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Pastor's Blog - Thoughts from Rev. Kimberly Hodges

Sermon 9/17/17

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Have you ever been in a disagreement with someone – a friend, a sibling, a spouse – and either of you eventually spout out “fine! I’m sorry?”  And then the other asks “Well. What exactly are you sorry for?”  

It’s a familiar scene – two sides are in disagreement and one side clearly wants it to be over – so they shout “I’m sorry!”  But if they don’t know what they are apologizing for, how much good does it do?  

I’m sure many of us here have been in that situation – on either side.  The side that simply wants the disagreement to end or the side that wants full explanation of where the other went wrong!

I would argue that acknowledging – remembering what went wrong – is helpful in also fully repenting and fully renewing.  We don’t have to relive over and over every wrong thing said or every eye roll exchanged; however, naming the wrongs done makes it clear to both sides what shouldn’t be repeated.  

Today is Just Peace Sunday in the UCC world – it is the Sunday before International Day of Prayer on September 21.  It is a Sunday for congregations to come together in prayer for the hope of achieving Just Peace.  On the UCC website, Just Peace is defined as the overlap “of friendship, justice, and common security from violence.” It is grounded in God’s activity in creation, covenant relationships, the reconciling activity of Jesus Christ, the presence of the Holy Spirit, the community of reconciliation, and hope.  I think these are things that we can all get behind.

The piece of Scripture we read in Genesis 50 gives a great framework for studying this path towards Just Peace.

Much of Genesis tells the story of Joseph and his 11 brothers – and summarizing that could take a long time.  But what is essential to know is that the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, and they had convinced their father that he was dead.  I know brotherly love can be tough, but these guys were real jerks to Joseph!

Once sold, the brothers kind of put him out of their minds, but Joseph ended up being placed in a respected position of authority among the rulers of the time, and, after a nationwide famine, the brothers were now in a position to beg him for help with food.  The tables had turned big time.  Joseph had every reason to laugh at them and turn his back.  I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he had said “are you kidding me? You SOLD me into slavery! Y’all can fend for yourselves!”  But Joseph didn’t – he listened to them – and he agreed to provide for them and their families.  

In these short verses we can learn a lot about striving toward Just Peace.  We can learn about trusting in God’s interaction with creation, covenant relationships, presence of the Holy Spirit, community of reconciliation, and hope.

Romee St. John, an author on Sermon Seeds, speaks about “teshuvah,” a Hebrew word that has a 3-fold meaning which spells the way to remembering, repenting, and renewing.  

  • First, literally, teshuvah means “to return.”  In saying you are sorry, it helps to actually name what you are asking forgiveness for – to return to the event, to remember.
  • Second, relationally, it means to return to the person who you need to make amends with.  We have to return to our relationships in order to set things right. The brothers had to actually return to Joseph, they had to stand in front of him.  In Genesis 16, Hagar, a slave, is told by God to physically return to Sarah, whom she had left.  In Deuteronomy 30:2 the author reminds the people to “return to God with all your heart and soul.”  
  • Third, theologically and philosophically, teshuvah, the process, means committing to changing one’s heart, one’s attitudes, one’s actions.  Yes, we must literally remember the events and return to the person with whom we are in relationship – and we must decide to change.  Joseph’s brothers and Joseph had to make a choice to not harbor grudges – Joseph had to decide to speak kindly toward them – the brothers had to decide to approach him with humility.

Remember, repent, and renew.  

Forgiveness and reconciliation is hard work and it is complex.  Maybe the first time a minor offense is made, forgiveness comes more easily because we know we “should” forgive.  However, when the offenses and wrongdoings keep coming, or they are life-altering events, the reconciliation gets more complicated.  If we don’t acknowledge that it is hard work, then we are shorting ourselves.  

Verse 17 in our reading points to how deep reconciliation can get.  It tells us that Joseph and his brothers wept when confronting one another.  There is deep emotion involved here – from both Joseph and his brothers.  

