February 23, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 14:13-21
Why didn’t Jesus just feed them? Why did he even have to get the disciples involved? After all, if God could feed the people in the wilderness with manna, couldn’t Jesus just have showered the people with bread? They were all good questions, and questions I have gotten over the course of my ministry. The basic premise is that if God is omnipotent, meaning God can do anything God desires, then why does God need our help? I must admit that I am not sure how I answered that question over the years, though I’m sure my answers must have been stunningly unbrilliant because they didn’t satisfy anyone. So where I have landed is that I cannot answer the why, of why does God do this? I can only answer the what; that what God does is to work in partnership with us. From the moment of creation when Adam was given the responsibility of tilling the garden, to Abraham and Sarah who were tasked with taking a journey in order to bless a broken world, to Moses, to the disciples, God has always chosen to engage in joint ventures with human beings in order to heal humanity and to recreate God’s one-world family. And today is no exception. For you see, we have all been called to that same task, of healing humanity … and to do so through serving compassionately. Let me explain.
First, a visual. This morning I have brought with me the basket of blocks our children played with…which are like the blocks my brothers and I enjoyed. There are red blocks, blue blocks, yellow and purple cylinder blocks and even square blocks with letters on them. They are, for the moment, all together in this single basket…which is a way of seeing God’s desire for humanity. We are to be one family, composed of all shapes and sizes and colors. We are to be together, living in unity. Yet as human beings we could not do that. We began to kick certain blocks out of the family. Red blocks hated blue blocks, who feared the yellow cylinders, who thought they were better than the purple cylinders … and I think you get my point. Soon there was no, one human family, only clusters of blocks, fearing, hating, enslaving and destroying other clusters. Yet this, as I said was not God’s plan. God’s plan was for a one world family. So how to get everyone back in the basket? I suppose there are many ways, yet one of the most effective is through serving compassionately.
Let me be clear here, that serving compassionately is not simply doing something for someone else. Serving compassionately is a four-step process that not only puts compassion into action to help those in need but helps to heal the world. And the steps are laid out for us in our Exodus story:
Step one, we observe. God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.” One of the great problems with humanity is that is that we tend to categorize those we don’t know and then apply stereotypes to them. Oh, we know what those red blocks are like. We know how blue blocks think. And yellow blocks, well they are lazy and dangerous. Our stereotypes do not allow us to see beyond two-dimensional characterizations of other blocks. How do we move beyond this? We move beyond by observing. Observing here means more than simply looking at something, it means seeing others as blocks with their own stories, hopes and dreams. It means seeing others for who they are and not as cardboard cutouts of blocks, but multidimensional creations of God. We are called to observe because in so doing, we begin to connect with others in new ways, thus bringing some of us back into the one basket of God’s family.
Step two, we hear them. God says, “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters …” Just as we often see other blocks through stereotypical lenses, we often believe that we know what those blocks need. We know how to serve them and give them what they need. Unfortunately, this is not always so. One of my favorite stories about this comes from our own Terry Chaney. Terry, who is blind, once visited a church where someone decided that they would help him to a pew. And even though Terry tried to tell the person that what he was really looking for was the rest room, the person never asked. What we are called to do is to hear the other blocks. Hearing here means more than simply acknowledging the sounds around us. It means to listen deeply to those in need and discover what it is they need and desire. Not what we think they need. Granted, this takes time. It takes a willingness do more than drive-by serving. But this is what God does, God listens and so are we to listen too. In so doing we not only hear about the real needs of those blocks, but we connect more deeply with them, thus once again, moving more blocks back into God’s basket family.
Step three, we are to know their sufferings. God says, “Indeed, I know their sufferings…” As I said last week, a better translation of this part of the verse is, to feel their pain. In some ways this is the most difficult part of serving compassionately. It is difficult because we cannot get inside someone’s head, we cannot feel what they are feeling, we cannot know exactly what it is like to be a blue block or a red block. But what we can do is share their space, if they will let us. My image for this comes from the book of Job. In the book of Job, Job loses everything; his home, his flocks and herds, his family and his health. He ends up sitting on a dung-heap. But he does not sit alone. His friends come and sit with him. Sharing his space and his pain. This is what it means to show compassion … to suffer with, to suffer beside. And when we sit and share space block to block, we begin to connect and heal the block brokenness, thus one more time bringing blocks back into the basket.
