Sunday’s sermon: “Bah! Humbug!”

Text used – Habakkuk 1:1-5; 2:1-4; 3:17-19

  • “Bah! Humbug!” It’s a refrain we all recognize, right? It’s a phrase we all associate with one person: Scrooge! That truly singular and unmatched character from Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.
    • Originally published in 1843
    • Story that’s been adapted to film no less than 135 times – everything from …
      • Silent film version entitled Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost in 1901
      • Classic Mickey’s Christmas Carol done by Disney in 1983
      • Classic Scrooge starring Albert Finney in 1970
      • The Muppet’s Christmas Carol in 1992
      • Fully computer animated version in 2009
      • Other off-shoots
        • Scrooged starring Bill Murray from 1988
        • Most recent Spirited starring Will Ferrell and Ryan Reynolds
      • Adaptations go far beyond film – you can find A Christmas Carol
        • Theater productions
        • Radio programs
        • Audio recordings
        • Operas
        • Ballets
        • Graphic novels
        • Comic strips
        • Video games
        • Podcasts
    • For many, the Christmas season hasn’t truly begun until they’ve watched their favorite version, either on their own with a plate of gingerbread cookies and a cozy mug of hot chocolate or with family and friends. There’s just something about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, his moonlit wanderings through past and present and future, the lessons he gleans along the way, and his ultimate redemption that draws us back again and again.
    • Also a story that’s a perfect traveling companion for the season of Advent – read Redemption of Scrooge[1], p. 10
  • So we begin at the beginning of Scrooge’s story this morning.
    • Dickens’ own description of Scrooge: Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn’t thaw it one degree at Christmas.[2]
      • Rawle’s slightly more general description: Scrooge is an iconic figure who represents stinginess, greed, and generally being in a terrible mood. … Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be.[3]
    • First stave (section) of Dickens’ story gives us a truly unsurpassable impression of a man focused on just one thing: money
      • Making it
      • Keeping it
      • Counting it
    • Also introduces the equally stingy and equally crucial character of Scrooge’s former partner, Jacob Marley – a man who, by his own description (via his chain-adorned ghost), was focused on all the wrong things during his life: making money, keeping money, counting money … a misalignment of priorities that he has realized all too late
  • Just as Marley attempts to warn Scrooge of his own wildly misaligned priorities, so the prophets of the First Testament were trying to warn the people of Israel and Judah of their own wildly misaligned priorities
    • Description of Habakkuk – scholar: Habakkuk’s prophecies date to the dawn of the 6th century BCE, when Babylon was bearing down on Judah after defeating the Assyrian Empire to become the dominant regional power. Like many other biblical prophets, Habakkuk interprets Babylon’s incursions as God’s judgment on Judah’s internal politics.[4] → For generations leading up to Habakkuk’s time, the people of Israel had been turning further and further from God. Sometimes they had been led there by kings who were themselves growing increasingly more corrupt and idolatrous. Sometimes they were led there through their own circumstances – those who had married people from other cultures who worshiped other gods. Many times, through the words of various prophets including Habakkuk, God tried to call the people back to that covenant relationship God had made with them. But each time, they fell away again.
      • Result of that falling away makes up the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning – Habakkuk crying out to God to notice the desperate plight of the people: Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen? I cry out to you, “Violence!” but you don’t deliver us. Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me? There is strife, and conflict abounds. The Instruction is ineffective. Justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous. Justice becomes warped. Look among the nations and watch! Be astonished and stare because something is happening in your days that you wouldn’t believe even if told.[5]
        • Scholar makes an important point about this seemingly-harsh passage: The prophet’s cry of frustration—“O LORD, how long?”—is shared with over a dozen psalms, as well as with other laments across the prophetic corpus. The question testifies to prolonged suffering; the speaker cannot imagine an end to the misery. Habakkuk does not hesitate to call God to account, giving voice to what he perceives is God’s refusal to respond to the prophet’s cries for help. That in and of itself is an important reminder for congregations: that being angry at God, or feeling that God seems absent, is “allowed,” and in fact has biblical precedents—and yet those feelings of despair are never the end of the story.[6]
    • Just as Marley is sent to Scrooge as an initial warning, so Habakkuk is sent by God as a warning to the people of Israel – a declaration that change must come
      • Scripture: Then the Lord answered me and said, Write a vision, and make it plain upon a tablet so that a runner can read it. There is still a vision for the appointed time; it testifies to the end; it does not deceive. If it delays, wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late. Some people’s desires are truly audacious; they don’t do the right thing. But the righteous person will live honestly.[7] → God is not trying to hide salvation from the people. God’s promised salvation is coming. Change is coming. Hope is coming. But those promised comings don’t negate the present circumstances. The people are still living in the midst of the lives and culture that they made for themselves. Here we see a prominent difference between our Scripture reading this morning and Scrooge’s story: timing.
        • Scrooge’s story = accelerated → all the revelations and changes come in the span of one single night – in the roughly 17 hours between sundown on Christmas Eve and daybreak on Christmas morning
        • God’s timeline = much, much longer → And it’s that waiting that can be so incredibly hard, isn’t it? Intellectually, we know that Advent is a season of waiting, and we can spin that in all sorts of holly jolly ways: “It’s a season of anticipation” – a word that sounds so much shinier and more palatable than “waiting” … “It’s a season in which the light draws ever closer” which is meant to distract us that, in the absence of the light, things can be dark and cold and uncertain and scary … “It’s a season of preparation” which makes us feel like there’s at least something we can do in the face of the waiting.
    • Sort of helps us understand the desperation and frustration that we hear in Habakkuk’s complaints at the beginning of our reading this morning, doesn’t it? → When we’re holding out for something new, something different, something more, something sure, the waiting can seem interminable and even unbearable.
      • Rawle makes a particular tie btwn the agony of waiting and the season of Advent: Advent is to be a time of waiting, not only to live into the tension of when the divine and creation collide, but it is the spiritual discipline of slowing down to notice God’s presence in the still small voice within a violent and hurried world.[8]
  • But the thing about waiting is that only in that space between what is unknown and what is known can we find hope. Once a thing has been confirmed, has been made sure, has been defined and named, has been given substance and certainty, we move from hope to something else. Hope is born and lives and even thrives in the waiting places.
    • Hope expressed by Habakkuk at the end of our reading this morning: Though the fig tree doesn’t bloom, and there’s no produce on the vine; though the olive crop withers, and the fields don’t provide food; though the sheep are cut off from the pen, and there are no cattle in the stalls; I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in the God of my deliverance. The Lord God is my strength. He will set my feet like deer. He will let me walk upon the heights.[9] → Clearly, things are falling apart all around Habakkuk. Things are not going well for the people of Israel. But still, Habakkuk declares his hope remains in “the God of my deliverance.”
    • Rawle: I like to think about hope as “possibility.” Hope is the picture of all that God can accomplish. There will never be a day when dream about God’s goodness will pass, so there will never be a day not in need of hope.[10]
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is Scrooge’s story
        • Hope that was dashed
        • Hope that was repressed
        • Hope that finally burst forth
        • Hope that overcame
      • If ever there was a story about the power of hope, it is God’s story
        • Hope that was born
        • Hope that lived and breathe and loved and wept
        • Hope that taught
        • Hope that suffered and died and rose again once and for all
  • Good news
    • Just as Scrooge did not travel through this revelatory midnight wanderings alone, we do not travel alone either
      • God travels with us in the midst of it all
      • We travel with one another → Here to help each other see. Here to help each other trust. Here to help each other take the next step forward … and the next … and the next.
    • Hope endures all – all around us and all with us, all that is in our control and all that is out of our control à Rawle: Even though by the end of the story Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed person, the character remains a strong caricature of everything our Christmas celebrations shouldn’t be. It seems that we can’t accept that he has been redeemed. But maybe there’s still hope. Maybe over the course of this study, even Ebenezer Scrooge’s name might come to mean something different to you. After all, if Scrooge can be redeemed, then so can we.[11] → Alleluia. Amen.

[1] Matt Rawle. The Redemption of Scrooge. (Nashville: Abingdon Press), 2016.

[2] Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol, illustrated ed. (White Plains: Peter Pauper Press, Inc., 2022), 5-6.

[3] Rawle, 18.

[4] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:2-4; 3:[3b-6] 17-19” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/faith-as-a-way-of-life-2/commentary-on-habakkuk-11-4-22-4-33b-6-17-19-2.

[5] Hab 1:2-5.

[6] Howard.

[7] Hab 2:1-4.

[8] Rawle, 36.

[9] Hab 3:17-19.

[10] Rawle, 34.

[11] Rawle, 18.

