Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children--
“My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?
So do you want the good news or bad news first? I always pick the bad news first- so let’s start there. You and I need to be disciplined. Ugh, gross, right? Who likes discipline? I don’t. Give me a choice between chocolate and broccoli? Chocolate wins. Chatting idly with a friend or listening to the story of a stranger? Chat, every time. Binge-watching my favorite TV show or reading the Bible? Binge-watching happens more than I would like to admit, friends.
So what, are chocolate, chatting and watching TV really all that bad? Well, not exactly. The bad news is that none of those things leads to better health or greater kindness or a changed heart. We humans don’t naturally gravitate toward disciplined living. Or at least, this human doesn’t. A choice between what is easy and what is hard? We choose the path of least resistance, right?
Here’s the thing: The author of Hebrews isn’t pulling any punches about what Jesus expects of us, you and I who choose everyday to live into our Christian identity. Cast aside sin. Run with perseverance. Sacrifice immediate gratification for something much greater: the discipline of the Lord. Gosh, that sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Why would we want to do this?
Well that’s the good news: discipline or spiritual disciplines ARE life-giving. It’s like this: chocolate is momentarily delicious, but broccoli gives us the strength to more fully pursue our passions. Chatting with a friend brings happiness, but creating a new friendship brings potential for greater joy. Binge-watching TV satisfies our hearts for a moment, but engaging in sacred stories transforms our hearts for a lifetime.
And if it's good news that spiritual disciplines are life-giving, it’s even greater news that each of us possess the capacity to actually practice a spiritual discipline. You do, and you likely already are! That’s a major part of our Christian tradition during the season of Lent. Disciplining our appetites, to make more room for the spirit to stir in us.
Now, I don’t think discipline for the sake of rule-keeping is what Jesus asks of us. Not at all, mostly because a lot of rules, especially religious ones, originated with humans, not God. That means I can’t prescribe for you the right spiritual discipline in your life. That’s up to you and God. What I can tell you, is what I know to be true about the result of spiritual disciplines.
They change our hearts. They change our lives. They create greater awareness of what is actually preventing us from experiencing wholeness. In short, they help us identify sin (meaning, all that keeps us from full connection with God, with others, and with our best selves) AND give us a framework for repenting of the sin and making a turn toward greater spiritual health.
So maybe it wasn’t actually bad news after all. You and I need to be disciplined, yes, and that CAN BE a really beautiful thing; enduring discipline, spiritual discipline is worth it, because it leads to a firmer identity in Christ, the author and perfector of our faith- the ONLY one who can lead us to lives of redemption.
Over the next 5 weeks, I’m going to introduce to you a helpful spiritual tool that can lead to greater self-awareness and transformation of our hearts. The tool is called the Enneagram, a philosophy of 9 different “personality types” that each respond to a primary motivation. Richard Rohr’s work in particular helps us see what can be sinful about our primary motivation AND what can be sanctified about it. The best part is this: WE HAVE AGENCY OVER SIN, but only when we learn to recognize it. Only when we discipline our spirits to be discerning and wise.
Becoming co-creators with Christ in our own redemption stories is possible when we are willing to engage the sin at work in us. In fact, self-reflection (and all the hard, vulnerable work involved) may just be the most important spiritual discipline that you and I will ever practice.
I’d like to leave you with this thought from Dietrich Koller, whose wisdom accompanies Richard Rohr’s book on the Enneagram. “Now no book and no counselor, no therapist and no Enneagram can spare me the work of transforming myself. Transformation is at once a task and a grace. Unless I work on myself, divine grace cannot become fruitful. And without divine grace, my work is in vain. Repentance is a process in which my work and God’s work becomes simultaneous. God grants conversion, but I have to make use of it and concretely convert. 2 Cor. 7:10 says, “this is a repentance that no one regrets,” And we don’t regret it, Koller says, because it actually creates healing and saving.”
I am excited to introduce you to the Enneagram, and I am even more excited to explore how YOU and I can become co-creators in our redemption stories. Welcome to the Lenten journey.
You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was towards you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you should lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.
We are in our final week of exploring what it means to add just 5-15 minutes a day of sharing faith with our families and friends from home. To catch us up on Rich Melheim’s Faith5, we 1. share (highs and lows), 2. read (a story from scripture), 3. talk (about why it matters), 4. pray (for each other), and finally today, maybe the most powerful of all: 5. we bless.
