulfilled in their lifetime. They only saw it off on the horizon. Yet by their faithfulness, they continued to move forward into the unknown. They held fast to the promises of God, knowing that the future belongs to God, while also knowing that faith calls us to action.
Abraham’s faith wasn’t a blind faith. His faith was based on the promise of, and trust in, the God who had already proved to be faithful and true. Abraham didn’t live to see the full fruition of the promises, but he remained obedient and faithful. And this is the message in our scripture from Hebrews today. This message is as timely today as when it was written.
And if we ever find ourselves doubting or waning in our faith as the church in the book of Hebrews was, we need only look at the promises fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our faith need never be a blind faith. Our faith should be based on the promise of, trust in, and relationship with our Lord and Savior who has already proved to be faithful and true. The constant call of scripture is to live our lives on the basis that God is both good and steadfast and Jesus exemplifies this.
Our faith is to be expressed in trust, love, obedience and action. The more we express our faith in active faithfulness, the more our theology will expand while the simpler and more childlike our faith will become. What a beautiful thing.
And so, our challenge this week is to ask ourselves: Do I trust the promises of God? How am I putting my faith into action?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 10, 2019
Heaven and hell. As I was preparing for this sermon I decided to see what people were thinking and reading about them. That led me to my online place of worship, Amazon. I typed hell into the search bar and got back 100,000 hits. In the top ten were 23 Minutes in Hell: One Man’s Story about What He Saw, Heard, and Felt in that Place of Torment and Erasing Hell: What God Said about Eternity, and the Things We’ve Made Up (which I have read). I then did the same for heaven, and two of the top ten out of the 300,000 results were Visiting Heaven: Secrets of Life After Death and Heaven is Real. I think this tells us two things. First, that heaven is more popular than hell by a three-to-one margin. Second, it tells us that human beings are fascinated by concepts of heaven and hell and how they relate to life after death. And this is nothing new. Ever since some time in the Middle Ages people have been preaching about, writing about and painting about heaven and hell. One of the most vivid images of this is the judgment scene in the Sistine Chapel where there are graphic images of people going up to the bliss of heaven and down to the torment of hell. But this morning, I have to say I wonder what all the fuss is about, and I do so for two reasons.
The first reason is that heaven and hell are simply put, not all that important in the Bible. If they were characters in a movie, they would not be on screen long enough to be in the final credits. There would be no “heaven and hell played by themselves.” Let’s start with hell. Hell is not in the Old Testament at all. There is only a shadowy place called Sheol where all the dead, good and bad go. In the New Testament, Jesus mentions hell or hades, which may or may not be the same thing, no more than a handful of times. And even if you add in his mentions of things like the chaff being burned up in fire, we only add a few more instances of a fearful afterlife. As a focus of the New Testament it is dwarfed by love. Heaven, as a home in the afterlife, is even less used than hell. In the Old Testament, heaven is where God and the angels, but not humans, live. In the New Testament, there are only a couple of mentions of heaven being a place where the righteous go after death. So once again, heaven and hell as retirement locales, barely get a mention.
The second reason for wondering about all the fuss, is that scripture makes clear that heaven and hell are only temporary housing and not permanent retirement homes. I realize that for most Christians this comes as a shock. We have been taught for hundreds of years about these places either being the eternal home of good people, heaven, and the eternal home of bad people, hell. But this is not what scripture teaches us. First, heaven. Heaven, according to Revelation, as we read this morning heaven comes down to earth. In other words, the final locale for humanity is not a disembodied spiritual existence with God, but a bodily existence with God here on this earth. Which by the way is the point of Paul’s great discourse on resurrection in his letter to the Corinthians. Now, hell. As we read this morning as well, hell is emptied out and then is thrown into the Lake of Fire where it is destroyed…sort of an after-life urban renewal. In other words, hell has a limited life span and will eventually be unnecessary. So why ought we to consider heaven and hell at all. The answer, scripture tells us, is that they remind us that the trajectories of our lives, matter in this life and in the next. Let me explain.