Sunday’s sermon: Making, Doing … Hoping … Preparing

Text used – Micah 5:2-5a; 6:6-8

  • Y’all know just how much I love my to-do lists, and I know that I’m not the only one here that feels that way about making and completing those lists.
    • Lists for packing → Yup, mine are typed up in Word documents on my computer so I can adjust them from year to year before I use them again.
    • Lists for shopping
    • Lists for day-to-day activities → I know y’all have seen the running to-do list that I keep on the whiteboard in my office. And, if you’re so inclined, after worship today you can go in and see how relatively short that list is at the moment!
    • Lists for specific events → 2 separate to-do lists from our Outreach Team mtg. last Thurs. night
      • One for Christ the Servant Sunday that we’ll be celebrating next week
      • One for the Christmas Cookie Sale
    • Lists for special occasions → I may or may not have a detailed, 5-pg. document sitting in my office right now that is every step and every ingredient for the multiple elements that will go into our dessert for Christmas Eve dinner … and that document may or may not be complete with a computer-rendered diagram of said dessert. I don’t know.
    • I even keep an announcements to-do list on my bulletin every Sunday!
    • But as it turns out, there’s a significant psychologically beneficial component to the practice of to-do lists. – article from CNN Health: To-do lists can be great tools for decreasing anxiety, providing structure and giving us a record of everything we’ve accomplished in a day. The trick is to reframe your to-do list as a set of miniature goals for the day and to think of your checklist items as steps in a plan. Research on the psychology of goal-making has revealed that an unfinished goal causes interference with other tasks you’re trying to achieve. But simply making a plan to facilitate that goal, such as detailing steps on a to-do list, can help your mind set it aside to focus on other things.[1]
      • Doesn’t matter what medium you use for your to-do list
        • Any loose sheet of paper
        • Whiteboard
        • Digital format (smartphone, tablet, etc.)
        • Journal pages/special “to-do” notebook
        • Even Post-It notes
      • Doesn’t matter what your list is for
        • Regular, every-day tasks
        • Special events/significant tasks
        • Very specific purposes → Making a Christmas Eve dessert, for example.
    • In fact, I think heading into the holiday season is probably when people have the most to-do lists rattling around in their heads or their phones or their wallets.
      • To-do lists for holiday food
      • To-do lists for gifts
      • To-do lists for other holiday activities
        • Parties/gatherings to attend
        • Decorations to dust off and put up
        • Traditions to enjoy
        • Charitable donations to make (either monetary donations or donations of time or other needed items)
    • But what about our faith? We’re coming up on the season of Advent – a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ-child. But how much preparing do we actually do this time of year as far as our faith is concerned? How often do we make a concerted effort to getting our hearts and our spirits ready for the birth of Love Incarnate – the coming of God in human form? Or do we expend all of our energy on the physical preparations for the season and simply sit back and wait for God to find us in and amidst the hustle and bustle?
  • Today’s Scripture reading from Micah = powerful reading that binds together the “doing” side of faith with the “hoping” side of faith
    • Background for Micah from scholar: Prophesying toward the end of the eighth century BCE, Micah was a witness to the antagonism of the Assyrian Empire against Israel and Judah, including the capture of Samaria in 722 BCE and the siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, when the capital of Judah survived by the skin of its teeth. Instability and war were all around, and that sense of danger is reflected in the many judgment oracles found throughout the book, especially in the first three chapters. Chapters 4-5 take on a more hopeful tone, while chapters 6-7 are a mix of both judgment and hope.[2]
    • Passage today can be broken up into the two sections (both by chapter and by theme within those chapters)
      • First part (from ch. 5) = reminder of what we’re preparing for
      • Second part (from ch. 6) = how to prepare
      • So let’s investigate these two sections a little more closely.
  • First section: what we’re preparing for – text: As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days. Therefore, he will give them up until the time when she who is in labor gives birth. The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. They will dwell secure, because he will surely become great throughout the earth; he will become one of peace.[3]
    • Surely, as Christians, we read the words of this prophecy and believe that they point to Jesus: coming from Bethlehem, coming on God’s behalf, one who will shepherd his flock, one who will “surely become great throughout the earth.” By our understanding … through our belief … God is speaking through Micah to point the way to Jesus – the Messiah, the Christ.
    • One really particular phrase that grabs my attention in this passage – end of v. 2: His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
      • Heb. “origin” = particular word that encompasses both the act of something going forth AND the place from which that something has come → It’s a word that very much encompasses the eternal nature of Christ as God Made Flesh.
        • Expansive nature of who the coming Messiah was and is and will be is also found in the rest of that phrase
          • Heb. “remote times,” “ancient,” and “days” = all words that ring with eternity, with a cyclical view of time – indicating beginning as well as ending, what was before and what lies ahead
        • Brings to mind the beginning of gospel of Jn: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.[4]
    • Passage also speaks not only of who is coming but also of what this One will bring
      • Reunion and return
      • Protection and guidance of a shepherd
      • Strength of the Lord
      • Majesty of God’s name
      • Security and peace
      • Those sound like the words of another prophet, don’t they? – Is: A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom, establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever.[5]
    • These are the promises that came with Jesus more than 2000 years ago, but I think that we often forget that they’re the promises that still come with Jesus today and the promises that Jesus will bring with him again when he returns. Today, I think we’re so far removed from that incredible night full of angels and shepherd and a birth and the brilliant light of a guiding star that we forget that that Jesus is the one we’re still preparing for today. Advent isn’t just about “preparing for Jesus” by putting out our creche and lighting a special candle during worship or maybe even at home around the dinner table. Advent is about preparing ourselves to receive the light and promise of Christ into our hearts anew, and it’s about preparing ourselves for Christ to come again – a coming that will change things forevermore.
      • Scholar: [Micah] is pointing to a leader who stands “in the strength of the Lord,” rather than in the strength of weapons or power or wealth or territory. Here is a difference that makes a difference. It takes one’s breath away, this promise. In these few verses, tucked away in a slim prophetic book, Micah captures the ache with which we live each day and the hope that is in us for a future that only God can deliver. Life is precarious, and so too are the so-called securities we purchase with our dollars and in which we place so much trust: insurance policies, savings accounts, credit cards, physicians, and elected officials. Like us, they are here today but gone tomorrow. Christians understand God’s provision of true security in the One whose birth the church is soon to celebrate. Christ is our security. He is bread for our hunger, drink for our thirst, and life for our death.[6]
  • And if that’s the “who” and the “what” that we’re preparing for, then what about the “how”? → shift our focus to the second part of today’s reading – familiar portion from ch. 6: With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit? He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.[7]
    • Begins with an age-old question – one that we’ve asked ourselves … and each other … and God time and again throughout the millennia → As long as people have placed their faith in God – this incredible, powerful, compassionate, protecting God who we cannot see or hear … As long as people have place their faith in God, we have also wondered about the best way to approach God. The most appropriate way. The most reverent way. The most effective way. Even the safest way!
      • Question that has spurred so many of the interactions throughout Scripture – both First Testament and New Testament stories
      • Question asked by Micah again this morning: How should I come before God?
    • Response reads a little like a side-by-side to-do list and “anti-to-do list”
      • Ways not to come before God: Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil? Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?[8] → The particular form of the Hebrew here makes it clear that, while Micah is asking rhetorical questions, he’s asking those rhetorical questions in a way that deliberate leads to a “no” answer. So this is the “anti-to-do list.”
        • I should not come with entirely burned offerings and year-old calves
        • God will not be pleased with thousands of rams and torrents of oil
        • I should not give my oldest child
      • To-do list follows on the heels of these rhetorical questions: He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.[9]
        • Scholar: If Judeo-Christian ethics had to be summarized on a bumper sticker, Micah 6:8 would fit the bill … There may be no better summary of the neighborly ethic voiced by prophets, codified in the commandments, and incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth.[10]
  • So there it is: our to-do list for preparing our hearts, our minds, our spirits, and our lives for the coming of Christ – the coming that was over 2000 years ago, the coming that is when we wake up every morning and choose to follow Christ, and the coming that will be.
    • CNN Health article about to-do lists and goals: In order to work effectively, your to-do list’s mini-goals also need to be well defined and have short time frames. That’s because people also tend to give up in the middle of goals, according to psychologists. … “We celebrate graduations at work and cheer when we finish big projects. But there is no celebration for middles. That’s when we both cut corners and we lose our motivation,” said Ayelet Fishbach, a professor of behavioral science and marketing at the University of Chicago who is an expert on motivation and decision-making. “We will still slack in that middle, and having long projects invites a long middle.”[11] → So here’s my challenge to you today as we think about the coming season of Advent: spend some time really thinking about how you want to prepare for Christ this season.
      • Maybe prayer
      • Maybe volunteering/service
      • Maybe giving
      • Maybe just finding 5 solid minutes somewhere in your day to think about what the coming of Christ means to you → how the coming of Christ has changed, does change, and will change you
        • And we’re going to begin that preparation by moving straight into our time of Exploring the Word Together with this morning’s question: How can we prepare for Christ today? Friends, let us be the word of God for one another this morning.

[1] Lauren Kent. “The psychology behind to-do lists and how they can make you feel less anxious” from CNN Health, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/14/health/to-do-lists-psychology-coronavirus-wellness/index.html. Posted July 14, 2020, accessed Nov. 13, 2022.

[2] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on Micah [1:3-5];5:2-5a; 6:6-8” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/micah-2/commentary-on-micah-13-5-52-5a-66-8-2.

[3] Mic 5:2-5a.

[4] Jn 1:1-4.

[5] Is 9:6-7.

[6] Nancy S. Taylor. “Fourth Sunday of Advent – Micah 5:2-5a – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common LectionaryYear C, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 76.

[7] Mic 6:6-8.

[8] Mic 6:6b-7.

[9] Mic 6:8.

[10] Andrew Foster Connors. “Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – Micah 6:1-8 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 290.

[11] Kent, https://www.cnn.com/2020/07/14/health/to-do-lists-psychology-coronavirus-wellness/index.html.

