November 26, 2017
Exodus 25:1-9; Matthew 25:31-46
Many of us remember the days before cell phones and GPS, and yes, even before computers. Back then, we used maps that were actually made of paper, and spread them out and charted our course when going from one place to another.
Really, I was pretty good (highlighter in hand) with marking the expressways and exits for the main part of the trip, and off I would go. But I usually got baffled the closer I got to my destination. Once off the expressways, I would consistently get all turned around while navigating the details of that last leg of the trip.
I would often have to stop and ask someone how to get to where I was going, and invariably I would be totally confused once I tried to put their directions into action. Was that the 3rd road on the left after the tire sign? Or was the tire sign on the left? Or if I reached the tire sign had I gone too far? And what tire sign? I don’t even see one!
And so I would stop and ask someone else, who would tell me that I was going in the wrong direction, and I would leave more confused and frustrated, and lost, than ever.
Remembering that now, it makes that current-day familiar and irritating voice that says, “recalculating” sound like a love song. And what a victory when that same voice finally says, “You have reached your destination!”
In today’s reading from Exodus, the Hebrews are still wandering and in need of trusting that God is, in fact, still with them and guiding them.
The instructions for the “portable temple” assure the people that God is mobile, and more importantly, willing to be present right in the very midst of them.
Verse 3 that Kelly/Swid read for us today gives a list of items needed, but I want to draw our attention to the first words of the verse: “This is the offering that you shall receive from them…” The key word is “offering”-- the materials to be used are to be freely offered. There is no intimidation or requirement placed on the people. These offerings are to be given by people who genuinely want to be in communion with God.
Which is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from Matthew. As the image of Jesus shifts from shepherd to king, we are reminded that no power can match the power of the reigning Lord. Today, in fact, is known as “Christ the King, or Reign of Christ” Sunday.
And as our Lord speaks of separating the sheep and the goats, the thought of a judgement makes us fearful… yet the answer seems obvious: we will feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. Check. Got it covered. We are sheep! But it’s not as simple as that. It seldom is.
Oh, doing these things does matter. It matters very much! But if we stop there we have missed the nugget of the story. Both the sheep and the goats express surprise, and question… when had they seen the Lord? The difference between the sheep and the goats is intention.
The sheep served others because there was a need that they could help fulfill. They were unaware of the Lord’s presence and had no expectation of earning “brownie points.” In fact, they had no expectation of any reward. They acted out of caring love, freely given.
The goats’ question leads us to believe that if they had known the king was among those in need, they surely would have stepped in and helped. The goats were not godless or unethical, they bore no malice- but they are deemed unrighteous because they are motivated by self-interest. Had they thought the Son of Man was in the midst, they would have been happy to serve, and thus gain eternal reward.
To be honest, I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle between sheep and goats. I believe I do. On one hand, I consider myself a compassionate person, and to have a genuine concern for those who are hurting, or have suffered an injustice. I truly hope I am.
On the other hand, I can be a bit self-centered. I like to joke and say that “it’s all about me” … but maybe I’m not always joking. I knew of someone who called those of us that fall in the middle between goats and sheep, “geeps.” Should we “geeps” live in fear, that we will be lumped in with the goats?
No, for this passage is not meant to incite fear. So often this scripture is portrayed as frightening and condemning, but the text is actually meant to bring us to right thinking and right action for the right reasons. It serves to inspire and empower us. It really is good news! It calls on each one of us to share those gifts which we have and be a part of God’s mission.
It guides us to remember that which we are called to do and be:
We all have something to offer.
And we are called to offer our gifts to go beyond the mere acts of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and visiting those in need.
As Jesus showed us, charity is not a substitute for kinship. We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is improbable. And Christ promises to be there, and guide us.
Just as God promised the Hebrews to “dwell among you” throughout their wandering and beyond, so God promises to be always with us. Jesus not only came to save… but to love, nurture, inspire, model and guide us. He still does.
God loves us no matter what. But it is only when we accept that love and let it transform us that we can begin to understand it.
Again, it is only when we accept that love and let it transform us that we can begin to understand it.
Today marks the end of a liturgical year. We have been on a journey the past 12 months as we have traveled through the Christian church year. We have followed the steps of Jesus as he was born, walked the hillsides, healed, taught, was crucified, and rose again.
We have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, and reflected on what it means to be disciples of Christ. Today is the last Sunday of that journey for this liturgical year. Next Sunday we enter Advent, and as we once again begin that journey to remind ourselves who we are, and whose we are.
Todays’ reading from Exodus speaks of a God who promises to be with the people and guide them. Today’s reading from Matthew promises the same thing. And it speaks of a future kingdom in which God will reign in Christ. But it is not a “final judgement” that we should be focusing on.
The Kingdom of God is a present reality in our lives, and God invites each and every one of us to be a part of it. The choice to accept or reject it rests with us.
Throughout it all, we have a guide. We don’t need a paper map or a technological GPS. We have the best guide of all. Jesus. And all we have to do is trust and follow that guide. The guide may not take us on the most expeditious route, or the one with the prettiest scenery, but we will end up in a glorious destination. And our guide will never lead us astray.
And so the challenge for today is to ask ourselves: Where in my life do I need to “recalculate”, to ensure that I am following The One True Guide?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 19, 2017
Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 22:36-40
He lost it. My father just lost it. In order to understand why this matters, you have to understand that my father was, and is, one of the quietest, least volatile and grounded men I have ever known. He never lost his temper. He seldom even got angry. Yet one night at the dinner table he lost it. He lost is because I said something snarky to my mother. I was one of those teens who often spoke before putting the brain in gear. The instant the words left my mouth, my father’s voice rose and he thundered that I would never speak to my mother in that manner and that I would apologize that instant. Though I suppose I had known all along that this was not appropriate behavior, my father made it clear that one of our family rules was that we were not to say hurtful things to our mother. Family rules…how many of you had them growing up? How many of you had the same kind of rule that I had about how you could or could not address your parents? Right, so what I want you to do this morning is to organize your mind around the idea of family rules because that is what we are presented with this morning in this Exodus text; God’s family rules.