I love this line of Paul’s, “We constantly give thanks to God- that when you heard the word of God from us, you knew it was more than human speech, it was God speaking into your life.” What we say to each other matters a lot. Throw-away words are not a thing that exist in human relationships. Think for a minute about the last hurtful thing someone said to you. You remember it, right? You maybe even feel the emotion of that moment. Words matter- and how we use our voices with one another has a powerful impact on who we become. Both as individuals and as a family. I’d like us to think more broadly than our immediate families as well- to this church family. What we say matters.
We all have patterns of speaking with each other, whether we are mindful of them or not. And today the invitation is for us to be mindful of how our words are not just mere human speech. As believers, we are also ambassadors of God, and when we talk- whether we mean to or not, people will perceive us as God’s messengers.
That’s kind of a lot of pressure, right? Oh boy! Now don’t let your mind go down the rabbit hole of all the ways you haven’t been mindful of your speech, unless there’s an apology you need to offer, of course. We all have guilt in this arena, it’s time to let it go. Instead, let’s focus on what we do with our voices from now on. The spiritual life is about constantly paying attention to where God is leading us next. So let’s be led into a way of blessing.
What do I mean when I say, ‘we bless?’ It’s as simple and profound as this: We tell each other that we are a blessing. From God to others. And HOW we say this takes on as many expressions as we have creativity to produce. The simplest way, the one our SS kids are taught here, is this: “You are a blessing.” That’s it! And with consent, it often involves a tender touch on the forehead or hand. Only when we receive the good news of blessing will our identities be shaped in wholeness and love. And only from a place of wholeness can we offer others the blessing that is due them.
This week, AJ put Briggs, our 6 year-old, to bed, which meant he also got to bless him. (that’s when we do our final step in the Faith5 routine). But before that could happen, Briggs asks daddy, “will you say nice things about me, daddy?” “Like what?” AJ asks, “Oh, everything,” Briggs responds, matter of factly. After Aj told me about this conversation, I said, “See? We’re teaching our kids emotional intelligence- asking for what they need.” We’re also teaching Briggs spiritual intelligence, ending his day by reflecting on all the good he brings this world in the name of his Creator. That’s the blessing at work. And it instills in us the confidence to be God’s voice of blessing to others.
Rich Melheim- the power of a blessing.
Our kids express the moment of blessing a little differently, Briggs is a little more eager to receive the blessing, and Blaire insists every night on returning a blessing to her mommy. Here’s the one she usually offers me: “You are a blessing, you are from God and Jesus in heaven, Amen.”
Friends, I am thoroughly convinced that what the world needs most from us right now is more blessing. Let’s be that blessing. Let’s give and receive the knowledge that God’s goodness exists in us all, created for the healing of a hurting world.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked a question to test Jesus. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,
'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand,
until I put your enemies under your feet"'?
"If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
Did you hear it—how this story begins? This guy incites a legal debate with Jesus. In fact, Jesus is often baited into various forms of debates throughout the gospel stories. Debates are on all our minds these days, right? At least for me, when I watch the bits that I do, I want to shout, “just answer the question, already!!” Because we know well, a trick in debate is to answer the question you want to answer, not the one asked of you.
But Jesus doesn’t do that, he doesn’t need to. He answers as plainly as can be. The greatest commandment? Simple: Love God. Love Neighbor. Only, it’s not simple, and Jesus knows this. There’s another version of this exchange with a lawyer trying to justify himself by asking Jesus to define his neighbor, exactly. That’s when Jesus offers the beautiful tale of the Good Samaritan- you know, showing mercy to a foreigner who is suffering.
But in today’s text, Jesus interrupts this impromptu debate by asking the type of question he knows NONE of them want to answer. "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" The question directs the skeptics to Jesus’ identity, his connection to God; and in so doing- Jesus transforms a debate into true dialogue—about the thing that matters most.
“God is love,” Jesus reminds them, “and God has sent me into the world so that LOVE will win. Never mind your need for debates, I will keep on loving everyone I meet.”
I think often of my role in public life these days. As a pastor, a parent, a cis-gender, straight white woman from SD. Here’s the question I ask myself: Where is my voice most reflective of Jesus’ priorities? We each answer this uniquely of course, but I find time and again, one election after another, the single most significant role I play in public life is this: to infuse more love into the world, to chase love more fervently today than yesterday, to inspire others to think more deeply about what Christ-like love can accomplish.