Scripture lays out two life trajectories. The first is the trajectory of loving God and neighbor. It is a trajectory of compassion, forgiveness and sharing. The second is a trajectory of loving self, more than God or others. It is a trajectory of greed, revenge and selfishness. I use the term trajectories because no one is either perfectly good or perfectly evil. Even so, our lives bend in one direction or the other. They arc toward God and neighbor, or they arc toward self. And the reason these trajectories matter (and this is the key) is that the trajectory we are on in this life is the trajectory we are continue into the next. Think about satellites. Some are launched with a low orbit trajectory, while others are launched with a high orbit trajectory. This is the what happens with the trajectories of our lives. A trajectory of loving God and neighbor launches us into a high orbit that brings us rest and peace in the presence of God. The trajectory of self-centeredness launches us a low orbit where we find distress as we live outside the presence of God. The terms heaven and hell, as Jesus uses them, are reminders that the trajectories of our lives in this life matter for our lives to come.
This is the point of the story in Luke 16. There are two characters, the rich man and Lazarus. Each has a different trajectory. The rich man had a trajectory of self-centeredness. He dressed in expensive clothes, had the best of everything and every day ate more than he needed. And then he would walk past Lazarus, not even sharing the scraps from his table. Even the dogs had more compassion that he did. The second character, Lazarus, had a trajectory in which he was totally dependent on God because he had no one else to turn to him. At death, their trajectories carried them into different orbits. The rich man went into a low orbit of distress and distance from God because of his trajectory of self-centeredness. Lazarus on the other hand is where he is because God has taken pity on him because his trajectory was that of dependence on God. And this story is not a stand-alone image of the outcome of these two trajectories. We see this every time Jesus speaks of hell, hades or fire. One of the most used is Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats in which the ultimate destination of either a high or low orbit is determined by how one treated the hungry, the thirsty, the sick and those in prison, or as Jesus’ puts it, the least of these. These stories are reminders to Jesus’ listeners that our trajectories in this life matter in the next.
I realize that it might seem like an overwhelming task to set the right trajectory. Yet we do not set it alone. The triune God is there to help us. In God the Father, we have the one who calls us, woos us, loves us and urges us to take the high trajectory. God also gives us the manual of operations for what this trajectory looks like. Through the stories of the scriptures, the Law and Prophets. They describe the upper trajectory. In God the Son, in Jesus, we have the one who, as Hebrews puts it, is the pioneer and completer of our faith. In other words, in Jesus we have the one who has not only shown us what the trajectory looks like in his words and deeds, but we have the one, who in defeating the power of sin through his death and resurrection has made it possible for us to be high trajectory people. This means we not only see the upper trajectory clearly, but we can set our lives upon its path. Finally, in God the Spirit we have the one who becomes our navigator once the journey has begun. The Spirit goes with us, offering course corrections when our trajectory begins to veer off course. The Spirit thus ensures that we will reach our destination of peace, rest and presence. We have been given all of this because God’s desire is the renewal of all of humanity…not just a few practically, perfect people.
The trajectories of our lives matter. They matter to those around us now and they matter to us in the future. My challenge to you then is this, as you go through your week, note how you spend your time, how you treat others and what you do with your money and then ask, what does my trajectory look like?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 3, 2019
Exodus 15:1-7; Romans 1:16-17
“Have you been saved?” Those were the first words a member of my former church heard when he visited another congregation in San Antonio. He told me that he was running late for church, but rather than skip, he would try out the new Presbyterian congregation that had opened about a mile from his house. His first impression was that the building was nice and that worship time on the sign out-front insured him that he was not late there. As he walked in a man with a greeter badge approached him and the first words out of the greeter’s mouth were, “Have you been saved?” Needless to say, my church member was a bit taken aback. He was taken aback because as a good mainline Presbyterian he had no idea what he was being asked. Had I been there to translate, I would have said, friend, you are being asked, have you made a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, which insures that at the end of your life you have your ticket to heaven and not a pass to hell. I could have translated it because I speak fluent southern evangelical. For better or worse though, this understanding is not limited to certain churches. It has become, since the Middle ages, the way the church in the West has talked about salvation, which is a shame, because it is, in the end, not Biblical.
To understand this, I want to take us to our two texts this morning. First, our story from the book of Exodus. To set the scene, recall that God’s people had been living in Egypt initially living the good life. But over the years they moved from being free-people to being slaves. They were oppressed and beaten down. It had become so bad that Pharaoh desired that all male children be killed. The people cried out to God. God heard them and sent Moses to seek their release. Though Moses had no real power, God used him to challenge the king. Ultimately God acted and brought about their freedom and release. In other words, God saved them. This is what the people in the story were celebrating. They were celebrating salvation. They sang this song. “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” And, what is important to remember, is that God freed them not only because they were God’s children, but because God had a job for them to do, which was to make possible the blessing of all the people of the earth; to help people find peace, flourishing and justice. This is what salvation meant in the Hebrew scripture, and I would argue meant to Paul, the good Jew that he was.