I remember when I was in chaplaincy training at UNC that I had to approach my supervisor about a conversation we had regarding an intense patient interaction of mine.  I did not expect or plan it, but I broke down in tears because of how deeply it affected me.  If I think of the times in my life when a friend or family member and myself have really sat down to make right a wrong situation between us, it involves digging deep and the shedding of occasional tears.  

What keeps us from doing this work?  Anathea Portier-Young (workingpreacher.org) suggests that “Fear has been the obstacle to confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom.”  We cannot let our fear – whatever those fears may be – stand in the way of working towards confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and, ultimately, freedom.

Also, it seems to go against our human reasoning.  Our human minds like things to be fairly clear cut when dealing with each other.  But sometimes, going through the process of reconciling, means we have to wade through some pretty murky waters that are not clear cut.  

In referencing Jesus’ command to forgive “77 times” in Matthew, Karoline Lewis (workingpreacher.org) states that “The kingdom of heaven refuses to bend toward our need for reasoning and explanations…”  UGH!  I like reason!  But being willing to forgive someone repeatedly, or listen to a person who has wronged me and is now repenting, doesn’t really jive with human reasoning.  It does jive with divine reasoning, though.  And that is what God calls us to do.

In striving toward this call to Just Peace, we have to remember hope.  What I love about hope is that it is looking forward.  It starts from where you currently are and it sets a goal.  There is a hope toward the ideal goal and, sometimes, there is a satisfaction with getting as close as you can.  

For example, I would love to see a world without any trash laying around – and because of that I will participate in Clean the Bay Day or I will pick up the occasional drink can tossed out a car and onto the road out front.  Do I think I will ever see a day when this entire world is trash-free?  No.  But does that stop me from doing my part to end the trash?  No.

Though, in reality, we may not foresee an earthly world without a drop of violence in it, that does not mean that we stop working towards it.  It doesn’t mean that we stop advocating for groups of people on the edges of society or nations of people who are being abused by people in authority.

This reconciliation can happen on a large scale and a small scale.  This needs to happen on an existential scale between God and creation, which we are a part of.  This needs to happen on a global scale between countries and warring tribes.  This needs to happen on a national scale between factions of people.  This needs to happen on a local and familial scale – in our own personal lives.  

A great story has recently come out of Charlotte, NC.  It is of a man, Dean Otto, who went for an early morning bike ride and was hit by a car.  The morning was foggy and misty, and the driver, Will Huffman, didn’t see Otto in time to swerve and miss him.  Huffman’s large truck hit Otto on his bike and sent him into the air, only to land with numerous injuries.  Otto was taken to the hospital, had multiple surgeries, and was given a 2% chance of walking again.  While hospitalized, Huffman asked Otto’s family if he could visit him in recovery.  Huffman apologized to Otto, Otto forgave him, and the two have forged a new friendship.

This all happened starting one year ago this month – September 24 2016.  Fast forward to this year and next Sunday, Otto, Huffman, and Otto’s surgeon are running a half-marathon together in California.  

The New York Post story quoted Otto in saying that the miraculous recovery, for him, was due to forgiveness and if he hadn’t forgiven Huffman, “the resentment would eat [him] alive.”    

Though this wasn’t a malicious incident, these two men are a wonderful example of remembering, repenting, and renewing.  They have remembered the details of that morning.  Huffman repented of not breaking quick enough.  The two of them have renewed their relationship so that they are no longer the driver and the victim, but they are now running buddies.  They acknowledge what brought them together and they are moving forward from it.  

It required humility.  It required vulnerability – forgiveness – relationship – strength – hope.   

My hope is that we start, in whatever ways possible, to follow their lead and to strive towards Just Peace. Amen.

Scripture: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:6-14

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Sermon 9/10/17

So, let’s just say it: this is a weird passage.  We’ve seen it depicted in the movies – either the 1950s movie, The Ten Commandments, or my favorite, Disney’s Prince of Egypt.  And sometimes when we see these scenes played out in the movies we gloss over the odd realities included in the story.  We see all sorts of odd things in movies – like robots transforming to cars and sharks coming out of the sky.  So, why should a group of people fleeing slavery pausing to follow strict cooking instructions phase us any differently?

