The Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 17, 2021
Judges 4:1-10; Romans 16:1-7
Three moments in time. The first was when I was doing continuing education at a Catholic seminary in San Antonio. During a break, one of the priests asked our lecturer, Sister Sarah, what she thought about the Pope’s latest pronouncement. Her response was, “You mean my response to the thing that I am not allowed to talk about?” All the priests around her smiled and laughed. She then said, “I can’t talk about it.” The second deals with a wonderful Baptist church close to where Cindy and I used to live in San Antonio. I had known about it because one of my mother-in-law’s neighbors was part of their choir. But one day they made the San Antonio paper, not for their choir, but because they had been expelled from the Southern Baptist Convention. The third event happened the year I graduated from high school. In 1973, a significant number of churches from the PCUS (my original denomination), or old southern Presbyterian Church, disaffiliated themselves and formed a new denomination, called the Presbyterian Church in America. So, what do these three moments have in common? The answer is women in church leadership.
Sister Sarah, along with all other Catholics had been ordered to not even speak of having women deacons or priests. The church in San Antonio had the audacity to ordain a female seminary graduate as a minister of education. And finally, the PCA was formed because the PCUS had decided that not only could churches ordain women as deacons, elders and pastors, but that they should. This was too much for hundreds of congregations. Though our church has, and will later today, ordain women to be deacons and elders, and pastors such as Rev. Bethany, most churches in the world still do not do this. Why is that? I would argue it mainly has to do with male dominated traditions, but those opposing women in leadership would argue that this prohibition is Biblical, meaning the scriptures expressly prohibit placing women in positions of leadership. That being the case the question is why do we ordain women to positions of leadership? To explain why we do so, we will apply my Biblical interpretive proposal from last week to this issue. So, this morning let’s begin in the trenches and then take to the higher ground.
Those who seek to prohibit women from church leadership, will quote several verses, but in reality, there are only two verses that speak directly against women in leadership in the life of the church. These are 1 Timothy 2:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34. These say, “Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.” And “…women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” These are the main passages used to prohibit women from church leadership. Fine, but from our trench we can load up at least twenty verses that imply that women are to have equal opportunity to lead in the church. I will only reference two of those scriptures, the ones we read this morning. First, we have the judge Deborah. A judge was the leader of God’s people and the people respected, supported and relied on her for leadership. Thus, God chose a woman to lead God’s people. The second reference here comes from the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. In it he commends Phoebe who is a deacon, Prisca and Aquila, who are a husband and wife church leadership duo, and Junia, who is an Apostle, which means that not only does Junia lead a single church, but that she has authority to oversee multiple churches. Though people want to claim that Paul prohibits women in leadership, he certainly seems supportive of it here. Now, on to the higher ground.
For those of you who were not with us last week, the higher ground refers to looking at issues of Biblical interpretation through the entire scope of scripture. God is the giver and lover of life, and we are those who are to be God’s co-workers in making life and love the framework for interpretation. Let’s begin with God as the giver and lover of life. In Genesis, God is described as the one who creates all of life, including men and women. When God creates them, God creates them in complete equality. In fact, in some Jewish rabbinic traditions it is believed that God only created one being, which was part male and part female, carrying characteristics of both genders. And even in the second creation story in Genesis 2, when God creates Adam first, God realizes that Adam is incomplete and so creates Eve to complete him, and the sharing of the “rib” links the two together as a single person. This concept of equality extends into the New Testament when it is made clear that the Spirit of God not only sees men and women as equals but gives spiritual gifts to both in equal measure. In fact, nowhere in scripture does it say that God only shares the fullness of God’s gifts and love with only men and not women. I would even go so far as to argue that to assume God would only give the fullness of life to men would be antithetical to God’s nature as revealed in the scriptures.
The second thing we are to look at is who we are supposed to be. As I said a moment ago, we are to be those who are God’s co-workers in creating a world in which God’s life and love flourish. What this means is that we are to be those who take the spiritual gifts we are given and put them to work; that we as men and women are to not neglect the gifts we have. An interesting historical note is that the first churches to ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops were the Montanists in the first and second century. These were Christians who believed that the Spirit empowered all persons to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s vision that all persons are spiritually gifted, and not simply one group of men. But if we listen to Paul, we hear him saying, “I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:5) or the Apostle Peter, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” In addition, Jesus accepts female disciples such as Mary, who sit at his feet and learns. This allows us to understand that we are supposed to see ourselves as men and women, gifted by God with the fullness of life and the ability to serve, lead and teach. In other words, if a woman, or a man for that matter, is gifted by God to help others reach for the fullness of life, they would be doing a disservice to God and to the church, by not leading.
It is with great joy this morning that we ordain men and women into service and leadership. It is with great joy that we welcome their gifts into the life and work of Everybody’s Church. And I have to say, it is always with great joy that I am able to share in leadership here with Rev. Bethany, Cindy Merten, and all of our deacons and elders, both men and women. My challenge is to all of us as we answer the congregational questions for the ordination and installation of these elders and deacons, that we celebrate their willingness to share the gifts they have been given.
More Scripture References
Paul said, when “brothers and sisters … come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. …” (1 Cor 14:26)
The Apostle Paul said, when “the whole church comes together … if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin …. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming ‘God is really among you!’” (1 Corinthians 14:23-25; see also 1 Cor 11:5, 14:6, 20)
Paul said “you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged.” (1 Cor 14:31; see also 14:23-25, 26, 39-40; 11:5; 1:1-2)
Paul said, to women and men, “… be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord ….” (Ephesians 5:18-20)
The Apostle Peter said, to women and men, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. ….” (1 Peter 4:10-11)
Paul, recommending his example to women and men, explains that when the whole church comes together, he would “pray with my understanding; …. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.” (1 Cor 14:5, 12-17; see also 1:1-2; 14:6, 23, 26)
Paul said, “I praise you …. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head …. Judge for yourselves: Is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? … For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God.” (1 Cor 11:2, 4-5, 13-16)
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.” (Acts 18:24-26)
Likewise, teach the older women (presbytidas) to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.” (Titus 2:3-5) (presbytidas is the feminine version of the Greek word that is translated elders in Titus 1:4)
Female prophets include Anna, who prophesied in the Temple to men (Luke 2:36-38), Deborah (Judges 4-5), Philips’ daughters (Acts 21:8-9), Miriam (Exodus 15:20), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), and many others (e.g., Isaiah 8:3; Acts 2:17-18; 1 Cor 11:5; 1 Cor 14:1-39).
Peter said “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18 (see Joel 2:28-29))
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
January 10, 2021
Psalm 119:9-16; Luke 4:16-30
This past Wednesday, Cindy and I tuned into an event we had never watched before. This event was the counting of the electoral college votes. We were interested because we knew there was going to be a debate about accepting, or rejecting, some of the votes. But as the event wore on, we watched in horror as rioters stormed the capitol, intent on disrupting the counting of the electoral votes and possibly overturning the election results. Though we knew that the counting of the votes would be contentious on the floor of the House and Senate, the violence of the insurrectionists was beyond our imagining. What made it even more concerning to me was to learn that as the rioters entered the building, many were chanting, “We love Jesus.” It was a powerful reminder to me of the ways in which Christians have used and abused this book for the last two millennia. It reminded me that the Bible has been used to defend enslaving people because of the color of their skin, oppressing women, jailing members of the LGBTQ community, dehumanizing persons with disabilities, killing Jews and Muslims and exterminating entire races of people. And last Wednesday, the Bible and the faith derived from it, were being used to justify an attack on our capitaol, where one Capitol Hill police officer was intentionally killed, and many others injured. The question before us then is how ought we, as people who believe that the scriptures are authoritative, interpret the scriptures in a way that does not lead us to these same conclusions?
In order to answer this question, I would like to make a proposal. This proposal is not the only way to answer this question, but it is a way I believe is faithful to the scriptures and to our tradition. This proposal comes in three parts. Here is part one: we get out of the trenches and view the scripture from the high ground. When I say trenches, my image is of the trenches in World War I, where soldiers on each side hunkered down and shot at one another. In terms of scripture, this is what I find many people doing. They hunker down in the trenches of their tradition and load up their spiritual six-shooters, or perhaps their spiritual machine guns, with Biblical bullets, meaning individual cherry-picked verses, that they then shoot at each other, hoping to either morally wound their opponents or to at least disable them so that they can be victorious. They say this verse says this about women. Or this verse says this about LGBTQ persons. We hope that if we hit our opponents with enough Biblical bullets our opponents will give in. Instead of doing this, what I suggest is that we leave our bandoleros of Biblical bullets behind and move to the higher ground. The higher ground here is not some moral ground, but it is the place where we can survey the entirety of the Biblical story; where we see the scriptures as a single story, rather than as a series of divisible verses selectable for every attack.
