To Build a House

When we left off last week, Hannah had brought her young child Samuel to Shiloh, where he would serve alongside the prophet Eli in the temple. Unfortunately, Eli’s sons were corrupt and unfit to follow their father as spiritual leaders, and God spoke rarely in those days. Except to Samuel.

So when Eli died, Samuel found himself leading the Israelites as prophet, judge, and priest. He was respected and known as a prophet of great faith. As an old man, Samuel tried to hand off that leadership to his own sons, but they too, were also unable to remain faithful to God.

This is when the elders of the tribes of  4 …Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.

8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”  (from 1 Samuel 8, NRSV)

And so he did. Samuel told them. He delivered God’s warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king.

He said, “This is how the kind of king you’re talking about operates.  He’ll take your sons and make soldiers of them— chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He’ll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury.

He’ll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He’ll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He’ll tax your harvests and vintage

to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he’ll take for his own use. He’ll lay a tax on your flocks and you’ll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don’t expect God to answer [those cries]”  (from 1 Samuel 8 The Message)

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord.

22 The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.” ( 1 Sam 8 NRSV)

Honestly, this has got to be one of those moments face-palming, head-shaking moments for God. Samuel had warned them.  But the people were just as stiff-necked as their ancestors were in the days of Moses.

As God spoke, Samuel first anointed Saul, and then later David.  The transition from one rule to the next was chaotic, but eventually David’s position was solidified.  We begin our reading for today very close to the beginning of David’s time as King…

7 Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.”  3 Nathan said to the king, Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

4 But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: 5 Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? 6 I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. 7 Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”

8 Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; 9 and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies.

Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom.

13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod  such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.  17 In accordance with all these words and with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.  (2 Samuel 7:1-17, NRSV)

David is finally settled in his house, experiencing God’s gift of rest from surrounding enemies. Did you notice, though, that the narrator did not call David by his name?

The King is settled…  The King spoke to Nathan… Nathan spoke to the King…

This certainly helps reinforce the idea that David is King, not Saul. It also reminds us that the way people see us is not the way that God sees us. And, in fact, that we can get more attached to our identity as described by our work – our roles – Than our personal identity in relation to God.  

When God speaks, starting in verse 5, God always refers to David not as the King, But as as “my servant, David.”

God knows David by name.
God created and claimed David
God called and anointed David.
God had work for David to do, but the work was not David’s identity,
Nor was that work David’s righteousness. That is all about grace.

The promises made and kept by God are always undergirded by Grace…

God’s promises are never contingent upon our human works. including the promise of personal and communal relationships with God…

Otherwise, David, well, he would certainly never be known as a man’s after God’s own heart.
Those stiff-necked Israelites would never be God’s chosen people.
And we gentiles would never have been on God’s radar, much less adopted into the family as sisters and brothers of Christ.  

Grace abounds, friends.  

Like the air that we need to survive and do nothing to create or earn we are surrounded by the very grace our hearts crave…

But our human nature, our imperfect image-bearing, our not-quite-living-up-to-the-promise-of-the-garden reality keeps us from just being with God, rather than tracking how much we or others are doing for God.

Let’s look more closely at this conversation between God and David (by way of Nathan) starting at verse 2:

David is basically stating that he lives in a house of cedar, while the ark of God lives in a tent. David’s dwelling is stable, permanent and secure, while the ark — the symbol of God’s presence — is housed in something impermanent, flimsy by comparison.

What David wants is to build a “house,” or a temple, for God.  What isn’t entirely clear is David’s motivation.

Was David thinking this would be a tangible way to show gratitude? Kind of like the stories of pro football and basketball players who get multi-million dollar contracts and then build a new house for their parents  or grands or aunties or other family members who raised them…as a show of gratitude for their support in the early years…

Was David thinking this would “pay God back” for giving him rest and establishing him as king? Not so much an act of gratitude as settling a debt and clearing up his account with God.

Or maybe David wanted to build God a temple because he believed that if he did something for God, then God would do even more for him…

I could see any of these being true about David…
just as I can imagine these thoughts going through 
my own mind and heart.
OK… Just as I can remember similar ideas going through my own mind and heart, for smaller blessings than David experienced.

Because like David, even after decades of experiencing the enduring nature of God’s faithfulness, trusting in the saving work of Jesus and learning about the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life and in the world, I still don’t  fully understand the nature of God’s grace. Over and over again, God changes the equation from any sort of transaction into an unmerited gift.

See, David doesn’t need to build God a house in order for God to build David’s house. And David doesn’t need not do something to pay God back before God can or will do something more for David.

In fact, God makes it abundantly clear in this exchange that in addition to all that God has already done for David, there is more to come.

First, God reminds David that there is a reason none of Israel’s leaders never built a house for God.  God never asked them to. It was never on the list.  God’s got way more than 99 problems with the Children of Abraham, and living in a tabernacle ain’t one.

Second,  God reminds David of three things from David’s own experience with God: taking David from being a shepherd to be prince over Israel, being with David wherever he went, and cutting off all enemies before him.

Then, God gives three promises for the future:

In verse 10, God promises to “appoint a place” for Israel, to “plant them, so that they may live in their own place,” where they will not be disturbed, nor afflicted by evildoers. This seems very much tied to God’s promises in verses 9 and 11 to “make for [David] a great name” and give him “rest from all [his] enemies”.

Then God makes a promise that seems to be in direct response to David’s concerns about housing.

In verse 11, God promises to make a new kind of house for David. This is not a dwelling of cedar, or even of stone. This house will be a dynasty; God will establish a kingdom that will always be ruled by a descendant of David.

Now, let’s be super clear on something important…  this promise is in no way dependent on David and certainly not on David’s building God a temple. The temple will come later. In fact, it will be built by David’s son Solomon, and at this point in the narrative, Solomon may not even be a twinkle in David’s eye. And so, Solomon’s future building projects cannot be considered a prerequisite nor a condition for what God promises David. This is an unconditional covenant.

It is also an eternal one; God uses the word “forever” three times to describe David’s kingdom (2 Samuel 7:7:13, 16).

Verse 13:  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

And Verse 16: Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

Now you try and tell  that grace does not abound … this eternal covenant with the God who was and is and ever will be is unconditional. No strings attached.

The longevity of this dynasty isn’t even dependent upon David’s descendants behaving perfectly. In fact, God says that when — not if!  When! — the son commits iniquity, he will be punished, but God’s steadfast love will not depart from him as it did from Saul.

The consequences of sin will be real… for David, for all of this family.
Just as they are real for all of the tribes of Israel as time goes on.
Just as they are real for you and for me, for the church universal.
Just as they are for this particular gathering of saints in this time and place.

But remember friends, grace abounds.  

Sin brings consequences, but never ever ever will that consequence be a withdrawal of God’s steadfast love for us.

In fact, the mention of Saul toward the end of our passage is meant as a sobering reminder of what can happen to a kingdom and to a king, but it also heightens the graciousness of this promise God makes to David.

There’s really no logical reason why God would make this promise to David and David’s heirs…
God knows the human heart.
God has seen the ways that the power to judge, much less the power to rule as king, when mixed with our human messiness, is a recipe for corruption and manipulation by leaders.  

But God’s plans go far beyond the horizon that David could see.  

And so we will hear echoes of God’s promise to David in the words of Isaiah and other prophets especially as we approach advent and recount the story of God’s people awaiting their messiah.

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David when Jesus says to Simon, the disciple who first claimed  him as Messiah, the Son of the Living God, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

We will hear echoes of God’s promise to David as Paul describes Jesus as the cornerstone, the one that the builders rejected but became to foundation on which the kingdom of God would be built..

God’s greatest desire is to see the world blessed through the people God blesses.
To see the world loved through those who experience God’s love
To see the world reconciled through those who have experienced the grace that abounds beyond anything we can imagine.

Grace that cannot be housed
Grace that cannot be contained or constrained by transaction

Dear ones… Grace. Abounds.

Even in our 21st century quid-pro-quo meritocracy
Grace. Abounds.

Even as we choose not a King, but a president.
Grace. Abounds.

We are surrounded by grace.  Swimming in it.
We are redeemed by grace.  Saved by it.

Our stories of survival and redemption and being welcomed home are dripping with grace. 

And those stories need to be told, over and over, out in the wide world, warts and all…
so that  every person we see and hear and touch and smell in this world,
no matter where we go, knows they are welcome in God’s house, too.

And Finally, Yes.

Narrative Lectionary passage for this week: 1 Samuel 1:9-11, 19-20; 2:1-10

I’d love to just dive right into this story, but I really think it’s worth the few minutes it’s going to take to get a sense where today’s story about Hannah fits into the larger story of our God, as well as the promises God made to our spiritual  ancestors.  

Partly because of one of the frustrating things I find true about my own recollection of the Biblical canon- I grew up hearing the stories of Gideon and Paul, John the Baptist and Esther, Noah and Joshua, Peter and David…. All mixed in with plenty of Jesus…  and rarely in order…  and generally without any of the begat sections that might have helped get them closer to the proper order.

But I also want to help you see that Hannah is both a continuation of and kind of a hinge point in the history of God’s chosen people.  

Just like Moses and the people that he and Aaron led through the desert, Hannah was a part of the promise made to Abraham all those many generations ago. After the first generation of the wandering Israelites had died, Joshua finally led the next generation into the land that had been promised. That story is in the book of Joshua, which is followed by the book of Judges.  

The judges are series of leaders that included Samson, Deborah, Gideon and others who took on the work of helping the people to establish themselves, to protect their new homeland and to follow God’s law.  Like much of human history, this part of the Hebrew’s narrative is filled with sin, as well as repentance. But even as Israel grows in number and prosperity, the book does not end well…

The final chapters describe a brutal rape, followed by murder, and dismemberment. The people fall into Intertribal warfare and finally the book of Judges ends with these words:

21: 25 In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes.

The book of Ruth comes next, then the two volumes dedicated to Samuel with their companions called 1st and 2nd Kings.  1 Samuel is where we are first introduced to Elkanah and his two wives: Hannah (the first) and Peninnah (the second wife). Peninnah had children; Hannah did not.

Now – every year Elkanah left his hometown and went to Shiloh to worship and offer a sacrifice.  Eli and his two sons served as priests there. When Elkanah sacrificed, he gave portions of the sacrificial meal to his wife Peninnah and all her children, but he always gave an especially generous helping to Hannah because he loved her so much, and because God had not given her children.

Year after year, Peninnah taunted Hannah cruelly, never letting her forget that God had not given her children. Every time she went to the sanctuary of God Hannah tried to steel herself for the abuse she would face, but she was reduced to tears and one year, she just couldn’t eat.  Elkanah noticed, and he even asked her what was wrong, wishing she were satisfied with what he provided her.

And here we’ll pick up the reading for today…  (1 Samuel 9:9)

After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord, and wept bitterly. She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a nazirite until the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”

It turns out that Eli was watching her as she prayed, silently.  He could see her lips moving, even though she didn’t speak… somehow he decided she must be drunk, so he walked up and told her she was making a scene. She needed to sober up. When Hannah told Eli how she had been mocked, he understood that she truly was pouring out her heart to God in sorrow and pain.  He said to Hannah, “Go in Peace and may the God of Israel  give you what you have asked. “Hannah’s heart was lighter as she asked Eli to remember her and pray for her. And finally, she could eat.