It should phase us differently because this is the pivotal story of the Israelites – this is the marking of time which has defined the Jewish community and is also a part of our faith story.  As best we can, we need to fully take in the pain and the hope that is in the midst of the crazy in this story.  

There is the classic storyline of good v. evil….

On one hand, you have a Pharaoh and Egyptian rule which has oppressed a people for generations.  You have Pharaoh claiming his false gods are to be obeyed and are more powerful than anything.  

On the other hand, you have the Hebrew people, who are filled with anxious hope, about to escape slavery.  You have Moses who has proven to Pharaoh repeatedly that there is only One Divine God.

On both hands, though, you have pain – the pain of parents who are wailing because their firstborn children have died.  And what do we do with that – the fact that God willed the death of human and animal firstborn?  Does God not care about the Egyptian people?  We hear that God cares about non-Israelite people in other Scripture, for example, in Jonah’s story we know that God cares about the Ninevites.  It’s not that God doesn’t care about the non-Hebrew people – so, what do we do with their pain and suffering?

And Pharaoh…was he executing free will when he finally released the Hebrew people or was he executing a predetermined divine will?

I don’t have an easy answer to all of that – an answer that basically explains “why do bad things happen” and “is God a violent God?”  The best I think we can say is that our human minds don’t have the full story. Whether parts were left out by the author or simply the fact that we can’t impose our human reasoning onto God – we may not have the full picture of everything happening among the plagues, the Pharaoh’s mind, the Israelites, and the exodus.

We do know, though, in the midst of all this, God instructs the people to pause for a meal – to mark the time and to be grounded.

The Hebrew people had a huge journey ahead of them – much of it was unknown and I’m sure they had lots of fears and anxieties and hopes – the adults were likely trying to prepare as best they could, figuring out how they would travel and pack the things that were necessary for survival.  

And God says “Now, stop, pause, prepare this meal exactly as I tell you – and remember this moment.”

Remembering that this story was written by a human author, we have to ask if the author was inspired to place these instructions here for a reason – to mark this occasion before the event even happens!  I wonder what the intended meaning is to have this ritual meal placed directly in the midst of the pain and chaos associated with such a hope-filled journey.

The details of the meal are full of symbolism.  For example, the unleavened bread is bread that is not given the chance to rise, as yeast normally does, because there was no time for it to rise.  The people would be leaving in haste and needed to be ready to go.  

The command to eat this meal with their loins girded, sandals on, and staff in hand was further marking this moment to be a time of hasty preparation, yet trusting in God’s guidance.  To be dressed in such a manner meant the person was ready for a journey.  It would be similar to someone today wearing hiking pants, sturdy shoes, and a walking stick – cleary ready for a hike.

This Passover meal, celebrated for generations to come, made them pause and take in the broader view – for them to see beyond “we need to pack a blanket” and hear God say “The Great I AM is with you.”  It would help them to mark time and re-member, gathering together as a community.  Kathryn Matthews, on the UCC Sermon Seeds site, states, “Their worship, then, would serve to remind the people not only who God is in the life they share, but who they are as a people, as God’s beloved “first-born child.””  This ritual would remind them of their priorities and their identity.

What was the author’s possible intention?  Perhaps this meal was to help ground the Hebrews in their faith in the midst of the chaos.  Last week, we saw how Moses was prepared for his new phase in life with pausing on holy soil, being grounded in God, and then propelled forward in God’s mission.  Here, the Israelites are going through a similar preparation: pausing with a holy meal, being grounded in God’s presence, and then being propelled forward on their journey.

Perhaps this was to remind us that we must recognize God in the midst of chaotic times.  Geoff McElroy reminds his readers that “our priorities are shaped by our time.”  Pausing in the middle of chaotic times for a ritualistic meal shows the Israelites priorities were focused on hearing, acknowledging, and trusting God.

There are times in our lives when such a grounding is needed.  We could feel like we are in the midst of a chaotic story, too, hearing about hurricanes, nuclear testing, and children of immigrants fearing deportation.  Not to mention whatever may be happening in our personal lives of work, family, school, and friends!  