Now for part two. Part two is that when we are on higher ground looking at the scripture as a whole, we see that it tells us two things:. These are who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let me say this again. When we look at the whole sweep of scripture, we see that it tells us two things; who God is and who we are supposed to be. Let’s look at these two discoveries. The scripture tells us who God is. God is the giver and lover of life. God is the one who brings life into being and loves it; loves all of it. There is not a part of God’s creation that God does not passionately care about. We see this when the story begins with God declaring that all of creation is “very good” and ends with God recreating the world in such a way that all of life is invited to flourish. What this also means is that God is displeased with everything and everyone that attempts to diminish or destroy any part of this creation. And not only that but God acts in ways that liberate oppressed creation to flourish.
If we want to see twhat this looks like, all we have to do is look to Jesus, for in Jesus we see the fullness of God in human form. Jesus is God with us. Now listen again to Jesus’ words in his first sermon. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But Jesus doesn’t stop there with words about God setting people free to flourish. He continues with two stories that get him into trouble. These are the stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman. These are stories of foreigners, of enemies, who are liberated by God, meaning God’s love of creation is unlimited…which is why his audience wants to throw him off a cliff. God is the giver and lover of all of life.
Next, we learn who we are supposed to be. Again, from the beginning to the end of the scriptures we are called to be those who are God’s co-workers in loving and liberating God’s creation. From Genesis where Adam is entrusted with taking care of Eden to Revelation where human beings are to remember their first love, meaning love of God and neighbor, we are to be those who have been entrusted with being God’s hands, feet, voice and arms. We are to be those who create communities in which all people can flourish in the process of discovering their true selves as God has created them to be…and we are to oppose those powers that diminish and destroy God’s creation, including human beings. Again, if we want to see what this looks like all we have to do is look to Jesus. We can look to Jesus because not only is he God with us, meaning fully God, he is also fully human, meaning he is who we are supposed to be. If we look to Jesus what we see is God’s co-worker. We see the one who heals the sick, casts out the demonic, feeds the hungry, welcomes the strangers, eats with all the wrong people, forgives people for breaking the rules, and ultimately, on the cross sets humanity free to discover the abundance of life. This is who we are supposed to be.
Finally, the third part of my proposal is to make a pair of Biblical interpretation spectacles…or glasses Into the frames I want you to fit two lenses. The first lens is the image of God that we have discovered in our sweeping view of the scriptures. The second lens is the image of who we are to be, as we have discovered in our higher view of the Bible. Then once we have those spectacles in place, we view all scripture through those lenses. We ask ourselves of every scripture we read, or Biblical bullet that is shot at us, how should we interpret them through these two lenses. In other words, we are to ask ourselves, does this interpretation align with a God who gives and loves all of life, or does this interpretation diminish and destroy life? Does this interpretation align with me being a coworker with God in loving and liberating life, or does this interpretation cause me to be in allegiance with those who diminish and destroy life?
We live in a moment of time filled with hate, fear, lies and violence. The tendency of human beings in times such as this is to return to our trenches. Our tendency is to reload our spiritual six-shooters with our Biblical bullets and begin to attack those with whom we disagree. The challenge for us is to stay on the high ground; to continue to see the scriptures as a whole story in which we discover who God is and who we are to be, then allow those understandings to not only drive how we see scripture but how we interact with the world around us. My hope, then, is that on this day my three step process for interpreting scripture will assist you in seeing what is in this book (the Bible) through new eyes and find in it God’s love story for creation and God’s love story for you. I hope as well that it will allow us all to come out of the trenches and continue to work for the wonderful world God desires for us.
My challenge to you then is this, to find a book of the Bible that has long disturbed you and reread it this week through the lenses of who God is and who we are called to be, and then let me know if your new glasses allowed you to make new discoveries in your understanding of the scriptures.
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
January 3, 2021
Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 16:12-15
We are starting a new sermon series to kick off 2021. We are calling this series “always reforming.” As you may know the Presbyterian church became possible because of the reformation over 500 years ago and we have a phrase we like to use to describe ourselves which is “reformed and always reforming.” This series will highlight some of the issues we have reformed over the years. Things like the church’s stance on divorce, slavery, women’s leadership, and LGBTQ inclusion. On some of these topics, before we even talk about why the church changed, you might give a resounding “Thank God.” For other topics, you may find yourself still on the fence. That’s totally okay. The Church on the global level is still on the fence about divorce and women in leadership and slavery, and LGBTQ inclusion too.
For a church like ours that proudly affirms we are of the reformed tradition, Jesus’ words here in John 16 are a root from which an always reforming church gets nutrients. Jesus is facing the last day that he will be with the disciples in the same way he has been for the last few years. The next time they see Jesus alive he will be something altogether different, something resurrected. He knows this will change their relationship and how they listen to him, SO in the final hours Jesus tells them this.
Jesus is making an introduction to the disciples on behalf of the Holy Spirit, passing off the torch of authority so that when the time comes they will trust the Spirit. Jesus expects the disciples to continue to grow in their understanding of who God is. That growth will be facilitated by the movements and inspiration of the Spirit.
Jesus had three years….three years to teach and minister to the disciples. Hold that against the 13 years of learning we insist that our children get of public education and four more years of higher education that we value, and it makes us wonder what Jesus was able to get across to these people at all. If you went to a doctor and they said, “Don’t worry. I have studied for three years,” you would run the other way. We would not want someone with three years of experience attempting to fix our bodies. So why do we surrender our souls to the writings of disciples who only had three years of instruction, or worse, three minutes? Paul never met Jesus in the flesh yet his writings make up most of what we have in the second testament.
We surrender our souls to these writings because we also have the Spirit. An authority that has been with God since the beginning of time, and an authority sent to us with the blessings of Jesus. The task of the Spirit is to guide us to things when we are ready and able to understand them.
When it comes to children, we understand what Jesus means when he says, “You cannot bear to hear this now.” Just pull out any children’s Bible and you will find giant holes, stories missing, words ignored. It’s obvious why...they cannot yet bear them. We offer to our children that which they can bear and trust they will learn more later.
We recently had a group of adults in this church go through the confirmation journey again. All of them, every single one, learned something they could not have born in years prior. Things they needed certain life experiences to help them know God better. I will venture to say they also heard something discussed that maybe stretched them past what they were willing to tackle now. I love facts that can stretch our minds.
For example, Cleopatra lived closer in time to the moon landing than she did the construction of the great pyramids. I’m sure the math works out on that, but it is still hard to comprehend.
Or my favorite fact, if you free fall for 38 minutes you would cover the distance from the north pole to the south pole. For that one the math doesn’t even seem to work out, but it’s true. And it’s mind blowing unless you are ready for it.
These kinds of facts can derail a person's whole learning experience. Imagine if we explained in detail the crucifixion to a four-year-old. It would be very damaging and shape their entire relationship with faith and Jesus. With the disciples, Jesus knew he had to stick to the basics to get the foundation set in those three years. Jesus was okay with this because he knew the Spirit would step in and lead God’s people into each new reform of faith and theology.
It is a great tragedy that some Christians only believe that which is explicitly written about in the Bible. These writers were worthy but not sufficient. If they were, we wouldn't need the Spirit. If all we needed were the words between these covers, the Spirit could have stayed cozy with the rest of the trinity. But we need the Spirit to guide us into ALL THE TRUTH. Especially the truth no one was ready to discuss when the Bible was being written.
Now some will hear that and shout blasphemy! God is the same yesterday today and tomorrow...and I agree. GOD is the same, but we have not been and will not be the same. Our understanding of God has improved and will continue to improve. And with the power of the Holy Spirit as our guide, it will be a knowing closer and closer to the trueness of God that Jesus wanted to reveal but could not because of the limitations of the time. God is the same, we are not.