Sunday’s sermon: It’s That Simple

Text used – 2 Kings 5:1-15a

  • Time for another children’s book, all! This is another one from one of the very favorite authors in our house: Mr. Mo Willems.
    • Other Mo Willems books I’ve talked about before: Elephant and Piggie books
    • Other Mo Willems books in general
      • Knuffle Bunny books
      • Leonardo, the Terrible Monster[1]
      • Nanette’s Baguette[2] (which is probably one of the best read-aloud books out there!)
      • And a number of other off-shoots written by other authors but endorsed by Mo Willems via Elephant and Piggie.
    • But the first book that Mo Willems wrote featured a different character: the pigeon. → introduced a highly entertaining and attitudinal pigeon with big ideas, big emotions, and epic facial expressions (You didn’t think pigeons could have facial expressions, did you?)
      • First book: Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus[3]
      • Many other highly enjoyable Pigeon books since (including the brand new one: The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster![4])
      • Pigeon story I wanted to introduce you to today: The Pigeon Needs a Bath![5]
        • [read title pages]
        • Throughout the first 2/3 of the book, the Pigeon expends a great amount of energy and persuasive power trying to convince you, the reader, that he does not, in fact, need a bath despite the fact that he is clearly covered in dirt and grime with stench trails wafting off him.
          • Finally convinced when even the flies buzzing around his stinky, dirty self fly away with the parting remarks of, “P.U.! Yuck! Let’s get out of here! Take a bath, dude!”
        • Spends another few pages in front of the bathtub doing everything he can not to get in
          • Water’s too hot → water’s too cold
          • Not enough toys → too many toys
          • Too much water → not enough water
          • Water’s too wet
          • Water’s too reflective
        • [SPOILER ALERT] But when the pigeon finally gets into the bathtub, he discovers he LOVES taking a bath! He loves playing in the water. He loves the bubbles. He loves relaxing in the water. He even loves the washing part!
          • Final pages: TEN HOURS LATER → Pigeon: “Can I stay in the tub forever?”
      • And frankly, it was too perfect a lead-in into our Scripture reading today to leave at home! I mean, it’s a story whose main character doesn’t think a simple bath is going to do him any good, but once he finally takes that bath, his entire outlook changes. Truly, this picture book is the story of Naaman in snarky, cartoon pigeon form! Okay … that may be going a bit far, but the parallels between The Pigeon Needs a Bath! and our story from the First Testament this morning are undeniable.
  • So let’s take a minute to figure out how we got from King Solomon last week to Naaman’s story this week.
    • Last week: story took place at the very beginning of Solomon’s reign as king over the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah → now skipping over the entirety of the rest of Solomon’s reign
      • Solomon building the first Temple (destroyed by the invading Babylonian army in 586 BCE)
      • Northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah splitting once again
      • Long line of rulers for both kingdoms → each king growing slightly worse and more corrupt and less dedicated to God than his predecessor
        • Stories of prophet Elijah fall into this time period of deteriorating kingships
        • Story of Elijah being taken up into heaven and being succeeded by his disciple, Elisha[6]
  • Brings us to today’s story
    • Naaman = “general for the king of Aram” → Aram = kingdom that shared a significant portion of the border with the northern kingdom of Israel (modern day Syria and northern Palestine) → And clearly, Naaman is a big deal. Besides being a general, our text said he was “a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram.”[7] It also calls him a “mighty warrior.” So yeah. Naaman is a big deal. BUT he also has “a skin disease,” which, within the context of Scripture, is generally understood as leprosy.
      • So let’s talk about leprosy for a minute. – disease from “Bible times,” yes, but a disease that still exists today → from non-profit Embrace a Village founded to serve people affected by leprosy “holistically through spiritual, medical, nutritional, and educational programs”[8]
        • Leprosy (aka – Hansen’s disease)[9]
          • Chronic, mildly infectious disease caused by slow-growing bacteria → incubation period of about 3-5 yrs → symptoms can take as long as 20 yrs to appear
          • Can affect the nerves, eyes, skin, and mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract
          • Not highly contagious → contracted in the same way as a common cold (coughing/sneezing) but 95% of adults are already immune
          • Can be cured through multidrug therapy over the course of 6-12 mos.
        • Some numbers from Embrace a Village
          • Close to 250,000 cases worldwide today
          • Nearly 60% of the world’s cases are in India → culture in which a leprosy diagnosis will still find both you and your entire family ostracized by your village … not so different from “Bible times.”
      • For someone as prominent as Naaman to suffer from such a stigmatizing disease was uncommon. Nothing in our text this morning tells us how long Naaman had had his skin disease, though we might infer that he was still able to hide the effects of the disease due to the fact that he wasn’t ostracized – the fact that he still maintained his prominent position.
    • Naaman hears from captured Hebrew slave girl working for his wife about the miraculous healing capabilities of the prophet Elisha → And in her words, Naaman sees a glimmer of hope.
      • Goes to “his master” (i.e. – the king of Aram) → king of Aram (who must be privy to Naaman’s condition) agrees to write to the king of Israel to make sure Naaman and his traveling party can venture safely into the territory of the kingdom of Israel so Naaman can seek out Elisha for healing
    • So first Naaman goes to the king of Israel and presents him with this letter from the king of Aram explaining the situation and the need … and the king of Israel sort of flips out a little bit. → gives us a little insight as to just how serious a leprosy diagnosis was back then (and still is for a lot of people today) – text: When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me!”[10]
    • Somehow Elisha hears about this reaction and sends word to the king of Israel telling him to send Naaman and his entourage to Elisha’s house → So Naaman the Big Deal and those traveling with him show up on Elisha’s doorstep … but Elisha doesn’t even come to the door himself! He simply sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River seven times if he wants to be cured!
      • Naaman the Big Deal is not having it – text: Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.[11] → Naaman the Big Deal is angry that he doesn’t even get to see He’s angry that all he’s being asked to do is wash in some stupid water – some water that is clearly inferior to his Aramean water. He’s angry. He’s insulted. And why is he feeling that way? Because he’s a Big Deal. Because he’s Somebody. Because he feels entitled.
        • Plenty of other people suffering from leprosy at the time would have jumped at the chance à literally would have jumped weeping and hoping and splashing and rejoicingly into the waters of the Jordan River believing with every ounce of their being that their cure was just a simple wash away → But Naaman expects better. Naaman expects more. Because Naaman expects that he is better … he is more.
          • Scholar: Naaman is a powerful person who is used to people doing what he tells them to, and he demands the five-star treatment from [Elisha]. It’s as though he has arrived in Israel expecting a private suite in a private hospital, and instead he’s been offered a bed in the hallway.[12]
        • And because of those inflated self-expectations – because of that entitlement – he almost misses out on his chance for healing.
          • Only the words of a servant stop him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash, and become clean.’” So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.[13] → As I said, a story whose main character doesn’t think a simple bath is going to do him any good, but once he finally takes that bath, his entire outlook changes.
            • Naaman’s final words upon returning to Elisha’s presence = declaration of faith: “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.”[14]
  • Too often, friends, we let our expectations about what “should be” get in the way of our faith.
    • Who and what and how others should be
    • Who and what and how we should be
    • Who and what and how the church should be
    • Who and what and how faith should be
    • Who and what and how the world should be
    • And we have this strange and maddening tendency to make things harder – sometimes infinitely harder! – than they need to be!
      • Me at regional spelling bee → word: absurd → I missed out because I was expecting the word to be harder than it was. I was expecting a trick, something hidden and difficult. I was overly complicating things. And we do that so often with our faith! We think we have to be in the right place or pray right or have the right words or the right posture or exactly the right set of beliefs for God to hear us and see us and love us. And so often, we let the buildup of our misplaced expectations get in the way of our relationship with God. We think we can’t approach God until we’ve ticked all the right boxes … done all the right things … become all the right things. But in the midst of it all, there God stands, saying simply, “Come. Love. Believe. Stop making it so hard. I’m here. You’re here. It’s that simple.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Mo Willems. Leonardo, the Terrible Monster. (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2005.

[2] Mo Willems. Nanette’s Baguette. (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2016.

[3] Mo Willems. Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2003.

[4] Mo Willems. The Pigeon Will Ride the Roller Coaster! (New York: Union Square Kids), 2022.

[5] Mo Willems. The Pigeon Needs a Beth! (New York: Hyperion Books for Children), 2014.

[6] 2 Kgs 2:1-22.

[7] 2 Kgs 5:1.

[8] https://www.embraceavillage.org/who-we-are/#mission.

[9] https://www.embraceavillage.org/what-is-leprosy/.

[10] 2 Kgs 5:7.

[11] 2 Kgs 5:11-12.

[12] Cameron B.R. Howard. “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-15a” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/elisha-heals-naaman-2/commentary-on-2-kings-51-15a-2.

[13] 2 Kgs 5:13-14.

[14] 2 Kgs 5:15a.

Sunday’s sermon: The Tangle of Power, Justice, and Love

BEFORE THE READING: If you’re familiar at all with social media, you’ve probably come across the term “content warning” or “trigger warning.” It’s something that people put at the beginning of a post that might be emotionally difficult or triggering for people – a post that might bring up some painful reactions (fear, anger, shame, grief, etc.) because of a similar experience that the reader might have had. It’s a way to protect others – to give them the option of interacting with your post or choosing to scroll past it without engaging for the sake of their own mental, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Truly, friends, there are definitely parts of the Bible that would do well to come with a trigger warning as well, and that would include today’s story. We’re venturing into the reign of King Solomon this morning, and while our passage starts off easy enough, the second half of it is a story that involves the death of an infant in a particularly frightening way, a fierce custody struggle, and a seemingly-appalling suggestion on Solomon’s part. So I’m giving you a heads up this morning. It’s not the kind of reading I think people should be blindsided with on a Sunday morning, and if that means you need to step out for this part, that is completely okay. I think from a Scriptural standpoint and a theological standpoint, it’s important for us to engage with all parts of the Bible, not just the stories that are easy or that make us feel good. But from a pastoral standpoint, I also know that sometimes we’ve been through or are going through really, really hard things, and faith and the practice of being church together should never make those things harder. We can learn through the hard things in Scripture, but only if our minds and hearts and spirits are in a safe space.

Text used – 1 Kings 3:4-28

  • Very often – almost every time, in fact – when I’m working on my sermon, I spend the week pondering about what story or what tidbit of information or what pop culture reference could be a good introduction for the Scripture story and theme for the day.
    • Something funny
    • Something interesting
    • Something relatable
    • Something inspiring
    • Today is not that day. As I said before our reading this morning, today’s Scripture is a hard one. There’s a lot to it, both in terms of content (it’s a long one that basically encompasses two separate stories) and in terms of themes. So instead of trying to soften things or ease into things with a story or an anecdote, we’re just going to dive right in this morning.
  • Much of the context we need provided by our passage
    • Text (Solomon’s own words): And now, Lord my god, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size.[1]
      • Tells us Solomon is David’s son (son by Bathsheba)
      • Tells us Solomon is now the king of the people of Israel
      • Also gives us some significant insight into Solomon’s state of mind → Solomon’s only been king for a very short while, and his coming to the throne was not without controversy. Some of David’s sons had already died in battle but not all, and at the time of David’s death, Solomon was not the eldest surviving son. And yet God and David chose Solomon as the succeeding king for Israel over his older brother. And, as with many royal successions – in the Bible and throughout human history – this transition is not one without conflict or bloodshed. But eventually, Solomon ascends to David’s throne over Israel.
    • Just before today’s text → told Solomon has married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and brought her back to Jerusalem with him à also made aware that Solomon’s heart is in the right place when it comes to his relationship with God (even if his actions don’t always track): Now Solomon loved to walk in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.[2]
  • Today’s text
    • Can be broken down into 2 parts
      • Story of Solomon’s dream encounter with God
      • Encounter btwn Solomon and the two women fighting over the baby
    • Can also be broken down into three interconnected, tangled themes: power, justice, and love → So we’re going to dig deeper into our Scripture reading through these themes this morning.
  • First story in today’s text = Solomon’s dream encounter with God
    • God tells Solomon, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”[3]
    • Solomon begins by praising God for all that God has done in Solomon’s own life and in the life of his father David before him = Solomon treating this dream conversation with God as prayer
    • Solomon’s request: “Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”[4]
      • Heb. here is interesting → “discerning mind” = literally “listening heart”
        • Heb. “heart/mind” = more general than what we delineate thanks to modern medical understandings today → We tend to hear “mind” and think of the brain, and likewise, when we hear “heart,” we think of that organ located in our chest that pumps blood throughout our bodies. But in Hebrew, the word is much less defined … much more nebulous. It refers to the inner self – the character, the inclinations, the intention, the purpose, even the conscience of a person. So Solomon is asking God for more than a good brain here. Solomon is asking God to help him be a good person from the inside out.
    • Power and justice and love wrapped up in both the asking and the giving here
      • Power = both the means of giving and a significant part of the purpose behind the asking
        • Clear from the beginning that God has the power to give anything – “whatever you wish” – to Solomon → power of God is unbounded, unhindered, and unconditional → This story, and really, Solomon’s whole story, begins with the power of God.
        • And I think it’s also clear that power is a significant part of the purpose behind Solomon’s request because he knows in his mind and his heart – in his inner self – that a great power rests with him.
          • Witnessed the reign of his father, David
          • Witnessed all kinds of struggles for power → struggles that were duplicitous and callous and bloody
          • And in his innermost self, Solomon wants to do right with the power that has been bestowed on him.
            • Sort of like that famous Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” → also brings in that justice piece in that Solomon wants to use his power in a way that is fair and just and beneficial to all the people – the “large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size” – who make up his kingdom → text (Solomon’s own words): Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil[5]
      • Love = behind both the means of giving and the purpose behind the asking
        • God is asking Solomon this because God loves the people of Israel and wants good for them → God believe Solomon will be able to be a source of that good, so God’s offer and the gift that follows are given out of love
        • Similarly, Solomon is asking out of love both for God and for the people → Solomon expressed his love for God before he even makes is request. In doing so, he grounds that request not in his own ambition but in his love for God and his desire to follow God. And in a way that intertwines both justice and love, Solomon makes his request for the love of his people. He wants to do right by them – to act justly and fairly for them – because he loves them.
  • Brings us into the 2nd story in today’s text → Solomon’s first test of this discerning mind that he asked God for in the midst of a situation that is a veritable snarl of power and justice and love
    • First, cannot dismiss the fact that our text tells us these two women were prostitutes → a section of society that has been degraded and ridiculed and criminalized and dismissed as long as prostitutes have existed → By telling us that this dispute is brought before King Solomon by two prostitutes, our Scripture is shedding light on Solomon’s character because he does not dismiss their claims or their case based solely on how they make their living. He hears these women out, and he does so without any reference to their profession. The narrator calls them “prostitutes,” but Solomon calls them only “women.”
      • Powerful insight into Solomon’s justice right off the bat
    • And then we hear these women’s horrible, heart-shattering, gut-wrenching story that is so saturated with grief and the things people sometimes do to survive their grief that we can barely breath in the face of it.
      • Both women have given birth around the same time
      • One mother’s child dies in the night (accusation from the other woman = every parent’s worst fear: “This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him.”[6])
      • Both mothers now claiming the baby who is still living
      • Scholar points out the stark reality in this tale: The two women are divided over who is the mother of the living child, but both must be experiencing grief and anxiety, with no one standing alongside in compassion and with counsel befitting their particular situation.[7]
      • In this part of the story, we see an imbalance in the tangle of power and justice and love. In the knot that is these women’s situation, the threads of love are abundant and thick. It’s clear that these women both loved their children – fiercely loved them … loved them enough to fight all the way into the presence of the king for them. And yet they find themselves before the king because, while their situation is teeming with the threads of love, it is a situation seriously lacking any threads of power. These women are barely clinging on to the lowest run of society’s ladder. Power is not a part of their day, their life, their situation, or their outlook. And so they’ve sought out the help and power of the king.
    • Solomon’s appalling suggestion (test, really): divide the child in two so that each woman can have half → Truly, this is horror like even Hollywood wouldn’t dare to write at this point. And while Solomon’s suggestion certainly seems to bring about an expedient end to the conflict, I have to believe that there were more humane, less traumatic ways to come to the same conclusion. Solomon’s side of this tangle is rife with threads of power and justice, but there seems to a glaring absence of love.
      • Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” → Yes, Solomon implemented the demands of justice here … but in a way that ratcheted up the fear and agony and grief of a mother who was already in an impossible situation. Love doesn’t implement justice in a way that causes further grief and pain.
  • Friends, the word we live in today is a difficult one in which justice and love and power are all tangled up in a whole lot of destructive, unhealthy, and toxic ways. Our brokenness as individuals grates against one another in ways that are divisive and frightening, disrespectful and hurtful, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have forgotten just how interwoven power and justice and love need to be in order to do them well. Fortunately, we have an incredible example of how to living into justice with love can be the ultimate power: Jesus.
    • Jesus came from power BUT came to topple power for power’s sake
    • Jesus taught with love … prayed with love … led with love … died and rose again in love
    • Jesus talked about justice for those who had none, but more than that, he embodied that justice → welcoming those who were unwelcomed, listening to those whose voices were ignored, healing those who were overlooked, and shining a compassionate light on those who occupied the margins and the shadows
    • So when you’re feeling overwhelmed by just how tangled and snarled power and justice and love are today, look to Jesus. Learn from Jesus. Follow Jesus. Amen.