Now we turn to Paul and his words to the church at Rome. As a reminder the similarities between Egypt and Rome were uncanny. They both were powerful and domineering empires. They both were ruled by kings that claimed to be gods. They both claimed that they were the saviors of the world. And, most importantly they not only oppressed the world around them, but they oppressed God’s people. With that in mind let’s listen again to Paul’s words to the Roman church. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul used the word salvation, I would argue that the concept of salvation being a ticket to heaven was not even on his radar. Instead he was pointing his readers back to God’s great acts of salvation; the Exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylonian exile and others, and saying, in Jesus God is not simply setting one nation free but is liberating the world that it might find peace, flourishing and justice in real time. To understand this, I offer my translation of Paul’s words. “The God of Israel, the one true God of the universe, having promised to repair a broken creation, sent Jesus into the world to not only defeat the powers of sin and death but to also become the true King of the world, who would liberate creation by initiating a new kingdom in which all humanity could share in the peace, flourishing and justice God intended.” For Paul, to speak about salvation was to speak about how God, through Jesus, was liberating both individuals and creation from the power of sin and creating a new reality, in real-time.
What this means for us, is that salvation, or being saved, is not about getting our ticket to heaven but it is about participating in the life and world liberating work of Jesus, which sets individuals and the world, free to find peace, flourishing and justice. How do we participate? First, we sign up to be part of God’s liberation adventure. We do this by professing that Jesus is Lord, meaning the real king of the world, and savior, the one who transforms us and creation. By signing up we receive the benefits of membership, which include the continuing work of God in our lives making us into new and ever being renewed people. Second, once we have signed up to be part of this liberating work, we are live faithfully by loving God and neighbor. This second part is a reminder to us, that just as God liberated Israel because they were supposed to be blessing all of creation. We are liberated for the same reason, to be a blessing to the world. As our tradition puts it, we are liberated for service through salvation.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 27, 2019
In this bag I have what some people believe to be one of the most destructive forces in modern American society. I Googled social concerns about this abomination and it turned up more than eleven-million possible articles or references. Cable news programs have spent countless hours speaking out against its evil influences. According to many, it destroys the very inner souls of children and youth and keeps them from striving to be their best. I can’t believe that we had one in the house, but as I was digging through our daughter’s boxes of stuff buried in our basement, there it was. And it was not alone. There were, in fact, more than one, hidden among the decent memories of her childhood. I would ask parents to shield their children’s eyes from this golden-calf of corruption, but they need to see it. So here it is, a participation trophy. Yes, your pastor’s child had a participation trophy that she received in her very first year of playing soccer where she preferred to pick flowers rather than kick the ball. As Cindy says, she was in it for the uniforms and the snacks. Not for victory at all cost. I realize that many of you may be shocked that I brought this into this sacred space…but I do so for a simple reason. If participation trophies are bad, why does God not only give us one, but actually goes one better in that God gives us a pre-participation trophy.
Yes, that is correct, God gives us a pre-participation trophy and this is it (take cross out of the bag)…let me explain. Today our vocabulary of faith word is grace. Pastor Bethany mentioned it at the end of her sermon last week, but today we will take a deeper dive into what it means. To begin with, a simple of definition of grace is the gift of God’s unearned love and forgiveness. Meaning, that all of God’s love and forgiveness are offered to us without conditions attached. This is what the Apostle Paul is referring to in his letter to his friends in Rome. He writes, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” What this means is that while we were on the wrong side of God, when we were on the losing team, when we had not done anything worthy of being loved by God or Jesus or the Spirit, God poured out God’s love and forgiveness upon us. God handed us that that trophy that said you are a beloved child of God. God handed us the trophy that said you are forgiven. God handed us the trophy that said you are beloved. Grace tells us that even when we had nothing to offer God, God offered us everything.