I realize that for many of us, the Ten Commandments, or as they are sometime referred to, the Ten Words, are laws, not simply family rules. Yet, I would argue that they are family rules and not some set of generic rules like Hammurabi’s Code or even a universal set of religious laws. I say this because they are the rules God gave to Israel, and to no one else, in order that Israel become the kind of family God desired them to be; and by extension that we become the kind of community God desires us to be. The Hebrew people needed these family rules because the only family rules that they had as they entered the wilderness were Egyptian family rules; rules that were based on power, privilege, slavery and oppression. They were rules that had people worshipping multiple gods including Pharaoh himself. God had a different vision for the kind of family God wanted to create and so God gives the people a set of 613 family rules. As Rev. Joanne said a couple of weeks ago, it was going to be impossible for people to keep all of these family rules. So, the question becomes can we find an easy way to sum them up? There is, and it is contained in a single Aretha’s word…R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
I realize that using the word respect may seem a bit odd considering that Jesus, when asked to sum up the law does so using the word love. You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And then You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So why I am using respect? I am doing so for three reasons. First, I think that we use love God and neighbor so much that it has become no more than background noise. Oh yeah, we are to love God and neighbor, yawn. Second, I am using it because love carries with it so much baggage that is often hard for us to get at the heart of what it means to love God and neighbor. Does it mean we have to have an emotional attachment; do we have to feel loving? Finally, I am using respect because the word carries within it the essence of what loving God and neighbor is all about, which I hope we will see as we continue. So here goes.
First, we are to respect God. Here, I am defining respect as giving honor, reverence and deference. One of the interesting things about the Bible, which we often miss, is that God always gives God’s people reasons to be respectful to God’s own self; to give God honor, reverence and deference. God never says, I am God and you are not, so bow down, and grovel. Instead God always sets the idea of respecting God’s self in the history of the mighty acts of God, with and for God’s people. In this case, all family rules are offered in the context, as noted in verse one, that God is the one who brought the people out of captivity in Egypt. In other words, God’s people are to respect God because God has earned their respect, by setting them free. For us as Christians we are to honor God for the same reason, that God has set us free from the power of sin to corrupt our lives, and freed us to become the people God desires us to be. The gift of giving respect to God then is that it orients us toward the steadfast love, the covenant faithfulness, of God that is continually liberating us to be God’s family of compassion and care.
Second, we are to respect others. This is the second half of this section of God’s family rules. Here I am using the definition of respect as having due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. Again, just as respect for God was based in God’s earning respect through God’s liberating actions, this respect toward others is based in the belief that all human beings are children of God, created equally by God. This is a concept emerging out of the creation story; that God created all people equally. None is greater than the other. We can see this in the way Israel was organized. There was no hierarchy. Though there were priests and leaders, they were not to lord it over others. They simply had different tasks. Even kings were only present to ensure that equality reigned. Thus, all were due respect because all were equal. This respect then leads to people maintaining the integrity of others’ lives, property, relationships and families because no one had the right or position to do otherwise. By giving due regard, appropriate boundaries were created, insuring that the family did not dissolve into chaos.
I began by talking about family rules; about how the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah are not generic laws, but are family rules, intended to mold God’s people into a particular kind of respectful, loving family. What this means is that the Commandments were never intended to be imposed on others. What that does not mean is that at least a portion of them were intended to be extended toward others. One of the key understandings of God’s family rules is that the respect shown to those within the community, the respect shown to our family members, is also intended to be shown to those outside the family. The Torah makes it clear that respect is to be show to strangers and sojourners. Jesus makes this clear, when he is asked about who our neighbors are, and he responds by the telling the story of the good Samaritan. By which Jesus lets us know that our respect is to be given to all that we encounter. The reason for this is the same reason that we are to give respect to those inside the community; we are all children of God, made in the image of the creator. And our membership in the family does not make us any better than those who are outsiders.
Before I close I want to speak to this moment in which we find ourselves. We find ourselves in a moment in which people are finally speaking out about sexual harassment and family violence. This includes verbal, emotional, sexual and physical violence both in the home and in the work place. As children of God, whose family rule is that of respect; respecting the integrity of all other human beings, these actions are unacceptable. They are directly contrary to the rules that God has set before us and of the love that Jesus asks of us all. Therefore I hope all you will work toward making our homes and our communities, zones of R.E.S.P.E.C.T.; zones in which all human beings can discover the respect that they deserve.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is what we are to give God and to give to all of those around us; attuning our hearts and ears to God and living as God directs; and respecting the rights and integrity of others. My challenge to you then in this week is this, to repeat this phrase, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. this is what God expects of me.” And then asking yourselves, how am I showing the respect God calls upon me to offer throughout my week.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 12, 2017
Exodus 16:1-8; Matthew 8:18-22
So, what is America’s greatest pastime? Is it baseball? Is it football? Is it Wheel of Fortune? Well if you voted for any of those, or some other, I want to offer and alternative. And the alternative is the “If Only” game. What is the If Only game? It is the game we all play when we say, “If only I…” and then you fill in the blank. If only I had bought Amazon ten years ago? If only I had learned Spanish? If only I had studied a little harder. If only I was a little taller, faster, smarter, better looking…you get my point. The wonderful thing about the If Only game is that everybody can play it. You don’t need any special equipment. You don’t even need lessons. You can just play it. In fact, how many of you have ever played the If Only game? And for those of you who haven’t, you can do it now. If only I had played the If Only game. So why does this game matter this morning. It matters because it was the game the Israelites were playing when they came out of Egypt.
To be sure that we are all on the same page, let’s recap. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Things got so bad that they cried out for help. God heard their cry and sent Moses and Aaron to work for their release. Pharaoh was not so keen on letting them go so God, through Moses, brought on the Egyptians a series of plagues, the last one being so terrible that the people were set free. As we heard last week, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops after God’s people. With a mighty hand God defeated the Egyptians and the Israelites traveled into the wilderness to a nice oasis, where they camped for a while. Everyone still with me? Good. We pick up the story this morning with the Israelites leaving the oasis and traveling into a food desert…literally, a food desert. They assume that they will starve to death, and it is in that moment when they begin to play the If Only game. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” If only…it is an ancient game.
Again, you may still be wondering why it matters that they were playing the If Only game. The answer is that the If Only game can cause people to take their lives out of drive and put them in another gear. I know that sounds cryptic, but bear with me. When God set the people free from slavery, God did not do so because these people were nicer, kinder or better looking than any other people, but because God had something for them to do. God had a task for them to accomplish. And that task was to bless the world; something which God wanted them to do from the Land of Promise. It was to be the base from which this blessing would flow. For that to happen however, the Israelites needed to avoid getting stuck in the wilderness and instead proceed directly to the Land of Promise. The problem with the If Only game, as I said, is that it could cause them to either reverse their direction or to simply hunker down and not move at all. Either of which would be disastrous for God’s world-wide plan of blessing.
