Saturday, December 10, 2022

 “How Great Our Joy” - December 11, 2022

Text: Luke 2:8-14

Bob Parrish heard from the company that clears snow from our parking lot and sidewalks.  Turns out that they have changed their policy this winter.  We will have a set monthly rate for snow removal.  If any snows are above 6” or if there are too many snowfalls in a month, there will be a surcharge, but there is a baseline amount we will be charged – even if it doesn’t snow.

This doesn’t sound quite right, but there are good reasons for this policy.  It is hard to find and keep employees.  When snows are intermittent, it’s hard to have guys just waiting for the phone call that they need to come in and run a snow plow or push a shovel.  A lot of restaurants have had trouble finding enough workers and some have at times gone to take-out only.  Well, that doesn’t work in the snow removal business.  You have to staff the whole thing.

And in fact, two companies in Ames that have provided snow removal in past years are not doing so this year.  Our company will pay at least a minimum amount to employees regardless of how much it snows in order to retain their workforce.

Apparently people are not just lining up, hankering to get out and run a snow blower at 5 in the morning when the wind chill is 22 below - and that is on the good days when you actually have work to do.  

I bring this up because our scripture today has to do with labor - with a very specific occupation: shepherd.  Being a shepherd was not glamorous.  Snow removal has a certain cachet to it – I mean you get to operate power equipment.  But in the big picture of things, it may rank somewhere in the neighborhood of shepherding as far as glamorous occupations.

People didn’t really aspire to be a shepherd, but there weren’t a lot of jobs available in ancient Israel.  Times were hard under Roman occupation.  I mean, they would have been hard anyway, but there were not a lot of options if you were poor and unconnected.

Shepherding was generally a family business.  Shepherds would often be the younger children of the family.  You might remember that David was the youngest child of Jesse and he was a shepherd.  It’s not that it was unimportant work; it was.  Sheep were depended on for meat, for milk, for clothing and more.  It’s not that shepherding wasn’t valued – it was, kind of like snow removal.  If shepherding was not valued, we wouldn’t have Biblical metaphors like “the Lord is my shepherd” and Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

But still, most people were not eager to stay out in the fields with a bunch of sheep – it was hard work and monotonous, and when it wasn’t monotonous it could be dangerous.

During lambing season especially, shepherds would stay with the sheep night and day – sometimes the sheep would free-range during the day and then be gathered into a walled or fenced sheepfold by night to protect from predators.

Shepherding was a perfectly respectable occupation.  But it did not put you at the top of the social ladder.  It did not make you wealthy.  Sheep were often grazed on land the shepherd did not own.  If you were to think about the powerful and wealthy and the good and wise leaders of a society, shepherds would not have been a part of that equation.

Which gets us to the shepherds in our scripture, keeping watch over their flocks by night – watching for wolves or other predators, looking out for sheep that might be lambing.  If shepherd was not a top occupation, then night shift shepherd was certainly not.

So there were shepherds – maybe teenagers watching the family flocks, maybe hired hands who couldn’t find any other work – out with their flocks at night.  When suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared.  An angel of the Lord!  Of course they are terrified.

But the angel says, “Don’t be afraid.  I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be for all people.  For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”  And then a whole heavenly choir begins singing, “Glory to God in the highest.  Gloria in excelsis deo.”

Good tidings of great joy.  This may have been the last thing that these night shift shepherds expected.

There are many Christmas carols that focus on the angels and shepherds.  

The first noel the angel did say
was to certain poor shepherds in fields where they lay.

Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.

Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing o’er the plains.

While shepherds watched their flocks by night
 all seated on the ground
 an angel of the Lord came down
 and glory shown around.

Silent night, holy night,
shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing alleluia

And I could go on and on.

We are looking at the Advent themes of hope and peace and joy and love along with Christmas carols, and there are any number of carols that would have fit this morning as we think about the angels and shepherds.  But I have come to really appreciate the carol “How Great Our Joy.”

It is not unfamiliar, but it is a lot less common than many of our carols.  It is only found in about 15 or 20% of hymnals published today.  The entire carol is a simple message about the interaction of the angels and shepherds and what it means for us.  And musically, it’s kind of fun - I love the echo part.  

It is a quite old German carol, and we are not sure who wrote it, but it is from as early as 1500.  In 1623 the tune was revised and given the echo setting – some think this may have been an update for a Christmas pageant.  (A modern update would be that in the Veggie Tales version, it’s the sheep who do the echo – how brilliant is that?)

As far as a representative line that captures the theme of the carol, for me it would simply be “Joy! Joy! Joy!”  Because just one joy does not capture the intensity of what the angels message and what the birth of Jesus meant for the shepherds, and means for us.  It reminds me of a line in our closing carol today, which is Joy to the World.  “Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy.”

These shepherds, these night shift shepherds, are startled and terrified by the message of the angels, and then they are filled with joy.

A couple of observations on this text: first, it is interesting that the angels appear to shepherds, and night shift shepherds at that.

Last week, we looked at Mary’s song.  God had chosen this young, unmarried girl living in an occupied country to accomplish God’s work.  And now, this great news, news of the birth of a savior, was being announced first to shepherds.  God again and again and again works through unlikely people and seems to just delight in this.  

The angel says, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  Sharing these words not with the strong and mighty and powerful and connected, but with shepherds showed that this was indeed good news for all people.  If it’s good news for shepherds, it’s good news for everybody.

The second observation has to do with joy.  The thing about joy is that it can kind of sneak up on you.  Frederick Buechner wrote, “Happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to – a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation.  Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.”

The shepherds certainly did not expect a visit from angels that night.  They were surprised by joy.  And God continues to send joy to unexpected places and people and situations.

Joy, of course, can be hard to come by.  There are so many things that can serve to sap our joy.  Financial struggles.  Grief, loss, depression.  Illness.  Broken relationships.  Not being able to find gainful employment.  Or feeling stuck in a job that you really don’t like.  There are worries and anxieties and pressures of life that can sometimes feel overwhelming.

In the midst of those times, joy can just sneak up on us.  We are surprised by it.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who had gone to the far country, and whose life was a total mess.  But he came to his senses and finally back to his father who welcomed him home and called for a great celebration.  It was a story of unexpected joy.

There was the woman who had suffered from an illness for twelve long years.  Jesus healed her – she was surprised by joy.  There was Jairus, whose daughter was sick.  And the ten lepers whom Jesus healed.  And Zacchaeus, a tax collector and a crook.  And the Samaritan woman at the well.  

And Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night.  And the woman caught in adultery, who was about to be stoned.  And Peter and Andrew and James and John, who left behind their fishing nets to follow him.  Jesus saved them all, healed them all, challenged them all, loved them all.  Jesus brought life and he brought joy.

Robert Horton told about a dear friend who one Christmas gave him a present which she said came in two parts.  The first part was a sketch of a garden; she said he would have to wait for the second part.

A few days later she died suddenly, and in his grief he forgot about the other part of the gift.  But one morning in the spring he returned from a vacation to find that his garden was a mass of crocuses.  Flowers were everywhere.  His friend had planted them months before--that was the second part of the gift.  They had pushed up through the cold ground and through the melting snow, and suddenly, at the end of a cold, dark winter, there was color and life everywhere.  Unexpected joy.

In Isaiah 35 we read:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

The announcement of good news of great joy is for all people – for shepherds and snowplow drivers and you and me.  Christ came to bring joy – joy, joy, joy! – even in the desert places of our lives.  For that we give thanks and we repeat the sounding joy.  Amen.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

 “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” - December 4, 2022

Text: Luke 1:46-55

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has to be one of the favorite Christmas carols, ranking somewhere close behind Silent Night in popularity.   Like last week’s carol, “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” it was written by Charles Wesley.  Wesley published the carol in 5 verses in 1739, and three of them are in our hymnal.  

The words have changed a bit over the years.  It originally started out as “Hark! how all the welkin rings / Glory to the King of Kings.”  I would have had no idea what he was talking about.  “Welkin,” it turns out, it is a now little-used word for the skies or the heavens.  In the 1750’s, the Methodist evangelist George Whitfield changed that line to what we are familiar with today.  I guess by the 1750s it was already a less familiar word.

And then in 1782, a hymnal was published with the repeat of “Hark, the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king” added at the end of each verse.

The carol was originally sung to a different tune but in the 1850s, Wesley’s verses were set to music that came from a cantata by Felix Mendelssohn that celebrated the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.  Like many of our hymns – well, like many of us, for that matter - it has evolved a bit over the years.

None of that history is what makes this a great carol, though – it is the joy and excitement and wonder of the angels celebrating ‘ birth along with the wonderful music that elicits our praise.  Glory to the newborn king!

There is a phrase in this carol, original to Wesley, that we typically glide right by – but for me, in this season that we think about Christ’s coming and on this Sunday that we think about peace, these words are packed with meaning.  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.  Peace on earth and mercy mild.  

