The Mighty Acts of God: Follow the Guide
November 26, 2017
Exodus 25:1-9; Matthew 25:31-46
Many of us remember the days before cell phones and GPS, and yes, even before computers. Back then, we used maps that were actually made of paper, and spread them out and charted our course when going from one place to another.
Really, I was pretty good (highlighter in hand) with marking the expressways and exits for the main part of the trip, and off I would go. But I usually got baffled the closer I got to my destination. Once off the expressways, I would consistently get all turned around while navigating the details of that last leg of the trip.
I would often have to stop and ask someone how to get to where I was going, and invariably I would be totally confused once I tried to put their directions into action. Was that the 3rd road on the left after the tire sign? Or was the tire sign on the left? Or if I reached the tire sign had I gone too far? And what tire sign? I don’t even see one!
And so I would stop and ask someone else, who would tell me that I was going in the wrong direction, and I would leave more confused and frustrated, and lost, than ever.
Remembering that now, it makes that current-day familiar and irritating voice that says, “recalculating” sound like a love song. And what a victory when that same voice finally says, “You have reached your destination!”
In today’s reading from Exodus, the Hebrews are still wandering and in need of trusting that God is, in fact, still with them and guiding them.
The instructions for the “portable temple” assure the people that God is mobile, and more importantly, willing to be present right in the very midst of them.
Verse 3 that Kelly/Swid read for us today gives a list of items needed, but I want to draw our attention to the first words of the verse: “This is the offering that you shall receive from them…” The key word is “offering”-- the materials to be used are to be freely offered. There is no intimidation or requirement placed on the people. These offerings are to be given by people who genuinely want to be in communion with God.
Which is exactly what Jesus is talking about in today’s reading from Matthew. As the image of Jesus shifts from shepherd to king, we are reminded that no power can match the power of the reigning Lord. Today, in fact, is known as “Christ the King, or Reign of Christ” Sunday.
And as our Lord speaks of separating the sheep and the goats, the thought of a judgement makes us fearful… yet the answer seems obvious: we will feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit those in prison. Check. Got it covered. We are sheep! But it’s not as simple as that. It seldom is.
Oh, doing these things does matter. It matters very much! But if we stop there we have missed the nugget of the story. Both the sheep and the goats express surprise, and question… when had they seen the Lord? The difference between the sheep and the goats is intention.
The sheep served others because there was a need that they could help fulfill. They were unaware of the Lord’s presence and had no expectation of earning “brownie points.” In fact, they had no expectation of any reward. They acted out of caring love, freely given.
The goats’ question leads us to believe that if they had known the king was among those in need, they surely would have stepped in and helped. The goats were not godless or unethical, they bore no malice- but they are deemed unrighteous because they are motivated by self-interest. Had they thought the Son of Man was in the midst, they would have been happy to serve, and thus gain eternal reward.
To be honest, I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle between sheep and goats. I believe I do. On one hand, I consider myself a compassionate person, and to have a genuine concern for those who are hurting, or have suffered an injustice. I truly hope I am.
On the other hand, I can be a bit self-centered. I like to joke and say that “it’s all about me” … but maybe I’m not always joking. I knew of someone who called those of us that fall in the middle between goats and sheep, “geeps.” Should we “geeps” live in fear, that we will be lumped in with the goats?
No, for this passage is not meant to incite fear. So often this scripture is portrayed as frightening and condemning, but the text is actually meant to bring us to right thinking and right action for the right reasons. It serves to inspire and empower us. It really is good news! It calls on each one of us to share those gifts which we have and be a part of God’s mission.
It guides us to remember that which we are called to do and be:
We all have something to offer.
And we are called to offer our gifts to go beyond the mere acts of feeding, clothing, sheltering, and visiting those in need.
As Jesus showed us, charity is not a substitute for kinship. We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is improbable. And Christ promises to be there, and guide us.
Just as God promised the Hebrews to “dwell among you” throughout their wandering and beyond, so God promises to be always with us. Jesus not only came to save… but to love, nurture, inspire, model and guide us. He still does.
God loves us no matter what. But it is only when we accept that love and let it transform us that we can begin to understand it.
Again, it is only when we accept that love and let it transform us that we can begin to understand it.
Today marks the end of a liturgical year. We have been on a journey the past 12 months as we have traveled through the Christian church year. We have followed the steps of Jesus as he was born, walked the hillsides, healed, taught, was crucified, and rose again.
We have celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, and reflected on what it means to be disciples of Christ. Today is the last Sunday of that journey for this liturgical year. Next Sunday we enter Advent, and as we once again begin that journey to remind ourselves who we are, and whose we are.
