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.
The Mighty Acts of God: Saying Thanks
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.
The Mighty Acts of God: Let’s Party
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?
The Mighty Acts of God: God Plans
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?
The Mighty Acts of God: Who me? No us."
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 1, 2017
It was one of those creepy moments you never forget. I was a senior in college and I had gone out to visit a friend of mine and her husband who lived in Salt Lake City. As a good Mormon she wanted me to visit the Temple Visitor Center. I was part of a group of about twenty or thirty people and we had a wonderful guide. She took us through the center and gave us a great look at Mormon history and beliefs. As we were finishing and the crowd was breaking up, the guide walked over to me, stuck her finger in my chest and said, “God has something special for you to do.” Then she walked away. My first inner response was, “Who me?” And it was, who me, because not only were God and I not in regular communication but I barely believed in God at all. So why would this God have something special for me to do?
I have occasionally wondered if this is the way that Moses must have felt on the day he encountered God at the physics defying burning bush. Most of us probably know the story but let’s just do a quick recap. Moses is hanging out with his sheep. As per usual, nothing much is happening. Suddenly he sees a bush that is on fire but is not being consumed. Thinking that this is an interesting sight, he saunters over to check it out. As he does, a voice speaks to him and calls his name. The voice warns Moses that he is only holy ground and so he ought to take off his shoes. The voice goes on to tell Moses that the speaker is none other than the God of his ancestors. This is enough to frighten Moses. But where it seems to get a bit creepy for him is when this God, whom Moses did not know, essentially says, “I have something special for you to do. I want you to go and set my people free.” This statement is enough to get Moses to respond as I did. Who me? Are you talking to me?
This response from Moses makes more sense than most of us might imagine. If you look at his resume he hardly seems like the right guy for the job. Sure, he is all about justice as we discussed two weeks ago. But he is a wanted man in Egypt. He has no followers. He has no power. He has a family. He has a good job and makes a comfortable living. He is in fact a bit confused as to whether he is an Egyptian or a Hebrew. You put these things together and his response of, “who me?”, certainly seems like the right one.
I would guess that at one time or another in all our lives, someone has come to us and told us that they have something special for us to do. And these requests are generally divided into two categories. The first category includes those special things that we had hoped someone would ask us to do. Maybe it is when our teacher comes up to us and says, I have something special for you to do, can you lead the class to lunch today. Or maybe it is doing the announcements. As we grow older it might be being asked to be a starter on a sports team, or the lead in a play, or to move up a chair in the band. Once we hit the working world we hope that our bosses or HR will come to us and say, we have something special for you to do, we want you to take this promotion and this new task. We love these kinds of special things that people ask us to do.
The other kind of, I have something special for you do offers are those that come from God. And often these are not the kind of I have something special for you to do things, to which our usual response is, who me? Are you talking to me? When we get these requests, such as, “I want you to believe in and follow me.” “I want you to forgive those people who hurt you.” I want you to take some of your hard-earned money and give it to a ministry that helps the hungry or might impact those in Puerto Rico. I want you to show compassion for those people you have always looked down upon.” It is these kinds of, I have something special for you to do, requests that catch us off guard and become a bit creepy because they are often out of the normal scope of personal operations and we are not sure that we can do them. Like Moses, we think that these are things for which someone else might be better suited. And it is at those moments that our morning’s story offers us a gift. And that gift is that God stops Moses and says, “It’s not, who me? It’s us.”
God’s response to Moses is not to give him some sort of pregame pep-talk, but it is to say very simply, “I will be with you.” The me, has turned into an us. Moses learns that this God who hears the cries of God’s children, is not a God who sends people out on solo-heroic quests. This is the God who will walk with Moses and then with the Hebrew people through thick and thin, good times and bad. And this is what you and I can count on when we feel God telling us that God has something special for us to do. Whether it is forgiving, serving, sacrificing or praying, we will not do it alone. God, through the presence of the Spirit, will be in our midst. It will be an “us” and not a “me.”
The challenge for us then is to ask ourselves, what is that special thing that God wants us to do, and then to step out in faith and do it, believing that it is us who do it, and not me alone.