How can we look at the story of the Israelites being freed from slavery and learn the value in pausing to remember God and be grounded in the Lord’s presence?

We can remember that, even in the midst of a societal fears and uncertain futures, taking a moment to mark time and ask for God’s guidance is essential.  It’s what we do on Sunday mornings, really.  As we end one week and look toward starting another – whatever calm or crazy that it may hold – we pause together in worship to mark time and to ask for God’s guidance.  

Just as Kathryn Matthews stated regarding the Israelites, our worship and gathering together serves “to remind [us] not only who God is in [our] life [we] share, but who [we] are as a people, as God’s beloved.”  Here, we are reminded of our priorities and our identity.

We can remember that sometimes moving forward in life doesn’t afford us a lot of time to feel prepared.  In looking at the news of Hurricane Irma, I was thinking about how centuries ago, people wouldn’t have the warning time we have now regarding storms.  They would have to get up and go very quickly. Decisions on what to leave behind or take with you would need to be made quickly.

While most of us here are fortunate to not fear a midnight raid in order to flee actual slavery, we do have cultural norms, bad habits, or mindsets that can enslave us.  If we are not careful, we can be slaves to popularity, commercialism, self-image, etc.  And, often, we need to hastily leave those things behind.

We can remember that being grounded in the Lord’s presence and love is something everyone deserves and needs.  Did you notice the part in the Scripture that describes how the meat should be distributed so that all the people had enough?  God made sure that all the Israelites were provided for.  Don’t worry, I am not about to preach to you socialism – that all families and individuals should be given the same amount of resources and money.

I WILL preach, though, the importance of making sure all people are cared for – that basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are provided.  Even further that all people are told they are valued.  That is something you will hear repeatedly here – that no matter your financial status, your sexual orientation, your ethnicity – you are valued. The heart of the Passover meal was that God’s people were being freed as a community, and not one person was to be left behind. This experience solidified their identity.  

Like the Israelites, we can live with both a remembrance of the past and hope for the future.  We can pay attention to the sometimes crazy juxtaposition in life – where there is chaos in the world and there is calm with God.  We can make sure we take a deep breath in and mark time – making sure we remember the pivotal points in life before we start new journeys.  Amen.

Scripture: Exodus 12:1-14

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Sermon 9/3/17

Who here likes to take off your shoes?Image result for barefeet

Who here takes off your shoes in your home? 

Who here likes to squish your toes in the sand or walk through grass barefoot?

(To be clear, there is no judgment here for those of you who like for your feet to always be well-protected from whatever elements surround you! Judgment free zone here!  If you like for your feet to always be encased in socks and shoes, that’s your prerogative.)

Taking off our shoes, especially outside, makes us so aware of every rock, every blade of grass, every mud puddle, every grain of sand.  Taking off our shoes makes our feet vulnerable – to the hard surface of the rocks, the sharp edges of the grass, the ickiness of the mud puddle, and the persistence of every grain of sand to stay connected to our skin.  

In today’s Scripture, we hear: Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Moses encounters God in this familiar story about the burning bush.  This is a key point in Moses’ life: he is told to remove the sandals that protect his feet, he is grounded in his connection to the Lord through reminders of his ancestors, and he is then compelled forward as he begins a new journey in life.  

Anathea Portier-Young, a professor at Duke Divinity, wrote extensively on the importance of God’s instructions for Moses to remove his sandals.  Sandals then were, of course, practical – they protected a person’s feet from the harsh desert conditions.  We can understand that.  AND sandals were symbols of status and social contracts.  

-In Joshua and Exodus, people were told to put on their sandals while eating before a journey as a signal they were ready for the journey ahead.

-In the books of Ruth and Deuteronomy, people are told to remove their sandals as a sign that they were ending a legal or verbal agreement.  

Sandals were not simply practical, they were symbols of class, economic status, and legal contracts.

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

For Moses to hear these words meant much more than a simple “this is safe soil to walk on barefoot.”  For Moses to hear these words meant “leave behind your social status – you don’t need your legal agreements – I, the Great I AM, will provide your status and stability here.”