Todays’ reading from Exodus speaks of a God who promises to be with the people and guide them. Today’s reading from Matthew promises the same thing. And it speaks of a future kingdom in which God will reign in Christ. But it is not a “final judgement” that we should be focusing on.
The Kingdom of God is a present reality in our lives, and God invites each and every one of us to be a part of it. The choice to accept or reject it rests with us.
Throughout it all, we have a guide. We don’t need a paper map or a technological GPS. We have the best guide of all. Jesus. And all we have to do is trust and follow that guide. The guide may not take us on the most expeditious route, or the one with the prettiest scenery, but we will end up in a glorious destination. And our guide will never lead us astray.
And so the challenge for today is to ask ourselves: Where in my life do I need to “recalculate”, to ensure that I am following The One True Guide?
The Mighty Acts of God: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 19, 2017
Exodus 20:1-17; Matthew 22:36-40
He lost it. My father just lost it. In order to understand why this matters, you have to understand that my father was, and is, one of the quietest, least volatile and grounded men I have ever known. He never lost his temper. He seldom even got angry. Yet one night at the dinner table he lost it. He lost is because I said something snarky to my mother. I was one of those teens who often spoke before putting the brain in gear. The instant the words left my mouth, my father’s voice rose and he thundered that I would never speak to my mother in that manner and that I would apologize that instant. Though I suppose I had known all along that this was not appropriate behavior, my father made it clear that one of our family rules was that we were not to say hurtful things to our mother. Family rules…how many of you had them growing up? How many of you had the same kind of rule that I had about how you could or could not address your parents? Right, so what I want you to do this morning is to organize your mind around the idea of family rules because that is what we are presented with this morning in this Exodus text; God’s family rules.
I realize that for many of us, the Ten Commandments, or as they are sometime referred to, the Ten Words, are laws, not simply family rules. Yet, I would argue that they are family rules and not some set of generic rules like Hammurabi’s Code or even a universal set of religious laws. I say this because they are the rules God gave to Israel, and to no one else, in order that Israel become the kind of family God desired them to be; and by extension that we become the kind of community God desires us to be. The Hebrew people needed these family rules because the only family rules that they had as they entered the wilderness were Egyptian family rules; rules that were based on power, privilege, slavery and oppression. They were rules that had people worshipping multiple gods including Pharaoh himself. God had a different vision for the kind of family God wanted to create and so God gives the people a set of 613 family rules. As Rev. Joanne said a couple of weeks ago, it was going to be impossible for people to keep all of these family rules. So, the question becomes can we find an easy way to sum them up? There is, and it is contained in a single Aretha’s word…R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
I realize that using the word respect may seem a bit odd considering that Jesus, when asked to sum up the law does so using the word love. You shall love the Lord, your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And then You shall love your neighbor as yourself. So why I am using respect? I am doing so for three reasons. First, I think that we use love God and neighbor so much that it has become no more than background noise. Oh yeah, we are to love God and neighbor, yawn. Second, I am using it because love carries with it so much baggage that is often hard for us to get at the heart of what it means to love God and neighbor. Does it mean we have to have an emotional attachment; do we have to feel loving? Finally, I am using respect because the word carries within it the essence of what loving God and neighbor is all about, which I hope we will see as we continue. So here goes.
First, we are to respect God. Here, I am defining respect as giving honor, reverence and deference. One of the interesting things about the Bible, which we often miss, is that God always gives God’s people reasons to be respectful to God’s own self; to give God honor, reverence and deference. God never says, I am God and you are not, so bow down, and grovel. Instead God always sets the idea of respecting God’s self in the history of the mighty acts of God, with and for God’s people. In this case, all family rules are offered in the context, as noted in verse one, that God is the one who brought the people out of captivity in Egypt. In other words, God’s people are to respect God because God has earned their respect, by setting them free. For us as Christians we are to honor God for the same reason, that God has set us free from the power of sin to corrupt our lives, and freed us to become the people God desires us to be. The gift of giving respect to God then is that it orients us toward the steadfast love, the covenant faithfulness, of God that is continually liberating us to be God’s family of compassion and care.
Second, we are to respect others. This is the second half of this section of God’s family rules. Here I am using the definition of respect as having due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights, or traditions of others. Again, just as respect for God was based in God’s earning respect through God’s liberating actions, this respect toward others is based in the belief that all human beings are children of God, created equally by God. This is a concept emerging out of the creation story; that God created all people equally. None is greater than the other. We can see this in the way Israel was organized. There was no hierarchy. Though there were priests and leaders, they were not to lord it over others. They simply had different tasks. Even kings were only present to ensure that equality reigned. Thus, all were due respect because all were equal. This respect then leads to people maintaining the integrity of others’ lives, property, relationships and families because no one had the right or position to do otherwise. By giving due regard, appropriate boundaries were created, insuring that the family did not dissolve into chaos.
