Elizabeth Ngare, Seminary Intern
2 Kings 2:9-14; Luke 9:28-36
He dropped it. He dropped the baton, and the race was as good as over.
Those who love track-and-field events will remember the US men’s Olympic relay team failed to advance in the 4 x100 relay at the Tokyo Games in 2020. This was despite being considered the best track relay team in the world. A relay involves teamwork and careful coordination. What went wrong? Could their passing system be wrong? Was it a lack of leadership? No, it was the simplest thing…two runners failed to connect and pass the baton. The team ended up in sixth place and that left them out of the final. The failure of the team was that they dropped the baton.
Elijah passing the baton to Elisha
Passing the baton is nothing new. Our first testament lesson is about Elijah and Elisha and it tells us about the power of passing the baton. Elijah knew his ministry was coming to an end and it was time to hand the baton to the next person. God knew the baton needed to be passed on as well so he chose Elisha to receive it. Passing the baton began with Elijah anointing Elisha. Passing the baton continued when Elijah took Elisha under his wing as his student and taught him what it takes to be a good prophet. Elisha was keen and attentive. He would not leave Elijah’s side because he wanted to learn everything. Elisha was determined to follow in his master’s footsteps. He was persistent. “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elisha said. “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit. You have asked a hard thing.” This is because it was not a job for the fainthearted. The prophets said exactly what God told them to say - no sugar coating, tell it as it is. It was a tough life. Elijah’s answer was assuring, “If you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” And so, Elisha was there when Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. In that moment the baton was passed.
From Elijah and Moses to Jesus
Though it may seem strange, the baton even had to be passed on to Jesus. This is the idea at the heart of our New Testament lesson. When Jesus went up the mountain to pray and he took Peter, John, and James with him, it was not simply to experience God’s glory. It was to have the disciples see the passing of the baton. The disciples saw Moses, the law giver, and Elijah, one of the greatest prophets, appear and talk to Jesus. The disciples then heard the voice of God specifically saying this is my son, the chosen one. Listen to him. Jesus has the baton! The disciples witnessed the baton being passed to Jesus. It was an affirmation he was now the right one, the son of God. It was a reminder that the Law and Prophets had been fulfilled. Then it was time for the disciples to leave the glory of that moment behind and follow Jesus more closely, so that when he was ready to pass the baton, they would be ready to take it.
Jesus to his disciples/disciples to us
The baton was passed from Moses, the law giver, to Elijah, the greatest of prophets, to Jesus. Jesus passed the baton to his disciples some 2000 years ago. And now we have received the baton; we are in the race. And every week when we come here, we learn how to run the race. We learn that as his disciples we must be attentive to his word through his teachings. We must be doers of His word. We need to allow God’s values to direct our words, deeds, and lives. We should see everything we do in the light of Christ. At Everybody’s Church, running the race is being done in a big way. You take care of others because you have taken care of each other first. There is Bible study, Sunday school, mission locally and internationally, Deacon ministry, Stephen Ministry, praying for the concerns of the church family and community and more. And as we follow the instructions, we remember that God will protect, provide, and strengthen us. Though running the race is not easy, we practice it. But what about passing the baton?
In Kenya when Christians would meet, the standard greeting consisted of saying Bwana asifewe in Kiswahili. Translated this means Praise the Lord. And they would take the time to praise God and witness of God’s goodness, sharing with each other what God has done for them.
We may not do that here in the United States and it is not easy for many of us to share our faith. There are several ways one can pass the baton, something as simple as talking about an answered prayer. Promising to pray for someone. Giving words of encouragement. Lending a listening ear. Being gracious and loving. By being courteous and thoughtful. People will be attracted to you and will want to be like you.
Challenge: Since we now have the baton, maybe we need to ask ourselves how we are passing the baton in our own lives.
Do me a favor! Please don’t drop the baton!!!
Our Lord and our God, give us the courage to tell others about your goodness. Help us to keep running the race and passing the baton without dropping it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 20, 2022
Nehemiah 8:13-18; Luke 6:27-38
I decided I wanted to get my bike back so that I could go riding with my daughter, Katie. I didn’t have my bike because I had loaned it to Dathan, a friend of mine, who had been coming to our church. He needed the bike because he had had a run in with the law and had his driver’s license suspended. Since I was not using my bike regularly, I thought it would be a nice thing to let him have it for a while. But then, Dathan quit coming around. He was not showing up to church. He was not returning my phone calls. My next move was to go to the apartment he was renting and get the bike back. I knocked a couple of times and Dathan came to the door. “Hey Doc,” he said, “It’s been a while.” “Yep,” I said, “Just came to get my bike back.” “Oh, I forgot to tell you. I pawned your bike to buy drugs. And I think the time has run out for you to get it back from the shop. Sorry about that.” I have to say, knowing Dathan as I did, it should not have surprised me that he pawned my bike for drugs, but what I realized on the way home was that giving could be costly.