To help us think about this, we turn to our scripture for this morning.  Our scripture is a song – Mary’s song.  It begins with “my soul magnifies the Lord.”  This song is called the Magnificat – from the Latin for “magnify.”    

We like to romanticize Jesus‘ birth and make it a sweet story of a young mother and her child, but that is not exactly the way we read about it in the Bible.  There is a definite edge to it.  Mary is engaged but not yet married when she has this very strange encounter with a messenger from God – an angel – who tells her that she has found favor with God.  She will bear a child, who will be God’s Son, and of his kingdom there will be no end.

Amazingly, Mary says to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be with me, according to your word.”  Mary believes, and she says Yes to God.  And right away, this causes her trouble.  

She is pregnant and not yet married, which in that culture is an especially bad combination.  She is worried, frightened, and no doubt overwhelmed.  The angel had told her that her relative Elizabeth, well up in years, was also with child and so Mary leaves home, leaves town, to go stay with this older and wiser relative.  She finds that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant in her old age.  Elizabeth is the only one who could understand, maybe the only one who could believe Mary.  Elizabeth’s words to her are pure grace.  “Blessed are you among women.”  

It is there, while with Elizabeth, that Mary sings her song.  It feels like the support and love of Elizabeth helped Mary to burst forth with this song.

Mary’s song is filled with gratitude and great hope.  Mary is confident and she is prophetic.  She speaks boldly as to how things are and how things should be in God’s world.  She speaks both of what God has done for her, and what God is doing in the world.  

To be honest, the word that comes to mind when reading Mary’s song is revolution.  God means to turn this world upside down.  And it all begins with Mary.  To accomplish God’s work, God chooses a poor, unmarried peasant girl in an occupied backwater country.  From the very start, God is doing the unexpected.

Mary looks ahead to the implications of the birth of this child.  “The proud will be scattered.  The powerful will be pulled from their thrones.  The weak and poor will be lifted up.  The hungry will be filled.  The rich oppressors will be sent away empty.”  We tend to overlook this side of Mary.

There were places in Latin America where just a few years ago, the public reading of the Magnificat was forbidden as subversive activity, what with all that business about the mighty being pulled from their thrones and replaced by the weak and poor.  

When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he left the Magnificat in Latin.  The German princes who supported and protected Luther in his struggles with Rome took a dim view of the social and political implications of the Magnificat, what with its reversal of social structures.  Luther’s friends and supporters were in high places, so he decided it was best to just leave Mary's song in the Latin.

If we are honest, these words make us a bit uncomfortable too.  On a global scale, in the big picture, we are all wealthy.  We read Mary’s words, about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought low, and we have to ask -- how exactly is this Good News for us?

Sometimes, before the gospel can be good news, it has to be heard as bad news.  What this may be saying to us is, we have to know how poor we are before we can receive God’s gift of redemption.  We can be too full of ourselves and all of our things to have room for God.

The Bible does not glamorize poverty, and Jesus did not condemn the people of means who gathered around him, people like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.  There were a group of women who supported Jesus’ ministry out of their resources – some were apparently well-to-do.  But it’s instructive that God seems again and again to work through the poor and lowly and unlikely – fishermen and tax collectors and shepherds and a poor peasant girl like Mary.

Maybe what this is about is that poor people know their need.  Those with wealth and power can sometimes feel like they’ve got it all together, that they don’t need anything or anybody.  Poor people know better.

Mary, the young, poor, unlearned, not-yet-married girl, is open to God.  She is willing to say yes.

Now on this Sunday of Advent that we especially think about peace, this might seem like a strange scripture to look at.  Mary is bold, she is courageous, she speaks a prophetic word, she says that through her child God means to turn the world upside down.  Which is all nice, but does that really sound like peace?

Well, here’s the thing: peace is a lot more than just the absence of physical fighting.  It is the presence of good will.  Mary’s people—the Jewish people—lived under Roman occupation, and Roman soldiers “kept the peace” by keeping everyone else under the constant threat of violence.   The Pax Romana wasn’t really peace at all.  And this was an arrangement that harmed all who lived under it.  The injustice in Mary’s community meant that a deep peace wasn’t possible - for any of them. 

‘Peace on earth and mercy mild” is perhaps more than just an innocuous phrase in a beloved carol.  Because the kind of peace that Christ came to bring is peace that is filled with mercy.  Not the enforced peace of Rome.  Not the peace found in some places today where there is no public dissent because those who challenge the status quo and those who speak up about injustice will be silenced harshly.  That is not true peace.  That is certainly not the peace that Jesus came to bring.  

Jesus came to bring peace with mercy – with understanding and compassion and the desire for goodness and justice for everyone.

Mary’s song, with its soaring gratitude to God and recognition of God’s grace and favor, speaks of God’s work in turning the world upside down.  What we need to understand is that systems of injustice affect everyone.  And everyone benefits from the kind of world Mary sings about.  The proud and powerful who will be relieved of their swelled heads and the constant struggle to keep those they deem unworthy in their place.  The hungry will be filled with good things.  The rich will know what it is like to be in need so that they will have room in their hearts for others and for God.

Because her song is dangerous, we may not think of it in terms of peace.  But this is exactly what she is singing about.  

Peace does not mean being quiet in the face of oppression.  Peace does not mean accepting things as they are.  Peace is not ignoring the world around us while we live blissfully in a bubble.  Peace comes in the midst of the storms of life.  We can know peace in times of trouble as a gift from God, a confidence in God’s care and provision.  And God’s peace is something we join with God in working toward.  

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace.  He offers the peace of God, and this means justice and equity and welcome and goodness and grace for everyone.  It means bringing reconciliation to those who have been estranged from one another, and from God.  “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”  We cannot be reconciled with God unless we know our need.  We come to know God’s mercy and we seek peace with mercy for everyone.

There is so much that Mary does not have.  She is engaged but does not yet have a husband.  She does not have wealth or power or privilege.  She does not have confidence in how her community will receive the news of her pregnancy.  All she has, really, is the belief that the God who chose her will be a part of whatever comes next.  And that, apparently, is enough.  Even amidst the challenges she faced, God gives her peace.  Peace enough to sing.  Amen.  

Saturday, November 26, 2022

“Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus" - November 27, 2022

Text: Isaiah 40:1-5, 28-31

Today is the First Sunday of Advent, a season to remember Christ’s coming among us and reflect on Christ’s coming again.  It is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.

It is also a time filled with activity.  Family get-togethers, social gatherings, holiday parties – and of course shopping, even if a lot of that is done online anymore.  There are school concerts and all kinds of seasonal special events.  We will have our church Christmas Dinner in a couple of weeks, the first actual sit-down Christmas Dinner we have had since 2019, if you can believe that.  The children and youth are busy with activities and we look forward to the Christmas Eve service.

One of the things I really love about this season is the music.  Our choir is hard at work on a cantata that we will present at Northcrest on December 11 and then here in worship on December 18.  Our Yuletide Orchestra will be playing soon.  And as much as anything, I love all of the Christmas carols.  There are so many wonderful, beautiful carols, and there is something about singing these songs that are so familiar and so full of meaning – and that we only sing during this season.

The sermons during this season will revolve around the messages of some of these much-loved carols.  And so often, there is just a phrase that can capture the essence of the message.

This morning we sang “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.”  It was written by Charles Wesley.  Charles was the brother of John Wesley, known as the founder of Methodism, and Charles was no slouch himself.  Charles was a prolific hymn writer.  Does anybody wants to guess how many hymns he wrote?  One estimate is around 6500.  That is almost beyond belief.  

Wesley was a hymn writer for something in the neighborhood of 50 years.  That would mean writing an average of close to 3 hymns a week.  Every week.  For 50 years.  And he did not write in the praise chorus style, with just a few phrases sung repetitively.  Some of his hymns had 18 or 22 stanzas.  Charles Wesley was serious about hymn writing.

Sixteen Wesley hymns are in our blue hymnal, which isn’t bad for somebody who died 234 years ago.  Among these are Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Love Divine All Loves Excelling, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, and two great Christmas carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.

Our scripture today comes from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, written during Israel’s captivity in Babylon.  The people were in exile—away from their homeland, away from Jerusalem, away from all that was familiar and comforting.  They were unable to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed anyway.  They were strangers living in a strange land.

It was at this point that the word of God came to them through the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”  Their exile, which came because the people had turned from God, was nearly over.  God was coming for them.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The prophet Isaiah spoke a word of comfort and hope, and the great hope of Israel is capture by Wesley’s hymn.  “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.  Come to set thy people free.”  But the need for such hope is not just a way back then thing.  It may be that what we need most in this season is comfort and hope.

We live in a completely different world than the world of Isaiah’s time.  We are not exiles living in a strange land.  We live in the richest and most comfortable society in history – at least comfortable in terms of material things.

But it may be that in this season of the year, more than any other, that comfort--in the way of consolation and strength and assurance and hope—is in short supply.  We get stressed out by an endless schedule of events and obligations.  Some of us have lost a parent or a spouse or a child or a dear friend, and Christmas can be very difficult—it can be a bittersweet time.  Even if the loss was some time ago, the pain can linger.