I began by talking about family rules; about how the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah are not generic laws, but are family rules, intended to mold God’s people into a particular kind of respectful, loving family. What this means is that the Commandments were never intended to be imposed on others. What that does not mean is that at least a portion of them were intended to be extended toward others. One of the key understandings of God’s family rules is that the respect shown to those within the community, the respect shown to our family members, is also intended to be shown to those outside the family. The Torah makes it clear that respect is to be show to strangers and sojourners. Jesus makes this clear, when he is asked about who our neighbors are, and he responds by the telling the story of the good Samaritan. By which Jesus lets us know that our respect is to be given to all that we encounter. The reason for this is the same reason that we are to give respect to those inside the community; we are all children of God, made in the image of the creator. And our membership in the family does not make us any better than those who are outsiders.
Before I close I want to speak to this moment in which we find ourselves. We find ourselves in a moment in which people are finally speaking out about sexual harassment and family violence. This includes verbal, emotional, sexual and physical violence both in the home and in the work place. As children of God, whose family rule is that of respect; respecting the integrity of all other human beings, these actions are unacceptable. They are directly contrary to the rules that God has set before us and of the love that Jesus asks of us all. Therefore I hope all you will work toward making our homes and our communities, zones of R.E.S.P.E.C.T.; zones in which all human beings can discover the respect that they deserve.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. is what we are to give God and to give to all of those around us; attuning our hearts and ears to God and living as God directs; and respecting the rights and integrity of others. My challenge to you then in this week is this, to repeat this phrase, “R.E.S.P.E.C.T. this is what God expects of me.” And then asking yourselves, how am I showing the respect God calls upon me to offer throughout my week.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
November 12, 2017
Exodus 16:1-8; Matthew 8:18-22
So, what is America’s greatest pastime? Is it baseball? Is it football? Is it Wheel of Fortune? Well if you voted for any of those, or some other, I want to offer and alternative. And the alternative is the “If Only” game. What is the If Only game? It is the game we all play when we say, “If only I…” and then you fill in the blank. If only I had bought Amazon ten years ago? If only I had learned Spanish? If only I had studied a little harder. If only I was a little taller, faster, smarter, better looking…you get my point. The wonderful thing about the If Only game is that everybody can play it. You don’t need any special equipment. You don’t even need lessons. You can just play it. In fact, how many of you have ever played the If Only game? And for those of you who haven’t, you can do it now. If only I had played the If Only game. So why does this game matter this morning. It matters because it was the game the Israelites were playing when they came out of Egypt.
To be sure that we are all on the same page, let’s recap. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Things got so bad that they cried out for help. God heard their cry and sent Moses and Aaron to work for their release. Pharaoh was not so keen on letting them go so God, through Moses, brought on the Egyptians a series of plagues, the last one being so terrible that the people were set free. As we heard last week, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops after God’s people. With a mighty hand God defeated the Egyptians and the Israelites traveled into the wilderness to a nice oasis, where they camped for a while. Everyone still with me? Good. We pick up the story this morning with the Israelites leaving the oasis and traveling into a food desert…literally, a food desert. They assume that they will starve to death, and it is in that moment when they begin to play the If Only game. “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread. For you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” If only…it is an ancient game.
Again, you may still be wondering why it matters that they were playing the If Only game. The answer is that the If Only game can cause people to take their lives out of drive and put them in another gear. I know that sounds cryptic, but bear with me. When God set the people free from slavery, God did not do so because these people were nicer, kinder or better looking than any other people, but because God had something for them to do. God had a task for them to accomplish. And that task was to bless the world; something which God wanted them to do from the Land of Promise. It was to be the base from which this blessing would flow. For that to happen however, the Israelites needed to avoid getting stuck in the wilderness and instead proceed directly to the Land of Promise. The problem with the If Only game, as I said, is that it could cause them to either reverse their direction or to simply hunker down and not move at all. Either of which would be disastrous for God’s world-wide plan of blessing.