Neglecting the movements of the Spirit is blasphemous. Jesus never wanted our goal to be to KNOW but to be on a journey of knowing, improving our knowledge. In many ways, this book can become an idol pulling us away from what the Spirit is trying to lead us to if we give too much value to words. And yet we can’t get rid of it because this book is a tool the Spirit uses to show us God never changes. It is us, our understanding, that changes. And the Spirit reveals new things in the living scripture. While we go through this series we will see the verses that supported slavery, kept women from leadership, and torn life from LGBTQ siblings. And we will see scripture that outright condemns owning humans, lifts women up as called leaders, and affirms LGBTQ siblings are a gift of God’s own giving. It’s all in there. The only difference is our readiness to learn what the Spirit is teaching us.
Now some will hear that and point fingers saying you can not cherry-pick scripture, but brothers and sister and siblings, we all do it. We have to because there are things in here we are not yet ready to understand. To test this out, spend the next week reading Song of Solomon. I guarantee every day you will throw the Bible down and insist “That was not there before.” How does a religion with a history of a prudish sexual theology also have in its holy scripture blatantly erotic poetry? We cling to the scripture we can understand, that with which we are comfortable.
It’s not wrong, but it also means we can never declare, I’m DONE! We can never say I KNOW what that scripture means. I understand exactly how God behaves. There must also be a healthy dose of humility that maybe we cannot yet bear those lessons now. Maybe there is something in here I keep overlooking because the Spirit knows I’m not ready for that level of understanding.
SO we cling even tighter to the Spirit. The way the early church experienced the Spirit can help us know how to hold on. In their encounters with the Spirit, they either experience the Spirit in community, or in the fruits.
The Spirit’s entrance on Pentecost is to the community. It is at a gathering of the disciples that the Spirit arrives. Everyone receives the Spirit and together they are able to achieve the purpose of proclaiming the gospel. Together they knew the way forward because they all had a similar inspiration. They felt the same urgings to speak to all people in their own language.
So the first test is to see if multiple people are having the same encounter with the Spirit. Yes, I said test. Scripture tells us we are allowed to test the Spirit. Testing the Spirit within the community sorts out the confusion of a powerful individual making claims of the Spirit with which the rest of the community does not agree. If the Spirit is asking the community to make a change, the Spirit will inspire more than one person and convict them of the truth the Spirit wants them to learn.
This action of the Spirit is recognized in the Presbyterian church and is why we use committees and councils to make decisions. Even if I, as a Pastor, wanted the church to make a change, I don’t have that power. It is up to the Session, the gathering of elders, to make changes. If they collectively feel the Spirit’s movement, they will agree and vote to make the change.
This holds true for our national church where big changes happen as well. If someone calls for a change to our constitution, like we did when we added the Belhar confession, which speaks against racism, we begin a process of discernment. A process designed to feel the Spirit’s movement. It can be frustrating at times, but a decision is never made quickly in the Presbyterian church. We purposely slow things down because we want to avoid the failings of following a whim. We always leave time for the Spirit to move. There are years of learning, teaching, discussing that happens before a vote is even brought up. When enough Presbyteries agree the change is something the Spirit wants of us, we vote. For the vote, commissioners are chosen and told to vote their conscience. This means they cannot be told how to vote by any other person, especially those in authority. They must remain open to hear the debate on the floor and feel the Spirit’s movement to vote how they think the Spirit is leading the church.
Usually, this is decided by a majority or ⅔ vote but there is a wave happening now of people who think all decisions should be made unanimously. We shall see how the Spirit leads the church on this matter in years to come.
This first test, checking within the community, is necessary when it is a community change. However, it does work with personal belief and growth as well. Talking to others who have faith can help us sort out which feelings are the Spirit’s calling and which are fears that we harbor.
Another test that can be very helpful to us in personal or communal reforms is “Looking for the fruits of the Spirit.” Scripture lays out the fruits of the Spirit for us. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And Scripture says wherever these things are is where God resides. God loves to be among the fruits and also brings the fruits to us so they are like a bread crumb trail that leads us to God.
The fruits of the Spirit can help us test all kinds of things in our lives: a pastor’s teachings or a community's theology. If the thing is producing fruits of the Spirit, it is of the Spirit. If not, then there is a reform that needs to be made so those fruits can improve. The fruits of the Spirit affirm the presence of God. If we see them in places we did not expect, we need to begin asking why. Why are they there? And why did I assume the fruits would not be there?
I want you to conjure in your imagination the image of a motorcycle biker gang. Make them the baddest roughest group of bikers you can think of: face tattoos, worn-in leather, furrowed brows all with questionable lifestyles and hard-lived days. Now imagine a nine year-old girl in a pink tutu standing in the middle of them, and place them in the middle of a courtroom. This is the image I saw on a website recently. So I clicked to see what was up. The biker gang was there escorting the girl to a court case against her abusive father. The gang had learned that kids often do not give good testimonies when they have to sit in front of their abusers because they become fearful. The biker’s solution: befriend the child and go with them so the child knows they have 10 other scarier, bigger adults who are their friends who will protect them against their abuser. That was not what I expected to read. I did not expect to read about love, gentleness, kindness, and self-control when I saw that biker gang. I had to reform my assumptions about biker gangs because I found the fruits of Spirit in their midst.
Some will say this acceptance of “worldly” things is inappropriate. That when reformed churches allow divorce or LGBTQ inclusion it takes the easy way out by giving in to the culture and creating a digestible gospel. This is not an easy route. It is not easy to admit we were wrong. It is not easy to say we used scripture to allow slavery. It is not easy to say we have committed genocide in the name of God’s glory. It is not easy to admit we have torn families apart and driven our children to suicide because six verses seem to suggest, in our reading, that homosexual relationships are wrong.
It would be so much easier to say we do these things because The Bible made us do it. It would be easier to lock scripture into the understanding of the previous generation before we were ready to bear it and not learn anything new. But we are ready to bear more. And it is not faithful to ignore the Spirit and turn our backs on the Fruit even when they pop up in unexpected or uncomfortable places.
We need to listen to our community and find the similar inspirations the Spirit is planting inside us. We need to follow the trail of good fruits wherever they lead us. Even into the center of a scary biker gang. If in 500 years we are the same church we are now, how demeaning that will be to the Spirit’s presence to completely ignore all the work that was planned for us. We are able to bear more and must continue to reform until we have brought the kin-dom of God to earth. That is the plan. To grow, more and more into God’s people and better understand the truth of the gospel.
Let us become able to bear that, to bear the full truth of the gospel. Lord hear our prayer.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 27, 2020
I want you to think about the last drive you took from point A to point B. it doesn’t matter what points A and B are. They could have been from home to work, or the store to home, it is not all that important. What matters is that along the way you passed by homes, stores, shops and perhaps parks, and yet, if you are like me, they were just markers along the way. They were simply the stuff you had to pass by to get from point A to Point B. They were of no particular interest to you and so there was no reason to give them a second thought. Ever done that? If you have then you understand how I feel about this morning’s text. I say this because this is the way I have always thought of this scripture about Jesus’ family and its adherence to Jewish rituals, as well as the story of Simeon and the baby Jesus. These are interesting but are merely markers along the way from point A, -Jesus birth to point B, -his ministry and nothing more. They are hardly worth examining because we need to get to the meat of the Gospel as Jesus teaches, heals, dies and is raised. But what if there is more here than meets the eye? What if there is something here that we should not miss because it turns out to be critical not only to the rest of the story, but to our lives as well? This morning then, I invite you to put your car in park, get out and take a closer look at this story.
I realize that at first glance there is nothing of note here. As good Jews, Mary and Joseph know what is expected of them at the birth of a child. First, they have him circumcised on the eight day. Second, after Mary is declared ritually clean following the birth, they bring their child to Jerusalem in order to redeem him for God, meaning that they are to make an appropriate sacrifice at the Temple. In this case the sacrifice of the poor which was a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons. So far there is nothing unusual in the story. But even when things take a turn toward something out of the ordinary with this guy named Simeon, we readers know that what happens next isn’t unusual at all. As a reminder, Simeon is a man who regularly comes to the Temple looking for the messiah and believes he will not die until he sees the savior. When Simeon sees Mary, Joseph and Jesus, he takes Jesus out of Mary’s arms and gives thanks to God for sending this child, whom Simeon believes to be that messiah. Again, while this is a bit out of the ordinary, it doesn’t surprise us at all because we know who Jesus is. Again, nothing out of the ordinary except one word…Amazed. “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him.”