Grace, this unearned love and forgiveness of God, has been at the heart of the Biblical
message from the beginning to the end of the scriptures. It is supposedly also at the heart of who most Christians in this world claim to be, people saved by grace. Yet, we have often hedged our bets. Just as many are suspicious of giving participation trophies to those who did not win it all…they are suspicious of giving God’s love and forgiveness to just anyone. Surely, they say, we must do something to earn it. For some, grace comes when we are baptized in a particular way by particular people in a particular church. For others grace only comes when we believe particular things about God, Jesus, baptism or communion. For others grace comes when you do particular actions or don’t do other actions. What this means is that if grace, defined as the unearned love and forgiveness of God, only comes to us because we have to say, do or believe certain things, then it is not free and thus it is not grace. Yet Paul reminds us that before we could earn God’s love, Jesus gave his life for us so that we might be enveloped by the love and forgiveness of God.
To show you what grace looks like, I want to go back to one of the stories Pastor Bethany mentioned last week, and that is the story of Cain and Able. If you recall the story, Cain and Able are the twin sons of Adam and Eve. They each make an offering to God and for some reason, God accepts Able’s but not Cain’s. Cain is understandably upset. God tells him to hang in there and ultimately his offering will be acceptable. Unhappy with this response, Cain plots his revenge upon his brother. Cain invites Able into the fields and there kills him. As the story continues, God asks Cain, “where is your brother?” The uppity answer is, “How should I know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Needless to say, God knows where Able is. He is dead, and Cain killed him. Two things then happen. First God makes sure that Cain suffers consequences for his actions. God sends Cain out to wander the earth alone, a fitting punishment for the one who killed his brother. Cain’s response is to cry out to God when he realizes that by being alone he will have no one to protect him (as his brother had no one to protect him) and he might suffer the fate of his brother…this is, by the way, the definition of irony. It is in this moment that the second thing happens. God, without being asked, places a mark upon Cain to ensure that no one kills him. In other words, God’s grace, God’s free gift of love and forgiveness comes to Cain, when Cain has done nothing to deserve it. This is grace.
How many of you here this morning have ever watched an awards ceremony like the Oscars or the Emmys? If you have, I hoped you noticed how the winners held their statues. Usually at first, they had one hand under the base and another around the statue itself. What I want you to do this morning is to hold your hands like that (one flat the other as if grasping what your other hand is supporting). Now I want you to imagine that in your hand is God’s trophy of grace, God’s trophy of love. Feel its weight. Feel the weight of God’s love and forgiveness in your hands. Then, slowly feel it become lighter and lighter as the effects of that love and forgiveness lighten your burden and fill you with peace. Feel it? I hope so because that is your challenge for this week. It is, every morning, to hold your hands in that fashion, for just a couple of minutes, and say to yourself, “I am a beloved child of God, loved and forgiven by the free grace of God.”
Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 20, 2019
Psalm 32; 1 John 2:1-6
Sins, trespasses, debts, the use of these words has caused all sorts of chaos in ecumenical gatherings. Well-meaning Christians begin to pray together with the words of the Lord’s prayer…our father who art in heaven… then around the time we are praying about daily bread the panic sets in. Are we going to say sins, trespasses, or debts? If you were an outsider listening in, you could probably hear the subtle pause after forgive us our … s… tr… d… debts. No one needs this kind of stress in their lives, especially during a prayer.
One reason for all the confusion is that the Bible uses tons of different Hebrew and Greek words and each word describes a slightly different kind of sin or characteristic of sin. When we boil all these words into a small three-letter word we lose the depth of meaning the Bible is trying to convey.
Sin is complex. When we hear people use it today it usually turns into a weapon. Shouts from megaphones hurl “sinner” as an insult on crowds. Sin becomes an excuse for bad behavior, Satan made me do it. Sin becomes heavy with no way to unburden ourselves. I’ll admit when I saw my word for today was sin I was not looking forward to this sermon. But my preaching professors assured me in every text of the Bible there is always grace and after this week I agree.
The three most common words translated as sin are Pesha, Avah, and Khata.
Our first Hebrew word is Pesha. This is the word we best translate into trespass. This specifically is used for sins that break trust in a relationship. If a nation breaks a treaty with another nation that is Pesha. Pesha also highlights the difference between being violated and being betrayed. If you were robbed you would feel violated, but if you found out the person who stole from you was a friend that would be a betrayal. The relationship you had with the person would cause the robbery to hurt even more. Pesha is used a lot by the prophets because their job is to tell the people about how they have broken their relationship with God. When Israel builds idols, or forgets to look after those in need, prophets point out their Pesha, the ways they have turned away from their relationship with God.