First, the If Only game can cause people to put themselves into reverse. This is what is happening in the story this morning. “If only you had left us to die in Egypt.” This type of If Only game is one that breeds nostalgia. If only things were like they once were. If only we could go back to the way life once was, then everything would be wonderful. All they could remember were non-existent pots filled with meat and the goodies of life. They had forgotten that things had been so terrible that they had cried out for deliverance. On a deeper level though, the problem with this kind of If Only game for the Israelites was that if they went back to Egypt, then the blessing would not flow out into the world. It would once again be trapped in slavery. Unfortunately, the church has often played this If Only game; if only we could go back to the way things were life would be perfect. We can see this in the Nashville Statement, where a group of conservative pastors got together and issued a statement declaring that any church that accepted LGBTQ persons into membership was not a Christian Church. What they were doing was telling those of us who are fully inclusive congregations, if only you went back to excluding people, back to taking back the blessing, then we will include you in our community. If only you put yourself in reverse, then everything will be fine; except for the fact that the blessing, would no longer flow to all.
Second, the If Only game can put us in neutral. This is what the Israelites were about to do. Returning to our story, the Israelites were going to be fed. God would give them manna in the morning and quail in the afternoons. They would also be given clothing that never wore out. Suddenly life was not going to be so bad. However, the problem here was that when they reached the edge of the Land of Promise and were told there were giants and powerful nations ahead, they said, “If only we could stay here we would be safe. If only you didn’t make us go any farther we will be just fine.” They were happy to stay where they were. Again, this is what white churches said to Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham. If only you will let things stay as they are, we will all be fine. Sure, we know that blacks are not treated well, but if only you just stop here, then one day, someday, we will do something about it, but just let things stay as they are. If only you put yourself in neutral, then everything will be fine; except for the fact that the blessing, would no longer flow to all.
These last couple of weeks show us why we need to be in drive. We watched as one more time a man with mental illness accessed and used a weapon to kill innocent men, women and children. We watched once again as twenty-six young women trying to escape from Africa to Europe drown in the Mediterranean. We watched once again as people used hate speech to demonize “the other.” We watched at Alcott as dedicated teachers struggled with overcrowded classrooms and often hungry children. In other words, watched a world still in need of the blessing of God. Still in need knowing the love of God as poured out in Jesus. Still in need of compassion and support. Still in need.
In the face of all of this, I want to let you know that you, that we, are a congregation in drive. We are a launching pad for blessing here and around the world. We are a launching pad because we teach our children and youth about the love of God and help them become kind and compassionate followers of Jesus. We are a launching pad for blessing through our support of Alcott, children in Foster Care and the Ruth Ellis Center. We are a launching pad because we offer our building without cost to a counseling center and an organization that supports children and adults with special needs. We are a launching pad because we serve the homeless and the hungry. We are a launching pad because we support missionaries who work to prevent human trafficking and child marriage. We are a church in drive that is making a difference in the world.
Even so we are still susceptible to the If Only game. As we look at the needs of the world we could still say, if only someone else would feed the families at Alcott. If only the government would solve all our problems. If only someone else would show compassion and care for the homeless. If only we had more people, more resources, more…maybe we should just shift into neutral and coast. Yet God may be leading you to show us the next place where we need to be in drive. Yet God may be opening your eyes to a need that we might meet. So, don’t play the If Only game. If God is leading you, come and see me and say, here is where we need to be in drive, and we will see what we can do about it.
Keeping it in drive. This is our challenge. And my challenge to you is this, to ask yourselves, how am I helping to keep this community in drive, that we might keep launching God’s blessings out into the world.
Rev. Joanne Blair
November 5, 2017
Exodus 14; Matthew 23:1-12
Most of us here are familiar with the movie “The Ten Commandments” in which Charlton Heston plays Moses. And if you are like me (before the days of streaming, and cable, and DVD’s), you couldn’t wait until it came around on TV each year. The entire story of Moses is a “crowd favorite” … rich with drama, action and miracles.
In the “Crossing of the Sea”, we cheer when the Israelites escape from the Egyptians, and we group these two peoples into the “good guys and bad guys.” But in so doing, we often miss the point of the real battle.
The real battle is between competing sovereignties- Pharaoh and Yahweh. The real issue is not the rescue or liberation of Israel, but the triumph of Yahweh over Pharaoh.
When things get tough and we can’t see the outcome, we often revert back to the familiar, even though it is damaging or leads us away from trusting God. This is what happened to the Israelites in verse 12, when they say: “Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
Although the Israelites were challenging Moses and not Yahweh in this statement, Moses needed to remind them that Yahweh was surely active and pivotal in this crisis. Yahweh is always active and pivotal… we just might not understand how.
The entire story of chapter 14 in the book of Exodus is really a spectacular reversal of the means of power. It stands not only as a witness to the power of Yahweh, … it is also a call to faith.
Scripture is all about turning the tables of unjust power, and acknowledging that God is, ultimately, in charge. And Jesus calls us… all of us… to live out our faith in such a way.