They [Elkanah and Hannah] rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, [yes, that kind of knowing] and the Lord remembered her. In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

The next time Elkanah took the family to Shiloh to worship God, Hannah didn’t go. She told her husband, “Once the child is weaned, I’ll bring him myself and present him before God—and that’s where he’ll stay, for good.” Elkanah said to his wife, “Do what you think is best.

So she did. She stayed home and nursed her son until she had weaned him. Then she took him up to Shiloh, along with the makings of a generous sacrificial meal—a prize bull, flour, and wine.

First, they butchered the bull, then brought the child to Eli. Hannah introduced herself to Eli, saying  “Would you believe that I’m the very woman who was standing before you at this very spot, praying to God? The one you thought was drunk… I prayed for this child, and God gave me what I asked for. And now I have dedicated him to God. He’s dedicated to God for life.”

Right then and there, they began to worship God.

Hannah prayed and she sang,
“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”

Hannah’s prayer for a child came from a place of deep sadness, deep pain. She knew she was loved. She was the first of Elkanah’s wives, The favored one… even though Peninah was the one able to provide him with children.

Hannah did all the things wives are meant to do.  She would have run the household, helping Elkanah assure that all of the people associated with his land were fed and cared for.  And every time Peninah bore another child, especially another son, the absence of children from her own womb….

When I think about the way our text describes Peninnah’s taunts,   I can’t help but picture a couple of scenes in the 1958 movie adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Not the plot so much as the tension that is so visible between the childless Maggie (played by Elizabeth Taylor) and Mae with her clan of noisy children…  all representing a legacy, a continuation of the family name.  All representing something that Maggie apparently can’t have. And Mae, like Peninnah, is fertile which it comes to producing children and inflicting pain.   

Hannah was faithful to Elkanah, was faithful to God.  She was a good woman.  There was no obvious reason for her not to be fruitful. She had heard from childhood the story of Abraham and Sarah.
The story of a woman who believed and tried to believe in her moments of doubt that God would bring her a child, even in her old age.
The story of the promise itself: that through Abraham and his children, there would be a great nation of people, a nation whose people outnumber the stars in the night sky.

From childhood, Hannah would have imagined herself adding to that number.  Because both Abraham and Sarah were blessed to be a blessing…  

She knew that God remembered Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, blessing them and giving them life and land. But Tamar was not the mother God had called to bring the first child of promise. It was Sarah.  Sarah who laughed at God at the idea and then laughed with joy at Isaac’s birth.

And so Hannah, even in her sorrow, had hope.  

Because her God – our God- is the God who keeps promises and brings life.  Even out of barrenness, even in the wilderness.

Even though we live outside the garden, beyond the promise of good without the knowledge of evil, the Earth we till can produce more than enough food for all…

Through the womb of the red sea, God brought Moses and the children of Israel into a life of freedom from the bonds of slavery.  

All those years outside the land of promise, God continued to bring life, in daily manna and quail, in the sound of newborns wailing and toddlers giggling.

Hannah remembers the stories, remembers God’s promise to bless the children of Israel, remembers the ways that even in her barrenness, God and Elkanah have cared for her, and so she prays for a way to honor and thank them.

Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

Year after year, every time they go to Shiloh,
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

and all the days between
Remember me, she prays.  Remember me..

And finally, yes.

Oh the joy!

God hears and remembers me (just as God heard Tamar)
God hears and remembers me (just as God heard the people’s cries in Egypt)
God hears and remembers and pours out a blessing on me!
A blessing of grace, of life, of transformation… with every passing day as her belly swelled…
God’s blessing was so very real.. So very present.
What a glorious beautiful yes.  Finally.   

Hannah keeps her promise as well, bringing Samuel to Eli, where he is dedicated to service to the Lord.  And it is in this moment that Hannah sings.  

She joins Miriam and Deborah as a singers of songs of joy. She sings over the gift of her child who will ,in time, annoint another singer of songs, David.  And from the house of David will come another child of promise through another singer of songs, another woman of faith, the most favored of ladies – Mary.   

Hannah sings…

The people of Israel are favored by God, and historically,  God is their king. But look carefully at what she sings… God is incomparable, there is no God like this God. Human strength comes from God and is exalted in God. God is in the business of reversing what we understand as might

The strong become weak and the weak become strong
The mighty become powerless,
The dead come to life
The poor become rich

But not because they are able to do so in human power…
God raises up, brings down, kills and brings to life
God lifts the needy from the ash heap so they might join those in seats of power

Not by might does one prevail
All the ways we exert power as humans fall short in comparison with God’s power to change the course of human circumstances.
God made good from Joseph’s plight, using a passing band of Ishmaelites to save Egypt and the people of many nations (including Israel) from famine.
Generations later, God brought the people out of Egypt with displays of the power in plagues and the parting of the sea.
Joshua and Gideon never won a battles through strategy or armies so large they overwhelmed their foes, it was always God’s strength on display in human weakness, in their willingness, by faith, to do the illogical.  

There is something beautiful and poignant about this story. And while it seems to be so very distant from us, it is very timely. Hannah had nothing…  and when God provided her most fervent desire, she kept her promise to give it away. Entrusting her child to the future – a future of service to God, and by extension a future of service to the people

Hannah sings a prayer that speaks to her own joy, even as she rejoices for her people. Her fortunes have been reversed.  She had nothing to contribute, no legacy to offer her people, but now God has blessed her to be a blessing to them and to God.

Her long-awaited child was given by God, with no promises that another would follow. Even so, Hannah returns Samuel to God in gratitude.

The open-handedness of her gift is astounding.  Partly because we live in a culture that offers cry rooms to parents dropping their children for the first half day of preschool…  and partly because we have become so accustomed to abundance that we are terrified of scarcity

Many of us have been in seats of power and influence long enough that a song about God’s power to reverse fortunes should make us uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable enough to look at what we are grasping too tightly.
Uncomfortable enough to loosen our grip before God loosens it for us.

We should be uncomfortable because it doesn’t take a lot of squinting to read the teachings of the prophets and the words of Jesus as stark reminders that God favors the poor. God favors  the powerless and the oppressed

And my friends, in case you’re wondering… that is not us.

Contrary to what those who are striving for power would tell you, we remain the strongest, richest nation in the world. We have access to more resources than anyone else. We have the biggest arsenal of weapons.  The only thing we don’t have the most of… people.  But the places with more people don’t have our technology.

We in this room right here are not poor- especially those of us with a roof over our heads, a car in the driveway and a bank account in the black.

We are not oppressed – especially those of us who are Anglo, who are Christian, who are native speakers of English.

Yes, we have our struggles.  And yes, some of us do struggle against discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation  Yes, we all experience illness and loss.

But we have been blessed… so, so very blessed.

As we think about our own homes and this congregation, As we choose leaders for the communities we represent and for our nation…

We ought to be asking ourselves this question… After we’ve counted our blessings, after we’ve given thanks, what would God have us do with that inventory?

Are we going to use those blessings to bless others?  Or are we going to wait for God to force our hand?

Are we -each of us – seeking out opportunities
to give away our wealth?
to advocate for those whose voices have been silenced?
to give up a seat at the table so that someone else might join?
to cry out for peace?

Are we mourning with those who mourn…
Especially with  those mourning loved ones taken unjustly through gun violence
Or because public health spending has been cut to dangerous levels
Or because access to insurance and prescription medicine Is still not universal
Because people die from all of those, you know.

Are we seeking peace in our cities…
By working to assure that all citizens have equal access to education and training, transportation and recreation, jobs and housing?

Because the church of Jesus Christ, the One who embodied not just the love and mercy of God but is also the King of Kings and will sit as our judge…. His church has been blessed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  

It’s time to stop storing up our blessings for a rainy day…  because our world is already flooded with pain and sorrow and injustice, And we, my friends, are part of God’s disaster recovery plan.

The church of Jesus Christ… This church…. This Body…
as been blessed…
and called…
and commanded to be about the business of being a blessing in the world
joyfully singing God’s praises…
sacrificially feeding others and giving ourselves away …
obediently listening and following God’s ways.…
Day by day… hour by hour… moment by moment.

May we count our blessings, give thanks and open our hands to release those blessings to the glory of God.
Day by day…
Hour by hour… Moment by moment…
Until teh very end of the age.  



Image is Everything

Last week, we left the people of Israel in Egypt, awaiting the 14th of the month, when the plague on the first born was to be visited on the people of Egypt. They had their instructions, and on that night, they wore their traveling clothes and goin’ shoes as they ate lamb and unleavened bread for dinner.  They painted the lintels and sills of their doors with the lambs’ blood, marking their homes as Hebrew homes, keeping their oldest male children and animals safe.  As God told Moses to expect, this was the last straw for Pharaoh.  He finally let Moses and the children of Abraham go.

As we move forward through the story I want you to listen closely and make note of the ways God is described.  What do the people of Israel see and hear when God was present?   It might help us later if you to scribble down some notes…

God led the people out of Egypt, not in the most direct way possible, but toward the Red Sea.  They were prepared for battle, of course, but God was worried that if they actually faced war, they might choose to return to Egypt. So the Lord led them out along the edge of the wilderness, with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day. Then, when it seemed that Pharaoh’s army had them surrounded on the shore, God provided a way through the Red Sea.

Time and again, the strength of the Lord was on display, revealing the difference between the rulers of human kingdoms and the power of the Creator,  revealing the faithfulness of the God who makes and keeps Promises.

Time and again, the generosity of the Lord was on display, revealing the care of the God who Provides. Manna and quail, water and safe passage. Whatever the people needed- even rest – was offered in love.  

They continued on, following the Lord in the cloud and fire, grumbling a bit, bringing their complaints to the judges and Moses, gathering their daily bread, resting every seventh day…  until they reached Mt. Sinai. The whole of Israel set up camp there, facing the mountain.

3-6 As Moses went up to meet God, God called down to him from the mountain: “Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’  “This is what I want you to tell the People of Israel.”

7 Moses came back and called the elders of Israel together and set before them all these words which God had commanded him. 8 The people were unanimous in their response: “Everything God says, we will do.”

Moses took the people’s answer back to God. 9 God said to Moses, “Get ready. I’m about to come to you in a thick cloud so that the people can listen in and trust you completely when I speak with you.”  (Exodus 19:3-9 The Message)

God did exactly that… after a three-day ritual, the people were consecrated. They were warned not to touch or come near the holy mountain.  

And then…  at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear.

17 Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain.

18-20 Mount Sinai was all smoke because God had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms.

The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and God answered in thunder. God descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. God called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up.  (Exodus 19:16-20 The Message)

God sent him back down to remind the people not to come up, and to bring Aaron back with him.   God continued to speak to Moses from the cloud, and to the people it was like Moses was in conversation  with a horrible storm…  The cloud flashed with lightning and echoed with thunder and blasts from a horn like a storm siren.

God provided the rules that the people were to follow, like “Terms of Agreement” for the covenant between God’s chosen people and their Lord. Moses and Aaron returned to the people with those terms.

