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.