When Jesus challenges the scribes and the Pharisees in our reading from Matthew, he is not challenging the root of the teachings. Rather, he is challenging their inconsistent practice of such teachings.
It is important to understand the role that the scribes and the Pharisees played. The scribes (although not officially a sect) were a professional class that acted somewhat as lawyers. They were highly educated … schooled in the Jewish tradition and how to apply it to current day issues.
The Pharisees were mostly educated laypersons whose original intent was to make the “every day” holy… and they sought to do this by applying Jewish law to everything. While their original goal was to increase faithfulness to the law in the living of everyday life, they did this by pulling out 613 laws from the Old Testament and viewing them as personal requirements for all Jews.
Among the Sadducees, the Essenes, the Zealots, and the Pharisees, the Pharisees were the only sect that survived after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. They were the primary challengers against Matthew’s community by demanding fidelity to the Torah. The Pharisees applied the priestly purity laws to all Jews as markers of identity … those things necessary to live the life of a good Jew.
But in telling people that they must fulfill the 613 laws in order to live lives pleasing to God, they set an unrealistic burden upon the shoulders of those who sought to follow the faith. An unrealistic burden that they themselves did not fulfill. Moreover, their focus on the 613 rules often neglected the more important issues of love and justice, which were paramount to Jesus’ message.
Of course, I am not deriding rules and regulations. We have often spoken here of the importance of rules in our lives to bring order out of chaos, and ensure safety and well-being. But these were 613 rules and regulations one supposedly needed to follow to guarantee living a life pleasing to God.
And Jesus was certainly not against rules and regulations. He reminded his followers more than once of the importance of the law. But the scribes and Pharisees provided such rich fodder for Jesus by repeatedly falling so very short of the ideals they preached. Their human nature prevented them from consistently practicing what they preached. And we have the same human nature.
Do we also provide rich fodder for Jesus’ critiques?
As a pastor, I am considered to be a church leader. And as we close in on the beginning of Advent, I find myself drooling over the ministry catalogs … wondering if I dare treat myself to a new stole for the liturgical season. But do my robe and stole make me a better Christian? Do they make any of my words more meaningful or more authentic? I like wearing a robe on Sunday, as it takes the pressure off what I’m wearing. And I’ve told you before that I like the stoles. I enjoy reflecting the liturgical season.
But more important … crucial in fact … is that I am called to remember that they are not decorations… nor are they status symbols. Rather these stoles represent the yoke that Jesus calls us to put on. His yoke. And I am called… we are all called… to put on his yoke and remember that we are to serve Christ (and therefore others) with a humble heart.
Our robes and stoles and titles, our phylacteries and fringes- they all have their place. Jesus’ concern, was and is, how these things can get out of perspective. Jesus’ concern, was and is, when anything becomes a substitute for that which we are truly called to: living as disciples and glorifying God.
Our culture sends very mixed messages. The pages of fashion magazines tell us what we should be wearing to fit in with the crowd. Yet at the same time, we are constantly encouraged to stand out, to be individuals, to show what makes us special.
What makes us special is that we are God’s. We not only belong to God… we are loved by God. It’s as simple as that. And we live out that love by sharing it with others. We are called by Jesus to be brothers and sisters who do not need other humans to decide whether or not we are worthy.
The point of this passage is the true nature of discipleship. And of whom we are disciples. We all have a part in this. As Jesus challenges the Pharisees whose self-importance got in the way, so he challenges us. But Jesus also challenges the weak and the oppressed, who sometimes withdraw from God and neighbor as if they have nothing to offer.
In her book Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience, Anne E. Carr writes: “Sin is… the breaking of relationship both with God and with human beings that can take the form of weakness as well as pride in its denial of human responsibility.”
We are all called - weak and strong, rich and poor. We are all called to lead our lives in honor of the one true God … humbly and gratefully obedient to the one ultimate power.
The final, pivotal intention in our story from Exodus is not freedom for the Israelites. It is Yahweh’s glory.
The final, pivotal intention in our story from Matthew is not to unravel the Pharisees. It is to remind us that God is the one ultimate authority. And we glorify God not by following 613 rules, but by following two: Love God and love your neighbor. “There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31)
All of us have leadership roles in one capacity or another. Whether the leader in a corporation, a team, a family, a workgroup… we all have, or will have, leadership roles in our lives. But there is only one supreme leader. There is only one ultimate power. And so my question for this week is, “How is my ‘everyday life’ a reflection of following the leader?”
Let us pray: Almighty and Gracious God, We give thanks for your steadfast love of us. Help us, guide us to be servant-leaders. Amen.