I wonder this morning, how many of you have ever found yourself in a similar situation…not meaning that you loaned someone a bike and they sold it for drugs, but that your giving cost you? Maybe it cost you financially, or emotionally, or perhaps even physically. That you gave and you lost…lost something that you might not ever get back. What I think these incidents tend to do is to make us wary and rather than simply give, we verify. We make sure the people are who they say they are, have the needs they express, and only then, give. This is what we do with the Deacons’ Fund here at First Presbyterian. When someone asks for rent assistance, we check with the landlord. When someone needs utility help, we check with their utility provider. When someone needs gas, we give gas cards. We do so because over the years we have discovered, and I know this will surprise you, that there are people who will lie to us, hoping that we will simply hand over a handful of cash. In a sense, we work on a system of trust, but verify. But what if…what if…trust and verify is not the way of Jesus?
I ask that question because in Jesus’ sermon on the plain, notice not a sermon on the mount but a sermon on the plain, Jesus implies that we are to engage in radical risk, meaning that we are to give everything away without either expecting anything in return or worrying about what the person does with what we give. And giving in this part of Jesus’ sermon is not just about giving things, but includes giving of ourselves. Listen again. “Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again…If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” Jesus seems to be saying that we to be costly givers. We are to simply give away, without expecting anything, including thanks, from those to whom we give it. This hardly seems like sound advice, so why would Jesus give it?
The answer can be found in the second half of verse 35 into verse 36, “Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” In other words, Jesus offers this advice because this is the way God interacts with humanity. God is a costly giver. Consider how God engages with the world. God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. God offers protection not just to the good but sometimes to the not so good. God’s plan from the beginning of time was not just to save certain perfect people into heaven, but to restore all of creation. God’s work in Jesus Christ was done because God so loved the world, and not just the best of the world. God called a man named Saul to come and work for him, even though Saul was guilty of murder. And when God calls and gives in these ways God never demands that everyone toe the line and offer perfect obedience. Granted, God would love perfect obedience and appreciation, not because God has a fragile ego, but because to offer perfect obedience and gratitude would create a world in which all persons thrived, and creation was restored. No, every day God is a costly giver, again and again and again. Knowing this, what then ought to be our response to this costly giving of God?
My response is that we are called to a costly gratitude and costly attitude. We are called to be those who engage in costly gratitude. We can see this kind of gratitude in the folks in Nehemiah as they celebrated the Festival of the Booths. The Festival of the Booths is a harvest festival. The Jewish people would, and still do, celebrate this festival by going out into the fields, building small shelters, and giving thanks to God for the harvest that had been given to them. What made this first festival so meaningful was that the people understood that God had given them an amazing harvest even though they had forgotten about God. That God had loved them and supported them even though they had not been obedient to God’s Torah. That God had shown them costly love. Their response in this festival was to stop working…remember it is harvest…and spend time worshipping God. This meant they ceased harvesting, storing, or selling their grain. This was costly gratitude.
The second way we are called to respond is with a costly attitude. This is an attitude of living loosely and lovingly with what we have been given by God. This attitude is based on the belief that all we have is from our creator and is simply on loan to us. Therefore, our attitude ought to be one of a willingness to offer who we are and what we have without counting the cost; to see them as investments God has made in us that are intended to bear returns in others. Let me be clear here, though. I am not saying to give everything you have to every scammer who comes along. I am also not saying that you should allow anyone to abuse you, whether it is emotionally or financially. What I am saying is that if we live with a radical attitude of sharing, the results might not be loss, but gain. Jesus puts it this way, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed own, shaken together, running over, will be put in your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” For you see, God never ceases being generous to us. God never forgets us.
What happened to Dathan? I lost touch with him for a long period of time. Then one day, out of the blue he called from North Carolina. He told me that he and his wife had both gotten clean and had good jobs. Their son was doing well, and they had found a church. Then he told me how grateful he was that the church and I had been so kind and supportive of them, even when they had not always deserved it. That phone call made losing the bike worth it.
My challenge to you this week is to ask yourselves, how am I showing costly gratitude toward God and offering a costly attitude in living loosely with all that I have been given.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 13, 2022
Nehemiah 8:1-12; Luke 6:17-26
It is currently one of my favorite commercials. The commercial opens with a large group of children gathered in a backyard for birthday party. All the children have on birthday hats. There are balloons. There are adoring parents. It is obvious who the birthday girl is, and before her is a table festooned with presents. A voice asks, which present will you open first? The little girl screams, “That one!” pointing off screen. All the children scream with her and the camera pans to a pony all wrapped up in birthday wrapping paper. The children then all run to the pony to unwrap it. This is one of those “duh” kind of questions, as to which present would be opened first. And it is the same kind of question that the church has been asking itself for the last two hundred years about which set of Beatitudes we would like to open first; the ones in Matthew or the ones here is Luke. And the “duh” answer is, of course Matthew.