Moses took the Book of the Covenant and read it as the people listened. They said, “Everything God said, we’ll do. Yes, we’ll obey.” (Exodus 24:3, The Message)

Then God told Moses to climb up the mountain again.  

Moses told the elders of Israel, “Wait for us here until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; if there are any problems, go to them.”

15-17 Then Moses climbed the mountain. The Cloud covered the mountain. The Glory of God settled over Mount Sinai. The Cloud covered it for six days. On the seventh day he called out of the Cloud to Moses. In the view of the Israelites below, the Glory of God looked like a raging fire at the top of the mountain. (Exodus 24:14-18, The Message)

Moses was on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.

This time God gave Moses all the instructions for creating and outfitting the Tent of Meeting, for selecting and ordaining the priests who would lead the people in worship, as well as a strong reminder that the people are to keep the Sabbath. Then God gave Moses two tablets of Testimony, slabs of stone, written with the finger of God.

It was at some point during this forty days and nights that the events in our assigned passage for today take place.  

1 When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

2 Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.”  

3 So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.”

6 They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8 they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10 Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

11 But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

12 Why should the Egyptians say, “It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.

13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, “I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.'” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.  (Exodus 32:1-14, NRSV)

FIrst, I have to confess that the conversation between God and Moses sounds to me like two parents, who have heard about their children’s misdeeds via the babysitter, as they linguistically disown the the Israelites.

“Your people,” God says to Moses, “whom You brought up out of the land of Egypt….  They are out. of. Control.”

“Oh no, God,” Moses says, “Remember you brought them out of Egypt with your strong and mighty hand!  Those are Your people”

I’m just going to claim that as scriptural evidence that we truly are made in the image of God… at the very least in terms of a universal conversation pattern.

But seriously… what were they thinking?  What got into those people?
And how did Aaron get suckered into aiding and abetting them?

Granted, “forty days” isn’t necessarily a precise counting of 40.  The number 40 is often used symbolically in the ancient Hebrew culture, denoting “a long time.” So it might have been 40 days, or six months….  Or a long weekend.

We all know that time can be slippery… Especially when you are anxious.

Like when you’re in the middle of a lot of change and transition, and your leader seems to have forgotten that he was taking you someplace better than Egypt, better than the wilderness.
Like when you’ve already been waiting for a while to get to some sort of “normal” life again.
Time might just mess with your mind a bit.
It gets slippery

The truth is, Moses was coming back.
The bigger truth is that God remained with and for them…

But it’s human nature to lose sight of the truth when we’re stressed. Am I right?

The proof was  was there… How many ways was the presence of God made visible, just in the trek from Egypt to Mount Sinai? Depending on how you count them… between 6-10…

What did you write down?  Yeah- God has been present in many ways…  and even incarnationally – in leaders like Moses, Aaron and Hur.

But now, in this moment of fear and anxiety, when Moses and God seem to be in an eternal side conversation without them, the people decide they need something tangible.  

The problem isn’t so much that they want to get rid of Yahweh, the Promising God who has delivered them out of Egypt and led them to this place.  The problem is their incomplete understanding of their God.

Their vision is blurry.  And thus, the golden calf is less the image of a false god than a false image of the true God.

But God is outraged.
They have created a graven image of God.
And this is not to be tolerated.  
It says so in those Terms of Agreement.
Multiple times.
Multiple ways.  

Even if they had created an accurate image, it would have been a breach of their covenant, their part of the promise to be in relationship with God.

I can only imagine how the God who Created Everything would be less than thrilled to seem confined to the form of a calf.  To be re-imaged into the form of one of the many local gods…  Those Ba-als and other gods are fickle and unfaithful, manipulative and even manipulated by the actions of those who worship them.

It’s no wonder God was ready to rip into the Israelites.  

But Moses reminds God that the promise made to Abraham and Sarah all those generations ago was still in effect.  And that even the Egyptians had seen God’s true nature.  After all, it really was God, not Moses who had brought the people up out of Egypt.  

In this pivotal moment,  Moses stands in the breach- turning away God’s wrath to make way for God’s mercy.  This was radical advocacy, as Moses stood against God on the people’s behalf.

He must have believed that even in rebellion, God would be faithful to the people.
And God was.
God is.  

Over and over again.
Present and faithful.
Even now.

It’s all still there in the Terms of Agreement pages. Archived for us in the scriptural records.

The original version in the chapters of Exodus I kind of fast-forwarded through, and a slightly updated version in the life and teachings of Jesus throughout the gospels. When we read them again, with fresh eyes in search of the true God, we see with fresh eyes who we are in relation to God.

We are God’s people, blessed to be a blessing.
Honored to be part of recognizing and naming God’s creative and merciful work in each beloved child we meet- whether or not they know or believe that God loves them..

We are God’s people, the Body of Christ, blessed to be a blessing.
Following in the way of Jesus, Watching for the signal from God to stay or go. Trusting the Holy Spirit to empower and encourage, to provide us the gifts we need.

Oh it’s easy for us to lose hope, to lose sight of God.
Way too easy.

We’ve got even more distractions at the ready than those stiff-necked people Moses was responsible for leading. And we’re still plenty stubborn.

We may not have altars and golden calfs, but we manage to erect plenty of sacred cows.  And should anyone come, even in cover of darkness, to do some sacred-cow-tipping, you can be sure that someone else will set it right back up.

Traditions, preferences, habits, memorials, procedures…  all of them can become idols that distract us from our worship and work as the people of God. The very people and things meant to help us express our love for God become human-made images of false gods.

And certainly there are sacred cows in our broader culture… exceptionalism, nationalism, capitalism, individualism… that can lead us to worship secular idols of our own making – those tangible proofs of success…
a new car, the right style or brand of clothing, or a lovely house in the right neighborhood,
a respected career or one more advanced degree.
There are the idols of busyness or importance.
The idols of economic security and social standing.    

I’m pretty sure we could go on all day with a list if we wanted, but I suspect I’ve stepped on most everyone’s toes at least once already.  I know my toes hurt.  

I’ll be honest here… The other night, before we knew that Hurricane Matthew was going to make that wobble out into the ocean as it approached Cape Canaveral, our home was within the range of hurricane force winds…  the 100-120 mph range. I wasn’t scared of being hurt or even killed. But I was worried about my stuff. What if I lost all my stuff?   Yeah.  I know.

John Calvin was likely right when he said  “The human heart is a factory of idols…Everyone of us is, from [our] mother’s womb, expert in inventing idols.”

But you know, in addition to creating images of false gods that distract us from our Saving and Promising God, we can also become a false image of the true god.  

Together, we are God’s plan for the world as we bear God’s image, reflect God’s image in the world. Or as the apostle Paul would say, we are the Body of Christ, knit together and empowered by the Holy Spirit, to continue God’s ministry of reconciliation

When I was at the Rosh Hashanah service the other day, celebrating the Jewish New Year with our friends, one of the songs we sang described 13 qualities of character that help us to reflect the image of God in our daily lives. Since the service was for children, they included an English translation in simplified language that I want to share with you:

Adonai Adonai God is apart from us and a part of us
Ayl God gives us strength when we are…
Rahum: Compassionate
V’Hanun: Accepting
Erekh apayeem: Patient
V’rav Hesed kind
Ve-Emet and honest
Mozayr Hesed extending kindness to people we know
La-alafeem even to those we don’t know
NoSay Avon by not letting petty people upset us
Va-Fesha by not letting mean people upset us
V’ha-Ta-A by not getting upset by people who just want to make us mad
V’Na-Kay and by forgiving those who are truly sorry.

I like that list a lot. I need those reminders of who God is, and what it looks like to reflect God’s image day by day.  But this isn’t a list just for me or for you, at least not alone.  This is a list by which we are all accountable to one another as we  bear God’s image into the world.

If people can see us being compassionate, accepting and patient, kind and honest, whether or not we know the people to whom we extend those kindnesses.  

If people can see us letting things go- the pettiness and button pushing, the ways that mean people treat us.  

If people can see us forgiving anyone who truly seeks forgiveness…

Then people can see and experience God.
In us.
Through us.

As I read that list, I thought… yeah, the Apostle Paul, he made good use of his knowledge of the Hebrew law.  He enfolded all of this as he described the fruit of the Spirit… the evidence that people are living according to God’s will in the power of the Holy Spirit.  And he described it again as he taught the church at Corinth what love was meant to look like in community. Not just for his fellow Jews, but for the Gentiles like us, who were being folded into family of God via adoption.

On the days that God seems far away for us, in this time between called pastors as our vision team and session pray and listen for the mission God has for this congregation, time might get a little slippery, it’s already been more than 40 days!

The truth remains  that God is with us and for us and that God has a wonderful plan for this body…

I just might become harder to hold tight to that truth, too.  

I’m here to say – keep your gold jewelry, unless God tells you to give it away or sell it to help the poor. I’m not going into the statuary business any time soon.

But do something for me…  in the coming weeks and months, make note of the things you feel most protective of, most concerned about losing.
As you run across them, ask yourself….
Are they more precious to you than relationships with others?
Are they more precious than your connection to the God who brought you out of your own Egypt, whatever that bondage may have been?
Are the things that prod you into conflict or frustration, or even the temptation to head back to Egypt or some other, easier place to dwell, are those things truly of God?  

When God calls us and empowers us to get moving… literally or figuratively… it is easy for seeds of doubt, fear and hatred to be sown This is why Paul reminded us for all generations that Faith, Hope and Love must abide.

In you, in me, in all of us together.

Then and only then are we true image bearers of the true God.

The Promise of Passover

With enduring gratitude to RevGal Teri Peterson (who blogs over here) and Working Preacher’s commentary for this week (by Jacqueline E. Lapsley).  Some Sundays a preacher needs a lot of help to pull a rabbit out of her hat.


If we pick up the trail of our narrative again, after Jacob’s death, we see that Joseph and his brothers stayed in Egypt. Joseph continued to have favor in the king’s court, and he lived to be 110… which was long enough to see three generations of the children of Israel born.  

God continued to bless each of these generations to be a blessing, keeping covenant with the descendants of Abraham.  As they prospered, Egypt prospered.

And then… a new king rose to power in Egypt.  

One who had not known Joseph, had not heard the stories of how the Israelites who had become so numerous had once been welcomed because of Joseph’s wisdom, because of his keeping Egypt and other nations from starvation during a horrible famine.

Instead, this new king only saw the potential for trouble.  

These people were not his people. They were a minority, rapidly gaining ground.  They were immigrants, really, taking up space and using resources that  – by right – would/should have gone to Egyptians.

This king had lost sight of the abundance that existed and could only see scarcity, the potential for loss, and even the potential for an uprising or alliance with other outsiders and enemies that could displace him and his people from their place in power.

And so, as we read in the first chapter of Exodus (11-14):

[The egyptians] set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites.

The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

And yet… the king was still not satisfied. The Israelites were still a threat, and they would be as long as they continued to live and multiply. And so…
Against the will of the God who promises, the God who creates, this king was determined to destroy the Hebrew people.
Against the will of the God who brings life, the king ordered death for every male child born.