Step four, we act. After observing, hearing and knowing, God acts. God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians …” I realize that so often what we want to do is do for others, yet I believe that what most people want is for us to do with them. Over the years, I have observed that people want a “hand-up” and not “a handout”. They don’t want pity, they want self-respect. They don’t want to be dependent but interdependent. This is the theory behind Habit for Humanity. With Habitat, no one is “given” a home. They work with others to build or rehab it. They take on loans to pay for it. Habitat is blocks working together to serve those in need. It is compassion in action to change the lives of blocks of all colors, shapes and sizes. And when blocks serve together, it unites them and draws them back into God’s one world basket block family.
I believe that this theory of serving compassionately was behind Jesus command for the disciples to personally feed the crowd. By so doing the disciples were forced to see each person there as more than a face in a crowd. They probably heard their words of thanks for the food, they were physically present with them in their hunger on the hillside and then they shared what they had. The people became more than a nameless, faceless set of blocks, but they became real and a deeper connection was created.
Over the past eight weeks we have explored what it means to follow Jesus. We have learned that we are called to love radically, forgive unconditionally, share lavishly and serve compassionately as followers of Jesus. And in so doing we are made part of God’s grand rebuilding plan for humanity. For with each of these actions we are building connections block to block, neighbor to neighbor, and stranger to stranger. We bring more and more people back into God’s one world family. My challenge to you, then, is to ask yourselves, “How am I bringing blocks back into the basket of God’s family by loving, forgiving, sharing and serving?”
February 16, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Exodus 3:1-12; Philippians 2:1-11
It was a movement that almost failed to launch. It almost failed completely. It didn’t fail because the members were afraid to share their story because they were willing to tell anyone what they believed even if they risked their lives doing so. It didn’t fail to launch because they didn’t have a great cause because they believed that the one they followed was the Son of God, the messiah, the savior of the world, the King of Kings. It wasn’t because they weren’t empowered because the Spirit was in their midst. Not this movement, called the Way, the early church, almost failed to launch because of a single word ... doulos. Their leader had spoken of himself and they continued to speak of him as a doulos. And being honest no one would think that someone calling themselves a doulos could possibly be God’s long-awaited king and messiah. No one would want to follow a doulos. Oh, sorry, what’s a doulos? It is the Greek word for servant or slave. So when Jesus said things like, “I came not to be served, but to serve.” Or when he did doulos-like things such as washing his followers’ feet. Or when Paul says that Jesus gave up heaven in order to be a doulos, a slave, few if any people would leap for joy and say, sign me up. To be a doulos was demeaning. To be a doulos was to be subservient, submissive, menial and barely human. Why would anyone want to follow a doulos? Who would ever believe that a doulos could be the messiah ... the King ... the savior? No, this was a problem and it almost caused the church to fail from the beginning.
I would like to say that Jesus being a doulos is no longer an issue, but I am not sure things have changed much. Jesus being a doulos was always and always will be seen by many as the weak point in Christianity. I say this because the church is perfectly fine having a cosmic Christ who rules the universe. It is fine with “Buddy Jesus” who is always sunshine and happiness and two thumbs up. It is even fine to have an angry Jesus; a Jesus who is angry with liberals if you are conservative, or angry with conservatives if you are liberal. But the idea of Jesus being a doulos, a servant, has long rubbed against the grain of the church. The church, like all of us, loves a winner. As one pastor in Seattle put it, he could not follow a Jesus that he could beat up. The pastor also regularly wondered aloud about who Jesus could smack down. And speaking of smacking down, there is a church here in Michigan, that holds Mixed Martial Arts tournaments, so people can see the power that real Christians ought to have. What then are we to do with this doulos identity? How are we to talk about serving compassionately in this kind of an atmosphere? I would suggest, that what we do, rather than letting society define what it means for Jesus to be a doulos, we let the Bible define it. And here is how I believe scripture defines a doulos ... a doulos is putting compassion into action in order to help people in need themselves. And we can see this in both of our stories this morning.