I am not sure when I came to know that there was even a set of beatitudes in Luke. Probably in seminary. I certainly didn’t as a child. All I knew was that for my communicant’s class, what we now call confirmation, I had to memorize the beatitudes. What that meant was the beatitudes in Matthew. I’m not sure I ever heard a sermon series or read a book about Luke’s beatitudes…though there have been many given and written. And I am sure that the reason for this is that Matthew’s beatitudes are safe, they are cozy, they are uplifting. They don’t have any woes. They don’t have any, “Woe to you who are rich, or woe to you who are full, or woe to you who are laughing, or woe to you when people speak kindly about you.” Matthew doesn’t have any of that disturbing language. However, my friends, we are on the road with Luke and not Matthew, so the question is what do we do with these beatitudes of woes? How do we understand what they are trying to tell us? The answer, fortunately, can be found in our story from Nehemiah.
I would guess that most of us here this morning, in person or online, have never read Ezra and Nehemiah. But again, those two books tell the story of the people of God returning from exile in Babylon and rebuilding their lives, the city of Jerusalem, and the Temple for YHWH, all of which had been destroyed about fifty years before. One of the things we need to know is that not all the Jews were taken into captivity. The Babylonians needed people to stay behind to till the land, raise the livestock, and pay taxes. Empty land does no one any good. The Jews who were left behind were not allowed to worship YHWH and were surrounded by the cults of other deities. They had memories of YHWH, but not much more. The scene we have before us this morning is the moment when those who had been left behind received the Torah; meaning they heard the Torah read in Hebrew and then had it translated and explained in Aramaic, their language. The response was dramatic. The people wept for joy and celebrated. And it is the reasons for these responses that will shed light on understanding Luke’s beatitudes. So why the responses?
The answer is twofold. First the Torah reminded the people that their God had not forgotten them. That even though they had forgotten God over the 50 years, God had not forgotten them and had returned bringing God’s Torah to the people; the Torah which would order and guide their lives. This is why they wept, for forgetting and for being remembered. Second, they went and shared with their neighbors because that was the kind of community that Torah was creating; a community in which every person mattered. Rather than being the kind of society created by the Babylonians in which there were a few powerful and wealthy people, and everyone else was poor and oppressed, the Torah offered a vision for a society in which everyone had enough. A society in which everyone shared their resources. A society in which, while resources were not equally divided, no one went hungry or homeless. Little wonder then that the people wept for joy and celebrated. And it is these two reasons that are reflected in Jesus' Lukan beatitudes.
The first table of blessings are a reminder that God has not forgotten the people. The folks whom Jesus is addressing in Galilee are probably people living on the margins. They are shepherds, or farmers, or day laborers, or small shop keepers. They lived under heavy Roman taxation and were looked down upon by Jews living in Jerusalem and Judea. Their lands were slowly being confiscated by larger landowners and their produce was being shipped to Rome to feed their overlords. And so, when Jesus tells them that they are blessed, meaning beloved by God when they are poor, hungry, weeping and hated, these folks are excited…as excited as those who first heard the Torah read and explained. Jesus’ words meant that God had not forgotten them. God had not abandoned them. God was still present loving them. They felt as if the story of the Law and prophets was their story; was God’s story. So, what then about the woes?
The woes are warnings and reminders to those who have grown rich, full, comfortable, and complacent. They are warnings to them because the community Torah is intended to create is not one with a few comfortable people and many poor people, but one in which everyone has enough. Jesus understood that one of the interesting parts of human nature is that when people rise to the top of the heap in society, they stop sharing. People who rise to the top of the heap believe that they have done so because God has ordained it so, or because God loves them best, or because they are better than everyone else, or because they work harder than anyone else, and so deserve to be at the top of the heap and keep what they have. There is no need to share. This is simply human nature. The woes are Jesus’ way of warning against this attitude. They are a reminder that God’s people are called to ensure that all have enough because all of this is God’s. They are reminded never to forget those in the first half of the Beatitudes. They are reminded that God desires a society in which there aren’t hungry, homeless, forgotten, or unloved people. The woes are a warning because they remind all of us who are comfortable, that we are to work for a world that resembles heaven on earth.
