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?
The Mighty Acts of God: Justice
Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 17, 2017
Exodus 2:11-22, Matthew 18:21-22
It was overwhelming. More than fifty inches of rain had fallen. Streets, homes were filled with water and bayous were overflowing. Across Houston men, women and children were trapped. Many of their lives were in danger not only because of the water that inundated their homes, but because they needed dialysis, or insulin or lifesaving medical procedures. Into this disaster stepped hundreds of Houstonians including Jose Contreras who worked six straight days as a paramedic rescuing the trapped. Into this disaster stepped Karla Perez and Oscar Hernandez who set up phone hotlines and dispatched volunteers with trucks to help people in flooded areas. Into this disaster stepped Sisters Karen and Paola Ramirez who made food for their stranded neighbors and ripped up rotting floorboards, then went to the George R. Brown Convention Center to help elderly people move their belongings. They are like so many Houstonians who helped, but with one difference. They are all dreamers, brought to this country illegally when they were children. They were able to come out of the shadows and become productive members of Houston society because of D.A.C.A., the Differed Action for Childhood Arrivals Program. But now with the end of D.A.C.A. six months away, I believe we ought to ask ourselves what would be the just thing for this nation to do for these heroes and the other 800,000 dreamers who are here?
I ask the question in that way, what would the just thing be because justice is a word that people on both sides of the issue have been throwing around in their comments on how these Dreamers are to be dealt with. On the one side are those who want to expel these children turned adults from our country. The proponents of this action use justice in this way. Justice means obeying and enforcing laws that Congress makes and since they have not authorized this program, then justice means deporting all of the Dreamers. On the other side are those who believe that the Dreamers did not choose to come here, contribute to our nation, and ought to be treated with compassion and welcomed in. Two very different views of justice. And so this morning I am not going to choose one side of this debate or the other because it is a complex and multifaceted issue. What I will do however is help us to understand what justice in the Biblical sense is all about.
I say this because justice is one of the key virtues of the God-following community. It is used more than 170 times in the Old and New Testaments. It is in fact considered to be an attribute of God, that God is just, and so is to be one of our attributes as well. The question again is, what does it mean and how ought it to be applied? Fortunately for us this morning we have a story in which three different aspects of justice are presented to us. In our Moses story we have three vignettes, each of which offers us a different, yet connected image of justice. I say this because Moses will become the great lawgiver, the one who shows the Hebrew people what justice looks like…and the justice in these three vignettes will become the basis for much of God’s law. So we will walk through them, allowing them to help us gain some insight into this Biblical understanding of justice. And as an aside, chances are I will irritate almost everyone in here with one of these vignettes, so let’s begin…
Our first vignette: On the surface this story hardly seems to depict justice. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. Looking around and seeing no one, Moses kills the Egyptian. There you go, first degree murder, hardly justice. In order to find the justice here, we need to dig a little deeper however. Where we find the justice is in the Hebrew word beating, which does not describe a spanking or even a severe thrashing, but describes beating someone to death. What Moses was witnessing was a powerful Egyptian overseer killing a powerless slave. Justice in that moment became taking one life to preserve the life of another. This is not the only justice we see in the Apostle Paul’s statement that the government has the right to use the sword to defend itself and its people against those who would take life, but it is also the justice behind the Just War Theory. To flip this around, it would be unjust to let the powerful take the lives of the innocent when such an act could be prevented.
Our second vignette: Again, this story hardly seems like a justice story. Moses is once again hanging out and sees two Hebrews fighting amongst themselves. Moses evidently knows the reason for their fight and addresses the one who is in the wrong asking, “Why are you hitting your brother?” The response is not what he is looking for. The Hebrew who was in the wrong refuses to allow Moses to be the judge (how ironic) and then threatens to expose Moses to the authorities for his murder of the Egyptian. So where is the justice here? Justice is in attempting to reconcile the two men by having the one at fault acknowledge his sin, thus allowing for restoration of the relationship. In a sense justice is bringing the truth to light and in so doing restoring relationships. The Apostle Paul in fact tells the church at Corinth that it has been called to the ministry of reconciliation. And if you want to know more about what that looks like, check out pastor Joanne’s sermon from last week.
Our third Vignette: Of the three, this is the story that probably looks more like the way the word justice is normally used. Moses has fled into the wilderness and comes upon a group of male shepherds who had driven the seven daughters of a priest of Midian away from the well and its water, to which the daughters had rightful claim. The image here is of the daughters and their sheep dying of thirst. Moses however comes to their rescue, driving off the other shepherds. Sort of like an Egyptian-Hebrew Superman. Justice here is not only insuring that all people have access to the water, but that one’s right to life is maintained. And, by the way, notice, that Moses doesn’t kill these men, but simply drives them off. Justice was brought about without the loss of life, which is only to be used in extreme circumstances.