And before the skeptics roll their eyes at the term “love,” let me assure you this is not some sappy escape from the realities of seeking justice for the oppressed (which Jesus also claims as his purpose in his very first sermon from the temple). No, love is the FIRST WORK, because it informs how we live our values. Only love changes hearts. You know as well as I do, that loving folks who are different from me is THE single hardest part of being Christian. Sometimes I just cannot FATHOM why folks will do what they do, vote how they vote, and consider it good, maybe even Christian! In fact, I would challenge you to find something harder than loving your “proverbial” enemy.
Which is, of course, why Jesus gives this answer. “#1 rule you ask? Love. Love God. Love Neighbor. Do it, I dare you.” It often takes me a great deal of time to listen and consider effective public policies for the sake of the common good. It’s tricky, right? I mean, if it was simple to define how best to care for ourselves and our neighbors alike, we wouldn’t have such a deeply divided electorate.
Here’s where I start, because I believe it centers me in a course of Christ-like love. I listen to the stories of people whose perspectives are WAY different than mine. And I listen for that nugget of personal truth- the motivation behind the feeling or opinion someone holds. I believe this way of beginning dialogue (not debate) honors both the Love God and Love neighbor part of Jesus’ commandment.
Now I’m human, so the truth is, I don’t have enough love on my own to do this with any amount of grace for those with whom I disagree. So I need to back up for a minute. Before I can even do a decent job of listening to my neighbor, I need to first understand that God’s image exists in them. Do you know how that happens? How I can ‘get there’ in my mind? Prayer. To be in prayer is a fundamental orientation. It is a setting of the heart. It’s a connection to the author of love itself. It’s an opening to the truth that God exists in me, and God exists in you too. And that’s where we begin. Loving God comes first—it’s very important that we get the order right—because loving neighbor flows out of the practice of loving God (and really, loving ourselves). Only when we are familiar with God’s image within ourselves can we begin to see God’s image in our neighbor. The man holding a sign for spare change. The kid who steals your pick-up out of the driveway in Pierre, SD. The family member who belittles you, never a kind word shared. The person who gets the promotion when you know you earned it. The grumpy uncle. The woman who threatens to call the cops b/c your kids retrieve a ball that landed in her bushes. The politician who doesn’t pursue the goals of equity for all, preferring instead the voices of those who will bankroll a next campaign.
I know you’ve got neighbors to add to this list. And none of us will be able to respond in true love without beginning in prayer. Prayer, that setting of the heart, evolves within us over time, eventually changing our hearts, souls, and minds, as Jesus says. This is why Rich Melheim’s 4th Step in his Faith5 daily routine is pray! Pray for those you love, pray for God to show up in the world. Pray for direction on how you might embody divine love. Heck, if you’re brave like Jesus, pray for your enemy!
The power of prayer is the transformation that occurs in the process over days, months, years. If you’re a person of prayer, you know what I mean. It becomes harder to hate the person for whom we pray. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can even discover we can be the answer to our prayers. But this can’t happen if we subscribe to a limited love. There’s a big difference here between tribal love and true love. Tribal love says I will love my people, those in my orbit, the folks who think like me and believe like I do. My tribe, I’ll love them. Tribal love is limited at its best, and at its worst, it can lead to hate, simply because its limits define who deserves love and who doesn’t.
And it can’t be true love if it leads to hate. Never.
I recently had a family member create a deep rift in our relationship by clinging to a tribal understanding of love. One way to recognize tribalism is when derogatory names are used for folks who think differently than you. And let me say, it’s not fun to be on the receiving end of vicious names, simply for expressing alternative political solutions to the issues we all want to see resolved. But this happened to me a few months ago, and in an attempt to defend his name-calling (which we’ve all probably become de-sensitized to from an excess intake of sensationalized media), he says, “I don’t know how to form my thoughts well enough to debate you.”
And all along, all I’ve ever wanted from him, was respectful dialogue, never debate! For God’s sake, we’re family- and we both claim Christ at the center of our lives! Why the need for debate? We all know people’s minds aren’t changed as a result. Now sincere dialogue, beginning with that crucial element of deep listening? Yes, that CAN lead to transformation of the heart. But a lot of folks think debate is the only way to talk these days. It’s like we’ve forgotten that we can be wrong sometimes—and being wrong is not a failure, so long as we can apologize and move toward better understanding. We’re limited by what we don’t yet know, we’re limited by fear, we’re limited by this idea that we need to debate, to be exclusive, to render political opponents our enemies. And all the while, Jesus is pleading with us. Love God. Love neighbor.