First, the If Only game can cause people to put themselves into reverse. This is what is happening in the story this morning. “If only you had left us to die in Egypt.” This type of If Only game is one that breeds nostalgia. If only things were like they once were. If only we could go back to the way life once was, then everything would be wonderful. All they could remember were non-existent pots filled with meat and the goodies of life. They had forgotten that things had been so terrible that they had cried out for deliverance. On a deeper level though, the problem with this kind of If Only game for the Israelites was that if they went back to Egypt, then the blessing would not flow out into the world. It would once again be trapped in slavery. Unfortunately, the church has often played this If Only game; if only we could go back to the way things were life would be perfect. We can see this in the Nashville Statement, where a group of conservative pastors got together and issued a statement declaring that any church that accepted LGBTQ persons into membership was not a Christian Church. What they were doing was telling those of us who are fully inclusive congregations, if only you went back to excluding people, back to taking back the blessing, then we will include you in our community. If only you put yourself in reverse, then everything will be fine; except for the fact that the blessing, would no longer flow to all.
Second, the If Only game can put us in neutral. This is what the Israelites were about to do. Returning to our story, the Israelites were going to be fed. God would give them manna in the morning and quail in the afternoons. They would also be given clothing that never wore out. Suddenly life was not going to be so bad. However, the problem here was that when they reached the edge of the Land of Promise and were told there were giants and powerful nations ahead, they said, “If only we could stay here we would be safe. If only you didn’t make us go any farther we will be just fine.” They were happy to stay where they were. Again, this is what white churches said to Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham. If only you will let things stay as they are, we will all be fine. Sure, we know that blacks are not treated well, but if only you just stop here, then one day, someday, we will do something about it, but just let things stay as they are. If only you put yourself in neutral, then everything will be fine; except for the fact that the blessing, would no longer flow to all.
These last couple of weeks show us why we need to be in drive. We watched as one more time a man with mental illness accessed and used a weapon to kill innocent men, women and children. We watched once again as twenty-six young women trying to escape from Africa to Europe drown in the Mediterranean. We watched once again as people used hate speech to demonize “the other.” We watched at Alcott as dedicated teachers struggled with overcrowded classrooms and often hungry children. In other words, watched a world still in need of the blessing of God. Still in need knowing the love of God as poured out in Jesus. Still in need of compassion and support. Still in need.
In the face of all of this, I want to let you know that you, that we, are a congregation in drive. We are a launching pad for blessing here and around the world. We are a launching pad because we teach our children and youth about the love of God and help them become kind and compassionate followers of Jesus. We are a launching pad for blessing through our support of Alcott, children in Foster Care and the Ruth Ellis Center. We are a launching pad because we offer our building without cost to a counseling center and an organization that supports children and adults with special needs. We are a launching pad because we serve the homeless and the hungry. We are a launching pad because we support missionaries who work to prevent human trafficking and child marriage. We are a church in drive that is making a difference in the world.
Even so we are still susceptible to the If Only game. As we look at the needs of the world we could still say, if only someone else would feed the families at Alcott. If only the government would solve all our problems. If only someone else would show compassion and care for the homeless. If only we had more people, more resources, more…maybe we should just shift into neutral and coast. Yet God may be leading you to show us the next place where we need to be in drive. Yet God may be opening your eyes to a need that we might meet. So, don’t play the If Only game. If God is leading you, come and see me and say, here is where we need to be in drive, and we will see what we can do about it.
Keeping it in drive. This is our challenge. And my challenge to you is this, to ask yourselves, how am I helping to keep this community in drive, that we might keep launching God’s blessings out into the world.
Rev. Joanne Blair
November 5, 2017
Exodus 14; Matthew 23:1-12
Most of us here are familiar with the movie “The Ten Commandments” in which Charlton Heston plays Moses. And if you are like me (before the days of streaming, and cable, and DVD’s), you couldn’t wait until it came around on TV each year. The entire story of Moses is a “crowd favorite” … rich with drama, action and miracles.
In the “Crossing of the Sea”, we cheer when the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, and we group these two peoples into the “good guys and bad guys.” But in so doing, we often miss the point of the real battle.
The real battle is between competing sovereignties- Pharaoh and Yahweh. The real issue is not the rescue or liberation of Israel, but the triumph of Yahweh over Pharaoh.
When things get tough and we can’t see the outcome, we often revert back to the familiar, even though it is damaging or leads us away from trusting God. This is what happened to the Israelites in verse 12, when they say: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Although the Israelites were challenging Moses and not Yahweh in this statement, Moses needed to remind them that Yahweh was surely active and pivotal in this crisis. Yahweh is always active and pivotal… we just might not understand how.
The entire story of chapter 14 in the book of Exodus is really a spectacular reversal of the means of power. It stands not only as a witness to the power of Yahweh, … it is also a call to faith.
Scripture is all about turning the tables of unjust power, and acknowledging that God is, ultimately, in charge. And Jesus calls us… all of us… to live out our faith in such a way.
When Jesus challenges the scribes and the Pharisees in our reading from Matthew, he is not challenging the root of the teachings. Rather, he is challenging their inconsistent practice of such teachings.
It is important to understand the role that the scribes and the Pharisees played. The scribes (although not officially a sect) were a professional class that acted somewhat as lawyers. They were highly educated … schooled in the Jewish tradition and how to apply it to current day issues.
The Pharisees were mostly educated laypersons whose original intent was to make the “every day” holy… and they sought to do this by applying Jewish law to everything. While their original goal was to increase faithfulness to the law in the living of everyday life, they did this by pulling out 613 laws from the Old Testament and viewing them as personal requirements for all Jews.
Among the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Pharisees, the Pharisees were the only sect that survived after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. They were the primary challengers against Matthew’s community by demanding fidelity to the Torah. The Pharisees applied the priestly purity laws to all Jews as markers of identity … those things necessary to live the life of a good Jew.
But in telling people that they must fulfill the 613 laws in order to live lives pleasing to God, they set an unrealistic burden upon the shoulders of those who sought to follow the faith. An unrealistic burden that they themselves did not fulfill. Moreover, their focus on the 613 rules often neglected the more important issues of love and justice, which were paramount to Jesus’ message.
Of course, I am not deriding rules and regulations. We have often spoken here of the importance of rules in our lives to bring order out of chaos, and ensure safety and well-being. But these were 613 rules and regulations one supposedly needed to follow to guarantee living a life pleasing to God.
And Jesus was certainly not against rules and regulations. He reminded his followers more than once of the importance of the law. But the scribes and Pharisees provided such rich fodder for Jesus by repeatedly falling so very short of the ideals they preached. Their human nature prevented them from consistently practicing what they preached. And we have the same human nature.