The word amazed in the Greek means to wonder greatly about, or to be astonished out of one’s senses, or perhaps to marvel about something that is completely unexpected. It is this response of marveling amazement that should cause us to take a closer look. I say this because Mary and Joseph should not have been amazed by this at all. In order to remind ourselves why this is so, let’s recap Luke’s story. First, Mary meets an angel who tells her that she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a child who will be a king in the line of David and will rule forever. Next, Mary visits Elizabeth who asks, “Why should the mother of my Lord come and visit me?” In Matthew’s telling of the story it is not only Mary who receives an angelic visit but Joseph has one as well when he is told that his son will save the people from their sins…a messianic task if there ever was one. Then, on the night of Jesus' birth shepherds arrive with the same message that Jesus is the messiah. And finally, there is the visit of the astrologers from the East who bring gifts fit for a king. We might figure then that Mary and Joseph get it; get it that there is something special about their son and that he will be the savior of his people and of the world. So why are they still amazed, astonished and marveling at what was said? Perhaps because that is the reality of Jesus…he is always someone who is supposed to amaze.
We can see this in that Mary never fully understands her son. She is amazed when he wanders off in the Temple to visit and learn from the teachers of the Law. She is so amazed when he begins his ministry that she and her other children go in search of Jesus in order to bring him home because, as the Gospel of Mark puts it, they believed him to be out of his mind. The disciples don’t do any better. The disciples are always amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he eats with the wrong people; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he feeds the hungry; they are amazed. It doesn’t matter how many times he speaks of humility and forgiveness that they are amazed that he means it. It doesn’t matter how many miracles he does; they are amazed. And finally, regardless of how many times he speaks of his resurrection they are amazed when it happens. No this is the way that Jesus is…he is the one that amazes.
The problem with many of us, me included, is that we have become so accustomed to Jesus that we miss how amazing he really is. What I mean by this is that we have domesticated Jesus. We have turned this amazing, life transforming, world changing messiah into someone that doesn’t make us nervous, that doesn’t challenge us, that doesn’t push us into being more faithful God followers. If we are conservative, we have made him into a conservative. If we are liberals, we have made him into a liberal. If we desire to be comforted, he becomes a warm blanket. If we need a friend, he becomes our buddy. If we need someone to forgive us, we turn him into someone who doesn’t really care about our sins, but just let’s them slide. And in the process, we are no longer amazed. We are no longer amazed that Jesus changes lives, transforms lives, recreates lives; that Jesus is capable of doing far more in us than we can imagine. We are no longer amazed when Jesus changes and resurrects churches; that Jesus can give new hope and meaning to what it means to be a community of believers. We are no longer amazed when we experience the absolute height, breadth and depth of God’s love that can change the entire world; that is capable of offering reconciliation across lines of race, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality and ability. A domesticated Jesus cannot amaze. But the fact is that Jesus is still the one who can and does amaze. Jesus is the one who has done, is doing and will continue doing what should amaze us all.
My challenge then for each of us in this coming new year, is to set aside our domesticated Jesus and go in search of the Jesus who still amazes; the Jesus who can do amazing things in us and in the world, asking ourselves this question, “How is Jesus amazing me?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
December 20, 2020
Isaiah 54:4-8; Luke 2:15-20
For five days in elementary school my best friend did not save a swing for me on recess. Samantha and I had started the tradition to swing the whole recess together when we were in the same class in 2nd grade. In 3rd grade we were in different classes, but our teachers were friends so they would take their classes to recess at the same time so they could talk, so we still had many of our recesses together.
Whichever of us got to the playground first grabbed two swings and waited for the other. Samantha was my friend because she was a great listener. She remembered everything! I loved that characteristic about her.
On day one I ran to the playground and found Samantha swinging but no other swing for me. I assumed there wasn’t another one available so I said hi and went to play with another group (which we would do from time to time). The second day again, no extra swing and I started to feel hurt. I was also hurt that she didn’t stop swinging and come play something else with me.
By day five I was crushed. I thought my friend had abandoned me and I had no idea why. The pain and fear and sadness of abandonment ate me up all weekend. On Monday I delayed going outside as long as I could before my teacher dragged me out. I sat on a bench waiting for recess to be over.
When it was time to line up Samantha came over to me to ask what was wrong, and I broke down crying. She listened as she always did and it turns out another friend of ours had told Samantha I was sick of swinging. This friend had done this to get the saved swing Samatha had saved for me on day one. Samantha, the good listener, listened to our mutual friend and gave up the swing.
My fear of abandonment prevented me from asking questions about why she hadn’t saved me a swing. For five days my fear forced me to assume the worst. I assumed she was acting out of character and was purposely excluding me. My action of not engaging made the lie of the mutual friend seem real to Samantha, and we went a week without talking about the problem.
If I would have taken a moment to remember her true character it would have dawned on me something wasn’t adding up. If I would have thought about the reason I trusted her as a friend was because she always listened, I might have convinced myself to talk to her earlier.
Checking behaviors with someone’s character is a good ground rule. Even when it comes to God this rule is a huge help. God’s character does not change. We can depend on God to be God in every situation. This is why scripture is so valuable. It tells us what God’s nature is. God is love. Where there are good fruits, God is there too. There is no height, nor depth, nor death, nor life, nor angels, nor government, nor things present, nor things to come that can separate us from God’s love. This is the character of God in every interaction with humanity from the beginning to now. We can depend on God to never change.
There is one slight problem though, what do we do then with scripture like this: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you.” If God is love, what do we do with that?
There are two camps of thought for this problem. One is to see and read those words literally. This leads to the theology that God at times does abandon us, that we can be separated from God.
The other way to read passages like these is to pause and remember God’s true nature. The nature that the rest of the Bible tells us about (love, good fruits, no separation) and ask the question, “Why does this seem to be a moment where God is acting out of God’s normal character?” The answer for Christians who think this way is, we are not interpreting the situation correctly. There is something else happening around the text, in the con-text. Con as a prefix means “with” or “thoroughly” so when we take into account the con-text we are reading thoroughly and WITH all the meaning it encompasses.
When we run into scripture like this we have a choice. Completely ignore all the verses that talk about a loving God and any experience in our personal lives of God’s love and affirm what this verse says...that God abandons us at times, OR look at this verse again through the lens of the knowledge that God’s true unchanging nature is love.
The eight-year old me will encourage you to use the second option and save yourself a weekend of tears thinking your friend hates you.
I took the latter option and went to my personal library of commentaries to see what biblical scholars say about this passage. You know what they all said? Nothing. They jump from verse 6 to verse 9. EVERY SINGLE ONE!
I went online and found one reason why no one has cared about this hole in our discussion, this section of scripture is in the lectionary once every three years. And even then, it’s one of six verses that a preacher can choose from. No one wants to talk about these verses. So naturally that’s all I want to talk about.
Let’s look at the rest of this Isaiah passage first, the part scholars do write about. The metaphor being presented is of a young bride who does something to be ashamed of and it causes her to be cast aside by her first husband. BUT then God steps in and redeems her. We know a bit about this process of redeeming and see it play out in the book of Ruth. In that book Boaz is the redeemer and he sees value in Ruth even though she is a widow. He has to go to a few different places to get the okay to marry her. Leaving Ruth alone to worry about what is happening. Boaz does end up getting all the approval he needs, thus taking Ruth out of a dangerous, lonely, and disgraceful situation and placing her in a situation of honor.
We can totally see where God’s nature shines in this part of the passage. God is love. God sees Israel disgraced and ashamed and God steps in to redeem them. Then we get to verse 7 where God says God abandoned us. Verse 8 God turns their face away from us. It does line up with the majority of scripture which tells us we cannot be separated from God. It does not line up with my own experience with a God whose nature is love. So we stop, affirm God is a loving God by nature, and give the passage another read.
With the lens that God’s true unchanging nature is love, suddenly to me, these words stood out: “…with great compassion I will gather you” or as it reads in other translations, “…with great compassion I will bring you back.” Sounds a lot more like the God I know but now I am wondering about the grammar.
If God was the one who stepped away, then saying God is “bringing us back” does not make a ton of sense. Shouldn’t it say, “I will come back to you?” God moved away and God will come back. Not God moved away and WE will come back. When I looked at the Hebrew for this, it was translated correctly. God moves, “abandons,” and then “brings” us back to God.