[1] 1 Kgs 3:7-8.

[2] 1 Kgs 3:3.

[3] 1 Kgs 3:5.

[4] 1 Kgs 3:9.

[5] 1 Kgs 3:9a (emphasis added).

[6] 1 Kgs 3:19.

[7] Elna K. Solvang. “Commentary on 1 Kings 3:4-9 [10-15] 16-28” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/solomons-wisdom-2/commentary-on-1-kings-34-9-10-15-16-28-3.

Sunday’s sermon: The Promise Beyond the SNAFU

Text used – 2 Samuel 12:1-9, 13-15

  • A snafu. In today’s vernacular, it’s simply something that’s gone wrong – an obstacle or a glitch that keeps you from accomplishing something, an error, a situation that’s confusing and disorganized and snarled.
    • Often used today when we’re describing something as innocently annoying as getting to the store and realizing your wallet is at home
      • Game that I had as a kid (one that my kids still play with at my parents’ house now) called Snafu = maze/obstacle course game → guide a ball bearing through a series of obstacles using different knobs, levers, etc. → object: to make it all the way through the messed-up path without the ball bearing falling off the course
    • But like “radar” and “scuba” and even “taser,” the word snafu started off as an acronym.
      • Origins in the granddaddy of all acronym producers: the military
      • Born out of a colorful expression used by soldier in World War II to describe situations that were chaotic, messy, and above all, unexpectedly dangerous → expression: Situation normal, all fouled up (and yes, that’s the PG version … I’m sure y’all can figure it out.)
    • And as we wrap up our fall journey through stories about God’s covenant promises in the First Testament, it seems fitting that we end up with today’s story about King David and the prophet Nathan because truly, this is a snafu of a situation.
  • First, let’s catch up with the story → Usually, as we’re going along from one story to the next with this Narrative Lectionary, the time jump from one to the other isn’t too huge. But today, we’re taking a big jump.
    • Last week = Joshua encouraging the people to rededicate themselves to their covenant relationship with God after they’ve finally established themselves in the promised land
    • HUGE jump btwn then and today → many generations, many stories, even jumping over 3 whole books of the Bible
      • For the first period of Israel’s history in the promised land, the people were governed by various judges – those who would lead the people both in their life as a nation and in their life with God.
        • Frequent refrain from the book of Jdgs: “The Israelites did things that the Lord saw as evil, and they forgot the Lord their God.”[1] → God gives the people over to some foreign ruler → people eventually return to God in repentance and sorrow → God raises up a new leader among them: one of the judges
        • Some good judges like Deborah and Gideon
        • Lots of other bad judges → led the people into corruption, worshiping other gods, and lots and lots of war
      • Finally, the people of Israel looked around and saw that all the nations around them – the nations that kept attacking them and invading their country and trying to subjugate them – were ruled by powerful kings, so the people of Israel cried out to God to give them a king.[2]
        • God’s response = this is not a good idea because a king will also rule over you
          • He will take your sons for war
          • He will take your daughters for servants
          • He will take your best fields, your best livestock, your best harvest
        • People’s response = “We still want a king!”
      • So God instructs the prophet Samuel to anoint Saul as king over Israel → doesn’t really go well
        • Saul starts off faithful to God → soon slips into anxiety and fear and paranoia
          • Result = war
          • Result = Saul’s insanity
          • Result = Saul eventually turning to other gods (the gods of some of the women that he’s married)
          • Ultimate result = God rejects Saul as king → instructs Samuel to anoint David as king instead
        • David’s kingship = better than Saul’s … but only by a small margin
          • Unites both kingdoms – Israel and Judah → rules them both from Jerusalem
          • Brings God’s holy chest back to Jerusalem with much fanfare and reverence and holy joy (incl. passage about David dancing before the Lord)
          • Dedicates himself to God and God’s purpose
          • But then we come to the story of David and Bathsheba → David’s lust overcomes his senses → makes sure Bathsheba’s husband Uriah is killed in battle → David takes Bathsheba as his own
            • Scholar: David is both a symbol of the covenant that was made with the patriarchs ([God] promised to make Abraham’s heirs kings) and a symbol of the adulterous nation, Israel, who repetitively breaches her covenant with [God]. David is the embodiment of [God’s] promise and an infidel, causing a rupture in the covenantal relationship. He covets the wife of his neighbor, commits adultery, bears false witness against his neighbor, steals, and kills. His infidelity mirrors the infidelity of the nation, and he violates not only Uriah but [God] as well.[3]
  • Today’s Scripture reading = what we could deem the aftermath of David’s overwhelming desire
    • God sends prophet Nathan to David to tell David a parable of sorts – text: “There were two men in the same city, one rich, one poor. The rich man had a lot of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing—just one small ewe lamb that he had bought. He raised that lamb, and it grew up with him and his children. It would eat from his food and drink from his cup—even sleep in his arms! It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to visit the rich man, but he wasn’t willing to take anything from his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had arrived. Instead, he took the poor man’s ewe lamb and prepared it for the visitor.”[4]
      • Interesting: Heb. “grew up” = connotations of advancement → means growing up, yes, but also becoming great and/or wealthy[5] → So not only does this one lamb grow in size, but it also grows the hopes and dreams of the poor man who was raising her.
        • Ewe lamb = source of immediate income through sale of things like wool and milk/by-products (cheese, butter, etc.)
        • Ewe lamb = more future-oriented source of income by growing of his herd through breeding
        • Not only did the poor man’s love rest on this little ewe lamb, so did his entire future and the future for his family.
    • Understandably, David is appalled by the heartless injustice and selfishness that he hears in this story – text: David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the one who did this is demonic! He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over because he did this and because he had no compassion.”[6]
      • Heb. “demonic” = tricky → word related to Heb. word for death[7]
        • Can indicate death or deadliness or the dead
        • Can indicate the place where the dead go
        • Other translation: “The man who has done this deserves to die!”[8] → David is certainly not holding back here. His anger and indignation are boiling over.
      • Interesting that David includes that last little piece – that the rich man who took the poor man’s lamb deserves judgment not just because of what he did but “because he had no compassion” → “compassion” has connotations of keeping back or sparing someone or something → It’s actually the same word that’s used to describe the rich man’s selfishness – how he wasn’t willing to spare anything from his own flock. Clearly, David is recognizing just how inwardly-focused this fictitious rich man is. He only takes compassion on himself. He only spares himself.
    • Makes Nathan’s revelation all the more startling – text: “You are that man!” Nathan told David.[9] → Nathan goes on to detail for David just how much God had blessed him and just how David threw those blessings back in God’s face by taking Bathsheba and having Uriah killed
      • Uses no uncertain terms – Nathan to David: “Why have you despised the Lord’s word by doing what is evil in his eyes? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and taken his wife as your own. You used the Ammonites to kill him.”[10]
    • And clearly, Nathan’s harsh admonishment hits home – David’s response = utter repentance
      • Tradition: Ps 51 – the psalm that we used as our prayer together this morning – was penned by King David following this encounter with Nathan [RE-READ SOME OF PS 51]
  • A snafu if ever there was one, right? David knew “the rules.” He knew what to do and what not to do to keep things “normal” – to maintain a whole and reverent covenant relationship with God … but still, he turned away. He fouled it up. He let his desire and his authority overpower him, and he turned his back on God’s commands to follow his own will instead.
    • But still, God accepted David’s repentant heart and loved him again … David may have temporarily turned his back on God, but God never turned God’s back on David → Even after such an egregious error … even after such blatant disregard for God’s commandments and Israel’s covenant relationship with God … even after such a shocking and grievous snafu … God’s promise of compassion and companionship, of protection and presence – that promise remained intact.
    • Friends, how often do we turn our backs on God, either intentionally or unintentionally?
      • Sort of like a book that Julia checked out of the library a few weeks ago → story of a little fox[11] who gets distracted by a pair of purple butterflies → fox follows the butterflies far from his family and his den → ends up following the butterflies right off a small cliff and ends up hurt at the bottom → That little fox certainly didn’t intend to run off a ledge, but he wasn’t paying attention. Something else – something pretty, something new, something interesting – drew his eyes and his mind away, and he followed. And a lot of the time, that’s how it is with us and God. We don’t intend to turn away … but something or someone or someplace distracts us, and suddenly, we find ourselves falling. Falling away.
        • Like David, even though we may turn our backs on God, God never turns away from us → That’s the beauty and incomparable blessing of salvation! Salvation isn’t contingent on perfect. Jesus makes that clear not only in his teachings but in those he spent his time with – imperfect people living imperfect lives loving God imperfectly … but still loving God. Salvation isn’t contingent on perfection BUT it also isn’t a free pass to do whatever we want. Salvation isn’t contingent on perfection but it is contingent on action and intention. The grace of God covers us no matter what, but if we are going to call ourselves followers of the One who came to deliver that salvation to humankind – Jesus, the Risen Christ – then God does ask that we follow … that we try … that we dedicate our hearts and our words and our actions and our hopes and our dreams to the work God has for us to do in this world. Because in that space where our dedicated hearts and our intentional actions meet – that’s the space where God’s promises are fulfilled, both in us and through us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Jdgs 3:7a.