For some, family tensions are heightened in this season.  There are those who are thinking, “Well, we barely made it through Thanksgiving, now we have to somehow get through Christmas.”  Maybe not your family, but we all know it happens.

In the midst of all the seasonal merry-making and celebration, we may somehow feel like strangers in a strange land.  And Isaiah’s message of comfort and hope to those in exile may be just what we need.

Isaiah spoke of God coming to bring deliverance, to bring comfort.  To bring hope.  And if there is anything we cannot live without, it is hope.  Things may appear bleak, life may be difficult, but hope allows us to go on and to move forward, to strive toward a better day and a better future.  We all need hope.  As the carol puts it, “Hope of all the earth thou art.”  

In order to receive God’s comfort, in order to find God’s hope, we have to be open to it.  We need to be ready for it.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Archaeological discoveries in what was Babylon have confirmed the background of this passage.  Triumphal highways were built to welcome a king into a city, specially constructed for an important event.  Hills were leveled, valleys were filled, crooked roads were made straight. Everything was prepared, everything was in place.  

With Zoe living in North Liberty, we frequently drive on Highway 30 over to Cedar Rapids.  There has been road construction going on in the stretch from Tama to Cedar Rapids for years.  For a while, there was the old highway going east and the new highway for the westbound lanes.  The old road had you going up and down hills, up and down.  But on the new highway, you just glide along.  The low places had been filled in and the hills were not nearly so high.  It is much smoother driving.

Things were made ready for the coming of the king.  This time of year, many of us can relate to getting ready and making everything just right.  We get ready for holiday parties or a visit from relatives by doing a little extra cleaning.  We dust in places we don’t normally worry about.  We do more baking than usual.  (For some of us, any baking is more baking than usual.)  We get out the Christmas decorations and we want things to look nice.  We put up Christmas lights.  We know about preparation, and there is a certain amount of preparation that takes place for important visitors.

The people were to prepare a place in the wilderness for God.  In the wilderness.  The Israelites knew about wilderness too.  For 40 years they had wandered after leaving Egypt.  God had seen them through the wilderness and brought them out, and God would bring them through this wilderness, this exile.  

But wilderness is not simply a geographical term.  It is a place of the heart, a place of the spirit.  Sometimes we may feel like those Israelites, living in a strange land.  Living in a wilderness.  There are those times when we can find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness and not even realize it.  

Fred Craddock was one of the great preachers of our time.  He died a few years ago.  Craddock told about a little girl who attended church faithfully at one of his first pastorates in Tennessee.  Her parents sent her to church but never came with her.  They would pull in the church’s circle drive, drop her off, and go out for Sunday breakfast.  The father was an executive for a big chemical company, very ambitious, upwardly mobile.

The whole town knew about the parties they threw on Saturday nights, given not so much for entertainment or out of friendship, but as a part of his career advancement program.  That determined who was invited.  The whole town knew about the wild things that went on at those parties.  But every Sunday morning, there was the little girl.

One Sunday Craddock looked out at his congregation and there she was.  He thought, “There she is with a couple of adult friends.”  Later, he realized that it was mom and dad sitting with her.  When the invitation was given at the end of the service, mom and dad came down front to join the church.

After the service, Craddock, the young pastor, asked them what had prompted this.  “Do you know about our parties?,” they asked.  “Yeah, I’ve heard of your parties.”

“Well, we had one last night.  It got a bit loud, kind of rough, lots of drinking.  And it woke up our daughter, who was asleep upstairs.  She came down the stairs and was on about the third step.  And she saw the eating and drinking and said, “Oh, can I have the blessing?  “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.  Goodnight, everybody.”  And she went back up the stairs.

Things quieted down quickly.  People began to say, “It’s getting late, we really must be going, thanks for a great evening,” and within two minutes the whole place was empty.
Mom and dad started to pick up the crumpled napkins and half-eaten sandwiches and spilled peanuts, and then they looked at each other.  And he said what they both were thinking: “What do we think we’re doing?”

God had come for them.  It wasn’t the prophet Isaiah who had proclaimed “Prepare the way of the Lord,” it was their little girl.

God’s call comes to us in all sorts of ways, through various prophets, but the call is the same: prepare the way of the Lord.  Preparing for God’s ways to take hold in our hearts is what Advent is about.  For that to happen, we may need to make some changes in direction.

It may have to do with giving less attention to being comfortable and more attention to bringing the comfort of Christ to others.  It might involve remembering someone who is lonely.  It might mean being sensitive to those who have suffered pain and loss.  It might involve spending time in scripture and in prayer so that God’s word can work in our hearts.  It might involve making a tough decision or taking a difficult action that you know you need to make.  

As we do these things, as we make these turns in life, God begins to lead us out of the wilderness we may find ourselves in and we begin to discover the comfort and hope of God.  And we realize that this is not only our hope.  Our world may be a mess, but we can sing with Charles Wesley,  “hope of all the earth thou art.”

May we examine our hearts and prepare the way of the Lord, who does not promise a comfortable life but promises something even greater: the comfort of God’s own presence and the hope of all the earth.  Prepare ye the way of the Lord!  Amen.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

“Blessed to Be a Blessing” - November 13, 2022

Text: Micah 6:6-8

We sang that great old gospel hymn this morning, “Count Your Blessings.”  I remember singing it at the church I grew up in back in Southern Indiana, and a lot of you probably grew up singing it too.  “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”

When our stewardship committee met to talk about a theme for our stewardship campaign, we talked about how we have all been blessed, and how that blessing leads us to generosity – to passing on the blessings.  Early this fall in worship, we were in Genesis and we looked at Abraham.  God said to Abraham, “I will bless you so that you and your descendants may be a blessing to the nations.”  I will bless you so that you may be a blessing.

An awareness of the ways in which we have been blessed can certainly make a difference in our lives.  It can change our attitude about things.  It can change the way we perceive the situation and open new possibilities.  Remembering that God has blessed us in our life can give us confidence to face what may be a difficult future.

So we sang “Count Your Blessings” and we have tried to practice what we sing.  You were all asked to jot down a couple of blessing or two in your life.  I’m going to read those responses.


We been blessed in so many ways.  And we have all been blessed by the ministry of our church – this is a place where we can learn and grow, where we build friendships and experience community.  Through this congregation we experience meaningful worship and stirring music and those moments of revelation and inspiration and deeper connection with God.  

For me, this is a family of faith where we can experience both the freedom to be ourselves and think for ourselves as well as have the support and community we need to follow Jesus together.  It is a place to serve and to share and to connect not just with each other but with the wider community and the world out there.

That’s a little of my own personal testimony about my experience in this church, and I know so many of you have had that same experience: we have been blessed.  We respond to God’s blessings by being generous – with our time, our talent, our resources, our relationships – so that others may be blessed.

We have been making our way through the Old Testament this fall and our reading today is from the prophet Micah.  Last week we looked at the story of Naaman and the prophet Elisha.  Micah lived about 100 years later and prophesied in the southern kingdom of Judah.  

This is a very familiar scripture for many of us – I remember that this was Howard Johnson’s favorite Bible verse.  And it fits very well with our stewardship theme of “Blessed to Be a Blessing.”  

Micah’s understanding was that the nation had turned to elaborate ritual sacrifices while at the same time engaging in wickedness, cheating, violence by the wealthy toward the poor, and rampant lying.  It wasn’t that God was against ritual practice per se, but ritual sacrifice was no substitute for living faithfully.

Micah brings an indictment against the people and then asks what it would take to set things right.  Just what is it that God wants from us?  Essentially, Micah says that God doesn’t really want anything.  Because God is not after things; God is interested in us.  Faith is a relationship.  What God wants is a certain way of living from us, a way of living that walks alongside God.  

The message of Amos and Hosea, Micah and Isaiah, all of the great 8th century prophets can be summarized in this one verse: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with your God.”  

This way of living is seen clearly in the life and teachings of Jesus.  Jesus wasn’t concerned about the proper rituals of religion; he was about living in relationship with God.  For Jesus, it all boiled down to love God and love your neighbor, which is pretty similar to what Micah is saying here.

First, we are to do justice.  Not just like the idea of justice, but actually do it.  This means that we work for the good of all people, especially those who are powerless.  We work to change structures and systems so that everyone is treated fairly and equitably.  As Christians we are to be salt and light in our communities.  We are to live in a way that honors and respects and values everyone.  We do justice and we work against injustice.

Righting wrongs, providing opportunities for those who need it, seeing all people as God’s children, full of worth and value – these are all elements of justice.  

And then we are to love kindness.  If you look in five different translations of the Bible, you might find 5 different words here.  It may read mercy, or loyalty, or love, or grace.  The word that is hard to translate here is hesed.  It means something like loving kindness.

Hesed is when you are really hurting and there is someone who has no reason to help you but they do anyway – they go out of their way to help.  That is what it is to be on the receiving end of hesed.  And God is often described as being a God of hesed.  