The next Hebrew word, Avah literally means to be bent or to make crooked. The Bible uses this word to talk about crooked roads or a person physically becoming crooked as in their back is Avah. But it also refers to a person becoming figuratively crooked. Avah is used most often as a metaphor for how humans have bent the world out of shape. Through lying, killing, stealing, and other destructive sins we have Avah’ed our purpose. The straight line of goodness and rightness has been made crooked. Each kink in the line is sin.
Avah is most commonly translated as iniquity. Iniquity is a word we only see on SAT tests these days. It describes not only the act of the sin but all the junk that comes after. The pain, the unjust structures, the negativity ripple that sin starts into motion. Iniquity is something we must trudge through every day because the remnants of past sins are still around us.
I read an article this week about how golf balls are killing sea turtles. If you don’t already know I have a not so mild obsession with turtles. This article was in one of my turtle magazines - yes there is more than one. These golf balls are not harming turtles in a way that would be obvious. The problem is all those missed and banked shots made by golfers that end up in the ocean. Golf balls are made of plastic, they are resilient, but they do degrade. When they do, they break up into micro plastic. Shards of plastic less than 5 mm in size and they float around the ocean. Micro plastic is a problem because it is very hard to clean up, you can’t see it and when animals digest it it messes with their hormone production. Worse yet, it also messes with human hormones when we end up eating a fish that has lived in an area heavy with micro plastic shards. Missing a shot on the back 9 may not feel like a sin, but it is Avah. It causes a negative ripple of destruction in its wake.
The third word is the most commonly used word for sin. Khata. I was surprised to find out the first use of the word sin is not in the story of Adam and Eve but in the story of their children, Cain and Abel. In their story Cain and Abel give offerings to God. God knows Abel gives out of a right motivation and gives a good offering. Cain however does not give his offering with good intentions and holds back a bit. God makes it obvious that Abel is right, and Cain needs to improve. This makes Cain angry, and God sees the anger and knows where that anger will lead. SO, God steps in and tries and guide Cain back to the right path. God says, “Why are you angry, if you do good you will be accepted, but if you keep on this path SIN lurks at the door with the desire to devour you. You must overcome this anger.” Cain does not and he kills his brother, committing the first sin post-garden.
Like our other words, Khata does not mean sin in any literal way. Khata means to fail or miss the goal. The next time your favorite teams botches a field goal, or 3-point shot try screaming Khata at the TV instead of the other four-letter words you might feel like screaming in that moment. Khata means missing the goal but it gets translated over and over as sin, so there must be some goal we are supposed to be aiming for but when we miss it is sin. SO, what is the goal?
In short, the goal is Love. The ten commandments are a rubric of how not to sin and can be lumped into two categories, how we love God and how we love others. Loving God means God is number one in our lives, we use God’s name with good intention, and we remember a day to worship God. Loving others means we honor our parents, we respect life, we respect other’s bodies, we respect their property, we tell the truth. Loving others is important because Genesis tells us everyone is made in God’s image, which means everyone represents God here on earth and is worthy of respect.
There is a man in the Bible named Joseph, you might know him better as the guy with the colorful coat and mean brothers. He is sold into slavery by his brothers but works his way into the trust of his master. Joseph is also very attractive, so his master’s wife invites him to have sex with her. Joseph’s response is “how can I sin against God.” This might seem like an odd response. Accepting the offer would obviously be a sin against the master, but how is that sinning against God. Joseph recognizes that his master carries the image of God. That image may be Avah, or crooked because the man owns slaves, but even so Joseph knows a sin against any human is also a sin against God. Against that image of God that the human contains.
Considering that everybody is made in God’s image, the ten commandments are really all about loving God. Because when we disrespect a person, we are also disrespecting God. We miss the goal of being fully loving[MVL1] . Khata is also used for moments people miss the mark of love without knowing it. When Pharaoh saves Egypt’s economy through building projects and better infrastructure but does so with the use of slave labor, the Bible says this is Khata. This word highlights that sin is not just the actions we choose to take knowing they are wrong. Sin is also the way we spin our bad actions into thinking they are okay.
Recently in the news, pictures surfaced of Joshua Tree National park. Visitors had caused a fair amount of damage to the trees, and terrain. Some visitors probably intentionally came into the park to cause damage. Some brought spray cans to tag rocks, but they may have explained away their actions as “harmless.” It’s just a rock. Other visitors drove off the paths hoping to see a part of the park usually off limits. But then others may have innocently followed later in their tire tracks, thinking it was part of the path options. All of this is categorized as sin. And it may seem unfair that the ones who didn’t know the path was wrong still get a mark against them, but that points us back to how desperately we need Jesus to help us out of the mess sin creates.