[2] 1 Sam 8.

[3] Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar. “October 23, 2022 – Commentary on 2 Samuel 11:1-5, 26-27; 12:1-9; Psalm 51:1-9” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/david-and-bathsheba-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-111-5-26-27-121-9-psalm-511-9-2.

[4] 2 Sam 12:1b-4.

[5] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/2-samuel-111-5-26-27-121-9/.

[6] 2 Sam 12:5-6.

[7] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/2-samuel-111-5-26-27-121-9/.

[8] 2 Sam 12:5 (NRSV).

[9] 2 Sam 12:7a.

[10] 2 Sam 12:9.

[11] Edward van de Vendel, trans. David Colmer. Little Fox. (Hoboken: Levine Querido), 2020.

Sunday’s sermon: An Old Promise Renewed

Text used – Joshua 24:1-2; 14-26

  • There’s a sign hanging up in our house. I’d be willing to guess that some of you have a similar sign hanging up in your house, too.
    • Top: “House Rules: In this house, we …”
      • General “rules”
        • Play fair
        • Say “please” and “thank you”
        • Help each other
        • Forgive each other
      • More playful encouragements
        • Are unique
        • Laugh often
        • Dream big
        • Try new things
    • Lots of themed variations on this sign, too
      • Disney theme
        • “We whistle while we work and we just keep swimming”
        • “We know all it takes is faith, trust and a little pixie dust”
      • Geek theme (have to read it all because every reference is just too good): In this house, we believe in faeries and we ain’t afraid of no ghosts. We have epic adventures once upon a time and in galaxies far far away. We do wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff while going where no man has gone before. We know the answer to everything is 42 or “I am Groot.” We know never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, the odds are ever in our favor, and we aim to misbehave. We solemnly swear that we are up to no good, and we never say die. And we don’t care what others think because in this house, we do Geek.
      • Powerful neurodivergent themes
        • ADHD: We do meltdowns and avoidance. … We also hope. We persevere. And we pray
        • Autism:
          • We do routine
          • We celebrate the small things
          • We learn social cues
          • We love hard, accept, and respect
    • And what I love about these types of signs – other than the pure fun and whimsy of them – is how declarative they are. They immediately tell you something about the people living in the house. They shed a light on their lives and personalities, their hobbies and their passions. They proudly and playfully declare, “This is who we are. This is how we live. This is how we go about being in this world.”
      • Maybe don’t always follow all the “rules” perfectly → But the other great thing about signs like these is they’re a visual reminder to the people that live in the house. “This is how we want to treat each other. These are the things – the actions, the values, the characteristics – that are important to us. This is how we want to go about being in this world.”
    • This morning’s Scripture reading is that sort of declarative moment in the history of the people of Israel – a snapshot of who they are, how they want to live, and how they want to go about being in this world.
  • Catching up with the narrative
    • Last week = 10 commandments given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai → God also gives Moses instructions re: just about every other thing under the sun (worship, animals and property, human violence, sabbath and festivals, etc.)
      • While Moses was up on the mountain, Israelites grew restless and afraid (Moses = obscured by clouds and taking a long time to come down) → people convince Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship → Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets containing the 10 commandments and sees the people worshiping the golden calf → Moses throws down the tablets in rage and disgust → Moses goes back up Mount Sinai to intercede for the people with God → receives 2nd set of tablets with commandments on them → Moses once again heads back down the mountain to lead the people[1]
    • Moses continues to lead the people of Israel to the promised land of Canaan → sends 12 men (one from each tribe) to scout out the new land and the people living in it → report back: land is beautiful BUT the people that live there are powerful → one of the men expresses confidence that they can take possession of the land with God’s help BUT the other 11 are too afraid → Israel complains against God → God gets upset and punishes the people: “Your dead bodies will fall in this desert. None of you who were enlisted and were registered from 20 years old and above, who complained against me, will enter the land in which I promised to settle you, with the exception of Caleb, Jephunneh’s son, and Joshua, Nun’s son. But your children, whom you said would be taken by force, I’ll bring them in and they will know the land that you rejected.”[2] → so the people wander the wilderness for 40 more years until all those who rejected the land God had designated for them had died[3]
      • Also included Moses, who died on the wilderness side of the Jordan River – able to see the promised land on the opposite bank without ever cross over to it → after Moses’ death, Joshua took over leadership of the people of Israel[4]
    • Joshua leads people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land of Canaan → much of the beginning of the book of Joshua = battle after battle that the people of Israel had to fight to take the promised land
      • Point I have to make here: This is definitely a problematic portion of Scripture. Yes, God is caring for the people of Israel – a people who have been enslaved and oppressed in a land not their own for generations, a people who essentially have no homeland of their own at this point. But as part of that care for the people of Israel, God leads them into the land of Canaan … a land already occupied by people whose tribes and families have made their own homes there for generations. And as the people of Israel make their way further and further into the interior of this new land, they leave a path of battle and blood and conquest in their wake. Alongside that, in our minds, we hold a history of European colonialism and the slave trade and the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny and all the horrific and immeasurable harm that was done to so many peoples and cultures around the world – harm that was done in the name of God, harm that was done by claiming divine right as God’s chosen and “civilized” people over those whose languages and skin colors and cultures and customs were different, harm that continues to echo down through generations … with this vast and violent history that undergirds all that we are as a society today, I don’t think we can faithfully read this part of Scripture without also naming this challenging paradigm – this pattern of behavior that is both a part of our Scripture and a dark and shameful part of our own history. Because unless we’re willing to name it and both lay bare and own the sins of the past, nothing will change.
  • Today’s Scripture reading = from the very last ch. in the book of Joshua
    • The people have finally taken full possession of the land of Canaan → various tribes are settling into their chosen lands → Joshua, knowing that his own death is also near (being 110 yrs. old[5]) gives the people some last instruction and encouragement in their faith (sermon/testimony of sorts)
      • Interesting instruction – text: So now, revere the Lord. Serve him honestly and faithfully. Put aside the gods that your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if it seems wrong in your opinion to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live.[6] → Joshua is certainly encouraging the Israelites to choose to worship God … but more to the point, he’s encouraging them to choose period. Up to this point, the people already have a long history of turning to God … and then away from God … and then back to God … and then away from God again and again and again. Joshua is trying to get the people to put a stop to this pattern of waffling and choose. Choose God. Choose other gods. Just choose.
        • Not a new covenant that Joshua is proposing to the people but a return to the covenant that they’ve already known → Joshua isn’t presenting some new deal that he’s struck with God on the side. He’s not giving the people of Israel some new addendums and amendments to the promise God has already made to them. Joshua is just asking them to return to the promises that have already led them, already protected them, already saved them, already covered them again and again and again.
        • Scholar speaks to Joshua’s purpose/intent: Because there had been breaches of the covenant, Joshua perceived a need to renew it. … Joshua orders Israel to make a choice holding them accountable and ensuring they actively participate in the covenantal agreement. … The main point of the covenantal renewal is to remind Israel to remember that who they are [becoming] is rooted in a contractual relationship with [God] and contingent upon their fidelity to [God’s] commandments.[7]
      • Joshua makes his own choice clear: “My family and I will serve the Lord.”[8] → other translations: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”[9] → Joshua is making his own declaration as clear and affirming as possible: “We choose God – the God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who brought us out of Egypt. This is who we are. This is how we live. This is how we go about being in this world.”
    • Words must have been truly inspiring to the people of Israel because our text tells us they make their own declarations following Joshua’s example – text: Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. … We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”[10]
      • Some back-and-forth btwn Joshua and the people
        • Joshua reminds the people what the covenant means
        • People reiterate their intent to follow
        • Joshua reminds the people that their commitment to the covenant should be forever
        • People again reiterate their intent to follow
        • Final back-and-forth: Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.” They said, “We are witnesses!” “So now put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.” The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”[11]
          • Heb. “focus” (Joshua: “Focus your hearts on the Lord”) = word with implied action and intention – incline, stretch or spread out, extend to or bend to → It’s a word that implies continuous striving for a goal.
            • Sort of reminds me of the “sit and reach” portion of the Presidential fitness test that they used to do in gym class → “sit and reach” tested flexibility → yardstick taped to the bottom bleacher → sit with legs together straight out in front of you, feet flat against the side of the bleacher, arms stretched out in front of you, one hand on top of the other, palms down → procedure: lean forward and stretch three times, then reach as far as you could on the yardstick and hold it there for a few seconds → Those first few leans were practice. They were intended to get your muscles a little bit warmed up before the final stretch – the one that counted. This Hebrew word that Joshua uses when he encourages the people to “focus their hearts on God” is that sort of reaching and stretching and striving. It takes a concerted effort. It takes the people’s whole hearts and minds and inner selves. It doesn’t necessarily imply perfection … but it does imply trying. Every stretch. Every day. Every breath. Every prayer.
    • Friends, God doesn’t ask us to be perfect. But in the ways that we strive to live our own promises to God – promises to be faithful, to seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with God, to follow the life and teaching and example and love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ … in the ways that we strive to live into that identity, may we both renew and be renewed by the hope and steadfastness of God’s promises – promises of grace and love and salvation that God has made to us through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit day by day. Every stretch. Every day. Every breath. Every prayer. Amen.

[1] Ex 32:1-34:35.

[2] Num 14:29-31.

[3] Num 13:1-45.

[4] Deut 34.

[5] Josh 24:29.

[6] Josh 24:14-15a.

[7] Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar. “Commentary on Joshua 24:1-15 [16-26]” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/joshua-renews-the-covenant/commentary-on-joshua-241-15-16-26-2.

[8] Josh 24:15b.

[9] Josh 24:15b (NRSV).

[10] Josh 24:16-17a, 18b.

[11] Josh 24:22-24.