We begin with the story of the burning bush. The backstory is that the people of God had been in Egypt for four hundred years. For most of that time things had gone well. The people multiplied and prospered. The more they multiplied and prospered, the more the Egyptians feared these foreigners and so they eventually enslaved them. Then when enslaving them did not slow the Hebrews multiplication and prosperity, the Pharaoh ordered the murder of every boy child. In other words, he ordered the genocide of the Hebrew people. This is where our story picks up. Moses, who has fled Egypt, is hanging with his sheep, sees a bush that is burning, but not burning up. He wanders over to check it out. Suddenly a voice speaks from the bush. The voice identifies itself as the God of Abraham's ancestors. Then we hear these words, and this is God speaking. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt.” Observing here is not simply glancing over but means to fully take in what is happening. “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.” Hearing here does not mean simply receiving sound but means internalizing what was said. “Indeed, I know their sufferings.” Notice that God does not say, “I know of their suffering,” but “I know their suffering.” A better translation would be, “I feel their pain.” This is what compassion is; to feel with. God shares in the pain of the people and then out of great compassion, “comes down” and acts. God is not a remote observer of things. God is one who will be with God’s people and so God tells Moses that God will deliver God’s people from bondage and send them to a land flowing with milk and honey. God is being a servant because God is putting compassion into action, helping the Hebrews do what they cannot do for themselves ... be free.
We see this same pattern working itself out in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. But this time, those who need help are not simply the Hebrew people, it is all of creation; that because all of creation is trapped in the cycle of sin and death there is only one person who can set it free, and that is Jesus. Though the sense of compassion is not as straightforward in this passage as it is in the Exodus text, the vision of Jesus as doulos certainly is. What I hope we will note in this hymn of praise that Paul offers is that it reminds us that Jesus chose to be one of us; that no one made Jesus give up his place in the midst of heaven and “come down”; no one commanded him to take up human form. No one commanded him to become a doulos. No one forced him to humble himself. This was Jesus’ free and gracious choice. I would argue that Jesus came because of his great love for the world; that Jesus saw the suffering of humanity and even of the creation itself, and so was willing to experience a fully human life and death, in order set creation free. This is a demonstration of putting compassion into action, helping humanity, by doing for it what it could not do for itself. This is how Jesus was a doulos.
What does this mean for all of us to be douloi ... the plural of doulos ... well you will have to come back next week to find that out. Today though, here is what I would like for you to do. I would like you to take a moment, perhaps if you want, to close your eyes and think back on your life. Think back to a time when you were in need and then God intervened ... maybe not directly, but sent you the right people, opened the right doors, offered you compassion and presence. And then keep that image in mind this week as you remember that being a doulos is at the heart of who God and Jesus are.
February 9, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 15:7-11; Romans 12:9-21
I am not sure if you have noticed this or not, but Christians, churches and denominations disagree about a whole host of things; things such as sharing. In other words Christians now and in the past, have disagreed about how to share, how much to share, and even if to share. What I have discovered is that there is a spectrum of sharing on which all churches and believers find themselves. To help us get at the heart of what it means to share lavishly, I want to begin by describing the spectrum. On the one end we have what I call “Just Jesus” Christians. These Christians believe that the only thing we ought to share is the good news about Jesus. We are not to share anything else, including money, food or shelter, because we will either be making people dependent on our help or we will interfere with the lesson God is trying to teach them; meaning if someone’s life has come apart it is because God is trying to teach them something. The other end of the spectrum is that we are to share everything. The perfect example of this is the Bruderhof communities. These communities are modern day Christian communal associations in which people share everything; childcare, work, homes, schooling and incomes. No one owns anything. Those then are the ends of the spectrum ... share just Jesus or share everything.
The questions these extremes present to us are: where ought we to be on this spectrum? What does it mean for us to share and share lavishly? Fortunately for us, Paul, in our passage from Romans gives us some insight into answering these questions. But for us to truly understand the radical and multifaceted nature of sharing that Paul puts forward, we need to take a moment to understand the context of his comments, which means gaining a better understanding of the Roman Empire. I want us to begin by imagining a pyramid. At the very top of the pyramid is the Emperor. Just below him are his family and close advisors. Below them are the ruling class including the Roman Senate. Below them are the generals, then the wealthy, then workers, then foreigners, then the slaves at the very bottom. In this pyramid all power flows from top to bottom. Those on the top are to be worshipped and those on the bottom are to be ignored, oppressed or killed. While there may have been some movement between these levels, Roman society was clear. The upper classes were everything and the lower classes were nothing. And woe to anyone at the top who treated those on the bottom as equals and those on the bottom who presumed they were equal to those on top. Got the image? Ok, so here we go.