Moses’ background included being born to a lower class, being orphaned then adopted, murdering an Egyptian, and then fleeing to the desert where he married into a different tribe.  All of that was to be left behind and removed when he walked onto holy ground.  None of that mattered!  

Take off your shoes – take off your past, take off your status, take off your tribe – for you are standing on holy ground.

Anathea Portier-Young states “This first revelation of sacred space identifies as holy the soil itself, God’s good land alive with vegetation.”  This revelation of sacred space removes all the stuff that can stand between a person and God, and connects Moses to God through the soil.  

Once Moses removes his sandals, God starts to ground him.  

– The Lord anchors Moses in the memory of his ancestors – of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord reminds Moses that he is not a lone messenger of God in the world – that he has a whole “cloud of witnesses” that God previously led – and God will do it again.

– The Great “I am who I am” has been with Moses’ ancestors, is present with Moses at that time, and will continue to be with Moses as he confronts Pharoah.  For every time that Moses tries to give reason for not being the “right man for the job,” God responds with “nope, you got this.  I’m with you now and I’ll be with you then.  My presence will be with you”

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Moses has removed his sandals, has been grounded in God, and God then tells him how the Lord will compel him forward.  This is the start of Moses’ call to free the Hebrew people from the Egyptian rule.  

Much of Moses’ life at this point led up to this moment – this moment where he begins a new phase of life.  This has happened in the midst of Moses’ daily life.  So, to be fair, I’m sure he didn’t feel prepared for this.  Yet, no matter how much he protests, God makes it clear that this is now Moses’ mission.  

I do find it humorous how Moses’ reactions to God are like whiplash.  When God first speaks to him, Moses responds with “Here I am!”  Then, once a mission plan is laid out, Moses’ tune changes rapidly to “Who am I to take on this task? Surely you want someone else.”  

But God did not want someone else.  The Lord knew exactly who he was asking to lead the people out of Egypt.  

In so many different ways, I see many of you starting a new mission in life now, too, and I wonder what you can learn from Moses’ story.  

All around us, there are welcomed, exciting new phases and also unwelcomed, grievous new phases – from a new school year or new marriage – to a recent death or loss – to new community endeavors or spiritual mindset.  Many of you are facing some new phase in life.

Let me remind you of the words spoken to Moses:

Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.

Be assured that God is not phased by your social status, your economic status, your education level, your tribe.  God is in the business of working with people at their purest, their most raw, their most vulnerable – with barefeet.  

If you find yourself facing a new phase or mission in life, God can and will work with you at the purest core of who you are.

And so should we be when working with other children of God.  As God is not phased by the things the world uses to define us, neither should we be.  As we’ve seen pictures and reports this past week from the flooded areas in Texas, for one person to rescue another person from a flooded house doesn’t require any certain skin color, political affiliation, or faith background. The only requirement is compassion in your heart.  

Remember also that no matter any of those factors in our lives, what we need is to be grounded.  God took the time with Moses to anchor him on holy ground.  What grounds you in your faith?  My prayer for those that received backpack tags today is that those are simple reminders to you – as you head to school or work – that you are loved here and can find grounding here.  

It is easy to feel carried away in this world, if life is overwhelming, even when we feel we are on the right path.  But, friends, if we “take off our shoes,” we can find grounding in God’s love for us – we can be grounded in the ways that God connects us.

Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.

Like Moses, it is once we squish our toes into the soil and get a feel for where we truly are, that we experience God’s holy presence and can start on whatever new phase of life we are facing.

Portier-Young states “God invites you to stand barefoot in an attitude of wonder as you witness God’s presence in the blazing fire that does not consume and hear the astonishing name of the God who is radically free.”

May we remove whatever barriers act as our sandals.  May we vulnerably connect with God, experience being on holy ground, and be compelled forward as God desires.

Take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground. Amen.