Sunday’s sermon: Living Promises Point by Point

Text used – Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

  • If you stop just about any kid walking down the street and ask them if they like rules, you’ll probably get a whole lot of strange looks and the same answer every time: “NO!”
    • As adults, we know how difficult it can be to enforce those rules → It doesn’t matter if you’re enforcing rules as a parent, as a teacher, as a camp counselor, as a babysitter, as a youth sports coach, or any of the other hundreds of ways we interact with kids.
      • Communicating the rules can be a challenge, especially depending on the age of the child(ren) or other special circumstances
        • Language barriers
        • Cognitive barriers
      • Making sure kids stick to those rules is pretty much always a thankless and troublesome task
        • Dealing with pushback
          • Physical (tantrums, walking away) or verbal
          • Challenge with Julia right now = 4yo who wants to do what she wants to do and isn’t very happy when we ask her to do something else
        • Testing boundaries
        • Coming up with adequate consequences for broken rules
          • Avoiding empty threats
          • Striking the balance between learning the lesson and adequate punishment
    • Truly, it’s enough to sometimes make you want to throw your hands up and just give in. “Fine! Do whatever you want!” Of course, as adults and caregivers, that’s not an option.
      • Not an option for kids’ safety (obviously)
      • But it’s also not an option because as copious amounts of research has shown, boundaries and rules and the structure they provide are crucial for child development.
        • From CDC:
          • 3 key ingredients to building structure (website specifies “in the home” but can be applied to any situation working with kids): consistency – doing the same thing every time, predictability – expecting or knowing what is going to happen, and follow-through – enforcing consequences[1]
          • “Family rules help children understand what behaviors are okay and not okay. … It is normal for children to break rules and test limits. Consistent follow through with consequences when rules are broken help your child have a clear understanding about the importance of rules.”[2]
        • Article from S. News and World Report: Rules teach children self-discipline and help them learn how to make healthy choices. It’s doubtful that you will get children to admit that they like rules, but you might get them to acknowledge that it’s helpful to know what’s expected of them and how they can ultimately get what they want. At the end of the day, this is about teaching kids what they need to do to succeed and achieve their desired goals.[3]
    • And frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re 2 or 92. We don’t really like being told what we can and can’t do, do we? And yet we have our Scripture reading this morning – probably one of if not the most well-known passages in the First Testament … and it’s about rules.
  • Before we dig a little deeper into the rules, let’s talk about the first part of our passage this morning – the little intro bit from chapter 19.
    • Catching up on the action btwn the Red Sea (last week) and today
      • Moses and the Israelites have begun to journey through the wilderness to the promised land → journey is difficult → the Israelites continue to complain
        • Remember: complaining started last week when they were trapped btwn. the advancing Egyptian army and the Red Sea: “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt? ‘Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!’ It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”[4]
        • After that: complained about lack of water → God changed the brackish water in Shur to sweet water the people could drink[5]
        • After that: complained about no food → God provided quail and manna for the people to eat[6]
        • After that: complained about lack of water (again) → God instructed Moses to strike a rock and water poured from the rock[7]
      • People of Israel also win their first battle against another nation → attacked by Amalek → as long as Moses holds up his hands over the battlefield (similar to Red Sea), the people of Israel win the battle[8]
    • Finally, Moses and the people of Israel arrive at Mount Sinai which is where our passage begins this morning.
      • God calls Moses to God’s presence up on the mountain and gives the people this beautiful promise: So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me. You will be a kingdom of priests for me and a holy nation.[9] → two equally important parts to this promise
        • God’s part = “you will be my most precious possession
          • Simple
          • Straight-forward
          • Clear
          • The Hebrew here is exactly what is says. God is promising to treasure and love and protect and cherish the people. Think about that for a minute! Take that in! God, the all-powerful Creator of all the universe – of everything that moves and breathes, of everything that doesn’t move or breathe, the One who built the earth molecule by molecule and process by process and stone by molten stone … this God who is beyond our imagining and beyond the capability of our minds to comprehend … this God is saying to the people, “I will treasure I will treasure you.”
        • People’s part = both simple and more complex[10]: So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant.
          • Heb. “stay true” (to my covenant) = keep, preserve → It means to guard something or to protect it. There’s an activeness implied in this word. God isn’t just asking the people to simply tuck the covenant away in the back of their minds. God is asking them to actively hold it and protect it. There’s also an element of cherishing required on the part of the people here because if you’re going to truly guard and protect something, you have to care about it, right? You’re not going to put much effort or heart into protecting something that doesn’t matter to you.
          • Heb. “faithfully obey” = actually the same word (“obey”) twice – first occurrence is Infinitive Absolute which serves to emphasize the sentiment of the word → This word implies intelligently and giving attention to something because obedience and action often go hand-in-hand. It’s a word that means obey but also carries connotations of hearing, considering, and consenting. It’s really a whole thought process in one word. So God is not asking the people of Israel to enter into this covenant lightly. And God is not forcing the people into this covenant. They must consider it. They must choose to be a part of this covenant by faithfully obeying God.
  • And what does that obedience entail? That’s where the second, more familiar portion of our Scripture reading comes into play this morning. – the 10 commandments … God’s rules for living
    • In essence, these rules – these commandments – are all about how to live into right relationships. → can be sectioned into two parts
      • First part = how to live into right relationship with God
        • 1st commandment establishes without question who God is … and who God should always be to the people: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me.[11]
        • 2nd commandment adds emphasis to the first by being abundantly clear about worshiping God alone: Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God.[12]
        • 3rd commandment speaks to the sacred and set-apart nature of God’s name: Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance[13]
        • 4th commandment reminds the people to set aside a particular part of the rhythm of their lives to honor God: Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.[14]
      • Second part[15] = how to live in right relationships with one another
        • 5th commandment: honor your parents
        • 6th commandment: do not kill
        • 7th commandment: do not commit adultery
        • 8th commandment: do not steal
        • 9th commandment: do not testify falsely against your neighbor
        • 10th commandment: do not desire to take what doesn’t belong to you
      • Scholar (describing these two parts): Like boundary lines on a football field or basketball court, the commandments outline the basic expectations of human behavior and protect the human community from running out of bounds and falling into patterns of living that will destroy it and lead the people into self-inflicted chaos. At the same time, the commandments provide encouragement for a healthy and proper love of God and neighbor. (He goes on to point out) There is an internal logic to the commandments that is both compelling and beautiful: The way we attend to God (tablet one) shapes the way we attend to our neighbor (tablet two). In other words, faithful worship of God leads to proper love of neighbor. Proper praise of God shapes our social responsibility.[16] → And friends, it’s this idea that sort of brings the promise of the 10 Commandments from the First Testament full circle into the promise we find in the life of Jesus in the New Testament.
        • Jesus to the crowds as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew: Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them.[17] → In his life and ministry and witness, Jesus lived into those commandments, reminding us not only what it looks like to truly faithfully obey God and to stay true to that covenant but also expanding our idea of who our neighbor might be beyond all the borders that get erected between us: to outcasts and screw-ups, to those who were sick and those who were struggling, to lost causes – those deemed uncurable and unfixable and unredeemable and not worth the time or effort by the rest of the world. In the 10 commandments, God laid down point by point how we’re supposed to live into our promises with God and with one another, and Jesus came to remind us just how far and wide living into those promises can stretch our arms and our hearts. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/structure/building.html,

[2] https://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/structure/rules.html.

[3] Jennifer Hartstein. “The Importance of Setting Limits for Your Child” from U.S. News and World Report, https://health.usnews.com/wellness/for-parents/articles/2017-06-26/the-importance-of-setting-limits-for-your-child. Posted June 26, 2017, accessed Oct. 9, 2022.

[4] Ex 14:11-12.

[5] Ex 15:22-27.

[6] Ex 16.

[7] Ex 17:1-7.

[8] Ex 17:8-16.

[9] Ex 19:5-6a.

[10] Exegesis by Rev. Elana Keppel Levy: https://somuchbible.com/word-studies/annotated-scripture/exodus-193-7-201-17/.

[11] Ex 20:2-3.

[12] Ex 20: 4-5a.

[13] Ex 20:7a.

[14] Ex 20:8-10a.

[15] Ex 20:12-17.

[16] Craig Kocher. “Third Sunday in Lent – Exodus 20:1-17 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 76.

[17] Mt 5:17.

Sunday’s sermon: Sometimes a Promise Needs Proving

Text used – Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

  • Is anyone here familiar with the Disney Pixar film “Onward?”[1]
    • Basic storyline:
      • Main characters = 2 elven brothers named Ian and Barley
        • Ian = 16yo and struggling with self-confidence
        • Barley = a few years older → enthusiastic and impulsive player of a magic role-playing game based on how the world used to be before technological advances made magic obsolete
      • Both boys given a gift by their mom on Ian’s 16th birthday = magical staff that was their father’s before his death when Ian was just a baby and Barley was barely old enough to remember him → staff comes with a magic spell that will bring their dad back for one single day
      • Barley, the magic role-playing officianado, is ecstatic and tries the spell, but it doesn’t work → Ian tries it and gets halfway through before his confidence falters → results in bringing half his dad back (the lower half) before the magic gem in the staff disintegrates
      • So with the clock ticking, Ian and Barley head out on a quest to find another magical gem so they can complete the spell and bring the rest of their dad back before his 24 hrs. runs out. In true Disney fashion, this quest is full of mishaps and mayhem, funny moments as well as moments that will truly touch your heart.
    • Why am I bringing up this movie this morning? → There’s a scene about halfway through the movie where Ian and Barley’s path bring them to a bottomless pit. There’s a drawbridge to cross the pit … but the release lever is on the other side of the chasm.