I’m a visual learner, let me show this another way. God moves, and then God brings us back. That is what is happening here. God is bringing us back into a new situation. A turned face then is God turning to look for the better situation and moving there to then turn to us in everlasting kindness and pull us forward into the new situation with God. Bringing us out of the place of shame and into the place of honor like the redeemer from the rest of the verse. The metaphor continues on but if we are too quick to read these words and hear “abandon” and allow our fear to shut us down we miss the fullness of the image Isaiah is presenting.
God is a God of love, there is nothing that separates us from that. And if we feel abandoned it could just be that God is beckoning us to join them in something new.
Unfortunately, the fear of abandonment is a strong deterrent. There is a trend right now on tiktok where two people are walking and one of them stops to see how long it will take the other person to notice they are walking alone. I saw one where the partner is wearing thick winter gloves and slips their hand out of the glove so the person walks off holding an empty glove thinking it contains the hand of the person they are walking with. Sometimes these people walk a long way. Blocks.
From one perspective, the person who stopped abandoned the one who kept walking. But someone watching might think it’s the other way around. If someone sees one person walking away from the other they might assume the person still walking forward has abandoned the person standing still.
Who has abandoned whom? If God is going forward and we are standing still, it hardly seems fair for us to then cry out, “Why did you abandon me?”
But we do this all the time. We feel abandoned by God when the reality is God is reaching back for us to catch up. The Christmas story celebrates God moving. God moves to earth. And that movement causes lots of people to feel abandoned. Elizabeth and Zechariah thought God had abandoned them. Mary feared Joseph would abandon her when he found out she was pregnant. Joseph thought Mary had already abandoned him so he should call off the wedding. The sheep must have been looking around for their shepherds thinking we have been abandoned.
The reality was that God was already blocks ahead of them with a situation that would change the world. Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son would proclaim the coming of the Lord. Mary and Joseph would raise the Son of God. The shepherds would come back with amazing stories and renewed hope. Christmas celebrates God’s moving and how those moves redeem humanity.
This year has been…fill in the blank with whatever you want. You may very well have felt abandoned by God a few times. Maybe you still feel that way. But the promise in Isaiah is that God is a redeemer which means wherever God went is the place we need to move to. Wherever God is we need to listen to the call of being brought back so we can be with God again.
The place where we were this time last year is NEVER going to be the right place to be again because God is moving us forward, redeeming us into something we were not ready for last year. This year has been a forging fire for everyone. That is not something that happens often. We all have personal experiences of forging fires that strengthen us and burn off impurities, but those happen at different times in everyone's life. EVERYONE has been through the fire this year. This shared experience will change us, if we are willing to move forward. We will never and should never be who we were last year because God is not there anymore. God has abandoned that place and is calling us back into something new.
This Christmas is a reminder that where God is, it is a place worth being. Scripture says God is where we see the fruits of the Spirit, where we find love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control is where we find God. Those places will be different than they were a year ago.
Let’s not sit in the comfortable fields with our usual evening of sheep chewing on grass. God has abandoned that place in order to redeem us. Let’s go see where God is and be brought back into something completely new.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 13, 2020
Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-14
I’m not sure any of you have ever experienced this but let me ask you if this sounds familiar. You are calling a support line to get some help with your electronic device, or you are calling a retailer to make a purchase, or perhaps a clinic to make an appointment. You click through all of the numbers to get to the correct person…and then you are put on hold. If you are fortunate there may be some music and an occasional electronic voice that comes on and says, hold times are longer than normal but that you are a valued customer. Other times there is nothing but silence. You occasionally look at your phone to make sure that you are still connected. As time goes by you begin to wonder if they have forgotten about you altogether. Then it happens. Instead of the music and the electronic voice or silence, you hear it, the beep, beep, beep of having been hung up on. And then you know that they have forgotten you.
Being forgotten is not only one of the great annoyances of being human, it is also one of the great fears. I would guess that since the dawn of human consciousness, since the dawn of human beings having a sense of self, we have feared being forgotten. We have feared it because to be forgotten is the equivalent of never having existed at all. This is why people build monuments to themselves, draw on cave walls, write “Kilroy was here” and all the other ways we try and remind people that we once existed. This is the reason for the ancient Israelite practice of Levirate marriage. Levirate marriage was the practice of a childless widow marrying her husband’s closest male relative in order to have children in her deceased husband’s name. This was done as the Torah says, so that the husband’s name might not be “blotted out of Israel,” meaning so that he will not be forgotten and in essence, never existed. To be forgotten then is a frightening, depressing thought as well as one of humanity’s greatest fears.
I offer you that thought because being forgotten is at the heart of both of our stories this morning. In each story, the people of Israel believed that they have been forgotten…forgotten by God. The people addressed by Isaiah believe that God has forgotten them because they are on the verge of annihilation. The mighty Assyrian Empire was on the move. The Empire had utterly destroyed the northern branch of the Israelite people, the kingdom of Israel. Those who had not been killed had been deported, never to be heard from again. Now the Assyrians had set their sights on the Southern branch of the people of Israel, the nation of Judah and its capital Jerusalem, with the intent to destroy them as well. There appeared to be no hope of survival and God had forgotten them. Similarly, the shepherds would have had the same feeling. They lived under the thumb of a foreign power who could order them to travel in order to be counted and taxed, steal their land, build temples to foreign gods and slowly but surely absorb them into the Greco-Roman culture. It was as if God had forgotten God’s own children again…and soon it would be as if they never existed at all.
Into these two moments though came a sign from God; a sign of a child, who not only brought hope as we talked about two weeks ago, but who brought joy. What I want to do is pause from our two stories for a moment and talk about joy. For many of us joy is a feeling of elation, ecstasy, happiness or pleasure. It might be a word we would use to describe how it feels when the Lions actually win, rather than lose a game in the fourth quarter. But what I want to offer is that Biblically speaking, joy is different from all these other emotions. All these other emotions are a temporary phenomenon. We can be happy one moment and sad the next. We can feel pleasure one moment and pain the next. We can move from elation to depression in the blink of an eye. Biblical joy is different because it is not a momentary emotion. Joy is a state of being. Joy is a state of being that is caused by the realization that we have not been forgotten by God. Instead we are remembered, we are loved, and we are valuable. Let me say that again. Joy is a state of being that is caused by the realization that God has not forgotten us, but instead we are remembered, we are loved and we are valued. These three attributes that bring about joy, being remembered, loved and valued are central to the entire Biblical story. They are central to God’s mighty actions across time in which God desires the restoration of God’s people in order that through God’s people, all of creation is blessed. Story after story reminds us that God remembers God’s people wherever they are and whatever they have done. Joy then is to be the bedrock of our lives as God’s followers. Joy is to be a constant in all the equations of life.
We can see how this works in both of our stories. As I said a moment ago, the stories are set in times when people’s joy was at low ebb because they believed that they had been forgotten. But then comes the sign of the child. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder… For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” The sign is of a child being born into the royal family who will save the people from extinction and will bring them back into a time of peace and prosperity. This sign is a reminder that Judah has not been forgotten, but is remembered, loved and valued. It was a moment in which joy was renewed. The same can be said for the sign that came to the shepherds. “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” For those shepherds this was a sign that God had not forgotten them; that God had not forgotten God’s people; that God had not forgotten God’s recreative plans for the world. God remembered them, loved them and valued them. This was good news of great joy.
In many ways joy is what this season of the church year is all about. Though we often think about Advent as the run-up to Christmas, it is intended to be a season of joy because it celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world, thus reminding us over and over again that we are not forgotten, but that we are remembered, loved and valued. I realize that this may be difficult for us to believe in the midst of the pandemic when we are isolated, worried and wary of others because of our appropriate fear of catching COVID-19; when we have friends and family members who have contracted the virus; when we have lost jobs because of it. In these moments it becomes harder and harder to hold onto happiness; to feel ecstatic about anything. Therefore, joy matters. It matters because joy is a state of mind that God offers us through God’s ongoing presence with us in and through Jesus and the Spirit. It matters because joy can lift us even in moments of sadness and despair. It can lift us when nothing else can. This week I would like us to practice joy. And here is how, close your eyes and repeat after me. “I have not been forgotten. I am remembered. I am loved. I am valued.” Then repeat these phrases every morning and evening and in so doing, experience the joy of Advent; the joy of being remembered by God.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 6, 2020
Watch (video partially frozen - sound is good)
Zechariah 8:9-17; Luke 1:46-55
I had never paid much attention to them. They were just old books sitting on my grandmother’s bookshelves. But then one day, being a bit bored and curious, I pulled one out. Then I became fascinated. They were a set of Encyclopedia Britannica from the early 1930s. The article that interested me the most, being a boy, was the one on The Great War. At first I was confused by the title, yet as I read it became apparent that I was reading about the First World War. Somewhere in the article the war was also referred to as the war to end all wars. It was referred to in that way because the authors and society at large evidently hoped that the utter brutality and senselessness of the war with its killing fields, use of mustard gas and overall slaughter of a generation of young men would convince people that peace was preferable to war. Yet, as a young history buff I knew how wrong they were. The rest of the 20th century became one of the deadliest in history…though as I have grown older, I have discovered that there were other conflicts and periods that were worse. So why is it that we did not learn from that war to end all wars? Why is it that even today there is violence around the world and in our nation? Why is it that peace, real peace, seems almost impossible to bring about? The answer I would argue is that we did not listen to Mary, because Mary had the three-step plan for peace that she believed her son would implement and bring peace to the whole of creation.