It is interesting that we are to do justice, but we are to love mercy or love kindness.  So it’s not just that God wants us to do good toward others; God wants us to love doing good toward others.  We are not just called to love our neighbor, God wants us to love loving our neighbor.

And then we are to walk humbly with God.  The key word here is walking.  Life is a journey, and walking humbly means that we journey with God; we learn from God.  In Judaism, the word for ethics and morality is “walking.”  It describes how one should go about one’s day-to-day life.  Our walk is never taken alone.  You might remember that Psalm 23 says, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.”  We might walk through the valley of the shadow of death or we might be walking on sunshine, but no matter what comes our way, we are walking with God.  This is what God wants.

The life of faith is not about outward shows of piety and goodness.  It is about walking humbly with God.  As that relationship with God grows, we more and more are led to do justice and love kindness.  As we love God, we are more and more led to love our neighbor.

Micah says that authentic faith is not about outward appearances or ritual acts; it is about relationships.  The focus on relationships extends to our financial giving.  We don’t receive a bill from the church and we are not asked to pay our dues.  We give willingly and joyfully, out of a relationship.  The Old Testament idea was to give 10% of one’s income as a tithe, or gift to God.  Jesus’ teaching goes beyond this and says that it all comes from God – it’s not that 10% belongs to God; 100% belongs to God.  We are stewards of all of these gifts.  So the question is: how do we use what God has blessed us with and entrusted to us?

We give out of relationship.  God blesses us, and we want to give.  We see needs, and we want to meet them.  We understand how important our mission is as a church, and we want to support it.  We are blessed to be a blessing.  

I read a powerful news article this week.  Romello Early – his friends call him Mello - couldn’t stand watching his friend and fellow seventh-grader, Melvin Anderson, get taunted for wearing old, worn-out sneakers.  Other kids were just merciless in putting him down.

“I really didn’t appreciate other people talking about him that way,” Mello said.  On October 24, he called his mother on FaceTime, which he does every day after school.   That afternoon, Mello broke down in tears as soon as his mother answered the phone.

“Romello, what happened?” she asked.

“I’m getting tired of them bullying my friend about his shoes.  It’s making me so upset,” he responded.  He explained about his classmates mocking Melvin for having dirty, worn out sneakers.

Then, Mello asked her, “Can we go buy him some shoes?”  His mother said they would talk about it when she got home from work.  During their in-person conversation later, she said he was still distraught.  Mello was adamant about buying his friend a fresh pair of sneakers to stave off bullies — and remind him that he has people who care about him.

“Can I use my allowance, or you can take something away that I would get for Christmas?” Mello asked his mother.

His mom said, “I was floored, because most kids are not willing to give up something to another child; most kids are about themselves… it touched me in a way that I almost can’t even describe.”

For Mello, the decision was intuitive.  “You should always treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said. “I have a lot of stuff, so I was thinking, let’s bless somebody else today.”

So that evening, they went to a sneaker store and bought a pair of black-and-white Nike Dunks for Melvin.  Mello used savings from his allowance to pay for the $135 shoes.

I read this story and I was so struck by what this 12 year old said.  “I have a lot of stuff, so I was thinking, let’s bless somebody else today.”  Mello understood that he was blessed to be a blessing.

We have been richly blessed in so many ways.  And we have the opportunity to bless others.  We do this through our living – by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

As a church, this is what we seek to do together.  As recipients and stewards of God’s blessings, we are called to be a blessing to others.  Amen.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

“Healing and Humility” - November 6, 2022

Text: 2 Kings 5:1-15

Last Sunday, we thought about wisdom and discernment as we looked at Solomon.  Under his leadership the great temple was built in Jerusalem.  Along with the temple there was an ambitious program of public works, including a palace for the king.  Though he had asked God for wisdom, not wealth, he lived lavishly and became fabulously wealthy.  To support all of this, the people were taxed heavily, and by the end of his reign, the nation was nearly bankrupt.  

After Solomon’s death, the nation was divided north and south.  It is during the time of the divided monarchy that the prophets Elijah and Elisha arose in the northern kingdom of Israel.  Elisha was Elijah’s protégé, and at the end of Elijah’s life, Elisha took up his mantle, or cloak - literally.  This is where the expression comes from for passing on authority from teacher to student.

It was in the time of Elisha the prophet that we come to today’s scripture.  Naaman was the commander of the army of Aram, an ancient country that is today part of Syria.  Naaman was a military hero and a powerful man.  

But there was a problem.  Naaman had a terrible skin disease.  Unless one was born into the royal family, a person could not rise any higher than Naaman, but his power and status did not protect him from illness.   This skin disease is often translated as “leprosy,” but it is not leprosy as we think of it today.  Now in Israel, if you had such a skin disease you would have to remain outside the community according to Leviticus.  There were purity concerns and the possibility of spreading this on to others.  It’s not clear what this would have meant in Aramean society, but this is clearly not good.

Now, Aram borders Israel to the northeast.  There was a history of border disputes and fighting between the two nations that has essentially gone on for millennia and still goes on today in the Golan Heights.  During an earlier raid on Israel, an Israelite girl was taken captive, and she was now Naaman’s wife’s servant.

Surprisingly, almost unbelievably, this servant girl taken from Israel cares about Naaman.  It’s hard to imagine why she would root for this military leader of a rival nation.  But for whatever reason, she wants to help him.  So she tells Naaman’s wife that there is a prophet back in her home country who could heal him.  

This girl is unnamed.  This is the only part she has in this story.  And yet without her, there would be no story.  It is her suggestion that makes everything possible.  

It perhaps says something about the depth of Naaman’s desperation that he listened to the advice of this Israelite servant girl.  As a traditional foe of Israel, it would be humiliating for this great man to go to Israel, of all places, on bended knee.  But his disease threatened to take everything from him, and so he was willing to try almost anything.

Naaman mentions this servant’s suggestion to the king, and to his surprise, the king thinks it’s a great idea.  Of course, there were political implications to consider.  Naaman’s visit would create quite a stir.  The king sends along gifts: silver and gold, an enormous amount of money, and ten new suits - the latest in Aramean fashion.  The king sends Naaman directly to the king of Israel.  This needed to be handled at the proper level.   A person like Naaman didn’t just go hat-in-hand to some Israelite prophet.  

The letter sent to the king of Israel says, “I have sent Naaman to you so that you may cure him of leprosy.”  No mention of a prophet who might be able to heal him.  The king of Israel panics.  “What, you think I can just cure disease?” he asks.  He was obviously being set up.  When he failed to provide the cure, Aram would have an excuse, a pretense, to invade Israel again.  It was a potentially dangerous situation, and the king tears his clothes as a sign of his despair.  

But word of Naaman’s visit and the king’s predicament reached Elisha the prophet, who sent a message to the king of Israel.  “Send this guy on over to me,” Elisha says.

It’s interesting that this slave girl, a captive in a foreign land, has heard of the prophet Elisha and believes he can heal Naaman – but the king seems clueless about this.  He doesn’t think of sending Naaman to Elisha for healing.

Naaman and his whole entourage, with horses and chariots and servants, go to the house of Elisha.  They pull up at Elisha’s place.  And they wait.  But Elisha does not come out to greet him.  Instead of being received with honor by Elisha, this Israelite prophet just sends out a servant.  

A visit from Naaman, the commander of the Aramean army, had to be the biggest thing that had happened in these parts in who knows when.  This mighty general arrives, and the prophet doesn’t even bother to see him!  A scrawny messenger boy tells Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River seven times, and he would be clean.

It was a slap in the face is what it was.  Elisha’s prescription was no better than his bedside manner.  The Jordan River was really not much more than a muddy creek.  It was shallow and at times rather foul-smelling.  I mean, if you dipped seven times in the Jordan River, you were likely to get a skin disease.

Naaman is infuriated.  He has come all this way, gone to all this trouble, brought expensive gifts, just to have the servant of an Israelite prophet tell him to go dip in a godforsaken mudhole.  If he were going to wash in a river, they had way better rivers back home.  Of all the nerve!

Naaman said, “I thought the prophet would come out, and wave his hands and call on his God, and say magic, mysterious words to cure me.  I thought there would be drama.  I thought there would be spectacle.”  And Naaman stormed off in a rage.

And for the second time, it is not the mighty and powerful people, but a lowly servant who saves the day and points Naaman towards healing.  His servants approached him and said, “Look, if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?

The servant was right.  If Elisha had sent Naaman on a difficult quest, or prescribed an arduous or painful treatment, he would have done it.

Actually, that kind of prescription would have been easier for Naaman because it would have meant that he had worked for his healing.  It would have meant that he himself was responsible for it.  As it was, he wanted to pay for the treatment with an enormous amount of money and fine clothing.  But Elisha would not take it.  For Naaman, to simply accept a gift was a lot harder.

But the servant’s words were true.  He would have done anything.  So it made sense to at least give Elisha’s prescription a try.  He goes to the muddy waters of the Jordan, and he immersed himself seven times in the water.