Do we also provide rich fodder for Jesus’ critiques?
As a pastor, I am considered to be a church leader. And as we close in on the beginning of Advent, I find myself drooling over the ministry catalogs … wondering if I dare treat myself to a new stole for the liturgical season. But do my robe and stole make me a better Christian? Do they make any of my words more meaningful or more authentic? I like wearing a robe on Sunday, as it takes the pressure off what I’m wearing. And I’ve told you before that I like the stoles. I enjoy reflecting the liturgical season.
But more important … crucial in fact … is that I am called to remember that they are not decorations… nor are they status symbols. Rather these stoles represent the yoke that Jesus calls us to put on. His yoke. And I am called… we are all called… to put on his yoke and remember that we are to serve Christ (and therefore others) with a humble heart.
Our robes and stoles and titles, our phylacteries and fringes- they all have their place. Jesus’ concern, was and is, how these things can get out of perspective. Jesus’ concern, was and is, when anything becomes a substitute for that which we are truly called to: living as disciples and glorifying God.
Our culture sends very mixed messages. The pages of fashion magazines tell us what we should be wearing to fit in with the crowd. Yet at the same time, we are constantly encouraged to stand out, to be individuals, to show what makes us special.
What makes us special is that we are God’s. We not only belong to God… we are loved by God. It’s as simple as that. And we live out that love by sharing it with others. We are called by Jesus to be brothers and sisters who do not need other humans to decide whether or not we are worthy.
The point of this passage is the true nature of discipleship. And of whom we are disciples. We all have a part in this. As Jesus challenges the Pharisees whose self-importance got in the way, so he challenges us. But Jesus also challenges the weak and the oppressed, who sometimes withdraw from God and neighbor as if they have nothing to offer.
In her book Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience, Anne E. Carr writes: “Sin is… the breaking of relationship both with God and with human beings that can take the form of weakness as well as pride in its denial of human responsibility.”
We are all called - weak and strong, rich and poor. We are all called to lead our lives in honor of the one true God … humbly and gratefully obedient to the one ultimate power.
The final, pivotal intention in our story from Exodus is not freedom for the Israelites. It is Yahweh’s glory.
The final, pivotal intention in our story from Matthew is not to unravel the Pharisees. It is to remind us that God is the one ultimate authority. And we glorify God not by following 613 rules, but by following two: Love God and love your neighbor. “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)
All of us have leadership roles in one capacity or another. Whether the leader in a corporation, a team, a family, a workgroup… we all have, or will have, leadership roles in our lives. But there is only one supreme leader. There is only one ultimate power. And so my question for this week is, “How is my ‘everyday life’ a reflection of following the leader?”
Let us pray: Almighty and Gracious God, We give thanks for your steadfast love of us. Help us, guide us to be servant-leaders. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 29, 2017
A real buried treasure. It’s out there. A small box full of gold nuggets and jewels. I know it’s out there north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I know it’s out there because no one has found it yet. Yes, you heard me correctly there is indeed a buried treasure worth a small fortune. It was buried out in the desert by Forrest Fenn, an art collector, who wanted to get people up off the couch and get them hiking and exploring. It was buried out there to once again give people a sense of adventure. And how, might you ask, can you find this real-life treasure? You can find it by looking for clues in a twenty-four line poem that Fenn wrote. He said that no one will find it by accident, but that if they look closely enough at the clues and do some exploring then the treasure will be theirs.
So, how many of you ever dreamed of buried treasure? Maybe it was pirate treasure. Maybe it was a copy of the US Constitution that someone found in an old picture frame…true story. Or maybe the guy who found one of the 47 remaining Tucker 48 automobiles in a barn in Ohio. Well if you have, I have a treat for you this morning because buried right here, in this sanctuary, are treasure boxes, complete with clues, that will lead us to the greatest treasure in the world.
Let’s begin with the treasure boxes. They look like this (hold up one of the pew Bibles). Now, before you grab one out of the pew racks, let me tell you why I call these Bibles buried treasure. They were buried treasure because for almost a thousand years, no one was allowed to open them or read them. They were kept locked away so that only authorized persons could discover what was in them. Priests and church scholars were allowed in to them. But people like us, ordinary people, we were not allowed to read them. And not only that, but it was not allowed to translate the Bible into the language of the people. To do so brought death. Yes, you heard me correctly. To translate the Bible was done on the penalty of death, because those who held the treasure chest did not want anyone else to have it. With that in mind, I would like all of you to take out the treasure box and hold it. You may have to share, but I hope everyone will have one that they can look in.
Now. Let’s go looking for the clues. Just like Fenn did with his twenty-four-line poem, the scriptures are filled with clues as to the location of the treasure. This morning we will look at three of them and they can all be found in the passage we read this morning, Ephesians 2:1-10. Specifically, we are looking at verses 8-10. The first clue then is the word “grace”; “For by grace you have been saved.” Grace is one of those words that lots of people try to define. But if we are to take hold of how it acts as a clue, I want to offer an illustration of grace. This illustration comes from Jesus’ story of the Prodigal Son. The son, if you remember, disrespects his father, leaves home, wastes his money and then decides to go home where he expexts to be a slave to his father. Instead, when his father sees him, the father runs to him with arms wide open and embraces him. This is grace. It is God’s attitude of arms of love wide open for all people, ready to embrace them in love.
The second clue, is the word “faith”: “You have been saved by grace through faith.” Again, people have argued at length about what faith means. So, again, rather than trying to define it, I want to illustrate it. Faith, is what the son demonstrated when he fell into his father’s arms, knowing he did not deserve to be embraced. Remember, the son expected to be treated like a slave. He expected to have to earn his way back into his father’s love, if that were even possible. But when the father celebrated the son’s return with a party, the son accepted his father’s embrace, trusting that this was not a dream, but that his father’s love was real. This is faith, that we are willing to fall into the arms of a loving God, even when we have not been the perfect children.
The third and final clue can be found in verse 10, in the words ‘Christ Jesus”; “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” There are many ways to think about Jesus. There are lots of theological propositions we could make. But again, let me use an image rather than words. After the father embraces the son, the father calls for the robe and the ring. These are placed on the son and in so doing the son is once again part of the family. He is no longer an outsider or a servant, he is family. This is what Jesus Christ does for us. Christ not only embraces us, but makes us part of God’s world-wide inclusive family. Thus, we become part of the church, not through our “goodness” but through the actions of Jesus Christ on the cross.