We begin with step one, which is humility. In verse 51 we hear Mary say, “(God) has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” There can be no peace without humility. As long as people believe that they are superior to other people, peace cannot be achieved. It cannot be achieved because the belief in superiority leads to oppression, derision and domination of others. The belief in superiority, not arguments about religion, is what led to most of the violence and wars in this world. My clan is superior to yours so we can kill you. My race is superior to your so we can enslave you. My religion is superior to yours so we can oppress you. Humility changes those equations. Humility allows for people to share in life and living. Without humility, there can be no peace.
Step two in Mary’s plan for peace is justice. In verse 52 we read, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” There can be no peace without justice. What I mean by justice is that there is shared power in which all persons are treated fairly and justly. We can hear this in Zechariah when the prophet proclaims, “These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace.” Rendering in the gates true judgments means applying the law equally to rich and poor, powerful and powerless. The problem with power is that those who possess it are tempted to use it to pervert justice and dominate the weak and marginalized. They use their power to rob, steal, cheat and oppress. When this happens there can be no peace because oppression causes anger and resentment from those who are the victims of injustice. So, when justice reigns, all persons know that they are worthy of being treated as fully human, with equal value and worth, and making peace is possible.
Step three in Mary’s plan for peace is equity. In verse 53 we read, “He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” There can be no peace without equity. What I mean by equity is that all persons have enough; enough food, adequate housing, decent medical care and meaningful work. This is not equality in which all persons have exactly the same of everything. It is instead a willingness for society to equitably distribute its resources; to organize itself in such a way as to insure sufficiency for all. This means insuring that all persons have enough to eat, clean water to drink, adequate housing and in our society, health care. This is the Biblical understanding of equity…no one has too much, and no one has too little. The issue with inequity is that once again it causes anger, resentment and diminishes the lives of those who are left out of the distribution of the goods in society. So there can be no peace without equity, but establishing equity creates societies, nations and a world in which peace is possible.
Many of you may say, “John this seems to be political theory.” I would argue that it is not political but Biblical. It is Biblical, first because it is the essence of the Law and the Prophets. All one has to do is to read the Torah and the prophets and one will see that humility, justice and equity are the life blood of those writings. We can also see that this is Biblical because it is the essence of the life of Mary’s son Jesus, who came to bring peace to the world.
Jesus lived with humility, first becoming fully human and then eating and drinking with sinners, tax collectors, women and children. Jesus urged justice. He made it clear to his disciples that they were not to “Lord it over” one another, but instead they were to be servants of one another. Jesus lived with equity by feeding the hungry and commanding his followers to do likewise, along with clothing the naked, caring for the homeless and giving water to the thirsty. Jesus was the living example of Mary’s plan for peace.
I understand that this plan might make many of us uncomfortable, perhaps even afraid because it cuts across the grain of much of our national narrative of radical individualism; pull yourself up by your own bootstraps; what I earned is mine. But we are called to not be afraid to bring peace; to work for those things that make for peace. We are called to not be afraid to listen to Mary and emulate Jesus.
So, as we come to the table this morning and we partake of the bread and cup, my challenge for each of us, is to ask ourselves, how I am helping to bring peace to this world, by living humbly, and working for justice and equity, a world for which Mary sang and Jesus lived?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 29, 2020
Isaiah 41:1-10; Luke 1:26-45
His dream was to be a firefighter. He was eighteen years old and Marvin Anderson wanted to serve his community. But that was about to change. It began with the police asking him about an assault that had happened in this neighborhood. He told the police what he knew; that the neighborhood believed it was done by a man named John Otis Lincoln. The police however were not interested in Lincoln. They were interested in Marvin because the victim said her assailant had a white girlfriend and Marvin was the only black man they knew of with a white girlfriend. In order to get the victim to identify Marvin, the police went to his place of work and obtained a color photo from his work ID. Then they showed several pages of black and white mugshots to the victim, along with Marvin’s color picture being on every page. Then in a lineup Marvin was the only person from the mugshots to be present. He was identified, arrested, tried and convicted by an all-white jury. And even though the community continued to believe that the true assailant was John Lincoln, Marvin’s attorney refused to call Lincoln or other witnesses who could have put Lincoln at the scene of the crime. The result was that Marvin was given a two-hundred-four-year sentence. Marvin, knowing he was innocent, was caught in that eternal struggle between holding onto hope and being resigned to his fate.
Hope vs. resignation, it is one of the oldest battles that human beings face. Hope is one of the great gifts that human beings have been given. It allows people in even the darkest of moments to see some light, some possibility of escape and renewal. It allows human beings to believe that there is the possibility of life even when death is at the door. Yet resignation is also present. Resignation comes when we humans believe that there are no more open doors or windows; when there is no hope of life when death is at hand. And so, we human beings swing on a scale from hope to resignation and back again. We do so when we hear a dreadful and difficult diagnosis. We find hope when we are promised a cure and then resignation when the cure fails. We find hope when we believe that we are the one in line for a promotion, and then resignation when someone else gets promoted. We are filled with hope when we believe our athletic prowess will get us to the Olympics or allow us to turn pro, only to face resignation when we do not make the cut. The pendulum swings and on any given day we can find ourselves on one end or the other.
The people in our two stories this morning were those who had probably resigned themselves to their fates. The people being addressed by Isaiah were Jews whose entire world had crumbled under the destructive force of the mighty Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians had destroyed their nation, their capital and their Temple. The Babylonians had forced tens of thousands of Jews to walk to Babylon where they had to make new lives for themselves and the Empire appeared to be designed for eternal world domination. There was little room for hope, only resignation. Mary must have felt the same way. She had known nothing but the overarching and dominating presence of the Roman Empire. All of those who had rebelled or resisted were crushed. While there were occasional glimmers of hope, they were quickly snuffed out and resignation ruled. It would take something from heaven itself to change this…which is exactly what happened.
Each of these passages is a story of how resignation became hope. Hope arrived because of a word and a promise. For the Jews in Babylon, there was the word, the rumor, the hint that something was stirring in the East. There was a promise that God was going to judge the Babylonians. Though the power in the East is not named, everyone knew who it was. It was Cyrus the Great of Persia who was to be God’s hammer and anvil of judgement. Isaiah puts it this way. “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength; let them approach, then let them speak; let us together draw near for judgment. Who has roused a victor from the east, summoned him to his service? He delivers up nations to him, and tramples kings under foot; …Who has performed and done this, calling the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord, am first, and will be with the last.” These are words to break resignation and ignite hope. The same sort of words come to Mary, and through Mary to a nation that had mostly resigned itself to a slow deterioration and demise. Gabriel puts it this way. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Both proclamations were telling the people to not be afraid and to hold on to hope because the God of the universe was still at work. Both proclamations pointed to concrete realities that would alter the course of history and the future of God’s people.
As I said a moment ago, we live on the hope-resignation scale. But what the scriptures remind us to do is to not be afraid to hope. Though there may be those moments when we must be resigned to an incurable diagnosis, or a job that will never be ours, or a career that we desired yet cannot attain, that does not mean that God is done with us. It does not mean that in the depths of resignation there is not still the light of hope shining through. I say this because we are God’s chosen and beloved. Listen again to Isaiah. “But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, “You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off”; do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand.” What this means is that whether in this life or in the next, God has plans for us; God has plans for good and not ill. God is not done with us yet. We are to hold onto hope and not be afraid.