Therefore, God tells Cain sin is ready to devour you. In the Old Testament sin is represented as a beast prowling and ready to pounce. It is a force outside ready to overtake any human who is not vigilant. In the New Testament Paul introduces the word Hamartia. It is also translated as sin. But this sin understanding of sin is not something that lurks out there. It is a powerful force within us so that even the things we know we shouldn’t do the things we do not want to do, turn into the things we do. We are stuck.
Essentially, we are horrible judges about what is right and what is wrong. We call a rouge golf ball and a naive left turn fine, but they are not fine, they cause destruction just as bad as the intentional spray can, and a well-aimed gun[MVL2] . We are terrible judges because it is hard to ignore our own desires for safety and self-improvement. When our desires say I want to eat, it is hard to find the strength to share our food with others. When our desires say I want to be safe, it is hard to welcome in the stranger. When our desires say I want to protect my reputation, it is hard to tell the truth[MVL3] .
It[MVL4] is said you can love anyone if you only knew their story. This means that any mean, rude, obnoxious person probably has a reason they act that way. And if you knew that reason you would feel sympathy and offer them another measure of love. Well we can’t know everyone’s story. We can’t map out the consequences of every action. This mess we are in is why God starts off creation with us not having to worry about it. But that got messed up and now we are stuck with free will and choices and sin.
These words Pesha, Avah, and Khata are also used to describe God’s unimaginable grace.
In the Old Testament Avah is just as often used to describe God’s grace. Hebrew poets describe how the negative after-effect of sin can gather on us like weights carried on our backs. Making our backs crooked, more Avah, but God offers to carry that weight. In Psalms we learn that when we confess God offers to carry our Avah. And there is a promise of a servant who will come to take all our Avah on himself. Isaiah tells us this servant will take on all the Avah of the world, allowing it to crush him, but that he will survive and come back to offer that same survival to us.
Pesha may have broken the relationship with God, but God’s response is to send Jesus to live as a human. To step into the other side of the relationship and literally put on the human predicament. God as Jesus lived in our shoes and saw how the force of sin inwardly and outwardly affected us. The amazing thing is that he did not, Khata, or miss the goal, yet also didn’t blame us or punish us for our Khata.
Jesus took on the punishment of those who Pesha and Khata. Jesus’s example showed us clearly what the goal is so that we know when we have missed the goal. He also gave us a way back into a good relationship with God when we inevitably Khata again. Sin in Biblical texts is not described or talked about so that we would feel bad about it. It is not used as a weapon to bring people down. The Bible describes sin to show us how vast God’s grace is.
Every December when we plan for Christmas Eve we discuss how dark the sanctuary should be during the candle lighting so that the glowsticks and candles really shine. Every year we decide we need to turn off all the lights and be in total darkness. Knowing darkness helps us appreciate the light. We need to know the reality of sin so that we can really see God’s grace shine. We need to recognize sin is a powerful force within us so that when we wish for God to blot out all evil in the world we pause and remember that would mean our destruction as well. We need to know there are unintentionally consequences to seemingly innocent acts. We need to feel their weight on our shoulders but only for a second before giving the weight over to God so that we can appreciate the lightness of that lifted weight. We need to remember any act that is unloving toward another human hurts God so that when God offers us forgiveness, we are inspired to forgive those who….Pesha, Avah, Khata…against us.