Those are our clues. What then is the treasure? The treasure is that each of us is loved unconditionally by a gracious, faithful and inclusive God. It is that regardless of who we are or what we have done, God is rushing toward us with open arms, ready to embrace us; ready to make us part of God’s one-world family. Some may ask, why is this a treasure? Let me ask a question in response. How many of you have ever had a B.B. King day? What I mean by that comes from the title of one of my favorite songs of his, “Nobody Loves Me but My Mother, and She Could be Jiving Too.” In other words, to have a B.B. King day is to have one of those days when the people you trust the most, your closest friends, the people you think you can count on, suddenly act as if you don’t exist. Or, like you feel when you have done something you regret and have hurt someone and you wonder if anyone loves you. You wonder if you are worth being loved. It is on those days that this book becomes a treasure, reminding you that there is always someone who loves you; that there is a God who loves you completely and unconditionally and has made you part of a family.
This is the treasure of the Reformation; that we live in the love of God always believing that God is for us. My challenge for you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I allowing God to embrace me that I might embrace all of those I meet.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 22, 2017
Exodus 13:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
My wife Cindy is a proud graduate of the Doris Seiler School for Fine Finished Young Ladies. If you have never heard of this exclusive academy, that is ok because only those who were daughters, granddaughters and great granddaughters of Doris Seiler were ever admitted. As a granddaughter of Doris Seiler, Cindy was taught such things as, “You can always tell a lady by her hands.” She was also taught the mortal obligation of thank-you notes. What I mean by that is that perhaps one’s soul was at risk if you did not write notes. I had watched Cindy perfect this art prior to our marriage. At her wedding showers, she would be sure that meticulous notes were kept as to who gave what so she could write a personal thank you to each giver. But I did not discover how far this extended until our honeymoon. The day after our wedding before we headed out we stopped by Cindy’s mom’s house to finish opening wedding gifts and completing the list. That night when we stopped for the evening and it was time for bed. I snuggled in with my new bride. She smiled at me. Then she handed me five thank you notes to write with these words. “You write to your friends and family. I will write to mine and if we do five thank you notes a night we will be finished before our honeymoon is over.” Sexier words had never been spoken.
I want to stop here for a moment and take a poll. How many of you have ever written a thank-you note? A thank-you email? A thank-you text or tweet? Or, simply said thank you to someone who has done something for you? Great, then we all have this sense that even though there are different ways of saying thank you, we all know that we are supposed to do so, even though we were not graduates of the Doris Seiler School for Fine Finished Young Ladies. And in fact, I would guess there are times when gratitude simply flows out of us because we are so thankful. I would guess in some way the Israelites felt the same way. They had become slaves, had cried out to God, God heard them and then had set them free. God had even destroyed the Egyptian army in the process. Not a bad job. Their problem then was, how to say thank you? Fortunately, they did not have to think too hard about this because God told them. They would become graduates of the I Am who I Am, school for fine, finished God followers. And here is how they were to say thank you.
First, they were to give; to give their best. God tells them that they were to consecrate the first to open the womb among the Hebrews, of human beings and animals, as belonging to God.
For many cultures around the Hebrews to dedicate something meant to literally sacrifice it in order to “feed the gods.” This was not the intent of dedication in the Israelite culture. Though the Hebrews would develop a sacrificial system, it was not because God was hungry, but by offering their best, they would orient themselves appropriately to God. As Jesus would later say, our hearts are where our treasures are. Thus, when the people gave their best to God, their hearts were turned toward God. And by being turned toward God their lives would be blest by all that God was offering to them and to the world. This part of the thank you was as much for the people as it was for God.
Second, they were to remember. They were to remember by acting out the story of deliverance. “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt…seven days you shall eat unleavened bread and on the seventh there will be a festival to the Lord.” In other words, this saying thank-you to God was not to be a one-time event. It was instead to be a continuing remembrance of what God had done. On the surface, this may appear to be God saying, “I’m not ever satisfied with one thank you and I need you to keep on stroking my ego.” But it is not. This act of thanksgiving was intended to remind the people of the kind of God that they worshipped. The kind of God they followed. This God was a loving, liberating God who would be present when they were in need. This was the God who would continue to set them free from the forces that bound them. This was a God they could count on. This part of the thank you was for the people as much as it was for God.
Finally, they were to tell. They were to tell this story to their children. “You shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.” One of the problems with human beings is that we forget. We forget what others have done for us. We forget that there have been those who helped us. And so when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances we wonder if there is anyone to help us; anyone to whom we can turn? And the Hebrews had been no different. When they were in Egypt they had slowly forgotten the God who had saved them in the past; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By telling the story to their children they would insure that people would remember God’s saving love from generation to generation. This is why, at the Passover Seder, it is the children who ask the four great questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By passing down their story, the Hebrews would remember the one to whom they could turn.
We are only here this morning because for the last 2,500 years men and women have been giving thanks to God in the manner laid out in this text. We are here because men and women have been consecrating their best to the service of God’s people; to their synagogues and rabbis, to their churches and pastors. We are here because men and women have been remembering the wonderful things that God has done. We are here because men and women have been celebrating Passover and the Eucharist; remembering God’s saving love in Egypt and in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We are here because men and women have been telling their children the stories of God’s love and faithfulness; because men and women have been giving thanks to God in ways that pass faith from generation to generation.
As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same. We are called to give our best to God. We are not simply to offer our left-overs, but to give the best of our time, talents and treasures to the God who loves and guides us. We are to reenact the Jesus’ story on a regular basis through communion as a reminder that Jesus loved us enough to give up his life for us and for the world. We are to tell these things to our children, through bedtime prayers, home rituals, Sunday school and by inviting them at the 10am service to ask the questions that shape our story. In this way, our children as they grow will remember that God is always present in their lives.
The challenge for us this Sunday then is to remember the lessons we have learned from the “I Am who I Am” school for fine finished followers, and to ask ourselves, how am giving thanks to God in such a way as to ensure that these thanks will continue to be offered by generations to come.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 15, 2017
Exodus 5:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
It was the path to adultery, divorce, murder and little children left orphaned. It was the devil’s work and it had to be outlawed. And so in 1933, Anson, Texas outlawed dancing. I was made aware of this fact back in the late sixties when my family was making our annual pilgrimage from the heat of Houston to the cool of Estes Park, Colorado. Somewhere in deep west Texas we must have passed s sign for Anson, and my father said, Yep, no “dancin” in Anson.” Wanting to know more I asked and he explained that years before the city council had outlawed all public dances. So from then on, whenever we would drive past the turnoff to Anson, we would all say, no “dancin” in Anson. You may be asking yourselves this morning, what does no “dancin” in Anson have to do with Pharaoh and a parable about a party. The answer is that in each of our stories there was someone wanting to throw a party and someone trying to stop it.