And as is God is wont to do in humanly impossible situations, God made a way.
And because God has an incredible sense of irony, it happened in the household of the king.

We know the story of baby Moses, who ought to have been destroyed at his birth, being rescued and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.How he eventually came to know the God who promises, the God who is who God will be, the God who calls those who seem least likely to lead.  

Which God did… making clear that this man who stammered would be the one to speak for God in the halls of the Pharaoh.  making clear that there would be no turning back for Moses, or the people of Israel.  

Now that the promise of God to Abraham, the promise that his descendants would be a mighty nation, the promise of land and on which to prosper, now that this promise was threatened by the destructive power of the Egyptian King, the time had come for God to intervene.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh: Indeed, by a mighty hand he will let them go; by a mighty hand he will drive them out of his land.”

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am the Lord.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty, but by my name ‘The Lord’ I did not make myself known to them.  I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they resided as aliens.  

I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.

Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment.

I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians.  

I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’”  Moses told this to the Israelites; but they would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery.

We also know the story of Moses being sent to tell Pharaoh that the people of Israel were not his to rule or oppress or destroy.  That the people of Israel were God’s people. And it was time to let them go.

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.”

We know the story of the plagues –
the water in the Nile turning to blood,
the frogs, the gnats, the flies,
the death of the Egyptian livestock,
the boils covering the people’s skin, and their animals’ skin
the hail and the locusts and the darkness.
And finally, the plague on the firstborn.  

The God who promises, the God who creates… had, well basically, God had had enough.

But rather than destroy all the children of Egypt or even all the male children as the King had commanded, the plague would fall only on their firstborn sons.

God gave this warning through Moses:
“Thus says the Lord: About midnight I will go out through Egypt.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the female slave who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the livestock.  

Then there will be a loud cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again.  But not a dog shall growl at any of the Israelites—not at people, not at animals—so that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel.

Then all these officials of yours shall come down to me, and bow low to me, saying, ‘Leave us, you and all the people who follow you.’ After that I will leave.”

And still hot with anger, Moses left Pharaoh

But God had words of instruction and warning for the Israelites, too.  And that is where we pick up today’s readings:

12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household.

If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it.

Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight.

They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it.  They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn.

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.

The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.

The episode is, of course, the one recalled every year in the celebration of the Jewish Passover. The story also has profound meaning for us as Christians for two reasons –
it reveals that delivering people from oppression is a core feature of God’s character,
and we cannot help but see its connections to our understandings of the death of Jesus in the New Testament (namely Jesus as the Passover lamb).  

But I’d like us to make note of something important, an ethic that is key to understanding current passover practice, as well as  Jesus’ teachings about community and abundance.

Did you catch the bit about families too small for a whole lamb? In that case – or if a family cannot afford to provide a lamb for the Passover, it is the responsibility of a neighboring family to share what they have.

The idea that “households join together” and that the lamb shall be divided proportionally to the number of persons present reflects a deep biblical conviction that the good of the community as a whole must and should be intentionally cultivated.

Over and over again, the Hebrew Bible and our very Hebrew messiah emphasize that members of a community are to be responsible for the community’s welfare, and not, in general, to be focused on the rights of particular individuals.

Yes, I know, that sounds like a socialist construct…  but it’s in there… especially in that commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves –  and even as Christ loved us… even sacrificially.

Whether under the oppression of an Egyptian regime or the Roman empire, or in Central Florida neighborhoods, we who know the God Who Keeps Covenant are to be a bodily representation of the God Who Loves, the God Who Provides.

You can imagine, these slaves who have been experiencing true scarcity must have been confused – or at least surprised – by God’s command to eat what they can that night and burn the leftovers. Normally they would have saved every scrap, gathered and wrapped it up to take it along.

With this strange meal, when God’s chosen people are told not to wait for the bread to rise, and thus, the economy of the wilderness is inaugurated. Israel is set to embark on a journey in which they learn to trust the God Who Promises as their Deliverer and as their provider of food – their daily bread. They must leave hoarding and scarcity behind, both as a practice and as a mental habit, if they are to embrace faith in this God who delivers them.

And there is more…
13:1 The Lord said to Moses:

Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine.

Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, because the Lord brought you out from there by strength of hand; no leavened bread shall be eaten.

Today, in the month of Abib, you are going out.  When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which he swore to your ancestors to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall keep this observance in this month.

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there shall be a festival to the Lord.  Unleavened bread shall be eaten for seven days; no leavened bread shall be seen in your possession, and no leaven shall be seen among you in all your territory.

You shall tell your child on that day, “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’

Telling the story in every generation — that God delivers those who suffer from oppression, that God works for the flourishing of the world — is a central task for those who trust in God. After all, the testimony of those who have experienced God’s saving power is both vital and necessary for God’s work in the world to go forward.

In fact, if we do not tell God’s story, other stories will fill the vacuum, and far too few of those stories are life-giving. Far too many stories make powerful people the heroes, and thus awaken our fears, stir up our need to dominate, and tempt us to abuse our own influence for personal gain.

Too many of our human-focused stories make us forget that we are, in fact, a WE.

When we tell the story of the God Who Promises, the God Who Provides, we join believers in every time and place to participate in what the Jewish tradition describes as the ongoing repair of the world (tikkun olam).

And doing the work of tikkun olam – doing the incarnational work of reconciliation that Jesus and the apostles embodied in their time, working for the flourishing of the world, here and now – in our neighborhoods, in our community, is how we love our neighbors well.

Being a part of the story – not just telling the story but being part of the story –  in every generation is a central task for those who trust in God.

But to do so, we must leave behind the destructive bent of empire, the scarcity and fear that leads to exclusion and division. It means putting on your shoes and grabbing a coat, and not waiting for the bread to rise, because leaving the empire is risky business.

Our God can and will topple the gods of the empire… The empire will not like it, of course. Those in power will fight to keep it – with everything they’ve got, as they always have…

But over and over, in every generation, in every year and week and day, God is working for freedom and for life, pushing on the gods of empire — the gods of consumerism and violence and self-sufficiency –

And in every generation, in every year and week and day, we are to remind ourselves and our children that we are different. We together are different because of what the Lord did for us when we came out of Egypt.

This isn’t about nostalgia —looking back with longing.

The past is the present is the future. So the people of God are told to re-live this moment, to re-enact it and experience again the simultaneous anxiety and awe of trusting God.

We will do exactly that in a few minutes as we approach the table and share in the Lord’s Supper. We will tell the story that Jesus told. Remembering that the bread he held up and blessed and broke was unleavened bread, bread that did not rise, because he was reminding the disciples again that the Hebrew people could not wait that night.

We will tell the story of our deliverer, who blessed the wine that represented the blood of the lamb and then said it was his own blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins. A new covenant alongside the old, the present in concert with the past and looking toward the future.

When we eat and drink today, we proclaim the saving death of Jesus, and we proclaim that we refuse to be sustained by the bread of affliction, we refuse to claim the power of the empire

We claim instead the nourishment of the God Who Provides, the God Who Promises, the God who is Faithful. And we trust that the word and the table and the Spirit together will sustain and and empower this Body to live and do the work to which we are called – all to God’s glory.

May this be true in us and of us, today and every day. Amen.

Long and Winding Road

Narrative Lectionary Texts (embedded below): Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15-21

This fall, we are trekking through the Old Testament again, this time watching for the recurring theme of promise.  There was a promising start in the garden, the promise of paradise and purpose as the first humans tended the garden.

But this was followed by the broken understanding, the people choosing to believe that God would somehow hold back from them, not offering them the best, choosing to go against God’s wishes. And then facing the consequences.

Even in their exile, in their struggle to produce their own food in the reality of the same world we inhabit, Adam and Eve experienced God’s grace.  God’s presence was a bit more distant, but the promise of care and provision remained.

They were still known and watched over, they were still beloved.  Just as we are beloved in our still-not-as-it-should-be,  still-not-as-it-will-be world.

Abraham’s relationship with God also reminds us that God is a keeper of promises.  To be sure, we can never predict exactly how those promises will play out Or when.  But as we consider the millions – maybe billions – of people who have walked this earth and who trace could their spiritual lineage to Abraham through his sons Ishmael and Isaac, God’s promise of heirs as countless as the stars in that ancient, unpolluted night sky is a promise kept.  

In spite of Abraham’s faltering obedience, he ultimately displayed great faith, and was rewarded. And, as the apostle Paul writes, that faith was his righteousness.

Fast-forward now, from Abraham to Isaac, the child of promise. The long-awaited son of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac had an older half-brother, Ishmael, fathered by Abraham when Sarah – not unlike Adam and Eve – chose to act on her doubt that God would come through, could come through.

She chose to believe that God might somehow hold back, that she would never bear children. And so she offered up her bond-servant, Hagar. What could have been a lovely gift of surrogacy  from one woman to another was marred by jealousy. And when God caused Sarah to conceive and give birth to Isaac, things went from bad to worse.

Abraham agreed to release Hagar and Ishmael from their bond, but only after God extended the promise to Ishmael, that as a descendant of Abraham, Ishmael would also be the father of a nation. We also see a prophecy that Ishmael would often be in conflict and others would be in conflict with him. His people would live in the east.  

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael once they go to the wilderness, because the narrative focus shifts to Isaac and then Jacob. But we do see evidence of his descendants and their interactions with the Israelites.

Jacob was Abraham’s grandson, the second son of Isaac… (though not by much, as he and Esau were twins). Jacob becomes the heir instead of Esau when he  gains his father’s blessing through deception.

He flees to his uncle where he prospers and earns his two wives, Rachel and Leah. Eventually, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel, and between his wives and their handmaidens  he has twelve sons, the ancestors and namesakes of the twelve tribes of the Children of Israel.  Just as a side note, they also had a daughter, Dinah..

Of those 12 sons, Joseph was the youngest.
And we’ll pick up our reading there…

37:3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4 But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him. 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6 He said to them, “Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.”

8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?” So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.

Now – you would think that Israel – Jacob – would have learned something from the conflict and drama of his youth. But as we see in many of our own households, people tend to carry the good and the bad of their family’s ways of being into the households we create through marriage.

That dysfunction that made you mental as a teenager will most likely play out in some way as you relate to your spouse or co-workers, room mates or children.  Or all of the above!  

Sometimes you fall into the same patterns without even noticing or at least not until it’s too late. Sometimes you fall of the ledge on the opposite side – overcompensating in hopes of avoiding the same trap.

My mom’s brother was just charming enough that he got away with more than she did.  Mom found that really annoying. But she also began to suspect that because her parents seemed not to see or respond to his antics (and always cracked down on her)… they must have loved him more.

So it came as no surprise when my sisters and I were gathered here in Florida for Christmas a few years back, we all got identical t-shirts.  We all opened them at the same time, along with my brother opening his while on the phone from Texas.  

All four of the shirts said “Mom loves me best”

She thought it was clever. But I’m not sure it had the desired effect. More than one conversation with more than one sibling has raised concerns that not all the shirts were given with the identical levels of sincerity,.. or irony… Either way, that strange rivalry that exists between siblings had been awakened from hibernation.