We are to share respect. Paul writes, “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor (vs10) ... Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”(vs. 16) I hope that you will understand just how radical this sharing was. In a society in which lower classes were understood to be less than human, where the upper classes were to be worshipped and deified, where contempt was shown by each class to those below them, Paul says that we are to share respect. We are to treat each human being as an amazing creation of God; a child of God. This mattered because the Roman church was one with both slaves and members of Caesar’s household, with both Jews and Gentiles, with both citizens and non-citizens. It was a divided humanity, from which God was making one new people ... and if they were to be one new people, then they needed to share respect. What Paul was telling them to do was to flatten the pyramid. This is our charge as well. We are to share respect with all persons regardless of race, rank or religion. We are to share respect with all those whom we serve and who serve us. We are to flatten the pyramid by lavishly sharing respect.
We are to share resources. Paul writes, “Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers (vs. 13) ... if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” (vs. 20) In these few words Paul not only moves us away from the “Just Jesus” end of the sharing spectrum, but he moves the Roman church away from its moorings in Roman culture. I say this because in Roman culture, taking care of the needs of others was socially unacceptable. If the poor died, they died. If someone found themselves in need, they could sell themselves into slavery. Enemies were to be abused and perhaps executed. Paul instructs the Roman Christians to do the opposite. They were to share what they had with friends, strangers and enemies. They were to do so because, it was what the scriptures call on them to do. It was what Deuteronomy commanded, “If there is anyone among you in need ... do not be tight fisted, but open your hand ... ” Oh, and just a side-note, heaping burning coals on someone’s head was perhaps the most important type of sharing. It was sharing live coals from one’s own fire with someone whose fire had gone out; who could no longer warm themselves or cook their meals. The reference to the head was that the coals were carried in a heavy blanket on the head as they were transported. Paul said that the church was to flatten the pyramid so that the resources of the Empire flowed to all. This is what we are called to do as well. We are called to share our resources, time, talent and treasure, with those who find themselves in a tight spot. We are not to be “Just Jesus” people. We are to flatten the pyramid by lavishly sharing our resources.
We are to share relationships. Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another (vs. 15-16); If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (vs. 18)” The Apostle is asking of the Roman Christians what would have seemed almost impossible; for a socially, culturally and economically disparate community to live as one body, one family sharing in one another’s lives. But for Paul this makes sense of his understanding, which just precedes this section, that the church and the world are not pyramids but living organisms. And if we are a single living organism we will laugh and cry together. Let me ask, how many of you have laughed such that your entire body shook? Or cried such that your whole body cried. Here Paul is not just flattening the pyramid, he is changing its nature into a living being. From my perspective this is the most difficult of the three ways of sharing lavishly for us to accomplish. It is the most difficult because we live in different neighborhoods, work for different companies in different locations, have circles of friends outside of the church and so do not have the connections that say, a Bruderhof community has. Perhaps then the way to understand this sharing is to see ourselves as part not only of this community, but the entire human community. That we are to rejoice or weep with all, whether it is to weep and be concerned for those nations in which the corona virus is spreading or celebrate with the Kansas City Chiefs for their Super Bowl victory. We are to flatten and transform the pyramid by lavishly sharing relationships.
Where does this leave us on the spectrum of sharing? It leaves us in the middle, which is where Presbyterians often end up. And we are in the middle not because we can’t decide what sharing lavishly means, but because on the one hand we know that we cannot be “Just Jesus” people. We are to share our resources with those in need. On the other hand, we know we don’t need to be part of Bruderhof-like communities, so long as we share relationships both in our churches and in the world. The challenge for each of us then is to ask ourselves, how am I lavishly sharing my respect, my resources and my relationships in such a way that the pyramid in our time and place might be flattened and transformed into a single, loving community of God’s people?
February 2, 2020
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
Deuteronomy 26:6-9; Ephesians 3:14-21
“Hey John, are you going to share?” It was a question I had become used to at the ripe old age of ten. It was asked of me on a regular basis in the lunch room at my elementary school. My friends and I would sit at the same table, unpack our lunches and they would quickly glance to see what came out of my lunch-box … yes, I had a lunch box … got a new one every year … then if they saw them … if they saw my mother’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, they would all ask, “Hey John, are you going to share?” I knew what my answer should be. After all, I went to church and Sunday school every Sunday. I learned about sharing with my brothers. I knew what a good Christian would do and so my answer was always, “No I am not going to share.” I say this because I knew what they meant when they used the word share. They meant give my mother’s cookies away. And I knew the instant I gave in and gave one cookie to one friend, then I would have to give a cookie to every friend, and then, eventually, there would be none left for me. Sharing meant giving away … and I was not up to giving away the most precious thing in my lunch.