The person in both the stories wanting to throw the party is God. As the Grateful Dead put it, “Then God way up in heaven, for whatever it was worth, thought he’d throw a big old party. Thought he call it planet earth.” That sentiment, that God was throwing a big old party is at the heart of the scriptures. It is a party of freedom, love, abundance and peace. The Old Testament describes it as the ability of persons to live freely under their own vine and fig tree, eating the produce of their hands. It is the ability of people to live in peace where the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are turned into plowshares. In the New Testament, we hear stories of a messianic banquet and of a new heaven and earth in which everyone will have enough and peace will reign. We see this in our Exodus text, where the people want to go to the wilderness to have a festival of celebration to their God; and to do so in freedom and peace. In Jesus’ parable, it is the king who is throwing the party of abundance, desiring that everyone attend and share in all that the king offers.
In our stories as well, as I said, are those who want to keep the party from happening. In the Exodus story, it is Pharaoh who wants to keep the party from happening. And he does so not only by refusing to allow the Hebrews to go a day’s journey to worship, but he makes their lives harder so that they will not ask again for freedom, abundance, love and community. In our parable it is, interestingly enough, those who are invited to the party who want it stopped. We see this in that rather than simply saying no to the invitation, they seize the slaves, mistreat and murder them. God wants a party of freedom, love, abundance and peace…and there are those who do not want anyone to attend. At this juncture, we have two choices as to where we go from here. We could focus on attempting to figure out why some people don’t want to get the party started and focus on “those people.” Or we could focus on our response to the invitation to the party; because we have been invited. For those of you who have been here a while, you know where we are going…we are going to see what should be our response to the invitation to the messianic party.
First, we are to show up. I have heard it said that half of being successful is simply showing up. And what showing up here means is showing up in the community in which the party is taking place. It is showing up in a community of freedom, love and abundance. I say this because, while we can encounter God on our own, you can’t really have a party of one. A party is a community event in which together people experience and share the abundance of love that God offers to the world. It is that banquet to which people are invited by the king. There is no ordering out and home delivery. Granted, I know that I am, and I have always wanted to say this, preaching to the choir, because you all are here this morning. But it is a reminder that each of us adds to the party and the party adds something to us. So we are to show up to the party each and every week.
The second response is that we are to show up with arms wide open. Again, if we follow Jesus parable, we see that when those who ought to want to go to the party refuse, the King invites everyone from the highways and byways…and here is the kicker, both good and bad. In other words, everyone is invited. For first century Jews, this concept of inviting good and bad would have been shocking. It would have been shocking because the concept of God was that God only wanted to party with the good people; the proper people. But Jesus says otherwise. One of the realities of humanity is that we are tribal. By that I mean that we naturally gravitate toward people like ourselves. We have tribes based on the color of our skin. We have tribes based on our educational level. We have tribes based on how we felt about the outcome of last week’s MSU-Michigan game. The party that God is throwing is to be an “un-tribe” party. It is one in which our arms are wide open inviting in everyone…and I mean everyone. We are called to help all people discover the joy of freedom, love, abundance and peace. We are to be a radically inclusive community.
The third and final response to the invitation is that we show up with arms wide open and appropriately dressed. Over the years as I have taught this parable, it is the end of the parable that causes much consternation. After all, why should someone who has accepted the invitation to the party be cast out simply because they are not appropriately dressed? First, let me be clear that this has nothing to do with what one wears to church. Second, what this does have to do with is the attitude one wears when one comes to the party. This idea would have been clearly understood within first century Judaism. When one came into the synagogue or the Temple, one went through a ritual bath, symbolizing that one was leaving the old behind and putting on the new so one was ready to be transformed by God. Wearing the appropriate attire here means that we come ready to be changed by the party and its host. We come ready to be new people capable of living into and offer up freedom, love abundance and peace.
Next week is pledge Sunday. On that day, we are asking all the members and friends of Everybody’s Church, to make a financial commitment, not simply to keep the institution running, but to the party. For you see, when we make a financial commitment to First Church, we are making a commitment to keeping the party going. A party in which people find the freedom to become the people God wants them to be. A party where people find God’s overwhelming love. A party where people share our abundance with others. A party where people find the peace of God in Jesus Christ. By pledging we participate in the great party of God’s kingdom and keep it going for all who need to find the joy God offers.
So, what happened in Anson? Did they ever get to dance? The answer is yes. In 1987 the city council, against the wishes of the two largest churches in town, voted to allow dancing to return to the community. The first night, about 700 of the town’s 2,600 residents turned out. The crowd included people in their 80s, parents with children in strollers, teens and everyone in between. Together they experienced the joy of the Texas twostep, the Cotton Eye Joe and the schottische. And the proceeds from their dances have gone to fund a new youth community center in the town.
The challenge for us is this, to ask ourselves, how am I helping to keep the party alive so that all people can discover the joy of freedom, love, abundance and peace that God has to offer?
Rev. Joanne Blair
October 8, 2017
Exodus 3:13-22; Matthew 21:23-32
What’s in a name? Do you know what your name means? After reading today’s passage from Exodus, I started to wonder about my own name. I know that some form of “Ann” follows back through the females on my mother’s side, but we have so little family history that I don’t know why, or where it began.
My given name is “Joanne Lynne” and I know that my dad wanted the “e” on the end of both names because he thought it was pretty and more feminine, but that’s about all I know.
When I looked up the meaning of my name, I learned that Joanne means “God is gracious”, and that Lynne means “from the lake, or beautiful waterfall.”
I like those definitions, and their meanings are poetic and lyrical, but I also know that is not why I was named as I was. My parents just liked the names, and it worked “Ann” into the picture.
In the ancient world, names were given with great intention, thought and meaning. Moses meaning “drawn out of the water” is a perfect example.
(Just as a side note, notice that Jesus was named before he was born, and Jesus means “God is salvation.”)
Someone’s name said something about the nature of the person who bore the name.
And so it is no wonder that Moses asks God what God’s name is, for he wants to learn something about this God, just like the names of Egypt’s gods said something about them.
Moses not only needed a name to give to others, he needed a name to express by whose power, qualifications and authority he was acting. Moses is essentially asking, “Who are you to send me before Pharaoh? Who are you to be promising deliverance? Who are you to set Israel free from Pharaoh?”
And so, God tells him.
Verse 14 from the 3rd chapter of Exodus is one of the most puzzled over verses in the whole Hebrew Bible. You cannot translate it exactly.