That same dynamic had been simmering among Joseph and his brothers for several years. The robe didn’t help.  Neither did the dream. After all, the symbolism clearly  suggests that they will become subservient to him.  Really,  it is no surprise that they “hate him even more.”

It is hard not to sympathize with the brothers in this instance — Joseph has been stoking the fires… poking the bear. Honestly, He was a jerk.
So they decided to do something about it.

17b So Joseph went after his brothers, and found them at Dothan. 18 They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him. 19 They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. 20 Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

21 But when Reuben heard it, he delivered him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” 22 Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but lay no hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand and restore him to his father.

Ok – not even jerks deserve to to be thrown into a pit to die.
And those jerks you’re thinking of right now? No – not even those jerks…

And if even if he did think Joseph deserved that kind of death, Reuben probably had no desire to be the one responsible for causing his father that much pain. I mean, what kind of wrath might Israel unleash at that point?   

Plus, there is the possibility of looking like a hero if Reuben is Joseph’s rescuer.
Then Judah pipes up… clever boy, this one…

26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed.

28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

And thus a Schmidt family tradition awaited… lying dormant for thousands of years, until the twins were born.  

I’m not sure who made the threat first- mom, dad, my brother or me.  But at some point in the juggling of all the diapers, bottles and crying jags that accompanied the first several months of life with twins, someone asked if we might be able to sell them to a passing band of Ishmaelites.

I’m pretty sure that all four of us kids, and perhaps my dad, only escaped our own times in exile because there were no Ishmaelites roaming Central Texas in the 70s or 80s.

But I digress. Let’s go on

29 When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” 31 Then they took Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat, and dipped the robe in the blood.

32 They had the long robe with sleeves taken to their father, and they said, “This we have found; see now whether it is your son’s robe or not.”

33 He recognized it, and said, “It is my son’s robe! A wild animal has devoured him; Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” 34 Then Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days.

Reuben was the first to mourn.  

Perhaps he mourned his brother. Perhaps he mourned his opportunity to be the hero. Perhaps it was the recognition that his relationship with Jacob was in the balance as well.   

Listen to his words when he realizes Joseph is gone: When Reuben returned to the pit and saw that Joseph was not in the pit, he tore his clothes. 30 He returned to his brothers, and said, “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?   In the Hebrew, his repetition of the “I” is even more emphatic than it appears in the English translation.

Then, Instead of confessing all to his father, Reuben goes along with the lie the brothers tell their father, that Joseph has been killed by wild animals

Ultimately, Joseph is sold to Potiphar in Egypt. Through a series of twists and turns, he finds himself in a seat of great power and influence. His prophecies make it possible for Egypt to survive a famine that was so severe people from neighboring countries came seeking aid.

Eventually, that included Joseph’s brothers. They made a couple of trips to Egypt, the first time not knowing they had been in the presence of their long-lost brother.

Joseph sets them up, a bit, so that he might see Benjamin, and so that his family might be saved from starvation. Eventually, even Jacob comes to Egypt and meets the Pharaoh.  He blesses Joseph’s children before finally dying.

Let’s take a look at the last portion of the reading…

50:15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” 16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. 21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

It’s hard to know who we are meant to identify with in this story.  Certainly, we want to be like Joseph, lucky and skillful enough, faithful and gifted enough to overcome adversity.  And we are eager to look past his faults and failings, just as we prefer to look past our own.

We like being the hero of the story, whose choices are helped along by fate (and a promise-keeping God).
We like the idea of being in the right place at the right time to see God’s purposes worked out in our own long and winding roads.

The truth is, we are also a bit like the other brothers. Jealous, plotting… and dangerous when we feel cheated. And Rueben, not a bad guy, but not really all that good, either. Definitely interested in looking good.  We are certainly a bit like Jacob, wrestling with God, unable to love as unfailingly and fairly as God. 

But as we think about the promises of God, we need to look beyond the people with whom we relate… What is God up to in the midst of all this human messiness, this messy human-ness?

Certainly, God does not will that Jacob’s sons would hate one another, especially to the degree that is leads to violence…  (what kind of a God does that?)

We’ve talked before about the tension caused by the fact that God has given us agency, intellect, and free will, even as we believe that God can and does intervene and direct us.

In other words, the spirit of God is at work in a world that is shaped by human actions.
God is present in this story through the actions of others, of Joseph, of pharaoh, of all those who move Joseph’s story along toward its positive conclusion.

And so, generations before God steps into time and takes on flesh, there is thus a strongly incarnational element in the way God is at work in this long and complicated narrative of creation, separation and eventually – reconciliation – between God and humankind.

When we were commissioned to the work of making disciples and teaching all that Christ commanded, we were commissioned into that same work, becoming the Body, God’s incarnational plan for for reconciling the peoples of the world to one another and to God.

So what does that mean, precisely? Or as Paul might ask.. how then shall we live?

For one thing, we don’t get to throw people into pits. Physically or metaphorically.   Yes, there are a bunch of people I would love to walk right up to a pit, distract and then gently push while they aren’t looking.   I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to do likewise with me.

I suspect that if we were to dig enough pits for everyone to dispose of the people they would just as soon not attempt to get along with… well, the world would be awfully hard to navigate.

But that isn’t who we are called to be. That isn’t what we are called to do. We are made in the image of the God who Reconciles, the God who Loves, the God who Rescues and Redeems. We are made in the image of the One the psalmist thanks for raising him out of the pit. The One to whom I have given thanks for not leaving me where I have have been pushed, or where I have fallen.

Thus, we are to listen for the cries of those who have been rejected or set aside, those who have been put down and held down, those with whom we would rather not associate because they are not to our liking for one of eleventy-hundred reasons…. and when we hear their cries, we are to walk over to the pit from which they call out, put out a hand, and raise them up.

And we are to be about the work of filling in the holes that we have dug, teaching others to fill in theirs.  We are to be about the business of speaking up and showing up, wherever those cries are heard, learning about the bigger picture and seeking real change, real healing, real wholeness.

Because the long and winding road that Joseph walked may have started with a pit, but it ended with a family reunited and made whole. Isn’t that worth getting a little dirty for?

Back to the Beginning

Narrative Lectionary Reading: selections from Genesis 2 and 3, but I pulled from much of Genesis 1-3 for the dramatic readings

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.
Right then, love just WAS

In the beginning there was love and joy, there was Spirit and Word
In the beginning there was water
And the chaos of the water and darkness was not a satisfying place for love
Not exactly what Love had in mind.

So the Word spoke and the Spirit hovered
And the Creator laughed with joy to see order beginning to take shape
The water and the darkness gave way to Light
And the light was good

Some of the water went up above the dome of the sky
And that was good

And the waters still below the sky were gathered, revealing land
And the earth was good,
And so were all the plants that grew on this land between the seas and rivers and lakes and streams

And lights were placed in the sky to rule over night and day,
The waters of the seas began to roll and sway, pulled and pushed by the moon and the wind that still hovered near

Living creatures were called forth, spoken into being by the Creator, Creatures swimming and splashing, flying and soaring
And they were beautiful and blessed and good

More living creatures were spoken into being, this time on land, creeping and crawling, grazing and glorious.
And then came one last living creature – humankind –
The one made in God’s image.
God looked out over the water and the land
Over the swimming and flying and walking and creeping creatures

And God commanded the human beings to care for them
To care for the land and the plants that would feed all the creatures
To care for the water that refreshed and restored.
To care for one another.
By the end of the sixth day, work had shifted from creating to commissioning
It was good.
It was meant to always be good.
And on the seventh day, God declared a day of rest.

This is our beginning.

God formed our first ancestor from the dust of the earth
A human from the humus.
An adam from the adamah

And then God breathed the spirit of life into this earthling
The very ruach that had hovered in the chaos now filled the lungs and heart and soul of the one creature made in the image of the Creator

And God placed this one in the garden in Eden
The garden where the trees offered sustenance and life AND the knowledge of good and evil.
In the garden in need of a caretaker

God knew the caretaker needed a helper… an ezer
Because in the beginning,
in the chaos that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
There was community
The one creator was also three

It would not do for this image bearer to be alone
And none of flying or crawling or leaping or galloping creatures would do- as wondrously and fearfully made as they were.

And then there were two, the adam and the ezer, both created in the image of God.

(Adam) I remember the first time I saw you. You took my breath away.

(Eve) I think that was God. He does that, you know.  Gives you breath; takes it away.

No really, I remember looking at you and thinking how different you were. Not like anything else God had placed in the garden. Your hands were like mine. Your ears were in the right place. Then you opened your eyes and… There was something within you that spoke to me…
Even before you spoke.

I remember those first days.  How we walked all over the Garden and everything was just… easy. Being with you, being with God, hearing his voice. Never hungry. Never afraid. Life was simple and beautiful. It was good.

We had no idea how good.

Do you ever wonder what would have happened?  I mean, if we…

No. Well, of course I do. But no. There is no going back.  God made that clear.
This is our life.
Here.  Now.
I know it hasn’t been easy. I miss those days, too.

Do I still take your breath away?

Yes you do. Every time I pick up these tools to till the soil.
And every time I think about how hard you worked to bring our children into the world.

They have your eyes, you know.


They were image bearers still, but now they experienced God from a distance.
And with distance grows confusion and vulnerability to the powers of the world to distract and wound, to confound and separate.

The powers of brokenness loved the chaos that the creator had tamed back In the beginning.
And now their voices grow louder, giving them power–
never stronger than the power of God
but always challenging the people
Always seeking to steal life, hope, joy
Continuing to speak lies into their minds and hearts.

There were moments of trust, shining like the light of that first sunrise
Peals of laughter as Isaac was born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age
Taking those first steps onto the dry bed of the red sea, pharaoh’s men closing in behind them
Marching around the walls of Jericho
Gideon sending men home, Debra singing, David dancing
Sun glinting off the Temple where the lamp stood and the ark was home among God’s people, a tall, strong reminder that God was at work among them

But trust also falters, fear and despair creep in, alongside arrogance and pride
Abel’s blood cried out from the ground, revealing humanity’s capacity for evil
Brokenness cast shadows large and small, distorting the image of the creator once so clearly reflected.
Liberation from Egypt and a land of promise were not enough
Prophets and judges were not enough
Kings and priests were not enough
God’s covenant was not enough
Idols and Asherah poles, Kingdoms rising and falling,

God’s chosen people, his children, falling faster and walking farther away
Until they found themselves shattered and scattered.

There were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, another fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile

In the beginning, there was love
Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that would one day take on flesh…
But not yet.

There would be fourteen more generations from the Babylonian exile to the arrival of the Messiah.
The Messiah… the Promised One
The Bread of Life
The Good Shepherd
Jesus… fully human… fully God.

Who was there in the beginning,
In the chaos and the water and in the darkness
See, in the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place,
there was love.
And light… And life.
And the Word.

The Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning.
Not a thing that came after could have been made without him.
In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

And when the time was right
When it was time to begin again
the Word became flesh and lived among us.

Thank you to our Adam and Eve this morning.

As I mentioned last week, this week marks the start of a new cycle in the Narrative Lectionary.  If you’re not familiar with the term, a lectionary is a prescribed set of readings.