Friends, it’s prayer that will prepare us for this hard work. Prayer is a setting of our hearts toward true love, away from divisive tribalism.
If you’re looking for a place to begin this practice of prayer, preferably in the company of others, I have a suggestion. It’s a simple prayer I began using with the kids when they were just tiny, as a way to form their little hearts of faith. Here it is: “Dear Jesus, thank you for your love that we share as a family, help us to share it with others too, amen.”
This prayer is a setting of the heart in two ways:
Finally, a second suggestion of where to begin is The Lord’s Prayer. When we lift this prayer, it begins to transform our hearts. Here’s my paraphrase, as we end together in prayer: Yeah, God, we rely on you. Of course, we want your kingdom love to reign. But it’s true, we’ve made bad choices along the way & we’ve been hurt by the bad choices of others. We always need direction back to love. This is our eternal connection and purpose: living to the glory of you, God. We love you, helps us love our neighbors too. Amen
We meet Moses again this week. Both he and God are still hot with anger about the whole golden calf incident from last week. Now maybe anger sounds harsh, coming from God; but I take it as a good sign, a sign that God really wants to be in relationship with us- you know, the deep kind where our actions affect each other. A curious line leads us into the scripture today: the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
And it follows that Moses said to the Lord, "See, you have said to me, 'Bring up this people'; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.' Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people." God said, "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest." And Moses said to God, "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth."
The Lord said to Moses, "I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name." Moses said, "Show me your glory, I pray." And he said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, 'The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," God said, "you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." And the Lord continued, "See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen."
Show me! Show me! Moses pleads with God, Show me your way. Show me your glory.
I encounter this phrase a lot. “Show me! Show me! I want to see!” It’s often when I’m using my vantage point to see something that a 4-year old just can’t. See that pretty ornament atop the tree? See that deer running through the field? And when she can’t, I hear: “Show me, I want to see too!” It’s easy to forget that others can’t always see what I see, that I need to point or lift or redirect attention. Thank goodness kids are good at asking for what they need; they remind us that sometimes, seeing is believing. The truth is, we all need each other to see new perspectives, maybe especially on God.
Moses knows the people need to see God, to engage God, to be with God the way he has on the mountaintop. So Moses keeps asking God, “show me your way, show me your glory,” show me how to lead your people back to you again.
The Lord says, “Yes- I’ll do it! But on my terms. You won’t see me fully, but you’ll feel my glory pass by and you’ll know I’m with you.”
It’s aggravating at times to not see God fully, isn’t it? It’s like catching only a glimpse of the deer leaping the fence, when what you want to see is the full display of elegance bounding across the field. It’s frustrating to read a passage of scripture and think, “um, what does that mean?” Like a child listening in on adult conversations.
It’s upsetting to hear contradictory statements about faith and biblical truth swirling around us, leading us to implore God once more, “Show me your way!” It’s confusing at times, trying to parse ancient text into a modern day.
I’ve wanted to see God’s face fully since I was young; really if I think back, most of my life has been this meandering quest in search of God. The first time I recognized this in myself was at the age of 9, at our church camp meeting (we called it) just outside of Brookings, SD… I didn’t know much at the time about this force in my heart calling forth tears on my face, but that same force lives within me today. That same force lives within each of us- expressing herself in an many ways as we have people in this sanctuary. Scripture gives that force a name: Spirit, and that Holy Spirit lives constantly among us, even when we can’t recognize her.
One way (not the only way) Spirit is called forth in our lives is through Scripture. If you were with us last week, you heard the “why” of integrating even 5 minutes of scripture into your daily routine. But reading alone often leaves us without the connections that make the text come alive!
We need to ask questions, preferably with other people. We take scripture (a wonderful, gritty, and sometimes confusing tale about God’s love for the world) and ask, “so what?”
Rich Melheim’s 3rd step in the faith5 nightly routine is exactly this: TALK. Talk about how scripture speaks into your life. Connect what you read with your highs and lows for that day. Help one another discover God illumining new truth and purpose for the journey. And because this doesn’t come naturally to many of us, Rich offers two prompts in order to engage the bible as a living word:
My first year in undergrad, biblical studies 101, I asked my professor a question that had been burning inside my earnest little heart. This is it: If Jesus came after all the OT folks had already died, what happens to their salvation? Good question, right?!? Being the insightful, patient instructor she is, Dr. Jackie Smallbones affirmed my question- and promptly redirected me to the question that I’ve since discovered matters a great deal more:
Prayerfully wondering Who are you God? (repeat)
Maybe you have the same reaction I did when I first heard it: that sounds a little vague, doesn’t it? Listen again. Each time you read scripture, if you have one question to ask, this is it: Prayerfully wondering “who are you God?”