Dr. John Judson
January 13, 2019
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 2:1-13
We stood on the sidewalk and felt utterly defeated. We thought that we had helped to save a life, yet it was not to be. The year was 1978 and I was living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I lived in a communal house with other volunteers, some Filipinas and a Japanese volunteer. Several months after moving in, a young woman with a baby on her hip came to our door. She did not speak English or Tagalog which we all spoke. But through some patient interaction we realized that she was looking for work as a lavandera, meaning she wanted to wash our clothes. At first, I was resistant, but then my friends convinced me that it would help her and that we could quit spending hours washing our clothes by hand in a tub. As time went by we discerned parts of her story. She lived in Manila’s largest slum. Her husband had deserted her, and she was forced to live with her in laws. One day though she arrived in tears. As best we could make out, one of her children was dying. We told her to bring the child to us. When she returned with him, we were shocked. His entire body was covered with open sores. Gathering what little money we had, we found a dermatologist who told us he had scabies, a creature that burrows in under the skin. She quickly prescribed some medicine but warned us that unless it was applied exactly as noted, he would die. With our last few pesos we purchased the medication, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and then realized that we had no way to tell her how to use it. We were defeated. But then, a woman walking by stopped and asked if we needed help. We told her the problem. She then asked the woman a question in a language we did not understand. They conversed. The woman on the sidewalk then said, “I grew up the village next to hers. I will explain to her how to use this.” My friends, I believe that this is the work of the Spirit because how else, in a city of 7.2 million people, could a woman take two buses and a jeepney from an inner-city slum, come to our street and our house and then when all hope was lost have another woman from a remote village of fewer than a thousand people, happen to walk by, stop and intercede? This is the work of the Spirit because the Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities. Let me say that again. The Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. Throughout history, people have struggled to understand the Spirit. Many have seen it merely as the power of God, like a wind rushing forth. Others have seen it as something like The Force, in Star Wars; this generic power that is accessible to all people. The scriptures make it clear though, that the Spirit is more than either of these. It is literally the active presence of God at work in the world. What I mean by this is that just as we talked about last week, that God showed up in Jesus to redeem the world, God shows up once again in the Spirit. God shows up in ways and in times and in places where we least expect to find God, and makes things happen. The scripture has stories of the Spirit ahead of people, making new things possible, such as in the wilderness where God’s people were led to freedom. The scripture has stories of the Spirit within people, applying the work of Jesus in order to transform them. The scripture has stories of the Spirit behind people pushing them along, such as the Apostle’s Paul being pushed to preach to the Gentiles. David Paterson once said that he saw the Spirit as the great annoyer. I think this is right because the Spirit never leaves things as they are but is the active power of God helping to make things into what they ought to be.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. This can be seen clearly in the story of creation. As the book of Genesis opens, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos below. This, by the way, is the Biblical story of creation that God confronts, not emptiness but chaos; a chaos that will not allow life to form and flourish. To create a new life-giving reality out of this chaos was understood as something only God could do. And so the Spirit “hovers” over the watery chaos preparing to give birth to a new creation. I say this because the Hebrew word for hover is what is used to describe a mother hen or dove, hovering over her nest in order to help birth new life. So when the Spirit (in Hebrew the same word “ruach” can be translated as Spirit, breath or wind) hovers, it is God being actively present creating a new life giving reality.
The Sprit is the active presence of God bringing new realities out of impossibilities. We see this in the story of Pentecost. On the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, the disciples were still hiding out. Even though they had seen and experienced the risen Jesus and had been instructed to go into all the world making more disciples, they had no idea how to accomplish this task. They knew it was an impossible task. Who would believe a story of a crucified and risen messiah? Who would believe it from bunch of barely literate Galileans? How would they tell the story such that people would believe them? How could they begin to create this new reality that Jesus had called the kingdom when they had no power and no authority? This task had impossible written all over it. Yet on that Pentecost day, the Spirit invaded their upper room and pushed and pulled them out in power, to create a new reality, the Jesus’ community, by telling the story of Jesus’ work, in multiple languages. That day, according to the story in Acts, more than 3,000 people believed, and the core of this new kingdom community was born.
What does this have to do with us? What it tells us is that our future is not limited by our past. Our future is not determined by our past because the Spirit as the active presence of God can create new realities out of impossibilities in us. We are not trapped in our lives because God can and will be a transforming agent in our lives. This is so both for our personal lives and our corporate life as Everybody’s Church. It means that we as a community of faith are not constricted by what has been but through the Spirit we can continue to become that new reality that God is creating in and through the Spirit. This is especially relevant today as we install our new elders and deacons. It is so because these persons, along with those already on session and the board of deacons are called to listen for the work of the Spirit, leading us into God’s new reality.
Before I close, I want to circle back to my story. The ointment worked. The child lived. And then my friends and I got together more pesos and paid for our lavandera and her children to leave the slum in which she was living and move back to her island community and her family who could help care for them. This too I believe was the work of the Spirit. Through my friends and I and the woman on the street, God created a new reality out of an impossibility for this family.
My challenge to you on this day is this, that as you go through your week, ask yourself, how am I open to God’s active presence in my life, creating new realities in and through me?