Naaman had to set aside his pride and humble himself.  The text says, “He went down,” and he really did have to go down.  He had to stoop to taking advice from an Israelite slave girl, then he went down to Jerusalem, and then even further down to the prophet in Samaria.  He had to lower himself to the point of being set straight by his own servants, and finally he went down into the muddy Jordan, washing with the very common people of an enemy nation, before he found healing.

“The Doctor” was a movie starring William Hurt as a physician who is diagnosed with throat cancer.  As a teacher in the med school, he is used to people following his commands.  He is in control and in charge, and he is not used to being a patient.

As a patient, he finds that he has to do a lot of waiting.  He is treated like anybody else and has to go by other people’s schedules, not his own.  He is not used to feeling unimportant; he is not used to all the indignities of being a patient.  In the course of his treatment, he becomes friends with a fellow patient who teaches him a great deal about living and about dying.  He makes a full recovery, while she does not.

When he returns to his teaching position, one of the first class projects is to assign a bed to each student and to attach a hypothetical disease to each of them.  Each make-believe patient has to undergo all of the tests associated with that disease.  The nurses, much more familiar than doctors with the day-to-day care of patients, seem pleased by this.

This doctor was not only cured, he was healed.  He experienced a conversion of sorts, and returns to his profession, both a changed man and a much better doctor.

We can hope that it was that way for Naaman.  He was cured of his illness, and we have to hope that in the process, he was healed as well, that he learned humility, learned to listen to others, and was a changed man after the experience.

The power dynamics in this story are so interesting.  On one level, you have the official sources of power.  You have Naaman the general, the king of Aram, and the king of Israel.  All of the power and resources available at their disposal – including truckloads of cash and the coercive power of the state.  But they are unaware of other sources of power and other kinds of power.  In fact, the main thing that the servant girl had told Naaman was completely ignored.  And it doesn’t occur to the king of Israel that he prophet might be able to provide healing through the power of God.  

On the other hand, you have a couple of Naaman’s own servants and an Israelite prophet who is unimpressed with displays of power and wealth.  They are the ones who actually get things done.   And in fact, Elisha performs a low-key miracle.  It is not flashy, it’s not dramatic, and he isn’t even around to see it.

This could have been a simple story.  The servant girl told Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman.  And eventually, that is exactly what happened.  But there were all of these complicated steps and missteps along the way, with social structures and official channels and all kinds of expectations related to power and entitlement.

It was only once Naaman got beyond all of this, got past being full of himself, that he was able to find healing.

Unlike Naaman, we are not national heroes.  We are not amazing, miracle-working prophets.  We are not superstar saints.  But we can do what this young girl did.  In small acts of compassion and caring, we can make a difference.  Each act of kindness and compassion and unexpected goodness contributes to the healing of both others and ourselves – as well as our community and our world.  

Each time we care for our neighbor or choose to be generous or help a person in need or express concern for a friend or act to protect the earth or welcome a stranger or give of our time to make our community a better place, we are contributing to healing.  In this season that we think about stewardship, it strikes me that such acts of kindness and caring and compassion are powerful acts of stewardship.

We are called to be stewards of all God has entrusted to us.  And that includes the relationships in our lives.

Who are the people that have blessed you, who have made a real difference in your life?  Sometimes it may be an unexpected person, like the servant girl who makes healing possible for Naaman.  And sometimes, we have the opportunity to be that person, to share the hope and peace and love of Christ and in doing so point another toward healing.  May it be so.  Amen.


Saturday, October 29, 2022

“Discernment” - October 30, 2022

Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28

Anybody remember Seinfeld?  There is an episode where Elaine had strained her neck trying to get a bicycle down from the wall in an antique store.  Her neck is really bothering her and she impulsively says that she will give the bike to whoever can fix her neck.  Kramer claims to know shiatsu massage and it actually works, so Elaine reluctantly gives him the bike.  But the very next day the pain returns and she wants the bike back.  So there was a disagreement over who really owned the bike.  They go to Newman to settle the dispute.

Newman hears arguments from each side and they are both compelling.  It is not easy, but he finally gives his decision: “Let the bike be cut down the middle and each party shall get half.”  Elaine says, “OK, fine.”  But Kramer says, “No, it is better for Elaine to have this bicycle than for no one to be able to ride it.”  And Newman says that Kramer has proven himself to be the rightful owner.

That is a long way of saying that is a very well known scripture, even showing up in popular culture (and it was  hard to resist telling a Seinfeld story like that.)  But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves.  

We have been making our way through the Old Testament this fall.  Last week, after entering the Promised Land, Joshua asked the people to choose whom they would serve, and Israel renewed the covenant with God.  Once established in the land, the nation was a loose confederation of tribes, with judges like Gideon and Deborah and Sampson leading the nation and establishing justice.  

But there came a time when the people wanted a king, like other nations.  God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said,” OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king.  But don’t blame me if it goes south.”

The first king of Israel was Saul.  While he looked the part, he was a poor leader.  And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king.  Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel.

Upon David’s death, there is a power struggle between David’s sons Adonijah and Solomon.  We read about manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed.  It is not pretty.  

That is chapter 2 of 1 Kings.  Our reading is from chapter 3.  By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past.  He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern.  But he is young.  He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start.  He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.

For example, Solomon has just married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt.  Yes, that Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years.  This is a red flag.

Solomon has gone to Gibeon to offer sacrifice.  This is one of the high places – places where other gods were worshiped.  So it is a little surprising that Solomon was worshiping at this high place.  Basically he is worshiping the right god at the wrong place.  Between marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and worshiping at Gibeon, there is a little ambiguity at the beginning of Solomon’s reign.  But God does not seem to mind much because Solomon offers his sacrifice at Gibeon and God shows up.

Solomon spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream.  And God asks Solomon, “What would you like me to give you?”  

Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order.  It is beyond him.  “I am just a kid,” he says.  “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

God was pleased by this and said, “I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for.  I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”

The key word here in what Solomon is asking for is discern.  “An understanding mind, able to discern.”

Discernment is more than knowledge.  It is more than book smarts.  This is not wisdom as in the mystical guru up on the mountain that you go and see and then have to reflect for days on what they said and what it meant.

The wisdom Solomon asks for - discernment - is knowing what is truly important.  Knowing what really matters.  And it is connected to action.  We discern the best path forward.  Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.    

Discernment begins with humility.  Humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers.  This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit.  If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.

Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God?  He says, “I’m just a boy.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I need some help here.  I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.”  That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use.  

Now we come to the story that we sort of started with.  Our scripture includes an illustration of Solomon’s wisdom.  

Two women come to Solomon to settle a dispute.  We are told that the two women are prostitutes.  You may wonder why that information needed to be added.  Well, we really should not read any moral judgment into that.  This explains why the two of them are alone, living together in the house.  There are no fathers around, and the point is that it is just them.  If anything, knowing this should add to our empathy.  For a single woman, perhaps a younger widowed woman with no family to provide for her, prostitution was often the only means of providing for yourself.

We are presented with a heart-wrenching scenario.  These two women each give birth three days apart.  And then one child dies in its sleep.  It is a mother’s worst nightmare.  

One woman accuses the other of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child.  The other woman says that is a complete lie.   

They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and so they presented the case to the king.

Now so often we simply read this story from Solomon’s point of view, as an example of his wisdom.  And it is that, but what about these women?  What a horrifying situation.  This is not just a puzzle to solve, and not just an investigative challenge for the king.  This is a human tragedy.

There is no clear way to determine who is telling the truth.  One gives this long story about how it happened, and we tend to think she is telling the truth, but maybe it is too long a story, you know?  The woman with the shorter story just says, “That is absolutely false,” and maybe she is right.  Of course there is no DNA testing available, no polygraph tests.

We don’t have to read this as one mother being calculating and manipulative.  In her deep grief and pain and post-partum fog, who knows what she believes is true?

After hearing from these women, Solomon renders a decision: the living child should be cut in half, with each woman getting half of the child.  Solomon does not necessarily know how this is going to turn out.  But he is looking for the one who protests.  He is looking for the mother who most values this life.  He can’t even be sure that it will be the actual mother.  But he discerns that given the situation, given that there is no forensic evidence to prove things one way or the other, that he can make a decision that is best for the child.

So he pronounces his decision and one mother says, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.”  The other said, “No, he shall be neither mine nor yours.”  And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its mother.  The narrator tells us that this was indeed the child’s mother.

We focus so much on Solomon in this story, but how about this mother?  Can you imagine the anguish she is experiencing?  She says, “I would rather that my child live with this woman who has tried to steal him from me.”  What an amazing thing. What a heart of love.  What a remarkable woman.  In many ways she is the hero of the story.     

At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him.  He was known as a wise ruler.  Common people looked to the king for justice.  Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king.  Solomon did not ask for riches or political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.

He seems set up for a great run.  But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly.  I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king.  He lost that sense of humility.  

God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well.  But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth.  He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation.  And he kept marrying more and more foreign wives.

Solomon asked for discernment.  But he did not always live wisely.  They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.

Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.”  A child knows she needs help.  A child knows his need.  A child is open to learning, to exploring, to asking questions.  That attitude is the beginning of wisdom.

I took our dog Rudy for a walk yesterday.  We passed a father and little boy who were getting in their van to go somewhere.  They were in somewhat of a hurry but the boy was about to have a meltdown.  I knew what the problem was.  We had walked by their house before, and the kid wanted to see our dog.  They were having a situation so we just kept walking but sure enough, here came this kid running after us.  “Can I pet your dog?”

I said sure.  He asked my dog’s name and I said “Rudy.” (It’s the same name as last time he asked.)  And then he asked me, “Does Rudy like to eat bugs?”

What a great question.  I told him not really, and since I knew they were in a hurry, I said, “Rudy and I have to go.  See you later!”

Asking questions and knowing that there is a lot you don’t know.  That is the beginning of wisdom.  That is the path to discernment.  And Solomon’s life, his entire reign is an illustration that this is the path we need to stay on our whole lives.

For Solomon and for us, the key is being wise enough to know we are not wise.  Being secure enough to know our limitations.  Being strong enough to consider the pain of others.  Discernment is about knowing what matters the most.  

Solomon shows wisdom not through the wooden application of rules and not by offering platitudes, but by listening and observing with empathy.  And the mother of the child who lived shows discernment through love and compassion, and by seeking the best for the child she loved.

Today is Reformation Sunday, and I think this scripture speaks to the church in our day and every day.  Humility and being able to listen and learn and grow is essential for the church.  Particularly in such a challenging and changing time, we need discerning hearts and minds as we seek together to follow Christ and carry on Christ’s mission in our day.

May God grant us all such wise and discerning hearts and minds.  Amen.

Saturday, October 22, 2022

“Choosing Every Day” - October 23, 2022

Text: Joshua 24:1-28

We live in a world filled with choices – all kinds of choices.  And choices can be just agonizing.  If you are with a group of friends or family, or maybe it’s just you and your significant other - deciding where to go out to eat, for some reason, can be an almost paralyzing choice.  I’m not sure why that is, but we want everybody to be happy, and our tastes don’t always align.  

Hard as some of our choices may be, we have to choose.  For some high school students, deciding where to go to college can be very difficult.  There may be very appealing things about several different schools, but at some point, you have to make a decision.

This fall we have been following the story line of the Old Testament, and this is recounted in our scripture reading this morning.  After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness it was Joshua, Moses’ assistant and successor, who led the Israelites across the Jordan River and into the Promised Land.  None of that generation that crossed the Red Sea, not even Moses, made it to the Promised Land.

Our scripture today is Joshua’s farewell speech.  He has seen a lot in his many years.  The first part of his speech recounts God’s dealings with Israel.  There had been a covenant with Abraham that God would give him progeny and a land.  There were plenty of descendants, but now, finally, the people had a land.  

Now Joshua was asking the people to reaffirm their devotion to God and to renew the covenant with the Lord, this covenant first made with Abraham and Sarah.

If you read through the book of Joshua, it can actually be disturbing.  It is a story of violent conquests.  I am not completely sure what to do with that.  But it is the story of the Israelites taking and settling the land that God had promised them.  Our scripture today includes the best-known verses from the book of Joshua:

“Choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.’”

Joshua called the people to put away other gods.  For the Israelites, the other gods were gods of the Egyptians and the gods of the Canaanites, in whose land they now lived.  There was a strong feeling that each land had its own gods, and there was an impulse to worship Cannanite gods –these were essentially the local gods.

This sounds completely foreign to our modern sensibilities.  I mean, an awful lot of people today are not interested in worshiping any god, let alone be tempted to worship multiple gods.  And we certainly don’t have a shelf filled with idols to choose from.  

But we know good and well that there are plenty of things that can demand our allegiance, our own version of other gods in the land, and they can be very appealing.

So Joshua gathers the people and asks them to recommit to the worship of God.  Choose this day whom you will serve,” he says.  “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

And the people respond.  “Sure, we will serve the Lord.”

But Joshua is not convinced.  Talk is cheap.  He thinks that the people are too glib in their response, that they are not taking this commitment to God seriously enough.  It is easy to say, “Yes, we will serve the God of Israel” and then go on living life exactly as they were before.

But God does not want casual, verbal pledges.  This is a commitment that affects every area of life, and Joshua reminds the people that this is not a casual matter, but a life-changing one.

The theology class has been viewing and discussing a video series that takes a topic or question each week with several scholars and pastors speaking about that particular question.  Last Sunday one of the speakers made a very interesting comment.  I don’t remember who it was, but this person said that in the first 400 years of the church’s existence, the big question was how we lived.  Loving your neighbor as yourself.  Doing justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God.  Trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as a disciple of Jesus.

But after the time of Constantine, when Christianity became the official religion, it was much more about belief.  Do you believe the right things about God and Jesus?  It is a lot easier to say that yes, I believe A,B, and C, and then go on living your life, than to really take seriously living each day as Jesus leads us.

I think this is something like the concern that Joshua had with the people.  And it is a massive issue for us.  It is a massive issue for the church in the year 2022.

In 1972, just 5 percent of Americans claimed ”no religion” on the General Social Survey.  In 2018, that number rose to 24 percent and it is no doubt higher today.  There are a multitude of reasons for this, but one of the reasons people are turned off to the church is because so many claim the mantle of Christian faith but do not live in ways that reflect the life of Jesus.  In other words, saying you are a Christian is easy but living a Christian life is a lot tougher.  And actions can definitely speak louder than words.

One of the reasons it is so tough to faithfully follow Jesus is because of all those other gods out there.  Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” We don’t use that word a lot anymore – well, basically we never use it except for quoting this Bible verse – but he is talking about wealth and acquiring things, homes and vehicles and all of the latest and greatest stuff.  He is talking about bank accounts and investments and retirements funds and “getting ahead,” as we say.  All of this can edge out God as our top priority.

There are plenty of other local gods we have today, and I’m not just talking about the Cyclones.  But the Cyclones would be a good example in that you can’t put ultimate trust in those local gods because you can’t always count on them, can you?

But I am thinking more of things like social standing, fitting in, keeping up appearances, being admired.  Such things can take precedence over all else.

I am thinking of all kinds of addictions and addictive behaviors that can control us and take first place in our lives.

I am thinking of political leanings and ideologies and bandwagons we can hop on that can become all-consuming and become more important than our commitment to Christ – which may have been what steered us toward those understandings in the first place.  It is so easy to baptize whatever is important to us as “Christian” – to kind of remake God in our own image.  

And I am thinking of so many good, healthy, positive activities that can kind of crowd out other things, even crowd out worship, even crowd out serving the Lord.  It turns out that those local gods still are a powerful draw.

What Joshua says to the people in just one sentence is really powerful.  He says choose this day whom you will serve.  Toward the end of his life, having seen a million things happen that he never would have dreamed, he knows that time is fleeting and opportunities may not come again.  Choose this day.  This is not a time to hem and haw about it, not a time to form a subcommittee and study it.  Choose this day.  It is either or.  Either choose to serve God, or don’t.

But here is the thing.  That question is in effect asked of us every day.  It is not a once and done kind of thing.  Because again, serving the Lord is not so much about believing the right stuff, it is about choosing day in and day out to live in a way that shows love for our neighbor.  To live in a way that sides with God’s justice and mercy and kindness and goodness and forgiveness, and not with the local gods that do not have those same concerns.

Choose this day, and choose every day.  

And then Joshua says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”  Here Joshua gets at two dimensions of faith.  It is deeply personal, but it also involves the community.  “As for me and my house.”

We cannot decide for any other person, not even our family.  But we can bear witness to others and influence others.   And surely that influence starts in our own homes.  Christian faith is deeply personal.  It is a gift of God.  But it’s not a gift to keep for ourselves, it’s a gift to share.  We would not come to believe without others and we do not worship and serve apart from others.

I was at a training event a number of years ago with a guy named Ed White.   He was a church consultant, happened to be a Presbyterian, and he told about a woman who worked in their Synod office.  She was warm, engaging, a hard worker, a committed Christian.  But she started missing work on Mondays.  A pattern developed.  She would call in sick on Monday.  Tuesday she would come in and be in a bad mood, irritable.  Wednesday she would be her happy self, and the same on Thursday and Friday.  But Monday, she wouldn’t show up for work again and the pattern would repeat.

People on the staff recognized that she had become a crack cocaine addict.  They gave her a choice.  She could go to Seaton House, a drug treatment center, or lose her job.

So she went for treatment.  The whole time she was in the treatment center, she could not see anyone from the outside.  She was in a demanding program with 30 other young adults.  When she was released, she cut off all relationships whatsoever with anyone who had been involved with drugs.  She basically had two groups of people in her life: her church and Narcotics Anonymous.

There is good news and bad news in this story.  This woman celebrated her 1 year anniversary of being drug-free.  She was successful, she was happy, she was serving the Lord.  She had a new life.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that of those 30 young adults who went through that extensive drug treatment program, she was the only one who celebrated a drug-free first anniversary.  