In truth, it helps answer that ache we all have: to see God’s face more fully. It also keeps us in a spirit of openness, curiosity, and awe. Not trying to pin God into a box of our making- but allowing God’s Spirit to flourish in all mystery and wonder. Who are you God? Show me! Show me! I want to see you! And by seeing God, we begin to see ourselves a little more clearly too.
Show me your way. I thought about Moses’ words here, and how similar they sound to Dr. Smallbones’ prompt- the one that remains the first question I ask of every bible story I read. I can still hear her voice patiently instructing us all: Seek God first, and if that’s the only answer you find in scripture, I promise you won’t be disappointed. Especially when we take time to listen to the way others also wonder who God is alongside us. Because each of us only sees a glimpse of God’s glory on our own, but together in conversation and prayer...God shows up.
Sometimes unexpectedly, like a deer bounding through the field. At times we catch only a glimpse of the tail, but there are moments, friends, and I’ve heard it in your faith-filled stories these past three years- you see God’s face.
Unlike Moses, for whom God’s full glory was off limits, we get full access, because Jesus became human and lived among us. So these stories, they matter, at least if you too are calling out from your soul: Show me your way. Show me your glory! Amen.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, "Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him." Aaron said to them, "Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!" When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, "Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord." They rose early the next day, and offered burnt-offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
The Lord said to Moses, "Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, "O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, 'I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the Lord changed the Lord’s mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
What an incredible story! Moses and God are in the midst of creating a covenant- a way of being together that will give God’s people purpose on the journey & a reminder of their identity. It’s the 10 commandments being formed in real time. And yes, it’s happening weirdly on a mountaintop away from where God’s people are camped…so their patience wears thin. Likely hungry, losing faith that Moses would even return, restless to find this promised land…the people turn away from God. Even Moses’ brother Aaron forgets what it’s all about. What’s happened here? Well, they’re being very human…or as a friend of mine in ministry likes to say, “they’re being very people-y; people can be so people-y sometimes,” they say.
Have you felt people-y lately? Impatient? Hungry for certainty? Has our desire for God’s presence amidst all the questions turned our hearts toward other things that look and feel a little more like idols? Maybe they promise us quick fixes? Momentary gratification or distraction? Mindless entertainment? Feigned security? These are interesting questions for these days, aren’t they? It doesn’t matter what age we’re living in, friends. Challenges meet us in every era and two things remain true from Moses’ days to our own:
Rich Melheim, the man who wrote the book Holding Your Family Together, which is informing our series this month says this about his family research: “By the time a child growing up today reaches the age of 18, he or she will be exposed to 60,000 hours of media, 11,000 hours of school, and a mere 2,000 hours in quality conversation with his or her parents.” The most disturbing news for me is the sheer amount of violence we absorb from media. One statistic suggests a 12-year old child will have seen 8,000 murders watching (sometimes even age-appropriate) shows.
And as adults, if we added up our own media intake, I suspect we’d be shocked by the numbers, especially if we compared that time to how often we are taking in sacred texts like the bible. Now watching TV isn’t categorically bad or wrong. The invitation today is to be mindful about it. Because how we spend our time and what we allow into our minds affects every one of us, every day.
I said there’s two things that remains true from Moses’ days to our own; the 1st: it’s easy to forget who deserves our praise; the second is much more hopeful:
I want to begin with a confession: not as a pastor, but as a parent. When our Christian Ed. determined the best course of faith formation this fall would entail no Sunday School- I had this brief moment where I thought, “gosh, how are my kids gonna learn the stories of our faith?” Then this guttural feeling crept in as I realized…Emily, that’s your job, and you haven’t been doing it with any consistency at all.
I know that’s kind of embarrassing for a pastor to admit, but I want to be transparent with you, because if this is a new practice in your home, or if reading bible stories with your kids or your partner or a friend is a learning curve for you, you’re not alone. Covid times have taught me so much, and the thing that hits closest to home for me, is my own responsibly as a parent to bring up my children in the faith. Because, what we do with our attention actually matters to God. How we devote our time is a reflection of where we devote our hearts.
I say this not to be judgmental with myself or anyone else, but simply to be realistic. And all of this matters deeply to God because God loves us and wants the most life-giving things for us.