If the woes make you shift a bit in your seat, or make you slightly discomforted, know that they were intended to do so. They were to be a reminder of our obligation to share what we possess and to help create a world that looks like God’s kingdom. My challenge to you then is this, to ask yourselves, how am I feeling both blessed by God’s love for me and challenged to not forget my obligations to the world, as one who has been blessed?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 6, 2022
Ezra 5:1-2; Luke 5:1-11
It was the table of misfit boys. That is how I have come to think about my lunch table in high school. I don’t know about you, but in my high school cafeteria, there were territories staked out by various groups of students. There was the jock section where all the athletes sat. There was the Belle’s section where the drum and bugle core members sat. There was the cheerleader section, and the academically gifted section. The Jesus kids sat outside in the shade of a hallway, which was possible most of the year because this was Houston after all. The stoners sat out by a baseball backstop. The auto shop guys ate in the shop. The smokers ate in the smoking area…yes, there was a smoking area. Then there was the table of misfit boys. This was a table off by itself…not sure how or why it was there…but my friends and I claimed it. Though some of us were jocks, or auto shop, or some Jesus people…not me by the way…none of us really fit in. So, we ate, laughed, played Oreo hockey and built relationships across the high school divide. For some reason the cafeteria people didn’t like our wayward table and so they removed it. We just found chairs and sat where it had been until they returned it. I have been thinking about that table of misfit boys a lot this week because it seems as if that is what Jesus was trying to create in the calling of his disciples.
I say that Jesus was creating a table of misfit boys…and yes there were female disciples who were essential to Jesus’ mission…but as the narrative is often told there were twelve guys that Jesus called to be his disciples. And any way you slice it, they were a bunch of misfits. You have Peter who though he says he gets it, about who Jesus is, but he never really does. You have others who are enemy tax-collectors. You have others who are known as the Sons of Thunder because evidently, they had horrible tempers. You had one who was greedy and stealing from the company’s stash of cash…and who would ultimately betray Jesus. You had others who were fishermen with no formal religious training who did not really fit into Jerusalem society. And speaking of Jerusalem society, all these men were from Galilee, which meant they had accents and were seen as uneducated, rebellious rubes. And as we all know, all of those at the table of misfit boys would run away and hide when Jesus was arrested…though not the women. So why in the world would Jesus call these people? Surely there was a first century disciple recruiter that would screen applicants. But know these were the ones Jesus chose.
Why? I believe he was calling them because he was creating a community of misfit companions. I offer you three brief reasons as to why Jesus called these men and women. First, Jesus had come to create a community that was to be the provisional demonstration of the Kingdom of God on earth. I understand that for many of us, we have been taught that Jesus came to build a stairway to heaven. That earth is merely a testing and training ground to see if we get beamed up after our lives are over. Those understandings, my friends, are not Biblical. They are the invention of an after-life focused Christianity. This book (the Bible) tells us that God cares as much, if not more about earth than heaven. This physical world is God’s amazing creation and God’s plan is to redeem it and everyone in it. And to accomplish this redemption, God’s plan is to create a community through whom this restoration can happen.
Second, Jesus is creating a community of misfits. I understand that some of you may find this label to be a bit insulting. Few of us want to be seen as misfits. But consider the word. It means to not fit in, or to not be a fit for something. What Jesus was creating was a community of persons that did not fit comfortably into the surrounding culture. This is what the Apostle Paul meant when he told people not to leave the culture, but not to be molded into its shape. This community of misfits are to be those persons shaped by the Spirit; shaped to love rather than hate, to forgive rather than get even, to welcome rather than exclude, to accept rather than reject, to show compassion rather than indifference, to speak the truth rather than hide behind lies, and to share what they have rather than simply spend on self. In other words, we are not to fit comfortably into a culture that does not value every human being as a unique creation of God and treat them as such.
Third, this community needed to be a community of companions. There are plenty of times large groups gather: rock concerts, political rallies, and the like. And while the people at these events may see themselves as a community because they share similar tastes in music or politics, they are not the kind of community Jesus is creating. Jesus is creating a community in which people know one another, pray for one another, share with one another, and care for and about one another. They are to be a people who eat, laugh, love, study, and share their lives together. This is what companions are. They are those on whom we can depend when things get difficult. They are those who will accept us as we are and help us become more than we are. They are those who will love us regardless. This is what companions are.
To be perfectly honest I would not have made it through high school without my table of misfit boys. They carried me through broken relationships, academic struggles, taught me how to rebuild engines, welcomed me when I quit the football team, and put up with and supported me in my times of depression and anger. They were a community of companions that I believe God called me into. So, what I want to say this morning is this: we are a community of companions called by Jesus Christ. All of you here, all of you watching at home, all of you watching this later, you are part of us, and we are part of you. We are here to listen to you, to pray for you, to encourage you, and to care about you. Will we do these things perfectly? No. But we will try because we are part of Jesus’ table of misfit people.
My challenge to you for this week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I being a companion to someone else, in the name of Jesus who has called me to be his own?