What then is Biblical justice? I believe we can sum it up with the words I used in my last sermon; life and blessing. Justice is the effort to ensure that all human beings have access to life and blessing. If this sounds familiar, all we have to do is look to our nation’s Declaration of Independence where it is noted that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Justice is therefore neither rigid legalism nor unthinking compassion. It is the intentional work of people to insure that all human beings have access to life in its fullness and blessing such that they can experience the wholeness of the lives they have been given.
At the beginning of this sermon I told you that I would not be choosing one side or the other in the DACA debate because the issue of immigration is so complex. I will also not be taking sides because justice has not only to do with immigration but with what happens to foster children. It has to do with education. It has to do with access to clean water. It has to do with access to affordable housing. It has to do with adequate transportation. Justice is a Biblical mandate…that we do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. My challenge to you for this week then is this, to choose one issue our society faces and bring justice to bear upon it. To ask how are the people affected by this issue experiencing the fullness of life and the blessings of God; then do something about it as God’s people of justice.
The Mighty Acts of God: God Prepares
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?
September 3, 2017
Rev. Dr. John Judson
Print VersionExodus 1:1-22; Matthew 16:21-28
It was an epic mismatch. And I don’t mean a Mayweather vs. McGregor mismatch, or a coyote vs. road runner mismatch. I mean an epic mismatch. In the blue trunks was Pharaoh, king of Egypt and by his own admission, a god. He ruled one of the greatest kingdoms of the age. He had one of the greatest armies of the time. He had the power to cower his own people. He was the Lord of all that he could see. In the other corner were two Hebrew midwives. They had no kingdom. They had no army. They had no power, even within their own community. They were just women. The battle was not a boxing match but a contest over life and death. Pharaoh had ordered the women to kill all the male babies born. He ordered them to be practitioners of death and not life. He ordered them to do so because he and his people were afraid of the Hebrews. The midwives refused to do so because they believed in a God of life and blessing. The result? The women won. They out foxed Pharaoh. They out maneuvered Pharaoh. The women won, God’s people survived and thrived.
It was an epic mismatch. In the blue corner was Caesar, the ruler of one of the greatest empires of all time and by the admission of many of his subjects, a god. He had one of the greatest armies the world had ever known. He conquered. He ruled. His face was on statues, coins and monuments. He conquered, killed and often crucified any who opposed him. He was the one to whom all were to bow down. In the other corner was a small-town Jewish rabbi, with a handful of followers. He would never travel far and wide. He would not conquer any territory. He would heal, teach and preach. He would speak of a different kingdom; the kingdom of God. This kingdom was not one of brutality, but of love, forgiveness and grace. Once again, it was death versus life, and life won. Though this rabbi Jesus would be crucified, his life would not end. And today there is no Roman Empire. Its remains nothing more than a tourist attraction. But the followers of this Jesus’ rabbi number more than a billion. Jesus won, and God’s people survived and thrived.
These are perhaps two of the greatest mismatches in history. Two fights we probably ought not to have even heard about because Pharaoh and Caesar should have crushed the women and Jesus. Yet not only do we hear about them but those two matches changed the course of history. So how was it that two women and one rabbi could defeat two of the most powerful leaders and empires on earth? The answer is that in their corner was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In their corner was the God of life and blessing. In their corner was the God who has been and continues to be working to bless all the nations and the peoples of the earth. In their corner was the God who refused to let death win. This story and the others we will be looking at between now and Advent, are stories of the mighty acts of God. They are stories that will remind us that God is not distant and removed from this world but is active in the midst of all that is happening. But these stories will also remind us of something else…that God’s people can only win when someone is willing to get in the ring.
What I mean by this is that the Hebrew people would not have been saved had not Shiphrah and Puah chosen to be in awe of God and choose life over death. They had to be willing to risk everything, including their lives in order that they save the lives of the male children and thus their community. Jesus and his followers had to be willing to lose their lives in order to save them. They had to be willing to risk everything to proclaim and live in an alternate kingdom in which all were welcomed. They had to get in the ring and take on the powers and principalities that pushed death rather than life, whether those powers were human beings or acts of nature. And there are many who followed them. There were the Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin who risked everything to reform the church in defiance of the Holy Roman Empire so that people did not have to live in fear of hell or the church. There were people such as Fredrick Douglas and Sojourner Truth who fought for the cause of abolition, believing that all human beings should experience life and blessing. There were women such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who believed all women should enjoy life and blessing. There were people such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Caesar Chavez who resisted the nation’s laws which demeaned people of color. There were people like Harvey Milk and Barbara Gittings who believed all people regardless of their sexual orientation should be able to experience life and blessing. There were people like Lois Poston, yes our Lois Poston, who believed that there should be low income housing here in Birmingham.
My friends none of these people were superheroes. They were ordinary men and women who believed in a God of life and blessing and then got into the ring in order to be agents of God’s mighty acts. My challenge to you then on this Labor Day weekend is this, to ask yourselves, how have I gotten into the ring to bring life and blessing to the world around me?