At the end of this story, when Moses pleads for God’s mercy on behalf of God’s beloved people, God changes course. It’s one of the few moments in scripture where we see the full relationality of God on display. God wants to be connected to us SO MUCH that God is willing to change on our behalf. And because of the conviction of one person, an entire people are also changed for the better.
This kind of purpose-giving story is what the bible is all about. When we digest these stories, God is made real to us, ordinary people who face the same people-y issues as they did in Moses’ time. And so the question for us becomes- where are we choosing to direct our attention? If we choose the bible, the living word of truth, we come that much closer to understanding who we are in this grand love story. It’s the story of God and God’s unending desire to be in relationship with us, and it’s available 24/7 for free.
Reading a short bible story or passage of scripture is Rich’s 2nd step in the faith5 nightly routine. You’ve heard the why, so the question for each of us now becomes: how are we going to make it happen? What’s your plan for adding more bible reading into your own lives? Who are you going to commit to this work alongside? Where will you go for resources if you’re unfamiliar with the bible? Friends, these sacred texts are at the core of our faith, and they are accessible to us every single day. If you want help getting started, just say the word.
As I think about what Rich says regarding what we take in becomes a part of who we are…and I think back to my grandmother- the one who passed away last month. She had a stroke about 10 years ago; she couldn’t recall what day it was, what my name was, or the proper use of pronouns (I was “him” for a long time). But you know what she could call to mind? Scripture. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil- for thou art with me. These words were deep within my grandmother’s heart and closest to her tongue just days after her stroke and until her very end, because she made a life-long commitment to including scripture into her daily routine.
There’s no prescription for how much or how little popular media we take in- it’s not a right or wrong type of thing. It is, though, a question about what we want closest to our tongues and our hearts at the end of the day. Do we want our attention on the latest trending show or endless news cycle, or do we want our focus to be on the lasting promises of scripture? It’s a real question- and one we get to answer for ourselves, even tonight.
Because 1. It’s easy to forget who deserves our praise. & 2. What we do with our attention actually matters to God.
So what do you say? Let’s read some scripture! Thanks for being on this journey alongside me. Amen!
So Paul finds himself in prison, doing the thing we all do in our most vulnerable moments. He asks: “Who am I?” “What about my life matters?” He, being the Apostle Paul who’s seen it all and done a few shady things himself, knows that what’s in the heart matters most. Credentials, not so much. Nationality or heritage, eh, not really. Occupation- nope. Wealth? Social Standing? Good deeds? None of it amounts to much of an identity for Paul, without Jesus in the picture.
It’s his conviction that Christ’s way is the only path of right living, that gives Paul purpose. “I press on to make it my own,” that way of living in service to others; And because he does this, because Paul lives for that heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus, his answer to the question “Who am I” is clear. I am Jesus’ friend. I share in his sufferings, so I might share in his resurrection too. Paul walks the highs and lows of life knowing to whom he belongs, and it makes all the difference- even in the midst of an unjust prison sentence.
This sure sense of connection with God is what I’d like to offer us all over the next 5 weeks. Because, I’m convinced (and so is Paul) that connecting with God gives us all the purpose and identity we long for. This fall, we’ve distributed Holding your Family Together by Rich Melheim to our families with kids in the home orbit in lieu of SS; I’m excited for our online discussions drawing us deeper into faith practices at home. (If you haven’t chimed in yet, please do! Our first question was posted Sunday- and I’ll post another this afternoon). But what I especially love about Rich’s approach is how accessible it is for every household, even those who live alone. If you want the full version- read the book, of course.
For today, I’d like to introduce the 1st step of Rich’s nightly routine he calls Faith5. It’s not intimidating, I promise. It’s only 5-15 minutes a night, every night, with family or even friends. (if you live alone, you can establish this routine with a loved one over the phone- and if your family won’t engage with you- same thing applies, find someone who will);
Okay, Step #1: Share one high and one low from your day. That’s it. It’s simple, but effective in helping us become better listeners to what’s really going on inside ourselves and one another. And that, in turn, helps us discover more of our identity. I’d like to offer a way sharing our highs and lows affects our minds and our spirits, according to research by Rich.
First, sharing highs (what is good in life) is great for our brains! It “triggers a cascade of positive and powerful neurochemical transmitters that bolster immune systems, regulate hormonal systems, improve one’s digestive tract, slows down the aging process, and triggers positive electro-chemical exchanges throughout the brain and body!” Interesting stuff, right!?