What was different about her?  The difference was the people she surrounded herself with.  The difference was her community.    

We need one another.  We need the household of faith.  As we make choices, we need the community Jesus said we must take up our cross daily and follow him.  We have to choose this day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next.  And it is a lot easier to do that when you are part of a family of faith.

The people said that yes, they would serve the Lord, but Joshua had his doubts about it.  He said, “No, you won’t.  You can’t do it.”  He warns them that a decision for God is not that easy.  God doesn’t want meaningless words but a genuine life commitment.  

You know, Joshua was actually right when he told the people, “You can’t do it.” We can’t – not perfectly, not completely, not without missteps and failings along the way.  But Joshua was also wrong – or maybe it was a little hyperbole to get people to actually listen.  His words were intended as a warning of how serious a choice this was, but when he said, “God is a jealous God and will not forgive your sins,” he was overstating it.  In fact, God had already repeatedly forgiven the people and would continue to do so.  The Good News of Jesus is that in Christ, we are indeed forgiven.  But it is not cheap grace.

Joshua’s words are words for us today.  “Choose this day whom you will serve.”  It is a choice for all of us to make, every day.  And praise God, it is a choice that comes with a measure of grace.  Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2022

“Words of Freedom” - October 16, 2022

Text: Exodus 19:1-8, 20:1-17

How many times have we heard it?  “You can’t dwell on the past.”  Past hurts, past failures, past disappointments.  Sometimes it is best just to let it go.  Forget about it and move on.

I have known folks who served in the Second World War and Korea and later Viet Nam who very rarely spoke about it.  They had seen and experienced terrible things, and I suppose they just wanted to forget.

There are people who had really tough childhoods, with anger, violence, abuse in the home.  Maybe some of you did.  

And there are people who grew up surrounded by wealth, in big houses, showered with everything they wanted except for the only thing they really wanted, which was love.

Sometimes we think the answer is to just forget about it.  Forget about it and move on.  Sometimes this strategy can serve us well, like the placekicker who has missed a couple of extra point attempts.   You just have to forget about it, like it never happened.  It can be hard to move forward otherwise.

So we have to wonder, a little bit, about the way God goes about relating to the Israelites.  Because it is all about remembering.  Before getting to the first commandment, God says, “I am the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, who brought you out of slavery.  You weren’t citizens, you had no land, you were strangers and aliens in a foreign land.  You broke your backs to fill other people’s pockets.  You were living, but just barely.  And I brought you out of slavery.  I brought you out of Egypt.  Remember that.”

The Ten Commandments are often seen as moralistic rules devised by a God who is just waiting for us to mess up.  But that is not what they are at all.  The commandments were an act of love.  Instead of saying, “forget about it,” God says, “Remember.”  Remember that you were slaves, and so when you are in your own land and a stranger comes along, remember that you were once a stranger.  When there is opportunity to take advantage of others, remember how you were treated.  And when you start to think that everything you have accomplished is by your own doing, remember that I have brought you out of slavery.

The Israelites had not known freedom for 400 years.  They did not know what it was to live as free people.  And without some guidance, freedom can feel like chaos.

There are those intersections, sometimes in rural areas and sometimes in subdivisions, where there are no stop signs.  You’re never quite sure who has the right of way, and it can be dangerous, especially out in the country when the corn is high.  Those intersections can literally be accidents waiting to happen.

Some guidelines for living, some basic rules for behavior, can be a real gift.  Fair and just rules, rather than being a straitjacket, can be very freeing.  Living in community demands that we practice a way of living that gives freedom and at the same time nurtures and protects all of the members of the community.  

When you have been enslaved for 400 years, freedom can be really hard.  Brian McLaren wrote, “Through the ten plagues, we might say, God got the people out of slavery.  Through the ten commandments, God got the slavery out of the people.”     

After surgery a few years ago, our dog Rudy had to wear a cone - the cone of shame, as they call it, that goes around the neck to keep a dog from messing with the stitches.  It was kind of a pain to take the cone off and put it back on, so early on, I held his bowl of food off the floor so he could get at it with the cone on.  When the cone came off, at first he wanted me to hold his bowl for him while he ate.  He had gotten used to life with a cone.

The Israelites had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh.  They had learned to live in fear.  But the God who led the Israelites to freedom is a God who longs for us to live in the freedom of love and grace, not in the bondage of fear.  God gives the Law, the Ten Commandments, as a way of living for a free people.  They are a way of living that will allow us to flourish.

With the Israelites’ history as people who have just emerged from slavery in the background, Brian McLaren paraphrases the commandments in this way:

1.  Put the God of liberation first, not the gods of slavery.

2.  Don’t reduce God to the manageable size of an idol – certainly not one made of wood and stone by human hands, and not one made by human minds of rituals and words, either, and certainly not one in whose name people are enslaved, dehumanized, or killed!

3.  Do not use God for your own agendas by throwing around God’s holy name.  

4. Honor the God of liberation by taking and giving everyone a day off. Don’t keep the old 24/7 slave economy going.

5. Turn from self-centeredness by honoring your parents.  (After all, honor is the basis of freedom.)

6. Don’t kill people, and don’t do the things that frequently incite violence, including:

7. Don’t cheat with others’ spouses,

8. Don’t steal others’ possessions, and

9. Don’t lie about others’ behaviors or characters.

10.  In fact, if you really want to avoid the violence of the old slave economy, deal with its root source – in the drama of desire.  Don’t let the competitive desire to acquire tempt you off the road of freedom.

I like McLaren’s version of the commandments because they remind us that these are rules for living in community.  This is the way God’s people are to live together and a way of living that will allow a community to thrive in freedom, to live hopefully and joyfully.

Now as we read the commandments, some of the wording, sounds strange and maybe even troubling.  “Do not worship idols for I am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of the parents to the third or fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

It is troubling to think that God would punish children for the sins of their parents, but you don’t have to read it that way.  In that day, three or four generations might live together, all under the same roof.  The adversity a person might suffer for breaking the law really would affect several generations – right there and then.   That was just reality.  And so this statement about children being punished for the iniquity of parents serves to illustrate all the more that the law represents a way of living in community and that it is not just for us, it is for the sake of others as well.

A further illustration of this is found in the commandment regarding Sabbath keeping.  It is easy to be plugged in and available 24/7.  More and more people have the chance to work from home, which can be great, but it can also make it harder and harder to really stop working.  Hard work is highly valued and some of us can feel guilty if we are not doing something.  Whether or not it is attached to our job, there can be this feeling that we always need to be productive.

I heard about a company that requires fathers to take paternity leave.  They don’t allow it; they require it.  We live in such a work-oriented culture that when a woman takes maternity leave, it can sometimes hurt her chances for advancement.  At the same times, there are a lot of companies that offer paternity leave to men, but few fathers will take it because they don’t want to be seen as slackers or as not being serious or responsible employees.  

So, this company is now requiring everybody to take maternity or paternity leave.  They say they wish requiring it wasn’t necessary, but at this point it seems the best course to take.

There is no doubt that rest and family time and our lives beyond our work lives are not necessarily valued.  In this kind of world, keeping the Sabbath is not an arbitrary rule from a God who doesn’t want us to have fun; it is a great gift.  It is freeing.

The command regarding Sabbath says that nobody is to work.  Not you, not your children, not hired hands, not even animals.  This command is for the sake of everyone; it has within it a measure of mercy, especially for those who have to toil at hard labor – and the Israelites were told to remember – they knew all about that.

And then, honor your father and mother so that your days may be long.  By honoring parents, by honoring elders, we create a culture in which we will be honored as we grow older (which to be real honest sounds more important all the time).

In Mark chapter 12, Jesus is asked, “Which is the greatest commandment?”  Do you remember that?  He answers “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”  This is a summary of all the law.  If you love God and love your neighbor, that pretty well covers it.

All of the commandments fall under the categories of loving God and loving one’s neighbor.  The first three have to do with our relationship with God.  Sabbath is about relationships with both God and others, because we not only observe a day for rest and worship, we also are to provide it for others.  The remainder have to do with relationships with our neighbor.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

We live in a world that is exponentially more complex than the world of the Israelites as they waited to enter the Promised Land.  But these same rules for living, this same law, can free us.  It can provide the boundaries that will allow us to thrive and prosper and grow.

The Ten Commandments, in a sense, help us to remember.  To remember who we are, to remember what is important, and to remember the God who frees us.  The commandments help us to get our bearings in the storms of life and lead us on the path to freedom.  

The Ten Commandments certainly provide rules for living.  But Biblical scholar Eric Barreto, a Baptist who teaches at Princeton Seminary, says that “Ultimately, the story of the Ten Commandments in Exodus is less about proper behavior than it is about identity.  Who are we?  What is our relationship to God?  What is our relationship to one another?  We tend to separate these foundational questions, compartmentalizing each to a separate realm of reflection, but the [commandments in Exodus tell us these are all connected.]