Most common is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”
God continues to reveal God’s name in verse 15, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord [Yahweh], the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
As God recruits and directs Moses, God is laying out God’s plans for the Israelites. God will not only take them to freedom, God will give them a future and the prospect of land… which leads to security. This is the future God promised to Abraham so long ago. And God keeps God’s promises, as a redistribution of wealth and of power is projected.
Just as God challenged the power (and the misuse of it!) with Pharaoh, so Jesus challenged the power (and the misuse of it!) with the religious leaders of his day.
The parable of the Wicked Tenants is not exactly one of the most beloved parables, and it has several faces. One face of this parable speaks to Jesus’ controversy with the chief priests and Pharisees… and hence, to all who abuse and misuse their power.
It speaks to all those who have harmed or been harmed by the socially, religiously, and economically powerful. It reminds all of us of the promise of eventual divine justice and righteousness.
But this parable can also leave us with a feeling of impatience and frustration. Why would God allow a bunch of tenants to partake in such violence? Why didn’t God do something? And why doesn’t God do something about all of the violence and suffering in the world today?
You pick any news source and there are so many examples of people suffering. The events of the past couple of months certainly demonstrate this point in a myriad of ways. Natural disasters and a plethora of human-made tragedies.
So many, and so big.
At times we feel helpless and hopeless.
The image of the vineyard in today’s parable which comes from Isaiah 5 was meant to be a symbol for Israel. Today, that same symbol represents the world, and we are now the tenants. And we need to be good tenants. We have been given a responsibility to care for this world and all that is in it, but sometimes we confuse this responsibility with power. Too often we forget to whom the vineyard belongs, and we try to keep it for ourselves.
Sometimes it is intentional as we try to grab and hold on to all we can for our own elevation and use. But often it is unintentional. We’re good people. We provide and care for ourselves and those close to us… those in each of our own “personal circles.” Yet we are called to go beyond that. We are called to love and provide and care for those outside of “our circle” as well.
We often forget that the world belongs to God, and not to us. It’s easy to do.
I want to share something I came across. I have abbreviated it and I apologize that I cannot cite the author.
“If we believe that we are the new tenants, then how are we doing? Are we harvesting the fruit of witness and compassion, mission and transformation? When the owner backs up the trucks to load the harvest, what will we have to load? Is the landowner pleased with us, the new keepers of the vineyard, or should we feel his judgement too? Whatever has happened in the past, the landowner still likes his fruit. Are we producing the kingdom harvest that the owner was hoping for?”
This quote makes me wonder what my own personal harvest looks like. What can I do to make it more abundant? And what do the harvests of this community look like?
Both of our Scripture readings today are about justice, and the usurping of unjust power. God continuously desires to be in relationship with us, and to have us be part of God’s team. But we must never forget to whom the ultimate power belongs.
“I am who I am. I will be who I will be.”
Israel had to wait for her deliverance, but it did come. Such is the pledge, the sureness, and the hope of all who know the Lord and trust in God’s active presence in the world. We cannot chart the workings of God on a computer or with a slide rule. We cannot know what God will do next, but we can freely choose to submit ourselves to align with God’s will.
“I am who I am”… “I will be who I will be” … God is unchangeable in that God is always planning for justice. Our parents named us with or without much intention… yet God calls each and every one of us by name with great intention to be a part of God’s plan for the restoration of God’s Kingdom.
And so the question this week is: What has God called me to do in restoring justice in this world? And how am I answering that call?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 24, 2017
Exodus 2:23-25; Matthew 20:1-16
They were everywhere. Everywhere we looked, there were piles of trash. Cindy I were in Houston this past week for my father’s 90th birthday. On our way to his house from the airport we passed rows and rows of houses with massive piles of trash out front. The piles were filled with wall-board, two-by-four studs, cabinets, mattresses and even kitchen sinks. As close as two blocks from my father’s house people were cleaning out all that had been damaged by Hurricane Harvey and the more than fifty inches of rain it had dropped on the Houston area. If there was a bright spot in all of this destruction, other than that many homes were not damaged, was the FEMA was present almost immediately after the rains stopped. While this may appear to be something that ought to happen, it did not always happen. It was in fact a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina, where FEMA was caught flat-footed and unprepared to respond to that kind of a disaster. This time however FEMA had personnel and equipment in place to respond immediately. If you have that image of preparedness in your mind, I want you to transfer it to God, because this is the kind of God described in our Exodus lesson; one who is ready to respond when the need is present.
Though the language of the Exodus story appears to say otherwise, the original Hebrew tells us that God had everything in place, ready to go whenever the Hebrew people cried out. What I mean by that is that God has everything in place to act when people cry out. Let’s take a quick tour of this text. First, the language of forgetfulness and waiting, is in fact the language of being actively interested and engaged. God “hears their groaning”, should be translated God hears and responds. It is a hearing that leads to action. God “remembers” is not simply that God forgot but that God is motivated to act by the covenant promise. To remember is to set in motion what was promised in the covenant. God “looked upon” the Israelites, means that God is in motion moving toward them. God “took notice of” them means that God is willing to get into the muck of ordinary life with the people. These are all action words based on God’s long term commitments, or covenants, toward the Hebrew people. Even so, it still begs the questions of, why did God and why does God sometimes appear to wait?
I will answer that with a couple of questions to all of you. First, how many of you have ever given unasked for advice? How did that go for you? If your experience of that is similar to mine, the answer is not very well. Though we may have wonderful advice to offer, it is often not received well when someone has not asked for it. And in addition, it might not be well received even when people do ask for it, if it is not what they want to hear. Here is my second question. How many of you have been given advice for which you did not ask? The advice might have been about a bad financial decision, or brewing bad relationship. How did you respond to that? Probably not well. One of the ways to understand this dynamic comes from my favorite rabbi psychotherapist, the late Edwin Freedman. He once said that people can only hear you when they are coming toward you. What he means by this is, that only when someone is actively seeking our input, advice, and help will they at all be able to hear it and receive it. Only when we decide we need assistance will we take it.
This is where God was with the Hebrews. They had not been turned toward God. They were not interested in having God act before this moment. Unlike the slaves that were brought to the new world, who had been ripped from their homes and families, and so were constantly seeking God’s help to survive and escape, the Hebrews had slowly evolved from being free people to slaves that were oppressed. Meaning that though they had been in slavery for hundreds of years, it had only become incrementally worse and worse, such that that they were never quite ready to cry out. It was only with a change in administration and the ensuing oppression that the people were ready to seek help. In a sense then, rather than God being on vacation from them, it was as if they had taken a vacation from God. And so only in this moment, this moment of desperation, were they ready to turn toward God and be open to the life-changing plan that God had in store for them. And they had to be ready not only to hear, but they had to be ready because what God in store for them was not going to be easy to do.