Sharing highs is also great for our spirits- who we are inside. “Sharing a high reclaims, renames, re-games, and reframes the day as God’s good gift. It teaches that life isn’t all bad and that, in fact, it contains a lot of good! Sharing a high lifts us to an attitude of gratitude and lowers us to a deeper appreciation for the Giver of all good gifts.”
But life doesn’t always happen in the positive zone, right? Our days consist of lows just as often, and it’s important to share them too! Here’s why, according to Rich,
“Sharing a low with the people you love minimizes the pain. It does so not by minimizing the problem, but by taking it off your shoulders and placing it into the arms of those who love and trust you the most. Everyone you “let in” is on your team. Everyone “in the know” who loves you now has antenna up searching for solutions. Everyone who cares is now praying to see answers and working to be the answers to the prayers. Everyone has your back.”
It also teaches us to create sacred space in our everyday lives. “Sharing lows gives you a better understanding of yourself and others. And especially if you’ve got kids in your home orbit, “growing up with a forum, format, and life-long experience in verbalizing one’s lows aloud (within the context of a safe, loving, non-judgmental home every night) gives one a huge advantage when it comes to building capacity for mental health, emotional resilience, and spiritual maturity.”
Friends, this stuff really matters for the way we establish our identity in Christ. The Apostle Paul walks with certainty that no matter what happens, who he is and his purpose on earth is secure. We know this, because Paul makes a point to share his highs and his lows with us in the art of writing letters. Want even more from Paul- read the NT, he writings make up nearly half the books in the NT.
Even in his lowest of lows, expressing the mess of his journey with others connects Paul with God, and it will help us begin the routine that sinks us further into an identity as God’s beloved. Sharing our highs and lows is the stuff of life itself- and if we commit to sharing consistently, think how much more we can discover about what really matters: Answering “Who am I?” & “What about my life matters?”
A few nights ago, the kids were running on steam- and we had some tears leading into circle time. Rather than skip, I used our sharing highs and lows as an opportunity for Briggs (the one with the tears) to express his frustration with the fact that Blaire had cleaned up his toys (ie- messed up his tower) without letting him know first. That was his low. After he collected himself a bit, he also shared another low- mommy left our family outing to the park early today, and that made me sad. Without allowing time to reflect on the day, I would have never known that me leaving the park made him sad, because he never mentioned it. Our evening ended in the kids praying for each other- both of them expressing how much they appreciate each other’s snuggles, playing, and giggles.
Circle time was for us that day became a very real in-the-moment chance for healing. From tears of frustration to prayers of gratitude for one another. That’s the power of Faith5- and I hope you stay tuned for step 2 next week!
And I really hope I get to hear to some of your stories as you begin implementing this routine in your families.
God you are so accessible to us if only we take the time to notice. Guide us in ways of sharing and prayer this week. Amen.
Exodus 12: 1-14
"The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover. “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt. “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance.
Something big is about to happen in the Israelite community. They’ve been enslaved for some time, a long time. And God is planning to set them free. I’m not sure they even know this, it can be hard to visualize true freedom when all you’ve known is the weight of your oppressors knee upon your chest. But God has big plans for those who trust him, and it begins with something in this day, called Passover. For the sake of time today, I’d like to highlight only two important parts of Passover.
And he does. So when we take this opportunity today, this moment of Holy Communion, we too remember that love will win. Faith will set us free. We are ready for whatever comes our way, because the winds of the Holy Spirit are at our back. Whatever salvation means to you in this moment, hear this call from Jesus: “Remember, I am yours and you are mine.”
Genesis 45: 4-8; 50: 15-21
Let me first say, I’m going to get to the story, I promise, but this duesy of a tale requires some set-up. You may know something about Joseph’s story if you’ve ever seen a performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat.” It’s a play that captures well the dramatic nature of Joseph’s life- it pulls together details of an extremely long biblical narrative in a way that's vibrant and colorful.
I happen to have my own “coat of many colors here.” A friend of mine made this stole for me because he learned it was my favorite bible story! I’ll try to point out his artistic expression of these different scenes as we go along.
Joseph’s story begins in Genesis chapter 37 and doesn’t come to resolution until the end of Genesis- 15 chapters later! I've decided to be kind today and give you the cliff notes version. One of the first things we learn about Joseph is that he’s the favorite son, and he knows it. (do you have a sibling who’s a favorite? I sure do, right Alison?)
Joseph gets his daddy Jacob's preferential treatment, and his brothers hate him for it. So much so, that they take his special coat from daddy, throw him in a pit, and leave him for dead. They deviously go back and tell dad he was killed by an animal- "here's the blood to prove it!"