God is in the business of setting people free.  And far from throwing cold water on our party, the Ten Commandments are meant to allow us to live joyfully and fully and freely, with God and with one another.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Saturday, October 8, 2022

“Move Forward” - October 9, 2022

Text: Exodus 14:5-16, 21-31

There are those epic stories that are remembered and retold and passed down from generation to generation.

For American Baptists it might be the story of Roger Williams fleeing for his life from Salem, Massachusetts in the dead of winter, getting assistance from the Naragansett Indians and establishing Providence, Rhode Island as a place that provided religious liberty to people of all faiths.  Or maybe the story of Ann and Adoniram Judson, who traveled to India as Congregational missionaries.  On the voyage, through their study of the Bible they decided that they were actually Baptists.  And when they got to India, officials would not allow any missionaries into the country.  So they continued to Burma, while Baptists back in the US raised money, and they became our first international missionaries.

For Iowa State fans, maybe it is the story of Jack Trice, the first African-American football player at the school and only the second Black athlete at a major university.  He died of injuries suffered in his second game he played, against the University of Minnesota.

Maybe your family has an epic story about your great-great grandparents arriving on the boat or maybe the story of how your grandparents met.

There are those stories that are told and retold.  Our scripture today, more than any other, was that story for the nation of Israel.  It is the most important story of the Old Testament.

The crossing of the Red Sea and escape from Egypt sets forth the idea that God calls people from slavery to freedom, that God provides, that God will never abandon us, and that because of that, we have nothing to fear.  This is the great story for the Jewish people, and for Christians all of these ideas will come to fruition in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Last week, Joseph and his family were in Egypt and after a lifetime of intrigue and family rivalry, things seemed to going great.  But in our scripture this morning, the Israelites are in slavery.  What happened?  How did they get to this place?

Joseph and his brothers and their families settled in Egypt and remained long after the famine.  The family grew numerous, so much so that it made the Egyptians nervous.  Long after Joseph’s efforts on behalf of the nation were forgotten, the Israelites began to be seen as a threat.  And in time, they were forced into slavery.

Four hundred years after Joseph had come to Egypt, the Israelites were “oppressed so hard they could not stand,” as the old spiritual that we sang puts it.  The Pharaohs had some serious building projects, and they needed the cheap labor.  The Israelites were treated harshly, brutally.  God heard their cries and called Moses as a leader, speaking to him through the burning bush.  A reluctant leader at first, Moses nevertheless went before Pharaoh and said, “Let my people go.”  But of course Pharaoh was not going to do that without a little push, a little incentive.

So God sent plagues upon the Egyptians, one after another.  It was basically one big disaster movie, frogs, lice, flies, livestock pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, water turning to blood.  Yet Pharaoh was stubborn.  Pharaoh still would not let the people go.   But God told Moses, one more plague and Pharaoh will relent and will in fact drive you away.  It was the Passover, and every firstborn in Egypt died.  There was a great outcry in the land and Pharaoh relented.

The Israelites packed up quickly – so quickly they didn’t wait for their dough to rise, and this is where unleavened bread for the Passover meal comes from.  As God had promised the people, the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold jewelry and clothing, and they gladly gave it to get them as a parting gift to get them out of the land – a kind of reparation for the 400 years of forced labor.

So the Israelites left.  They took the bones of Joseph with them, as he had asked so many years before.  God went before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.  They camped in the wilderness by the sea.  They were free.  

But when the reality of their leaving actually hit him, Pharaoh had a change of heart.  Pharaoh forgot about the plagues and thought about what he was losing.  The economic engine of the nation was just walking away.  Egypt would not be the same once the Israelites were gone.  And to give in to the Israelites meant a massive loss in his reputation and prestige – it was a loss for his personal brand.  

So he hurriedly got his army ready, with 600 choice chariots along with all the other chariots – apparently there were 600 limited edition turbocharged chariots, along with a lot of standard-issue chariots - many soldiers, and top members of his officer corps.  We read a lot of information about military infrastructure, reminding us of the massive power differential between the Egyptians and the Israelites.

And so just at the moment when it seemed that the Israelites’ fortunes had changed, just at the moment when they were beginning to feel the exhilaration of freedom, here came the Egyptian army.  The people saw the Egyptians advancing on them, this mighty army coming their way, and of course they panicked.  The Red Sea was before them and there was no escape.  They were terror-stricken.

“What, were there no graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die?” they asked Moses.  “We told you to just leave us alone and let us serve Pharaoh.”

How could they have wanted to stay in Egypt?  How could they have witnessed all of the plagues and miraculous signs, how could they have seen God work wonders to bring them to this point, just to wish they had remained as slaves?

Well, their cries and complaints actually ring true.  It is just human nature.  As bad as things may be, it can be easier to hold on to what we know than to journey into the unknown.  Fear is a powerful thing, and the hell we know may seem better than the heaven we don’t know.

And so here they are, on the edge of the sea, Pharaoh and his army approaching, the people melting in fear.  Moses tells the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm and see God’s deliverance.”  And then God says to Moses, “Why are you crying to me?  Tell the people to move forward.”

The people did so, and as Moses stretched his arms, the waters parted.  There is a Midrash, a Jewish story based on this text.  (Actually there are a lot of them.) But in one, a man named Nokshone was the first one into the water.  The waters were up to his knee, up to his hip, up to his chin before the waters parted.  It took great courage for the Israelites to keep walking.

However we imagine it happening, it took bravery and it took faith to enter those waters.  Water, of course, represented chaos and destruction.  We had the story of Noah’s ark and the great flood just a few weeks ago.  In the story of creation in Genesis 1, when God creates all the creatures living in the sea, do you know the one creature that is singled out specifically?  The great sea monsters.  The Psalms talk about sea monsters as well.  To walk into the sea – even if the waters are parted - is to face chaos and great danger.  

So the Israelites walked through the waters on dry ground.  The pillar of fire and cloud that had been ahead of them, representing God’s presence, now went behind them.  The Egyptian army followed, but they became confused by the pillar of fire and cloud.  The chariots became stuck in the mud.  And when Moses stretched his hand again, the waters covered the Egyptian army.

This escape through the waters is retold again and again through the Old Testament, and in the New Testament as well.  Chapter 15 is filled with songs of jubilation at the great victory.

It is an amazing escape to freedom.  Now as you read this scripture, you may be like me.  While this is an amazing display of the power of God and while this calls for jubilation, there is also a lot of death.  We lament the violence and loss of life.  It is kind of like the flood – for the Egyptian army, pretty much everybody dies.  

But in a sense, this is what happens, what has always happened with empires that coerce and oppress and enslave.  This story says something about the power and the hubris of such empires.  
God had sent plague after plague, but Pharaoh would not relent.  Eventually the refusal to listen to God and the power of this one man proved very costly.

It’s not that all of these Egyptian soldiers were bad people.  They did not have a lot of choice in the matter.  They had to serve Pharaoh.  They had to follow orders.  We can imagine many of them saying that trying to cross the sea in chariots, even the new turbocharged models, is a really, really bad idea.  When we read that the Israelites walked across on dry land – maybe that means it wasn’t a river and that it was doable.  It’s not like it was a paved highway.  It’s not like it was I-35.  

Even after terrible plagues and the loss of life of so many children, Pharaoh still could not imagine just letting these Israelites go.  And so he orders the Egyptian army to continue to pursue.  But the chariots get bogged down.  And by the time the higher ups realized what was happening, it was too late.  

Essentially, in its hubris and power hungry-ness, the empire had sown the seeds of its own destruction.  Even after the plagues – even with clear signs that this was a very bad decision – Pharaoh just could not help himself, and it leads to great suffering.  And now we are not only talking about an ancient story, are we?

In many ways, this is a very contemporary story.  The people said to Moses, “What, did you bring us out here to the wilderness to die?  We told you we would rather stay and serve Pharaoh.”

Well, the fact is, when we leave behind those things that have a hold on us, it can be painful.  It is not easy.  It often has to get worse before it gets better.

There are all kinds of things we would like to change, maybe know we need to change, but holding on to what we have is just easier than moving on toward what we can’t yet fully see.

The Israelite experience of freedom, so far, was deeply confusing.  They were freed with gifts of gold and silver, and then they were pursued by an army.   The pillar that had been leading them moved behind them, and they started to walk right into the sea.  Freedom, at least at first, can feel like chaos.  It’s not easy.

We can be like the Israelites, clinging to ways of living that are unhealthy, that are maybe even killing us, but at least are familiar.  We can hold on to patterns of behavior that are destructive, not life-giving, but it just seems easier to continue as we are than to change.

But God’s word is, “Move forward.”  Nothing ever changes unless we take that first step.  What is that first step for you?  How do you need to move forward?  And what about us, what about First Baptist Church?  After a strange and difficult 2+ years, what do we need to do to move forward?

I would invite you to give those questions some thought and prayer.  And as we take those steps, as we move forward, we have the assurance that God goes with us.  Amen.