I must admit until I began working on this sermon about sharing lavishly that I had never thought much about the multitude of ways we use the word share or sharing. Sharing can mean giving things away, like my cookies. Sharing can mean two children taking turns playing with the same toy. Sharing can mean two people spending time together. Sharing can mean loaning a tool or car with the expectation of it being returned. Sharing can mean multiple people using the same car-share service. All those ways of using the word share made me wonder then, what does that really mean when we talk about God sharing lavishly? Which of these ways of using the word explains how God shares? I suppose the most obvious way is one we have talked about before, and that is that God gives us stuff. That God shares with us creation and community. If this sounds familiar, it should be because I talked about it in my opening sermon on how we know God loves the world, that God shares with us, gives us, this amazing planet and amazing communities of care. We can see this if we were to continue reading the Deuteronomy passage that Peter read this morning about the land flowing with milk and honey. If we had continued, we would have read that the people were to regularly give God thanks, for what God has given them. In other words, God gave God’s people stuff … land and all that it contains to help the people prosper. In some ways this use of the word sharing is perhaps most familiar to us, when we give God thanks for our meals, our families, friends, nation and all the other stuff we have been given. God shares by giving. Yet, what I want to offer you this morning, is that there is another critical and often missed way God shares … and that is that God shares God’s presence and power with us, meaning God shares God’s very self with us.
Let me explain. When God shares creation and community with us, God does not simply give us stuff and say, enjoy it, and then check back in with me when you have an issue. God goes before us, behind us, and inside of us. God literally shares God’s presence and power with us. This understanding of how God shares lavishly is at the heart of the Biblical story. To see a great example of this all we need to do is get in our Way-Way Back Biblical Time Machine and return to the time just before the people of God entered the Land of Promise. What we would have seen was a people, seemingly wandering in the wilderness for forty years. Yet, they were not wandering aimlessly. God’s presence was with them. The scriptures tell us that God regularly checked in with Moses in the Tent of Meeting; that Moses would go into the tent and have conversations with God which would help Moses lead the people. God also led the people with fire by night and a cloud by day … not sure how that worked, but God was there. God gave the people the Law. God was present. At the same time, God’s power was there as God protected the people from more powerful enemies, poisonous serpents, hunger, thirst, and even poorly made clothing … ask me later. God shared lavishly with the people by sharing God’s presence and power.
This lavish sharing is also at the heart of the New Testament and it is at the heart of Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus. The portion of that letter we read this morning is Paul’s prayer that the people will continue to experience God’s lavish sharing by experiencing God’s presence and God’s power. Listen again for Paul’s prayer for God’s presence. He prays that “… Christ may dwell (meaning to pitch his tent) in your hearts through faith …” and that God’s people would be “… filled with the fullness of God …” meaning that the cup would overflow with God’s presence. I want us to think about this for a moment. As I said, the image is that God pitches God’s tent within us. This is one of Paul’s ongoing images taken from the Hebrew scriptures, that just as God met with Moses in the tent, or the people in the Temple, God now meets with us, because we are the new tent of meeting. We are the new Temple. The reason Paul prays for this presence is so that the Ephesians might experience God’s power. “I pray that according to the riches of God’s glory, that God may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit.” And, “I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth … of the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge.” Paul prays that the Ephesians will experience God’s presence and power in order that they know their value and worth as beloved children of God.
The gift we have been given as children of God is that God continues to share with us not only creation and community, but also God’s own presence and power. God lavishly shares these things with us not only to sustain us, but to constantly remind us of our infinite value as those made in God’s own image; to remind us that we are enfolded in a love that cannot be measured. And this morning we are given a gift of experiencing God’s lavish sharing at this table. Before us is bread and cup … creation given to us. Around us is community … the people of God. At the table we have Christ present as our host. In the eating and drinking we find God’s power to know the love we have been given. I hope this morning then that you will allow yourself to be, as Paul puts it, empowered to know the breadth, length, height and depth of God’s love for you in Jesus Christ.