It was not going to be easy because the first thing that God had in store for them was that they would not be liberated in place. They were going to have to be uprooted from everything that had known and experienced for the last four-hundred years. It would require them to move from the only home they had every known to a new and unfamiliar land. As we will soon discover this was not an easy transition. In the wilderness, they would complain and ask Moses to take them back home…to slavery because it was more predictable way of life. To hear this, the people had to be ready. They had to be turned to God.
It was not going to be easy because the second thing that God had in store for them was that they were to become a new kind of people, living a new kind of life with a new set of laws and rules. This was because God had an assignment for them. God was not only going to bless them with freedom, with life and blessing if you will. But God was going to ask them to once again be the agents of life and blessings to the world. In other words, it could not be all about them. They were to be part of a larger world-transforming plan which would require them to do some hard work. To hear this, the people had to be ready. They had to be turned to God.
This story comes with a gift and a challenge. The gift of this story is the knowledge that God is always ready to act when God’s power is required. The challenge of this story is that when we open ourselves to this seeking God, we better be ready because God will act not only on others, but God will ask a great deal of us.
What about us then? Are we open to God? Are we open to the God who is constantly prepared to bless us that we might be a blessing to the world? Are we willing to have God turn our lives upside down? Are we willing to have God call us to do things that we would not otherwise think ourselves capable of doing? Are we willing to leave the comfortableness of our lives and strike out in new directions? For you see this is what God is about. God is not in the fairy-God mother business of tossing about some pixie-dust so that everything magically becomes OK. God is about the life-changing, world-changing work of blessing; of kingdom building; of resurrection.
My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I opening myself to God in such a way that God can not only bless me, but use me as a blessing to the world?
September 10, 2017
Rev. Joanne Blair
Exodus 2:1-10; Matthew 18:15-20
The story of Moses’ birth and childhood is one of the most well-known stories in the Old Testament… and for good reason. It has everything that captures our emotions: suspense and intrigue, compassion and intervention. And we especially like it because it has a happy ending and triumphs over evil.
But this story is also filled with what is often called “divine irony.”
Did you notice that God is never mentioned in this story of Moses adoption? Does this mean that God wasn’t involved? No, no, and no! God is always at work, and God often uses the weak and the seemingly least important to achieve great things and change the world. And while Moses is most definitely a key player, Moses is not really at the core of the Exodus story. This is actually a story about the amazing works of God. And God is always working toward redemption and reconciliation.
Which is key to our reading from Matthew today. Jesus is preparing the disciples for handling things when he is no longer with them in a physical sense. He is preparing them to be a thriving and healthy community, always striving for reconciliation. Jesus knows there will be disagreements and the wounding of each other, and he is preparing the community to address and resolve these issues. He puts the initiative upon the person offended, calling them to a higher task of “speaking their piece” in truth and love. Each member is valued and appreciated.
Situations where there is alienation are to be taken seriously. We are often taught to shrug it off, to let it go, to “put on our big boy or girl pants” … and there are times when this is great advice. We are not being told to be whiny and overly sensitive. What we are being told, is to be in community. But too often we seethe in silence, complain later to a friend, hold a “meeting after the meeting” in the parking lot (without the person that upset us) … and hold a grudge.
Following Jewish tradition, if step one doesn’t work, Jesus tells us to go to step two … and take 1 or 2 other people with us to ensure clear communication. This obviously doesn’t mean taking your best friends that you have coached ahead of time to take your side. It is meant to get a more clear and impartial understanding (and hopefully, resolution) of the situation.
Finally, if step 2 doesn’t work, you go to step 3 ... and involve the church community. This is not a “three strikes and you’re out” situation. This is when you treat the person as a Gentile and a tax collector. We all know how Jesus dealt with them… he shared drinks and meals and conversations, and treated them with integrity. Step 3 is the church saying, “you’ve left the field and we’d like to invite you back to the game.” It seeks restoration rather than punishment.
It is no accident that this piece of Scripture comes right after Jesus’ parable about the lost sheep. The ultimate goal is always peace, and the restoration of right relationship.
I want to share a very simple story with you. And while Jesus is speaking of the church community in today’s scripture, you can make the connection. In seminary, I had a classmate who was tall, blond, attractive, well -dressed, gifted with words, spiritual, gentle, and smart. I really liked her and admired her a great deal. On graduation day for whatever reason, she got the wrong size cap and it kind of fell down below her ears like a bowl. Our last names started with the same letter, so we were close to each other in all the proceedings. Since my cap also fit her, once I had my “official portrait” taken, I lent her my cap for her picture. And I said something like, “Here you go… now you look like ‘Seminary Graduate Barbie.’” I, of course, thought I was being terribly clever.
After I walked across the stage and got my diploma, I rushed back and gave her my cap to wear, and apparently, I called her “Seminary Barbie” again.
A couple of weeks later, I got a phone call from her and she expressed how hurt and insulted she was when I called her “Seminary Barbie.” To be honest, I was shocked … because to me, it was rather a compliment. After all, Barbie is kind of perfect and can do anything and everything… and that’s kind of what I thought about this woman.
She was open and candid with me about how she felt… not at all mean or angry. (which made me feel worse!)… and I am forever grateful to her for her courage and honesty in coming to me directly. Now I know that in the grand scope of things, this wasn’t that big a deal, but she could have handled it a different way and spun it into something much bigger. Something that may have given me a reputation throughout the seminary that I wouldn’t appreciate. Or at the very least, she could have let it simmer inside until it became a rock of resentment and ruined our relationship. Instead, she allowed the opportunity for reconciliation, and we have gone on to do some good work together. And she gave me a gift… the reminder to try and think about how others might receive the words I speak.
From small misunderstandings to sins of commission, this is what Jesus is talking about. He is preparing us to live in community and reconcile things before they get out of hand… and preparing us for what to do when things aren’t reconciled. And he promises to be there with us. Just as today’s reading from Exodus speaks to an essential character (Moses), our reading from Matthew speaks to essential characters… us.
But God is always there at work in the midst of it. God is at work… preparing the way. God prepared and used Moses, and God is preparing and using us, as agents of reconciliation and restoration.
And so I encourage you this week to ask: How has God prepared and used me for reconciliation in the past? And how is God preparing me now to reconcile with someone?