  • And this light and family-friendly scene just kept reminding me of our Scripture reading this week and the way that God has to continually prove God’s presence and protection and provision for the people of Israel after their escape from slavery in Egypt.
    • Catch up with where we are in the Grand Story of Faith today: after the final of God’s 10 plagues swept through Egypt and every first born – from livestock to humans – has died, Pharaoh finally agreed to let the Hebrew people go free → people gathered up all their belongings and all the members of their households and left the land of Egypt following God (pillar of cloud by day, pillar of fire by night)
    • But today’s reading finds Pharaoh changing his tune – text: When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about the people. They said, “What have we done, letting Israel go free from their slavery to us?”[2] → So Pharaoh amasses 600 of his most elite soldiers as well as all his chariots and captains and pursues the Israelites so that they can be recaptured and re-enslaved.
      • Find it interesting that our text says, “When Egypt’s king was told that the people had run away …” → I mean, it shouldn’t be a surprise to Pharaoh that Moses and the rest of the Israelites are leaving because he told them to go. – Ex 12 (the night after all the first-born in Egypt, including Pharaoh’s own son and heir, were struck down by the 10th plague): Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron that night and said, “Get up! Get away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go! Worship the Lord, as you said! You can even take your flocks and herds, as you asked. Just go! And bring a blessing on me as well!”[3]
        • Maybe Pharaoh is surprised that Israelites are actually gone because he didn’t believe them strong enough or brave enough
        • Maybe Pharaoh is surprised that the Israelites are actually gone because he was speaking from a place of grief-fog → We all know how fuzzy and dysfunctional our minds can sometimes become in the fresh wake of grief.
        • Whatever the reason, I just find it interesting that apparently Pharaoh needed to be told that the Israelites were gone. Apparently he was unaware that they had left Egypt, despite the fact that the order (permission?) to do so had come from his own lips.
    • Then comes what could be the most dramatic part of the whole Exodus story – the scene at the Red Sea.
      • People of Israel = trapped btwn. the swiftly advancing Egyptian army on one side and the vastness of the Red Sea on the other → And immediately, they turn on Moses (and on God) – text: The Israelites were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt like this? Didn’t we tell you the same thing in Egypt? ‘Leave us alone! Let us work for the Egyptians!’ It would have been better for us to work for the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”[4]
        • Definitely a theme throughout the life of the people of Israel: they follow God for a time → something upsets them or scares them or distresses them in some way → the shy away like horses startled by a snake → Moses plays his role of mediator with an irritated God on one hand while he reels in the spiritually scattered Israelites with the other hand → God provides for the people despite their complaints and lack of trust → eventually the people return to God
          • And folx, this is a really good and really important time to remind ourselves that the ancient people of Israel are far from alone in this cycle. We follow. We become distressed. We question and doubt and balk at where God is trying to lead us. But God remains with us, continuing to protect and provide, and eventually, we swing back into a mindset and heart-set of faith and following. It’s a story as old as time, as recent as yesterday, and as predictable as tomorrow.
            • Cycle that reminds me of the scene from “Onward” → As Ian is crossing the bottomless chams with his invisible bridge, just before the rope slips from his waist, he hollers back to Barley, “You’ve got me, right?” And Barley yells back, “Yeah, I’ve got you!” In the midst of the scary and the uncertain, the Israelites continue to shout to God, “You’ve got us, right?” and God replies, “Yeah, I’ve got you!” In the midst of the scary and the uncertain, we continue to shout to God, “You’ve got me, right?” And still, God replies, “Yeah, I’ve got you!”
      • True to God’s promise to the people, God provides: instructs Moses to take his staff in his hand, stand on the banks of the Red Sea, and raise his arms high → God parts the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites can cross safely to the other side → God even goes so far as to hinder the chariots of the Egyptians so the Israelites have enough time to cross → finally Moses stretches his arms out over the waters again (at God’s instruction) and the waters of the Red Sea “returned and covered the chariots and the cavalry, Pharaoh’s entire army that had followed them into the sea. Not one of them remained.”[5]
  • So we’re encountering this passage as we work our way through this year of the Narrative Lectionary – those readings chosen and ordered to help us follow the thread of God’s Grand Story of Faith from the beginning all the way through the history of the people of Israel and up through God’s saving act of grace and love in the person and work of Jesus Christ. So with that purposes, by beginning at the beginning, we’ve come across this text fairly early on in the cycle of the church year. But within the context of the Revised Common Lectionary (a different schedule of Scripture readings), this passage is always read on vastly different day: Easter Vigil – the Saturday between Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday and the resurrection joy of Easter morning.
    • Scholar put powerful words to the significance of this: Hearing this text in the darkness of a church at the Easter Vigil is an occasion for a congregation to engage a crucial portion of Scripture in an environment that provokes fear, wonder, and mystery. … Terror is not too strong a word for the potential brutality and ruthlessness that could be meted out by the forces of Pharaoh, under whom the people and their ancestors that labored as slaves for generations. These unarmed fugitives now feel a most intense “buyer’s remorse.” Why did we ever listen to this man Moses? Better to live as slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness. However, slavery and death are not the only alternatives. God has another plan. In a foundational text of Israel’s very existence – the exodus – Christians find their most profound foretaste of the message movement of the Easter Vigil “on this most holy night, when our Savior Jesus Christ passed from death to life.” As the crossing of the Red Sea marked Israel’s passage from slavery in Egypt to service of the true and living God, so does Christ’s resurrection open the way for [our] journey from death to life. Radical grace is at work in this saving event.[6] → “Radical grace is at work.” Radical grace is at work. Now and then and always. Friends, radical grace is our promise from God – a promise that God holds to even when we are too afraid to step out into the unknown … even when we need more encouragement, more coaxing and cajoling, more proof than we should. God’s promise holds as that proof. God’s promise holds despite that proof. God’s promise holds. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Onward, directed by Dan Scanlon, featuring Chris Pratt and Tom Holland (Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios, 2020), 0:58:21 to 01:02:24, https://www.disneyplus.com/video/c54728c5-8618-4dea-a4fd-398c3f41a742.

[2] Ex 14:5.

[3] Ex 12:31-32.

[4] Ex 14:10b-12.

[5] Ex 14:28.

[6] J. Michael Krech. “Easter Vigil – Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21 – Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 2. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 331, 333.

Sunday’s sermon: Good Promises in Bad Times

Text used – Genesis 39:1-23

  • I recently finished listening to two really incredible books that shared a common theme.
    • One fiction, one non-fiction
    • Fiction: Woman 99 by Greer Macallister[1]
      • Story of Charlotte Smith and her sister, Phoebe
        • Phoebe is admitted to an insane asylum by their parents
        • Charlotte decides to basically bluff her way into the asylum to rescue her sister and bring her home
    • Non-fiction: The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back by Kate Moore[2]
      • True story of Elizabeth Packard → committed to an insane asylum by her husband, Rev. Theophilus Packard (a Presbyterian minister, y’all) for thinking for herself and disagreeing with him
        • Discredited by her husband
        • Discredited by her husband’s congregation
        • Persecuted throughout the whole of her life by the doctor who was the supervisor of the asylum
        • Nevertheless spent her whole life fighting for legal rights for married women and for the rights of those in asylums
    • Both of these books took place around the same time period – the late 1800s. Both of them took place in America – one (the fiction) in California, the other (Elizabeth Packard’s story) in Illinois. Both of them explore two very powerful, very difficult themes.
      • Theme of how easy it was for women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to be shuttered away from everything they knew – their friends, their families, their children, and all of society – by the men in their lives (husbands, fathers, brothers) just for disagreeing with them or thinking for themselves or refusing to toe whatever arbitrary line was drawn in the sand
        • No kind of trial beforehand (at least, not until Elizabeth Packard had done much of her work after her eventual release)
        • No hope of release unless those who had them committed in the first place had a sudden and miraculous change of heart
      • Theme of the rampant abuse and horrific conditions found in asylums at that time
        • Physical actions by the staff that would certainly fall under the category of torture today
        • Forced, unpaid labor
        • Meals that were devoid of any nutritional value
        • Solitary confinement for the most minor infractions
        • Medical experimentation
    • And as I listened to the accounts of the horrors of imprisonment in these asylums – both fictional (though based on many historical sources and testimonies of the time) as well as the true story – I couldn’t help but think about today’s portion of Joseph’s story. → false imprisonment
          •  
  • Generalities of Joseph’s story
    • Full arc of Joseph’s story
      • 2nd youngest of Jacob’s 12 sons
      • Interprets a dream to his brothers one day → “Basically, guys, I dreamed you were bowing down to me.”
      • Brothers grow angry, both with implications of Joseph’s and with the way their father, Jacob, favors him → last straw = beautiful cloak that Jacob gives to Joseph (gift that should have gone to the first-born)
      • Brothers decide to get rid of Joseph → toss him down a well → sell him into slavery, then tell Jacob he’s been killed
      • Joseph ends up in Egypt
        • First as a servant in Potiphar’s house (today’s story)
        • Eventually in the palace of Pharaoh → soon rises to place of unprecedented power in the land
        • Helps the land of Egypt survive a devastating famine → eventually Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt seeking food à don’t recognize Joseph
        • Through some subterfuge and cunning maneuvering, brothers prove to Joseph that they’ve learned their lesson → Joseph reveals his identity to them and the family is restored
    • Like Abram/Abraham (that we read last week), Joseph’s story takes up a good chunk of Scripture in Gen → begins in ch. 37 and continues straight through the end of Gen (ch. 50)
    • Unlike Abram (and many of the other people who receive God’s covenant promises throughout Scripture), there are no instances when God speaks directly to Joseph → None at all. Not in any moment of his story.
      • Lots of times that God communicates with Joseph through his dreams
        • Dreams that get him in trouble
        • Dreams that get him out of trouble
      • Many times throughout the text when we’re told that God was with Joseph
      • But not once do we hear God speaking to Joseph like God spoke to Noah or Abram. And yet it’s clear that God’s presence and God’s promise remained with Joseph through it all. – makes Joseph a more relatable character in God’s Grand Story of Faith à I mean, we get to walk through a lot of Joseph’s story with him – the ups as well as the downs – and a lot of those ups and downs are things we can relate to: family dynamics, power dynamics in relationships, moments when we feel like the bottom has dropped out of our lives, times when we feel like we’ve had to claw our way back. And throughout all those times, even if we find ourselves in deepest prayer, like Joseph, most people will go throughout their whole lives without hearing the voice of God. But like Joseph, that doesn’t mean that God isn’t with us.
  • So let’s dig into today’s portion of Joseph’s story a little deeper.
    • Great description from Spill the Beans: This is a humdinger of a story. It is a tale of trust and lust and enticement and exploitation with a lot of integrity and revenge thrown in. It has echoes of a tale as old as time itself, of power being abused for a moment’s pleasure, of reputation being besmirched to cover tracks of deceit and lies. And, of course, there is the theme of God’s favor (really?) resting on the one wronged.[3]
    • Particularly interesting that Joseph is simultaneously in a position of power and position of vulnerability in Potiphar’s house – position summed up well by Joseph himself: [Joseph] refused and said to his master’s wife, “With me here, my master doesn’t pay attention to anything in his household; he’s put everything he has under my supervision. No one is greater than I am in this household, and he hasn’t denied me anything except you, since you are his wife. How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?”[4]
      • Heb. “sin” = particular word for “sin” that implies forfeiting something, losing something, missing something – also a word that carries particular connotation of bearing the blame for something → Joseph is being both very candid and very intentional here. He’s making sure that Potiphar’s wife understands just how much weight this betrayal would put on his shoulders – on his heart and his soul.
    • Despite Joseph’s reasoning and his wishes, Potiphar’s wife uses her power to again try to seduce him, and, when he refuses, to punish him → takes the truth, twists it and manipulates it → plants the blame solely on the victim → And in this part of Joseph’s story, I can’t help but draw parallels between Joseph and so many others throughout history who have found their lives irreversibly changed by those in power.
      • Women whose stories I mentioned at the beginning – women in the 1800s and early 1900s who were falsely imprisoned in insane asylums simply because they didn’t fit into society’s “womanly ideal” of the day → women who were too smart, too outspoken, too independent … women who fought back against physical and emotional abuse … women who dared to believe that they deserved the same rights as the men who held such tight-fisted power over them
      • All the people who’s stories began to surface in the face of the Me, Too movement → stories of people who had the sanctity of their bodies violated and the truth of their experiences questioned just because of their gender
        • Certainly women who were victimized by men
        • Also pertains to men who were victimized by other men, especially when sexual orientation was a factor but also those victimized at a young age by older men
        • Also pertains to men victimized by women (like Joseph) → less common but no less traumatizing and significantly less reported
      • All the people who have been victimized, oppressed, falsely imprisoned, persecuted because of their culture and their race
        • African slaves stolen from their homes and forced into slavery here in America and across the world
        • Native American children ripped from their tribes and their families and forced into boarding schools specifically designed and run to obliterate every aspect of their native culture – language, dress, spirituality, stories, identity
        • Japanese people forced into internment camps during World War II just for looking like “the enemy”
        • African Americans beat down – both emotionally and physically – by the Jim Crow laws of the early to mid-20th
        • Immigrant children torn from the arms of their families at the border – families that still, years later, have not been reunited
        • And anyone and everyone who feels like they can’t walk safely down the street as themselves today … because of the way they express their gender identity; because of the color of their skin; because of the language that they speak; because of the headscarf they wear; because of the gender of the person they love; because of the clothes they wear; because of the prayers they say; because of any other factor that people in power deem “inferior.” There are so many ways that those in power have tried to subdue those without power, and a lot of those ways are still going on today … whether we choose to see them or not.
  • Still, Joseph’s = story bookended with God’s presence
    • Beginning of today’s text: The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man and served in his Egyptian master’s household. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord made everything he did successful.[5]
    • End of today’s text: While he was in jail, the Lord was with Joseph and remained loyal to him. … The jail’s commander paid no attention to anything under Joseph’s supervision, because the Lord was with him and made everything he did successful.[6]
    • This bookending drives home that point that God is an undeniable and unchanging player throughout Joseph’s story. God isn’t just there when Joseph is doing well. God doesn’t just make a fleeting appearance during Joseph’s darkest moments. God is a constant – always there with Joseph no matter what.
      • Important distinction: God was with Joseph in those difficult moments … but God didn’t cause those difficult moments → They were undeniably terrible things that happened to Joseph, and in the midst of those moments, God was there to hold Joseph up, to care for him and strengthen him. But God didn’t make the bad things happen like some cosmic test to see if Joseph was worthy of God’s presence and promises.
      • Powerful reminder that God’s promise is there with us as a constant as well → rejoicing with us in our best moment, holding us in our darkest moments
        • Promise of grace
        • Promise of compassion
        • Promise of hope
        • Most of all: promise that God is with us. No matter what. Amen.