There were moments when Marvin had hope that he would be declared innocent. There was the moment when John Lincoln confessed to the crime for which Marvin was convicted, offering details that only the perpetrator would know. But the trial judge refused to set Marvin free. Then when DNA testing was developed, he again had hope that he would be freed. But he was informed that the evidence containing DNA information had been destroyed. Another moment of hope came when a sample of the DNA from the kit was found, but again the judge refused to allow tests to be performed. Marvin’s pendulum was swinging from hope to despair. But then the Innocence Project came on board and forced the state to run the DNA through their convicted offender database, which revealed that the DNA matched Lincoln’s and not Marvin’s. Even then it was five years later that Marvin was finally granted a pardon, after fifteen years of his life was gone. So, what is Marvin doing now? He is the Fire Chief of the Hanover, Virginia Fire Department. Marvin never gave up. He always carried hope; hope even in the midst of impossible odds.
This is what we are called to do. We are called to be people who never lose hope, for we know that God is indeed at work in the world and in our lives. This week my challenge is for each of us to ask, “How am I holding on to hope such that I am not afraid because I believe that God is not done with me yet?”
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 22, 2020
Isaiah 58:6-9; Matthew 5:14-16
It was one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Standing high in the Rockies, my brother Richard and I watched the sun setting over distant mountains while casting brilliant red and orange hues across the sky. The only problem at that point was how were we going to make it back to the parking lot in the dark. The setting for this moment was that in the summer between my two years in the Peace Corps I had come home to see Cindy and my family. As was my family’s custom, we went to Colorado to hike and backpack in the mountains. During dinner the night before Cindy and I were heading to home to Houston, I realized that I had not climbed Flat Top mountain, which was something of a family ritual. I mentioned this to Richard who said we probably had time to make the top before dark. Putting on our tennis shoes, we drove to the trail head which is at 9,500 ft and began our five-mile trek to the summit, which is at 12,300 feet. An hour and half later we made it just as the sun dipped below the horizon. Then, as we donned our down parkas against the cold for the return trip, we pulled out our flashlights, only to realize that we didn’t need them. Instead the moonlight was so bright that it not only illuminated our way above the tree line, but through the pine and fir forests through which we walked.
I have been thinking a lot about that hike this week as I pondered Jesus’ statement about us being the light of the world. It made me realize just how ubiquitous light is. We flip a switch and suddenly there is light. We walk into dark rooms that are not actually completely dark because they are illuminated by lights from clocks, phones, and cable boxes. We step outside and there are street lights, house lights and spotlights with motion sensors. I think you get my point. In some ways we are never in the dark, always being able to see where we are going. This would not have been true of those who were listening to Jesus. Light was something precious, something amazing. Inside homes, light was rare and weak. It consisted of small olive or fish oil lamps that needed constant refilling and gave off only the barest light. What this meant was that people were dependent on the sun, moon and stars for finding their way in the world. Those heavenly bodies gave protection and direction. They made life possible. It is little wonder then, that light became one of the primary human metaphors for finding one’s way, not only physically, but spiritually, morally and ethically.
We can see this metaphor at work throughout the scriptures. Darkness was a time for skullduggery and evil to thrive. It was used to describe those who had lost their way in the world…as we still use it today when we refer to someone who is always in the dark. Light, on the other hand, was used to describe a person’s ability to see clearly what ought to be done and how life ought to be lived. Though the scriptures are not dualistic, meaning that life is a contest between the forces of light and darkness, the images of light and dark were central to the Jewish and Christian understanding of life. The question this morning then becomes what does it mean for us to be the light? What does it mean for us to let our light shine before others? To answer this, I want us to take a journey of light so that we can hear what those around Jesus would have heard and understand what they would have understood.
Our journey begins with the realization that only God can bring light. We see this in the very act of creation itself when God’s first word is “Let there be light.” In the Genesis story, God encounters a chaotic, dark creation that cannot bring about life and flourishing. And so, God speaks light into being; light not being physical light because the sun and moon are later creations, but light as in the life giving reality that God imparts to creation and all that creation contains. What this means for the scriptures is that God alone can give the light of moral and ethical guidance that will lead human beings to the fullness of life. Only by living in God’s light can we find true life.
Our journey continues with God giving that light to the world. For Judaism this light comes in two ways, the first of which are the scriptures. We see this in Psalm 119, the longest of the Psalms, which is an ode to God’s Torah or Law. In it we read these words, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” There is a praise chorus of these words that my former church used to sing every Sunday before we read the scriptures. It was a reminder that it is God’s word that sheds light on the path of righteousness that we are called to traverse. The second way God gives the light is through people who interpret the scriptures, many of whom are also called the light of the world. These were rabbis who, because of their ability to interpret and teach the scriptures were referred to as the light of the world…which is a title Jesus would later claim for himself in the Gospel of John. I would guess as well that those listening to Jesus on the mountain would have agreed with that claim.
Next, the scriptures make clear that not only are there rabbis and teachers like Jesus who are the light, but that all of God’s people are to be the light. At least four times in Isaiah, the prophet says this to the people that they have been given as a light to the nations. Isaiah 49 puts it this way, “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In other words, the people are to be the living light by which other nations can see what it is that God desires of humanity. They are to be the light, the example of God’s way in the world so that others might have light and life.
Finally, the scriptures describe what it looks like to be the light of the world. This is at the heart of Isaiah 58. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;” What it means to be the light then is to walk in God’s way of righteousness.
Thus when Jesus says to the people on that mountainside that they are the light of the world; that they are to give light to the whole house; that they are to let their light so shine; that their good works are to be seen, they understood. They understood that God had filled them with the light of Torah and righteousness and life and that they were to demonstrate this to the nations so that all people might find their way into God’s salvation.
This my friends is what we are called to be and to do as well. We are to be the light of the world. We are to be those whose works are not hidden but are made known to the world so people can see what light looks like and to give glory to God. Granted, in a few more verses Jesus is going to say that when we give our offerings we are to do so quietly, such that our right hand does not know what our left hand is doing. The difference is that our works are not to draw attention to ourselves, “Look at me! Look at me!”, but those good works are instead intended to be demonstrations of the light that God has brought into the world through the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ. They are intended to be demonstrations of God’s righteousness such that others will want to walk in the light as well. I understand that some of you may feel that this call to be light is a burden. We might ask, “How can I be an example to the world?” My response would be this. I hope that you see this call to be light, not as a burden but as wonderful news. It is wonderful news first because you do not have to shine your light alone. You are part of a light shining community that shines light in ways great and small. That shines light for all people regardless of their gender, skin color, ability, language, income level or sexual orientation. Second, it is wonderful news because your acts do not have to be acts that make the papers or the local news. They can be as simple as thanking the person putting out produce or the person who cleans the shopping carts at the grocery. All of these are acts of light.
This sermon closes out our series on the wonderful news that are found in the beatitudes. Our hope is that you have found some wonderful news for yourself during these difficult times. My challenge to you then for this week is to ask yourself, “How is my light shining into the world in such a way that people give glory to God and want to become light as well?”
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
November 15, 2020
Psalm 112; Matthew 5:13
Low key my squad is so salty about the tea I spilled. They are throwing shade, no cap. But I know I pass the vibe check. They all want to be this mood, period.
If you have no idea what I just said there is a good chance you are over 30, it’s also possible that I, an over 30 someone, used all that slang incorrectly. Every generation comes up with their own lingo. We used to have groovy or chill. Some of you use to say wassup or peace. Actually any group of people that have something in common that is central to their identity have terms or gestures that will be special to just their group.
Slang words help us know who is “one of us” and who is not. It creates a sense of belonging. When I was in marching band in high school the trumpet section would yell “ANTILOG” at each other in the parking lot before and after school and chant it before big performances. No one else in the band ever knew what it meant. Significant others tried to get them to spill the truth. When I was drum major I tried to convince them I was a leader of all the sections and so technically a member of the trumpet section and should know what ANTILOG meant. NO ONE ELSE EVER KNEW, except the trumpet section. A few years after graduation I asked someone and they laughed and said “Oh, it never actually meant anything,” but I think that was just a line and I will never know the truth because I am an outsider.
Most of the lingo and gestures in a community develop naturally and for no particular reason, however others come about on purpose to fill a need the community has.
When early Christians were being persecuted and killed for their faith, they had to come up with an insider code that would distinguish who was safe to talk to about their faith and who was not.