The Revised Common Lectionary is an example that has been around for a long time. It runs in a three-year cycle that is driven primarily by the dates and seasons that many streams of Christianity have celebrated for centuries.

The Narrative Lectionary is similar – the creators assigned particular readings for each Sunday and all those extra holy days that we celebrate.  The full cycle of readings are meant to help us follow the long sweeping arc of the Biblical narrative between now and Pentecost.

That means every fall, we go back to the beginning.
Back to where it all started.

Our readings from Genesis 2 and 3 today aren’t the poetic images from the first creation account in Genesis. This account is a little more prosaic.

In the first segment, we are reminded that Adam, the first human, had a purpose – to take care of the garden… to till it and maintain it.  And as he worked the land, the man was free to eat the fruits of his labor.

Literally. Whatever he wanted from whatever tree.  

Well, there was the one tree he couldn’t eat from – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

This was when God determined that his gardener would need a partner. We bounced right over the description of God making all the creatures and Adam naming them as they seek the right partner for his work.  

But finally, God makes another human, the only creature who could be a true partner for the first human.

At this point, all is right in the world.

The two humans continue to serve as the keepers of the garden. They are welcome to eat the fruit from the trees, to drink clean water from the river.

It’s a pretty amazing beginning, really. Wouldn’t it be great to live in a place like that?
Direct access to God. Plenty to eat. No worries at all.

Until that pesky serpent came along.

For a long time, what happened next has been called “the fall.”  As if all of human existence has been a let down.  The sequence of events – the fact that Eve was the first tricked into breaking the rules – or that she caused Adam to sin also – that sequence has led some believers to blame the existence of sin in the world on women.  

And then to use that belief to place women in a second class category.  You can probably guess where I stand on that… and why it makes me sad that the influence of that interpretation extends well beyond church walls. But that’s for another day.

Today, I want to challenge you to consider their choices in light of the other stories we know from scriptures and our own lives.  The ways that humankind seeks to take charge, to be more God-like, not just reflecting God’s image but acting like gods on our own.

God is the one who has the capacity to understand good and evil. To judge. We tend to find ourselves in pretty deep trouble when we begin to take on that role

So I have always found it interesting that the tree held the key to the knowledge of good and evil. It was not the tree of good or evil. It was the entry into the knowledge of good and evil.

That means that from the very beginning, evil was around, lurking, and able to be observed. Just as surely as good and love were there from the beginning.  

Eating that particular fruit, against the wishes of God, would mean our first parents would see the world differently, would understand the world differently, would have the wonderful, awful knowledge that comes with being able to discern right from wrong, good from evil.

Both wonderful and awful because knowing good from evil goes beyond judging the appearance of actions.
It has to do with judging a person’s heart.
It has to do with judging one’s own heart.

Whether or not you believe that there were literally two people in a big garden that housed talking animals, including a serpent.  And whether or not you think that those two people ate some kind of fruit that ended humanity’s time in that perfect garden…

I think we can all agree to this truth: that you and I carry within us that same human tendency to put ourselves in the seat that ought to be God’s. To exert our control over the world in ways that might not actually be healthy and helpful.

We have a tendency to judge other people and attempt to ascribe motives to their actions (whether good or evil).

We can see the promise in one another, the gifts and talents and beauty that reflect the incomparable creativity, energy, love and glory of God. We can imagine the power that could be harnessed by banding together.

We can harness that power for good. Or we can find ourselves building towers that reach up to the heavens like the one in Babel…structures and systems that benefit those we trust, those we judge to be like-hearted or like-minded. And oppress those who are not.

I think about the Tower of Babel when I drive through cities with big tall downtown high rises.  Writing those words this week, I couldn’t help but think about this day. And what it means to talk about towers that are destroyed.

I have to confess that I dread this date when it rolls around every year.  

There is something about the way that we remember this day, the way we recall the terror of the day that makes me almost physically ill.

Probably all but the youngest among us can recall the first images we saw coming out of New York City 15 years ago. Then out of Washington DC.  And Pennsylvania.

I can’t unsee those images.  

Not any more than I can unsee the images of the devastation that took place closer to home in the Pulse nightclub, or images of the bombed-out streets of Aleppo, or images of the poor souls who were liberated from World War II concentration camps, but looked like walking corpses.

I cannot unsee them.  

Not any more than I can unsee the face of the person who laughed when I tried to explain just how deeply and permanently their actions had wounded me.

I would give most anything to go back to the days before I understood just how horrible people can be – how horrible we are – to one another.

To go back to the days before we talked about active shooters on elementary school campuses.

Before we worried about planes flying just a little too low over major cities.  

I would give almost everything to go back to the days before I knew just how painful it is to be abandoned or rejected by someone who had once been kind and loving.

Chances are good that you, too, have been judged harshly at some point in your life. And have judged others unfairly.

And if you’re like me at all, you have experienced the sting of shame that inevitably follows, especially when I search my own motives and see my own capacity for evil.

The awareness of the depth of our sin…  my sin.
The truth of our capacity for evil…  It’s scary stuff.

Seriously… I’m a pretty brave person and human depravity scares the snot out of me.

But here’s the problem – That fear is exactly what drives us to build walls and draw lines, to make clear the parameters for being us rather than them.

That fear of the evil others might do is what increases the odds that we’ll beat them to it.

Because combining the evil in us with our fear of evil in others is like throwing gasoline on a fire. And there are an awful lot of people making an awful lot of money off of feeding that fire right now.  

Our “news” programs focus on criminal activity and offer breathless reporters sensationalizing the most mundane of stories.  We don’t have weather radars any more. They are now Storm Trackers.  

And because we are too scared not to watch, ratings go up, advertisers pay more, so that hopefully, we’ll buy more stuff.  

Our political candidates have long ago stopped describing what they can or would like to do for their constituents. Instead the political action committees scare voters into voting against the opposing party.

And even knowing all that, even knowing how it all works, it’s still easy to get sucked into the vortex of fearing the unknown… the unknown people, the unknown future…

And forgetting that we have a power within us that is greater than any fear, greater than any hate. A power that is older than time itself.

In the beginning
In the chaos and the water
In the darkness
In the great mess that was the time before time and the place before place
In the midst of all that…  was love.

Love so amazing, so divine…
Love that took on flesh, resisted every temptation, and remained obedient to the end
Love that is perfect
Love that drives out fear

Love that lives on, embodied by the gathered who remember the sacrifice, who remember their call to tear down the walls that divide

Love that is made flesh by the gathered who call upon the Prince of Peace

Love that gathers many voices into one voice to pray Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done.

That is the true power of knowing good and evil.  

We can be the good that the world needs to see and experience. We can speak the truth and love that the world needs to hear.

In the mess that is this time…
In the mess that is this place…
There is love.  

And for that, I give thanks.

Faith Built on Hope

Primary Scriptures:  Romans 5:1-11 and Luke 24:13-33

This time last week, I was on my way to Montreat for a conference for pastors in interim work. I am so very  thankful for your support and encouragement to continue learning and growing in my leadership.

While I was there, I met pastors from all over the country… mostly here in the southeast, since Montreat is close by. But there were a few from the west coast, even one Canadian

We spent time in seminars covering several helpful topics. We had opportunities to speak with the faculty members, many of whom have served several churches who find themselves between settled pastors. We also spent time in groups for peer coaching.

It was all great…

But you know the best part? Hearing all their stories. Stories of churches much like ours. Some smaller, some larger… some in cities, others in small towns or rural settings.  Each one unique, and yet it seems that we all find ourselves asking the same questions…
What comes next?
What is our place in the bigger picture…
What is our part in the Body of Christ?
What is our role in the larger community – the city that has grown and changed around us, the culture that has been shifting so rapidly in the last decade…

As you might imagine, many churches are on the road to closure. They are in the process of making really hard decisions about property and memorials and where their members will go to find care and fellowship. Those are very difficult conversations to enter into and even more difficult to stay in. These are oftentimes very sad stories. God-led and grace-filled, to be sure, but always hard for the members and those who are there to help the congregation finish well.

The good news is that many more of the folks that I met and talked with last week shared stories about walking alongside congregations in the midst of the work – the hard work –  of transformation. Transformation is always hard work. It’s hard to start, hard to finish, and even harder to maintain.

We come from a long lineage… a long heritage of folks who had to work hard at change.  Seriously, it goes way way back. In fact, next week, we’ll start the Lectionary year over again by heading back to the beginning of the great collection of our stories of faith, each in its own way a testament to the transforming nature of God.

And as we did last fall, we’ll travel through the Old Testament in the months leading into Christmas.  The thread running through the passages we’ll explore this year is Promise…
the promises God makes to our foremothers and forefathers.
the promises they make to God…
the promise of fresh starts…
the promise of new life…
the promise of a deliverer… the promised one… the messiah.

We’ll recall through these chapters in our great redemption story, the faithfulness of God.  The truth that even as humankind found myriad ways to go astray, God remained steadfast. God stayed with us.
God loved us.
The truth that God loves us still

And we’ll recall how, even as the prophets called the kings and people to repentance, speaking the truths that no one wanted to hear about sin and judgment and consequences…God also gave them a message of hope: If the people would turn to God, if they would change their focus, God would honor and bless them.  

The funny thing is, we read that as if God’s behavior is contingent upon the work of the leaders and the people under their care.

The truth is, God has been there, keeping all those promises all along.  It’s the people who lose sight of that truth as their focus shifts, as their gaze wanders.  Kind of like Jesus, walking along the road to Emmaus, having an incognito conversation with two disciples.

I’ve read and heard several interpretations of this encounter.  Some say that this episode tells us that our resurrection bodies – the ones we get when we are finally in God’s presence after this life is over  – that those bodies are somehow different, that we will be ourselves but not so completely ourselves that we are instantly recognizable.

Others say that it was the work of the Holy Spirit, clouding their vision so that Jesus could hear what they were saying without worry that they would stop telling their story.

Luke uses the verb “recognize” both at the beginning and at the end of the passage –when their eyes are closed and then opened to his identity. They saw him from the start, but they didn’t actually recognize him until the end, when he was breaking the bread.

This is an interesting echo of  the  wording used when Adam and Eve first opened their eyes and recognized that they were naked. And that there was something to shameful in their being so thoroughly revealed.

You see, Luke wants us to understand that this is a moment of deep recognition.  That “oooohhhh” moment when you see someone after not quite seeing them for who they really and truly are.

Jesus had walked a good way with them, teaching them and reminding them of all the ways that the prophets had been preparing the Hebrew people for his coming.  They had covered a lot of ground, literally and theologically,  before he took the bread and broke it. And they saw him for who he was…  

Seeing him, recognizing him, changed the conversation completely.  It awoke in them a passion they hadn’t felt.  It cleared the confusion and doubt away.

Seeing him, recognizing him again made space for faith.  Because he had made space for hope… Hope that the world didn’t have to be as it had been. That exile and oppression weren’t God’s plan That the empire didn’t always win.   