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15

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Sermon 8/20/17

As I looked at the suggested Scriptures for this week, this selection from Matthew jumped out at me.  It reminds me of the playground saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” which isn’t really true.  It reminds me, again, of how we need to be so careful of our words – that they match the intentions of our heart.  And these verses challenge me – big time.  They challenge me and should challenge all of us in how we interpret Jesus’ words and actions.

Image result for learning from mistakesStarting with the first half of verses 10-20, we have Jesus instructing his disciples on how what comes out of our mouths – our words – show what is in our hearts.  It is what is in our hearts that makes us “clean or unclean.”  Remember that this was a culture steeped in Jewish law – that law included many rituals on what made a person “clean” and, thus, worthy and ready of worshiping God.  The people Jesus was talking to were the people who followed strict instructions – laws concerning food, circumcision, prayers, etc.  

Jesus blew them out of the water by saying “listen, it isn’t these laws now that will make you clean or unclean.  It is what is in your heart that matters.”  (Similar to Paul’s message to the Galatians that we discussed last month!)  

We know this basic rule, right?  That our actions and words on the outside tell others what is in our inside.  Some of us, simply due to personality types, are much more selective with our words than others and try very hard to match the words with what’s on the inside.  For other personality types, For those who tend to just blurt out whatever comes to mind, it can often get them in trouble – and I’m sure you either know that pain personally or someone in your life who it relates to.  

But, essentially, we should know that it is what is in our hearts that matters much more than the rituals we adhere to.  For example, at Lynnhaven Colony, we serve communion on the first Sunday of the month and it is a wonderful time to remember the example Jesus set to gather around a table with believers.  However, if you miss a month’s communion, we will not hold your absence at that ritual against you.  

It is easy to distance ourselves from the Jewish people because we don’t have a set of written “purity laws” you must follow in order to worship with us.  However, before we excuse ourselves too much, we must admit that we have our unwritten social “purity” laws.  If not mindful of ourselves, we can fall into thinking that people must adhere to certain socially-accepted behaviors in order to be welcomed into the faith community.  

For example, if not careful, church communities can imply that people have to dress a certain way for Sunday mornings.  Not here, friends.  It is fine that some of you come in 3-piece suits and some arrive in shorts.  What matters is that you come with a heart to worship our loving God.  For some of us, that means we come dressed in our best that we have to offer.  For others, that means that we come as we are most comfortable and feel the most “us.”  

It only matters what is in the heart.

I love knowing that and then looking at the story of the Canaanite woman.  If you look at her words and actions toward Jesus, you can see what is in her heart.  She shouts at Jesus, anticipating his mercy and healing powers, and in those shouts you hear her heart.

She has an intense love for her daughter, she has humility, she has assertiveness (not aggression – but definite assertiveness and persistence), she has wisdom, and she has a knowledge of who Jesus is and a desire to praise him.  

Mitzi J. Smith, a writer for workingpreacher.org, states, “Never underestimate the power of a persistent woman and the God in whom she believes.”   What this Canaanite woman had in her heart, coupled with her faith and God’s healing power, resulted in the healing of her daughter.  

This isn’t an exact formula … our faith in God + simply naming what we want = we will immediately receive it.  Let’s not travel too far down the slippery slope of naming out loud all of our worldly desires and expecting God to fulfill our wish list.  God is not a bubblegum machine, where we can insert two prayers and get out one miracle.  

However, there is much to be said about being persistent in the faith we have within us.  There is much power in partnering with God to whole-heartedly believe that good and wonderful things can and will happen in this world.  The Canaanite woman is an example of this.  

Her words showed what was in her heart and it was beautiful.

So, we know that our words are what make us “clean.”  And we know that the Canaanite woman’s words showed what was in her heart.  Now, the tricky part.  Let’s look at what comes out of Jesus’ mouth, particularly in the second half of our reading.

The often accepted reading of this verse is that Jesus was using a rhetorical statement to test the woman’s faith.  When dealing with this difficult passage in the past, I have heard preachers and read articles which make an assumption that Jesus would never discriminate against a person from a non-Jewish background – because, of course, Jesus is God and perfect and should be all-knowing.  