They came up with the ichthys. We have probably all seen the ichthys. The stick fish people now put on the back of their cars or on jewelry. The fish is made up of two arched lines. If a christian met someone on the road and they wanted to test if they were safe or not they would casually draw an arch in the sand. If the other person was also a Christian they would draw another arch to make the ichthys, the fish. This would let both parties know it was safe to talk about house church meetings. If the other person was not a Christian then the person who drew the arch would go undetected because they were only idly playing in the sand as they talked.
Salt, from today’s verse, is insider lingo. It was something the followers of Jesus could say to one another and they would instantly know what was meant. It was a coded term that held more meaning the more you were on the inside. One of the geniuses of using the word salt is that it is a common mineral and universal. Just about every culture has learned the value of salt. It can be found all over the earth so it is actually a very clever term for Jesus to introduce to his disciples. Salt has all kinds of importance. It is valuable in Jesus’ time, it preserves, it makes our roads safe now, it exfoliates, it was used in pottery, tanning, dying cloth, and soap. But the use I want us to focus on is it’s usefulness on food.
Salt is key to a good dish. I learned this from every cooking show ever made. They are always talking about salt usage. The tasters complain when something isn’t salted enough, but as we know too much of a good thing is also trouble. Too much salt ruins a meal, and our blood pressure and cholesterol. The chefs that can master salt are always the ones who win the competitions.
Salt has a unique characteristic as a seasoning, it has its own flavor profile but it also brings out the flavor of whatever it is put on. If we put salt in water we would say it tastes salty. Or if too much salt is used on a dish it is too salty. But when used correctly the saltiness subsides and the other flavors shine alongside salt. Salt is unique. It’s its own individual flavor, but is best when it is in union with other flavors.
Now this can be counter intuitive. We assume if I am letting your flavor shine then it must mean my flavor is diminished. But as I was writing this sermon I was snacking on Cheez-Its and I could easily taste the salt and the cheese at the same time. They complement each other. When salt is added to a dish it somehow brings out the flavors that are there while also being its own flavor entirely.
Salt goes with just about everything too. Some flavors, like mint and citrus, don’t go together so well, but salt is able to complement a wide variety of flavors when used in the right proportion. I’ve seen people put salt on watermelon, but I still think the salt and chocolate pairing is the height of partnerships. Salt adds value to a dish and brings out the best in the flavors it is in union with.
You are the salt of the earth, Jesus says. He is claiming the characteristics of the mineral salt for us. We are meant to be unique. We are meant to have our own relationship with God and our own personality, our own spiritual expression. AND we are supposed to be in union with others to bring out their uniqueness. We are there to add value to the spaces and conversations we find ourselves in, as partners.
To become the best partners, the best salt we can be, we need two things to happen: 1) to take care of our own flavor, and 2) to add value with our presence.
The first one, take care of our own flavor means to know who you are and stop worrying about other people’s flavor. We are given a unique flavor profile in life - our personalities, how we express ourselves outwardly, our sexuality, our race, our gender, our inabilities, our strengths. These, and more, are what make us uniquely us. These things come together to make individual human beings. Beings that each bear the image of God.
Too many times we fall into the trap of being someone the world wants us to be instead of just being ourselves. We have all at sometime felt the pressure to change ourselves to meet an expectation. Maybe we wore a style of clothes or did our hair in a way that was not at all flattering to us, but because everyone else was in those styles we forced ourselves into that same standard. By ignoring our true style, our unique flavor profile, we do damage to the image of God we hold by not being true to who WE were created to be.
This not only hurts ourselves, it hurts the people around us. Because when we think it is so important to be this way, we negate the value of all the other ways of being because we are saying this way is better. This way is worth endless effort to squeeze ourselves into it. In order to justify our efforts, to meet the norm expectations, we unknowingly, or sometimes actively, bully others to fit in too. Because if I’m doing all this work to fit in, I am going to make you feel guilty for not working just as hard as me. And we have all had this guttural reaction seeing someone who isn’t as clean as we keep ourselves, or isn’t actively trying not to be awkward in public, or isn’t keeping their voice down. We think “Eh, what is their problem?” but in reality they might be more authentic to their flavor than we are being to ours, and we’re just jealous that we put so much effort suppressing ourselves into a standard that...we don’t really like.
Now I give you the clothing example because it’s easy to laugh at the shared experience of wearing something unflattering, but this is a serious issue. People are dying trying to fit our cultural standards because not everyone can be the same. And when the world screams at you that you need to FIT IN and you inherently don’t, the only way out seems to be at the bottom of a bottle of pills or to kick the chair out from under you.
70% of transgender teens in our country have seriously thought about killing themselves this year. This is because our culture, and truthfully, our religion, has declared their identity an abomination. They hear the message that their flavor is unwanted. In truth, the Bible says nothing against transgender individuals and in fact the first convert to Christianity is a eunuch (the time period’s only understanding of a gender non conforming person). I heard a theologian say “God created transgender people for the same reason God created grapes and wheat. So that humans can participate in the act of creation.” We take the raw materials and make something else. We take grapes and make wine, we take wheat and make bread, we take a human born in a male body and create a beautiful woman.
This past week was transgender awareness week so I wanted to highlight the severity of what happens when we do not take care of our own flavor and spend more time worrying about others. 350 transgender people were murdered this year (that we know of), some of them burned alive, the youngest was 15. We are so concerned about what the right “flavors” are, we are so concerned about making people fit the standard, that whole communities of people are suffering. We are to test our teachings and actions against the fruits of the Spirit. Looking at what kind of fruit is produced by a biblical interpretation, if we do this with our ideas about gender, it is safe to say the fruit being handed to our transgender siblings in rotten.
We need to be salt. The cultural standards are not what God wants for us. We have to look inside and find that image of God and pull it out and respect the image that others are discovering. We need to understand our own selves, our own flavor, our personality, our sexualtiy, our inabilities, our gender... the things that make us who we are as image bearers of God. The things that will never change no matter how badly we want to fit into that norm. Know your flavor so you can add value to the places God puts you.
This second part of being salt is to add value. This is what salt does when it is used in the right proportion. We can become too much and overpower other flavors with our uniqueness. We can be too little and disappear in the array of the other flavors. This balance is a constant adjustment depending on what is happening around us. However, no matter what space we find ourselves in, our job is to be salt, to add value.
When we do the work to know our individual flavor strengths we become better value adders.
Some spaces will be like the Cheez-Its. We can meet the others in the room equally and enjoy the partnership of two great flavors. We all have those friends with whom conversation always flows smoothly, or the co-worker with whom you brainstorm and brilliance always surfaces. It's natural and balanced.
Some spaces are going to be teaming with other flavors and our job will be to not overpower the voices of the others. I am someone who has ideas. I was that kid in school who always raised my hand. But I have learned this is not always the best scenario. Often if I keep my hand down, someone else will have a similar idea and then we can riff off of one another to synergize something even better. I have to hold back my flavor for a time to get a sense of the other flavors and voices in the space with me. This way I find the flavors who want to work together.
Some spaces will be bland with not much going on and we will get to be the champion and save the day. I read a study recently that most people enjoy being talked to on the bus. I know, I know this sounds wrong. What the researchers did is they asked people waiting at a bus stop if they would be willing to start a conversation with someone when they got on. The ones who agreed then got on the bus and went into action. At the end of the exchange the person who started the conversation gave the unknowing conversationalist a paper explaining what had just happened. This paper asked both parties to check in with researchers by email and answer a questionnaire. The conversation starter always felt nervous and awkward. They worried the person was going to be mad they were interrupting their commute. The person to whom they were talking was overwhelmingly relieved and had a positive reaction to the conversation. Many of them said they were happy to have the change in pace and human interaction. There will be times we get to take the lead and let our flavor shine.
And taking the time to care about our own flavors will help us know how to find the balance in whatever space we are adding value in.
We are the salt of the earth. We have a unique flavor that we need to cherish. This means ignoring the standards the world wants to force upon us and making sure we aren’t reinforcing the standards that are antiquated and dangerous. We have the ability to bring out the flavors around us. Either by our equal participation, reserved observation, or active presence, we are to bring flavor, increasing value to every space we find ourselves in.
So when I see you in the parking lot and yell “SALT,” we will know what the lingo means now because we belong to a special group called Christians, and we are the salt of the earth.