Seeing him, recognizing him again, set them off on an adventure that would change their lives and ultimately transform much of the world.  Even this part of the world. We trace our own faith to those first followers of Jesus.  The ones who literally sat at table with him, sharing the meal we will remember together today…

Paul never sat at table with Jesus. Never saw him face to face in a physical sense. Not during his earthly life, anyway.  But Paul recognized the transformative power of the resurrection at least as well as any of those who spent time with Jesus before and after. Paul understood the role of faith in our coming to truly know – to recognize – the saving grace Jesus offered.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul reminds us of our inability as humans to meet all the expectations of the law.  of the fallibility that would keep all of us from ever knowing God’s great love for us and for the world.

Paul writes of the reconciling work of Jesus- the life, death and resurrection of which the disciples were talking on the road to Emmaus – the revealing of the power of God’s love to redeem all of our messiness and sin.  And he says – not one whit of it is ours to claim…Except to claim faith in the truth that God did all that for us.

God is still doing all that for us. God continues to pour out the Holy Spirit, that we might grow deeper in our understanding – not of the law, not of the minutiae of doctrine – but so that we might fall deeper in love with God, and develop even greater compassion for the neighbors around us.

Paul prescribes in Romans and throughout the epistles, a protocol for strengthening our hearts. It generally starts with suffering, which we are to endure. Not on our own strength of course, but empowered by the Spirit. Paul continues, saying that endurance produces character – which, in turn, allows us to have hope.

Many of you know that I’ve spent time this summer walking and doing some work in the gym. I started out taking short walks around the block. As the summer progressed, I started setting some goals for myself. Go a little farther, then a little faster.  

Then I registered for the conference at Montreat.

I remembered how hard it was for me to walk around up there last year. I didn’t go exploring as far as I wanted because I couldn’t catch my breath going up all the stairs and hills, and I didn’t trust that my legs and knees were strong enough to handle terrain off the sidewalks.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find changing my personal habits are hard. Even when I know what needs to be done, getting started is hard. Keeping at it is hard, too. It much easier to fall back into the old, comfortable and known way of being.

Until the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain you anticipate will come during or as a result of the change process, the status quo will do just fine.

But status quo wasn’t going to get me up any of those hills.  So I set some new goals and got to work


If you could hear this picture, it would include my catching my breath between “wows”. The vistas were lovely.

I am happy to say that 400 miles – even on the flat sidewalks of Central Florida  – paid off. I went wandering all around the conference center, up and down some of the steepest hills. I even managed to get to the top of Mount Mitchell.  

It was there that I was feeling a little cocky and decided to do a ¾-mile hike on the nature trail. The sign said it was “easy” and I’d been walking some of the nature trails around Montreat.


If you look closely, you can see the description of the trail.

I knew it was going to drop a good 200-250 feet in elevation as the trail meandered down to the parking lot, but it sounded way less steep than going back down the 300 yard path that went directly from the lot to the observation tower.

So off I went.


Seriously – how hard can it be? The rabbit looks like he’s enjoying the trail.

Now, I can stroll a full mile in about 20 minutes, even on hilly terrain. So I was guessing maybe 30 minutes down the hill. Maybe a little longer with stops to read or take photos.

Yeah- at about 20 minutes in, I was maybe half-way through the trail loop.  I had already crawled up and over tree roots and boulders, hopped across puddles and begun to mutter to the unknown author of the trail description about our definitions of “Easy” not quite being aligned.

And then the trail made yet another hairpin turn. Once again, I found myself looking uphill for the white triangle blaze.  And there wasn’t really a trail any more. It was like a staircase made of big rocks and fallen trees with lincoln log notches cut out and a maybe a few grassy spots between puddles. Oh, and every step was a different height…


No really, this is the trail. I wasn’t lost.

My knees were tired.
My lungs were getting a little chatty.
I could hear my heart thumping in my ears.  NOT my resting heart rate, in case you wondered.

And then I laughed.

I laughed because I had a choice to make. Sit down, go back to the start, or go on. None of them seemed good. It all seemed too hard.

A voice in my head was reminding me that people who hike alone are much more likely to be eaten by bears….

But there was another voice…It was saying, “You got this. You can do it. You’ve walked way farther and in way worse heat and humidity than this. You’re strong enough to keep going.”  

I remembered working through the pain of those first walks and sore muscles, the endurance I had been building on sidewalks and treadmills, on bikes and in the pool. Looking back on where I’d been allowed me to have confidence- faith – in my ability to get up that stretch of the trail…

I was neither helpless, nor hopeless, in the face of an unexpected challenge.   

I’m not sure what the chipmunks thought of this human huffing and puffing her way past the ferns and lichen-covered stumps. I suspect that the crazy flapping of my arms as I balanced on slippery stones and logs scared off more than a couple of birds. But I was able to press on, and I realized that in addition to quieting the voice that was worried about bears, I was really enjoying myself.

Finishing the loop was no longer about surviving or successfully achieving a goal. It was about experiencing the joy that overtakes me in those all-too-rare opportunities to drink deeply of nature’s beauty

A friend of mine is a physical therapist. She works with all kinds of people, from young athletes to octogenarians. And she told me once that the most amazing thing about our bodies is the way they respond to the challenges we put in front of them. We are made to adapt and gain strength from the effort of overcoming.

Yes, the challenges need to be the RIGHT challenges. That’s why I needed to start walking earlier in the summer to be able to get up those hills this week.  But physical challenges reveal our character, our capacity for hope and transformation.

And that crazy little hike filled me with hope and faith for us in the days to come…

You see we, together, are a body, just as surely as each of us have bodies.  We, together, make up the body of Christ. And together, we can adapt and rise up to the challenges that come before us, overcoming all kinds of barriers in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have a faith built on hope for us as we pray and work as a body here in this time and place.
That we can discern together the challenge God has for us to pursue.
That we can start small and learn how to use our faith muscles in new and different ways.
That we can work together, moving a little farther away from our comfort zone with every step, even as we  draw on lessons from the past.

I have hope that our eyes will be opened and that we will recognize Jesus in one another, in our neighbors, and in the people God brings to our table.

I have hope that as we keep God – Father, Son, and Spirit – at the center of our gaze, we’ll be able to follow the trail, no matter how rocky and hilly it gets.

I have hope that when we do this work in a way that honors our past and present, this congregation will have a future, and that future will be filled with joy and laughter.

I have faith, built on the hope and love that abide in Christ, and abide in all of us as we abide in Christ.  

My prayer is that the God who is able to do abundantly far more than we could ever ask or imagine, would grant us the wisdom, courage, love, faith, hope and joy we need for this and every day of our lives together.


Lead Us, Deliver Us

I don’t know how anyone could approach this prayer as a whole, but especially this petition without the context and insights offered by John Dominic Crossan in his brilliant book The Greatest Prayer (Harper One, 2010). 

Primary Text: Matthew 6:7-15  Also Matthew 3:16-4:11

And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Or as the more familiar King James version reads:
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

This section is probably the most perplexing of the petitions in Jesus’ model prayer.  

Much of the rest of the prayer can be understood with a very surface level reading, or at least makes sense in light of teachings we are more familiar with in the gospels.

When we pray this prayer together, we call out to God as our shared Father, a reminder that we are brothers and sisters of Jesus the Christ.  We remember that we have a relationship with God, on a first-name basis, so to speak. But we also remember that God is God – holy, set apart. That while we are welcome to call on God by name, we are not to take that relationship lightly, nor to use God’s name flippantly.

In our prayer, we seek from God an experience of creation as it was meant to be, a peaceable kingdom under the rule of the one who Created and then set the world in motion, a Kingdom under the care of the Prince of Peace.

As we go deeper into the prayer, we ask God for the food we need, trusting that God will provide for our physical needs here and now, and that we will be fed spiritually as we learn to forgive others in the same way that God offers grace to us.

And then we come to this petition: Do not bring us to the time of trial. Rescue us from the evil one.

It’s a little tricky, risky even, to bring the words of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who walked the earth 20 centuries ago up to current times. We’re already taking them from an ancient Greek text and translating them into English, which has its limitations as a language. Then there are the geographic and technological differences.

Most of us -including me – aren’t familiar enough with the Jewish traditions in which Jesus was raised to pick up on the nuances of the theological shifts he was making in his teachings, at least not without doing some research.

Our individually-focused American culture makes it hard to understand the collective language and community-oriented culture that permeates the commands and expectations of the faithful that we receive through scriptures.

And, we generally read our history from the perspective of the victor, the dominant force.

For instance, the history of the western world generally starts with the Roman Empire, definitely not that of the people who were subjugated by Rome in the Mediterranean or across Europe and northern Africa. In fact, it always catches me by surprise to think of the Apostles going to Rome… seeing the aqueducts, traveling on the Roman roads that I read so much about…  But the truth is that Rome wasn’t some far-off concept for first-century Jews.

The empire was about the business of keeping people under their thumb by whatever means were necessary, including the people in the region where Jesus was born, grew up, taught and was executed.

I offer all this by way of introduction today because unless we improve the lens through which we read this portion of Jesus’ model prayer, unless we have at least some sense of the historical and cultural context in which Jesus offered these words, our modern applications of its teachings become so shallow as to be meaningless.

If we could jump into a time machine, a faith-powered TARDIS, if you will, and point it to the decade or so before the birth of Jesus in Nazareth, we would be landing in a very dangerous time. Following the death of Herod the Great, bands of rebels had taken up arms and were engaging in small battles across the region.

There was a significant Roman presence in the capital city of the Galilee, Sepphoris.  A rebel named Judas gathered a large number of men and led an assault on the royal palace in Sepphoris, where they took weapons and stole back all sorts of seized property which they then redistributed – Robin Hood-like to other rebels.  

There was no permanent military presence in Israel at the time, so to quash the rebellion, Rome would have to make a calculated risk, pulling men from their posts on another border.  If you’re thinking Rome would need to work quickly in Galilee to avoid tempting enemies on the border, you get bonus points.  

Two legions arrived, ready for a campaign of “shock and awe” or Sword and Blood. The leaders of this massive army made clear that they would teach the rebels and the whole region that produced them a lesson that would last at least 2 generations.  

They marched into Sepphoris with at least 12,000 troops – ELITE troops- along 2000 cavalry soldiers and 1500 infantry.  An Arab ally arrived with additional resources. Varus, the commander, split his forces, knowing they would still overpower everyone they encountered. Half of his men went to Jerusalem, with the others fighting against the rural Galileans.

They were relentless, gutting the capital city of Sepphoris and razing the surrounding villages. Nazareth – where Joseph worked as a carpenter – was a tiny village about 4-5 miles away. While Nazareth is not mentioned by name in the surviving documents containing Roman and Jewish historical accounts, we know the fate of other villages of similar size in the region.  

Here’s an excerpt from one such collection called Jewish Antiquities.

They [the Romans and their Arab allies] encamped near a village called Arous sacked by the Arabs. Thence Varus advanced to Sappho [in Judea], another fortified village, which they likewise sacked, as well as the neighboring villages which they encountered on their march. The whole district became a scene of fire and blood and nothing was safe against the ravage of the Arabs. Emmaus, the inhabitants of which had fled, was burnt to the ground by the orders of Varus.

Whether overrun by Romans or Arabs, the sacking was complete
Grain, produce and livestock – Taken
Houses, farms, fruit trees – destroyed
Men were killed, women raped and young people enslaved.