Keep in mind that the Canaanite woman is a Gentile – she is a non-Jewish woman.  In that culture, that was two strikes against her – not Jewish and not male.  For Jesus to even talk to her is a big deal in that culture.  The often accepted reading of this verse praises Jesus for simply talking to her and then using her to teach a lesson.  It definitely puts Jesus in the position of being “right.”  

But what if Jesus was sincere in his initial reaction towards the woman?  

What if Jesus essentially said to her “I was sent to the children of Israel, the Jews – and you are not a Jew, and therefore you are not worthy of the ministry I have to offer.  You are like a dog begging at the dinner table to eat the food intended for the children.  Move along?”  

What if Jesus wasn’t using a rhetorical statement?  What if Jesus actually intended to dismiss the woman at first?  What would that mean for our faith in Jesus – could that mean that Jesus’ human side was showing through at this moment?  Could that mean that Jesus, like the rest of us, had to learn how to employ the compassion that was in his heart?

It’s easier to assume Jesus always intended to help the woman, but was simply testing her.  That exempts Jesus from trying to dismiss a non-Jewish woman.  That exempts Jesus from showing extreme cultural bias.  

However, there is beauty in interpreting this Scripture with Jesus actually intending to dismiss the non-Jewish woman.  It is that we see Jesus change his response; we see Jesus set an example of growing and maturing.  The beauty in accepting that Jesus did have a learned cultural bias is that we see him also learning to move beyond that racism.  

Note that after the woman stood her ground to Jesus, that he then spoke gently to the woman, changed his attitude in response, and healed her daughter.  His view of the woman changed from a beggar on the sidelines at mealtime to a person.

And, as we are Christ-followers in so many things, we can follow Christ’s example in this.  We can humbly admit that, while we have good hearts and good intentions, we sometimes miss the mark with our words; and we can learn to do better – no matter what age we are.  

Hebrews 4:15 states “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”  Jesus understands that sometimes we are dealt a certain hand of cards – we are taught biases growing up depending on where we lived – AND we can learn to move beyond those ideas if they are not inclusive of God’s love towards everyone.  

In Jesus’ heart, he had compassion and mercy and, of course, a desire to do God’s will.  This story shows us that he had to learn how to best employ what was in his heart in order to do God’s will.  In doing so, Jesus healed the woman’s daughter of what was plaguing her. 

Andrew Prior, an Australian minister, states, “The only way to follow Jesus is to recognize and to repent of our privilege, as he did.”  In this, we follow in Jesus’ way of compassion and inclusion.

May our hearts have much love in them so that it spills forth in our words. Amen.  

Scripture: Matthew 15:10-28

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Sermon 8/13/17

How many of you have been disappointed by a person or situation not meeting your expectations?  Even when we make our expectations very clear to another, it is easy to be disappointed if they are not fulfilled.  

Image result for anticipationIs there a difference between expectation and anticipation?  I would say yes – that even though these words can be used interchangeably, that there is also a slight difference in connotation.  

Liz Uram, a “professional business coach,” suggests that “One is hope and one is entitlement.”  She says anticipation is hope and it leaves room for how an opportunity may present itself.  Expectation is entitlement and it relies on a specific outcome happening.  

They’re very similar meanings, but with a slightly different connotation.  And that slight difference can make a huge impact on how we interact with the world and with our God.

Do we anticipate experiencing God?  Do we expect to see God in a certain manner and are those expectations normally realized?  When we put expectations on how we will encounter God, how does that put God in a box?  How do our expectations limit what we should anticipate?

The Catholic devotional site, word-sunday.com, states “God is indeed so great we experience him when we least expect him to appear.”  Perhaps even in the silence of a moment.

This morning’s story of Elijah seeing God on the mountaintop is a perfect lesson in anticipation and expectation.  In it, Elijah is told that the Lord will pass by and likely Elijah would have expected to see God in the earth quaking or fire or wind because that’s exactly what happened with Moses generations earlier.  However, Elijah would’ve been wrong in those expectations.  His anticipation of hearing God was, ironically, fulfilled in the silence.