That's a pretty good plot, right?- but it gets even crazier. In a sudden turn of events, Joseph is pulled out of the pit, and sold to an Egyptian guy named Potiphar, who works for Pharaoh....Joseph becomes a slave, gets thrown into prison (for something he didn’t do), and is left to rot in an underground cell for years. Joseph’s life is looking pretty terrible, until one day Pharaoh has a dream.
Now dream interpretation is a fairly respectable thing in these days, and word gets to Pharaoh that there’s a guy in the dungeon who knows about dreams. So Pharaoh uses Joseph to interpret the dream, and in the blink of an eye- his world is turned upside down. From prison to pleasing the king.
Okay, this is important though-in between being betrayed by his brothers and being elevated to Pharoah's right-hand man, Joseph spends 13 years enslaved or imprisoned. 13! Remember this when we get to the text for today. So back to the dream.
Joseph interprets Pharoah's dream to mean that Egypt and all the surrounding lands will experience 7 years of prosperity, and 7 years of famine. So Pharaoh’s favorite new guy Joseph is put in charge of ALL the grain. He's a saavy businessman, turns out, and after 7 years of plenty, Joseph makes sure that Egypt’s kingdom is overflowing with food.
Two years into the famine, word of Egypt's surplus spreads back to Joseph's homeland, Canaan, and Joseph’s brothers (yes, the ones who threw him in a pit) travel to Egypt because everyone needs the one thing Joseph has in plenty…food. By this point, Joseph (who was only 17 when his brothers left him for dead), is nearly 40 years old, so when the brothers come for grain, they don’t recognize him. And because of how difficult their relationship had been in the past, Joseph performs a series of odd tests that his brothers oblige, because they'll do anything for food. Finally, it comes time for Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers- and in an emotionally charged scene, here's where we enter the story…
Genesis 45: 4-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Hold up, what? For all the brothers knew, Joseph was dead! And now he's alive? Scripture says, "They were terrified at his presence." Can you imagine it? That's got to be the shock of a lifetime! [...] As the story goes, the family is reunited, and Joseph enjoys the company of his father Jacob and little brother Benjamin for a time. But when father Jacob dies, the brothers try to leverage his death to find favor with Joseph Why? Because they don't buy Joseph's forgiving nature just yet.
Genesis 50: 15-21…”When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.
There are a million reasons and ways Joseph could have gotten even with his brothers. It's our natural impulse- some might even say our "inner sense of justice" that wants revenge for wrongs committed against us. I'm guilty of this impulse as much as anyone...which is why Joseph's story is one of my favorites.
What a difference his perspective on life makes! What a difference his faith makes- faith in a God that is bigger than all of our troubles, a God that dwells within each of our circumstances. And Joseph's life reveals something so important for you and I to hear today...that a life of forgiveness is far more valuable than holding grudges.
Rather than being known as the guy who was thrown in a pit by his brothers, and got revenge by refusing to help them when they needed it the most...Joseph is known as the one who forgives, even though his brothers don't deserve it. That's forgiveness from the pit at its best.
Who or what are you being called to forgive? As you contemplate this, let me add that forgiveness is not meant to wash away wrongs that have not yet been accounted for. I will never advocate that any victim of injustice simply forget and move on. Forgiveness in the case of Joseph, and the forgiveness I speak of today- is a change of our spirits after wrongdoing is already accounted for. So let me ask again- Who or what are you being called to forgive?
When revenge feels so tempting, we have a choice to make. We choose the perspective we take on life. We can choose to harbor resentment, wallowing in self-righteousness...or we can choose the difficult, but life-giving forgiveness from the pit, just like Joseph.
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good. What if this became our perspective in family relationships? I'm not saying it's easy, or even possible all the time- but I know the real temptation to harbor bitterness, we all do, and we know the results are bad for our souls. When I resist forgiving someone, I think of Jesus and his sacrifice. It's in the saving light of Jesus Christ that you and I begin to see a better way. We are offered a way to rise above revenge...and that's the powerful Good News of the Gospel for us every day of our lives.
May we help one another embrace Joseph’s perspective. “What you intended for harm, God intends for good!” And may our identity be that of people seeking healing and wholeness, giving up our grudges for the good God intends in our relationships with one another. If you need a safe space to talk about this hard stuff in life, I’m here. Your pastors and church leaders are here. These are the stories worth share for their healing powers. Amen!