CHARGE (from the end of the worship service):

          Award-winning American novelist Alice Walker said, “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” I came across this quote this week because it was posted by BlackLiturgies, an Instagram account that posts a lot of beautiful, powerful prayers and quotes and reflection questions about race and faith and listening to suppressed voices. With this quote, they also posted this: “You shouldn’t have to silence yourself to belong. Who will stay with you once they’ve heard the truth of you?” It’s a powerful question in and of itself when you start thinking about the people in your life, friends, but before you leave here today, let me reassure you of this: No matter what, no matter where, no matter how, God will stay with you. God already knows the truth of you, and God stays with you.

 

 

[1] Greer Macallister. Woman 99. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc.), 2019.

[2] Kate Moore. The Woman They Could Not Silence: The Shocking Story of a Woman Who Dared to Fight Back. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc.), 2022.

[3] “Pentecost 15, Sunday 21 September 2014 – Keep Calm and Carry On: Bible Notes” from Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 13. (Scotland: Spill the Beans Resource Team, 2014), 23.

[4] Gen 39:8-9.

[5] Gen 39:2-3.

[6] Gen 39:20b-21a, 23.

Sunday’s sermon: God Calls … and Keeps Calling

Text used – Genesis 12:1-9

  • When I was a kid, I spent some time at Clearwater Forest – the Presbyterian camp up in Deerwood, MN.
    • First went up with a group of kids from my church and our pastor, Rev. Jamie Swanson → tent camping in the woods while the regular summer camp was going on
    • Also went as a regular camper for a few years in upper elementary school – 4th and 5th, I think
    • And one of my favorite things that we did one of those times (I don’t remember exactly which one) was orienteering.
      • Explanation for those not familiar: Orienteering (“O” for short) is a timed event across a mostly natural landscape, where participants navigate through a series of checkpoints along the way. The route from one checkpoint to the next isn’t marked: Each participant decides the best route on the run (or walk). Meets have courses of varying lengths and difficulty, from beginner to expert. An orienteer might be described as part trail runner and part map-and-compass geek. Because it requires you to find pre-placed control markers, you experience multiple geocache-esque “I found it!” moments in a single event, though a GPS is not required and not allowed. Orienteers are also like obstacle-course runners, though the obstacles are au naturale and often avoidable through savvy route choices.[1] → At camp, they paired us up, gave us rudimentary maps of the area surrounding the athletic field and a little compass, and sent us off to find the various checkpoints that had previously been laid out.
      • Don’t remember who I was paired with (though I can guess it was my friend, Stacy, because we came to camp together, and I was way too shy as a kid to voluntarily pair up with someone I didn’t know!)
      • Don’t remember how many checkpoints there were
      • Don’t remember how much time we spent on that particular activity
      • What I do remember – vividly! – is how much I enjoyed purposefully venturing through the woods: following the compass, figuring out where we should go next, and the thrill and joy of those “geocache-esque ‘I found it!’ moments whenever we managed to find one of the checkpoints.
        • (I also remember that my partner and I were some of the first kids back … just sayin’.)
  • And as I was thinking about our Scripture reading this morning – God’s call to Abram and his family to leave … to journey … to follow – I couldn’t help thinking about it as basically the opposite of orienteering.
    • God calls Abram and his family – his wife, Sarai, and his nephew, Lot – to a whole new land, a place they’ve never been before
      • No map
      • No compass (won’t be invented for a few thousand more years)
      • No pre-determined checkpoints
      • No assurance of where and when and how the end of this divinely-inspired journey would be
    • And yet how did our Scripture reading this morning begin? – text: The Lord said to Abram, “Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you.”[2] → Now, at this point, you may be asking yourself, “Who is this Abram? Why is God keyed in on him? Where did he come from?”
      • Text prior to today’s reading (end of Gen 11) gives us a brief genealogy and background for Abram
        • Descendant of Noah’s son, Shem → brings a bit of interesting but also disquieting First Testament history to bear on this story
          • Odd little story from end of Gen 9: after all the animals and people have disembarked from the ark, Noah plants a vineyard and becomes drunk on his own wine → basically passes out naked in his tent → Noah’s son, Ham, and Ham’s son, Canaan, find Noah like this → instead of remedying the situation, Ham runs to report the situation to his brothers, Shem and Japheth → brothers are obviously appalled because they toss a robe over their own shoulders and walk backward into Noah’s tent to cover him without availing their eyes of his nakedness → Noah wakes up later, learns what happened, and not only blesses Shem and Japheth but curses Canaan (not Ham … not sure why) – Noah in text: “Cursed be Canaan: the lowest servant he will be for his brothers.” He also said, “Bless the Lord, the God of Shem; Canaan will be his servant. May God give space to Japheth; he will live in Shem’s tents, and Canaan will be his servant.”[3] → So here we are, a dozen or so generations later, and God is calling Abram, the descendant of Shem, to go and take possession of the land of Canaan. It adds a whole new layer to our story this morning, doesn’t it?
  • Covenant is pretty out-in-the-open in this morning’s reading – 2nd verse (God to Abram): I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.[4]
    • God’s promise: an abundance of greatness and blessing
      • Scholar breaks this down a bit further: God promises [Abram] three things: a place, a people, and a job. These are the basic necessities of every human. God seems here to be working with a stripped down version of the mid-twentieth century psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, covering safety, belonging, and esteem/self-actulization.[5]
    • God’s ask: Leave everything that is familiar to you – country, family, home – and follow me
      • Not an edict that Abram actually follows → God says, “Leave everything and everyone.” Abram takes his wife, Lot, his nephew and heir, (since he and Sarai have no children … yet), and “all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran.”[6] And really, this is pretty indicative of how things will go between God and God’s people throughout all of time, right? God says, “Come.” And the people say, “But wait, God. I need this. Wait, God. I need that. God, you just need to wait while I gather up all my stuff – my physical stuff, my emotional stuff, my spiritual stuff. Just let me pack my bags … pack my truck … pack my 26-ft., 10,000-lbs-of-cargo moving van. But I promise, God … I’m coming. Really.”
        • Harkens to Jesus’ charge to the disciples when he sends them out in Lk 9: [Jesus] sent them out to proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick. He told them, “Take nothing for the journey – no walking stick, no bag, no bread, no money, not even an extra shirt.”[7] → You see, it’s all about reliance on God. It’s all about whether we trust God enough to follow the call. It’s all about whether we trust God to be there for us even (and especially?) in the face of a long, arduous, and uncertain journey.
          • Call of God doesn’t come with a compass
          • Call of God doesn’t come with a map
          • Call of God doesn’t come with pre-determined checkpoints
          • Call of God doesn’t require all the stuff we think we need because the call of God comes with the guarantee that God journeys with us no matter what
      • Still, even as he wrapped his uncertainty in layers of familiarity – the familiar people and belongings that Abram chose to bring with him – Abram still set out with God. God says, “Leave everything and everyone,” and Abram pack everything and brings everyone. But still, God calls, and Abram follows.
        • Can’t help but think of the quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (Bilbo to Frodo): It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

        • Indeed, friends, that is part of our fear, isn’t it? When we hear God calling us to go and do, we worry that we will lose track of our feet and might end up swept off to some unknown place, some uncomfortable situation, some unanticipated situation. And yet, we have God’s promise: “I call. You follow. And I will go with you.”
  • Proof is in the text and beyond this morning → Today’s short story is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Abram’s story in Scripture. The ins and outs, twists and turns of Abram’s story continue for another 13 chapters throughout the book of Genesis. In fact, fully ⅓ of the whole Genesis narrative involves Abram and his continued relationship with God and with the people.
    • Far from a perfect story → Abram makes plenty of mistakes!
    • And yet, God calls, and Abram follows. Time and time again, God calls, and Abram follows.
      • Follows with his feet
      • Follows with his family
      • Follows with his heart
      • Follows with his faith
      • Today’s text: Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all of their possessions, and those who became members of their household in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, Abram traveled through the land as far as the sacred place at Shechem, at the oak of Moreh. The Canaanites lived in the land at that time. The Lord appeared to Abram and said, “I give this land to your descendants,” so Abram built an altar there to the Lord who appeared to him. From there he traveled toward the mountains east of Bethel, and pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the Lord and worshipped in the Lord’s name. Then Abram set out toward the arid southern plain, making and breaking camp as he went. → Abram’s travels continue, but as they continue, he worships. As Abram continues to follow God’s call, he builds altars to God – dedicating a portion of his time, his physical effort, and the quiet devotedness of his heart to the One who called him and kept calling him. One step … one stone … one prayer at a time. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/orienteering-basics.html.

[2] Gen 12:1.

[3] Gen 9:25-27.

[4] Gen 12:2-3.

[5] Rebecca Abts Wright. “Commentary on Genesis 12:1-9” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/call-of-abraham-2/commentary-on-genesis-121-9-4.

[6] Gen 12:5.

[7] Lk 9:2-3.