A little more background story: Elijah’s experience here comes right after a high in his ministry.  The book of 1 Kings tells us about Elijah taking down 450 prophets of the false god, Baal.  He challenged them to show that their god was better than the Lord we know – and, alas, their god did not stand up to the challenge.  These prophets served Queen Jezebel, who was not so delighted when she heard about their demise.  

So, Jezebel threatened Elijah.  And this is where our story picks up.  Elijah heard of Jezebel’s threats and he retreated to Mount Horeb. It is there that the angel of the Lord encounters him and God speaks to Elijah.

If you compare this story to Moses’ mountain top story, they are rather similar and show how biblical stories have shared literary themes and structures.  Moses climbs Mt. Sinai.  Elijah climbs Mt. Horeb, which is actually another name for Mt. Sinai.  So, it is the same location for these two men to encounter God.  Moses led the Israelites through the desert for 40 years.  Before Elijah reached the mountain, he traveled 40 days and 40 nights (v.8).  

Contrasting the two stores…When Moses was on the mountain, it was engulfed in smoke from the fire and wind after the earth shook.  When Elijah was on the mountain, the fire and wind and earthquakes were there, but that is not where God was found.  

One thing you may notice, God asks Elijah the same question before he appears in the silence and after.  Elijah’s answer is the same both times.  There’s no way we could know if it is said with different intentions or attitudes, but Elijah’s answer remains the same.

God: What are you doing here, Elijah?

Elijah: I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.

In fact, Elijah has done these things, but he is not the only one left who is zealous for the Lord.  Perhaps he feels that way, though.  

Even though Elijah is physically going up a mountain, he is coming down from a spiritual mountain top high.  He has just defeated 450 false prophets and now his life is being threatened.  I’m sure many of us can relate to this experience – where you have just experienced an incredible event that brings you closer to God and then – BAM! – reality hits.  In Elijah’s case, that reality was Jezebel threatening his life.  

It’s good for us to see this part of Elijah’s life, though, because we are reminded that Elijah is a human being – not a biblical superhero as we like to make many prophets out to be.  We can learn from it how we anticipate and expect to see God amidst our fears and troublesome times.  When we are overwhelmed by life and maybe are mentally fleeing to a mountain, it is easy to be blinded or deafened to God’s voice.  Instead, we need to anticipate encountering God in the  midst of our fears – maybe not expecting God to move in a certain way, but anticipating that God will.  God may not move in the wind, in an earthquake, or in the fire – God may move in the silence.  

We can learn from it that God can be encountered in many different places – even in places where God doesn’t specifically tell us to go.  God didn’t tell Elijah to go to the mountain.  The mountain happened to be where Elijah was at the time and God met him there.  Not to say that God won’t lead us some place; however, it’s good for us to be reminded that, as we go about our lives, there is no place where God can’t find us.  There is no place where we cannot encounter God – we do, though, need to anticipate that we will.  Even amidst our fears, when we are trying to run away from what we feel threatens us, we can encounter God.  

Our Psalm this morning – Psalm 85 – reflects our yearning to get a glimpse of God.  In the first part of the Psalm, the author recounts how God has forgiven and restored people in the past, and so the author asks that the Lord do it again.  We yearn for God’s presence because we know the power behind it.  

The Psalmist says, “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”  The author does not spell out how exactly that will happen, but does anticipate love and faithfulness and righteousness and peace.  

The question is should we anticipate with hope or expect with entitlement?  
How do you anticipate experiencing God?  Do you expect it to be in grand ways – or are you open to it being in quieter moments?  

I am anticipating seeing how God did and will work amid the blatant racism displayed yesterday in Charlottesville.  I am anticipating hearing stories from people on where they experience God’s love in the aftermath of such a hateful event.  I am anticipating seeing how God’s pure love of all people will win – anticipating seeing people from all different backgrounds truly unite under God’s love.

So, let us anticipate seeing and hearing how God works in this world – and let us be reminded of God’s steadfast love because of it. Amen.

Scripture: Psalm 85:8-13; 1 Kings 19:9-18

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