Those who survived and somehow fled found themselves living as refugees of political violence.  Those who stayed – they gathered what little was left, bringing home as many extended family members as were nearby and grafting in those who were widowed, orphaned or otherwise left behind.  

Children like Jesus, born into this region in the years after the occupation would surely have heard the stories being told and retold. It would have become part of the local language and lore.

As my friends in New Orleans and around the gulf coast would attest, traumatic events can cause a shift in the way we mark time. For them, every life event is placed in relation to Katrina. For New York City especially, September 11, 2001, marks the beginning and end of an era.  No doubt, Jesus would have heard elders in his community telling stories that used the sacking of Nazareth or Sepphoris as the time stamp.

Zealots remained active, though not nearly as boldly or broadly as before. The Military incursion had done its job, it would be another 60 years before an invasion of this size would be necessary to tamp down violent resistors.

In the meantime, the Jews would engage in non-violent resistance.

Leaders of the synagogues and temples aligned themselves with Roman leaders, hoping to influence them, align them, “change things from the inside” as much as any outsider could. Communities rebuilt and redoubled their efforts to be unified, watching out for one another, sharing what little resources they still had. And they focused on being a distinct culture that was in opposition to the culture of Rome.  Not just in protest, but truly being the opposite of the Empire. The laws of the Torah, the calls to justice and mercy, the commands to forgive… all set the people of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob apart.

It was into this culture, this history, that Jesus was born
It was among these rabbis, in this extended family that Jesus was raised to manhood in faith.
It was into this culture, where the laws of God were enforced by men who counted on the law to save them from harm in this life, that the fully divine Jesus taught the people about the heart behind the rules.

Jesus teaches his people to pray lead us not into temptation.

But more specifically, he is teaching them  to pray
Lead us not into the temptation of violent resistance to Rome’s oppression.
Deliver us from the acts of the evil one

The one on the throne who seeks to do us evil
The evil one who would have us join in the chaos by repaying evil for evil

This feels to me like the best explanation for something that makes very little sense on the surface.  It seems odd that God would lead us into temptation… so why would we need to ask God not to?

We see God leading people from so very early on in the relationship between humans and God- God leads us with words, just as clearly as with clouds of fire, God leads with prophets, kings and teachers. It’s not as if God is in the business of leading people into temptation.

Except that one time… Listen to these words from a little earlier in Matthew’s Gospel…
16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

God is pleased with Jesus getting baptized in obedience to God’s call. Now listen closely to what happens next:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan points out the importance of this sentence that lays out the  sequence of events.  Notice…, he says, that Jesus is “led by the Spirit – to be tempted – by the devil. It is God, as in the Abba Prayer, who brings Jesus to the time of trial. (CrossanThe Greatest Prayer, 170)

God brings Jesus to the time of trial, of temptations, so that as we face our own times of trial, we have an advocate who understands and speaks to God on our behalf, inhabiting our own prayers.  

Jesus was weak – or at the very least must have been getting hangry –  as the temptations come at him.
He [Jesus] fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

This was a personal temptation – literally saying, you have more than enough power, miraculous power, to take care of your own hunger.  Why not? And yet, Jesus knows that his divine power was not to be used for personal comfort, but for the work of God among the people of God. So he responds using the words in Deuteronomy 8:3
But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The tempter builds on Jesus’ response, going to Scripture himself.  He cites Psalm 91:11-12, tempting Jesus with a public display of God’s power, since the personal display was not enough to draw him in.
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus sees that this situation goes beyond him to test God – Would God protect Jesus, if the Son were to take this opportunity to prove his identity in a public way?
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The third temptation starts with the assumption that Jesus is who he claims to be.  No longer will the challenge be about his identity as the Son of God.   And there is no pretense of religiosity here, no scripture quoted.

The tempter goes straight to the desires of most human hearts – and right to the antithesis of Jesus’ purpose here on Earth.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Jesus has been offered all the glory and power of the Kingdoms of the World.   All in exchange for worship. This rule, this domination over multiple peoples and lands, is precisely the sort of rule that the Roman Emperors had built over the years, expanding their borders ever farther, sending legions of soldiers to defend those borders.

But this gathering, compiling of power and glory that comes of ruling worldly kingdoms has no appeal. Not to the Son of God who was with God from the beginning of all creation.  The Word who spoke all creation into being.

God alone is worthy of worship.  And so,
10 Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

I suspect he wasn’t hangry for much longer.

The violent world that we call the civilized world
The world of war and invasions and revolutions
The world of systemic imbalances and oppression based on ethnicity and country of origin
That is world of the now, the world that is not yet as it will be.

That is the world in which sinful humanity rules, and not particularly well
The nonviolent world of creation
The world of innocence and intimacy with God that we read of in Genesis
The world of worship and unity we read of in Revelation
That is the world in which God rules with mercy and lovingkindness

The tempter may lay claim to have the authority to give away the violence of human kingdoms, but only God may offer that world to the healing work of Christ

And God did just that. All because of love.

God so loved the world that God sent Jesus to redeem the world, to begin the long process of reconciling us to God, not with a sword and flames, not with miracles devised to terrify and terrorize.

God sent Jesus to draw humankind back to God by becoming a living, breathing portrait of God’s love…
Jesus fed the hungry, healed the lame, gave water to the thirsty and clothes to the naked.
Jesus gave sight to the blind and set captives free.  

It seems silly, really, to think that Jesus would have succumbed to the temptation to worship Satan in hopes of gaining power or glory. Especially knowing that he gave it all up to be here among us. Using violence to gain power or influence, inciting violence to gain fame or notoriety, winking at the violence of others on your behalf as you seek honor and authority… that right there is worshiping Satan.  

But [for Jesus] to obtain and possess the kingdom the power and the glory by [means of] nonviolent justice is to worship God.  (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, 173)

As our divine proxy, Jesus declines the opportunity to use violence to establish the Kingdom of God, recognizing it could only bring more of the same pain, despair, mourning and isolation that marked life under the Empire.

Time after time, empire after empire, nation after nation (including our own) has fallen prey to this temptation.  Has chosen to engage the pursuit of power by way of violence. All too often in the name of God.

We have done violence to other peoples
By signing treaties that remove entire nations from their homelands and any hope of a future
By participating in genocide on our soil and on other continents
By kidnapping, enslaving and subjugating generations of Africans
By developing and using weapons of mass destruction
By deporting immigrant women and children to nations at war
By closing our borders to refugees

And then we claim to be followers of Jesus, the Christ.
Who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father.   (Philippians 2:6-11)

The Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted, just God tests us and leads us to times of trial. Not because God is fickle, but because we are… God’s stamina within our covenant relationship is astounding. God is unshakable.

We humans, however…  well, we have integrity issues. God must check in with us regularly to see that we are still serious about following, trusting, and worshiping God alone.

Jesus was tempted in all the ways that we are tempted to turn from the commandments of God
By feeding ourselves as others go without
By wielding and displaying our power in order to intimidate others
By bowing down to and placing our earthly kingdoms in a position of power at the expense of others’ agency, culture, health and livelihoods

We can and must call upon his power, his capacity for love and mercy to overcome our own capacity for fear and hatred.

Our Father in Heaven is holy, and wholly beyond our imaginings
Our Father’s kingdom is one where all are welcome, all are fed, all are heard
Our Father’s grace and forgiveness is so abundant that we are filled to overflowing and splash them onto others with abandon
All of which assures us that when we worship God and God alone, we will see God’s kingdom of justice breaking into this world of violence, and God will no longer need to test us.

As children of God, we can call upon our Father with a sense of trust and hope
Giving all the glory and honor to our Creator, Savior and Helper
Now and forevermore

That second decade, part two

In which we consider the middle section of that stretch of life between 11 and 20.  The High School years.

That would be roughly 1980-84.   Not a great time for music, at least according to my darling hubby who is a decade ahead of me…  It was the end of disco and the start of MTV and new wave music. My tastes ran from Billy Idol to Talking Heads, the Police to Georgia Satellites.  And of course, Amy Grant.  I mean, I was a church youth group kid.

I look back at some of the poetry I kept from those days, some of the pictures I still have around. Still struggling to find my voice.  Still struggling to find my style. Still more interested in time spent doing and being than in crafting an image.

I still have my letter jacket from volleyball, and I treasure my Girl Scout 1st Class and Gold Awards. If you don’t know, both of them are the equivalent of the Eagle Scout for boys.  I was active as they transitioned to the new award structure and had the option of which to go for.  I opted to do the work for both.

Kind of like doing all the activities.  Why do just sports when you can also do choir? And Student Government.  And Spanish Club. And dual enroll at the university. And take on leadership in church youth at the local, area and regional level.   And still feel pretty much average and mediocre, not worth anyone making a fuss over.

I guess that sums me up. Why not do all the things?   And put heart and soul into all of it.  Not because I am driven to personal perfection or success.  But because there are other people putting their time and effort into it, too.  Teachers, coaches, mentors, troop, team, group or club members…. now it’s congregations and committees, bosses and teammates, spouse and kid.  We are in it together, and my part is just as important as (though not more important than) everyone else’s.

If I could whisper into my ear then from here and now…

Press on, Goober.  Just press on.  They won’t tell you now, but all those folks you think don’t see you because you don’t look like them?  They do.  And they respect you in ways they won’t be able to express until we’re all old.  Oh, and that drugs/party scene… the reason you don’t know it exists is because they don’t invite you. Which, as you’ll learn all too soon, is probably a good thing.

That second decade

The years between 11 and 20…  this will definitely need to be a two-parter.  At least. I mean, we’re talking middle school, high school and the first part of college.

Let’s just tackle that middle school madness for a minute.   Think late seventies.  That would be when we took fashion cues from the Love Boat and whatever made it to Central Texas from the disco scene.   There were those skinny little gold belts, sheer or shiny fabrics, and really odd shoes.

I, of course, was your classic slightly pudgy tomboy who had a really hard time caring about that stuff. Except for when I cared about that stuff. Which was mostly when someone pointed out that I looked like I didn’t care.  Because, well, early adolescent brains just work that way.

So instead of trying to fit in with the fashions that suited the tall, thin girls, I opted for the carpenter pants and overalls (long and short) that came out in all the primary colors and white.  We won’t go into the details of why white pants become problematic for young women of this age group. Suffice it to say, even Judy Blume can’t prepare you for the unpredictability that comes with all that “becoming a woman” business.

Quintessential Me Moments…

  • Telling a coach who was particularly rude to some of my friends and I who weren’t able to something (run a certain pace, probably) that no, I didn’t have to respect her if she wasn’t able to earn my respect.
  • Choosing to write my notes in science backwards just to provoke my teacher (and then reading them to her to prove that I was paying attention).
  • Sitting in my pre-algebra class totally bewildered by the negative side of the number lines.
  • Being involved in everything possible at school – from sports to student council to Spanish club – specifically so I wouldn’t have to be home in time to do chores or babysit.

If I could whisper in my own ear from here…

There will always be mean girls (and women). Stay the course, keep standing up for yourself and others.  There will also be women ready to mentor you, just like Coach K.  Stay the course, keep looking for them, keep learning from them.  All of this will make you a better mentor, advocate and mom.