Tuesday, October 29, 2019

God's Way of Leading: History Repeats

Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. When Jeroboam son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. And they sent and called him; and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the older men who had attended his father Solomon while he was still alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” They answered him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he disregarded the advice that the older men gave him, and consulted with the young men who had grown up with him and now attended him. He said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” The young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus you should say to this people who spoke to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you must lighten it for us’; thus you should say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. Now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”

So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king had said, “Come to me again the third day.” The king answered the people harshly. He disregarded the advice that the older men had given him and spoke to them according to the advice of the young men, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” So the king did not listen to the people, because it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord had spoken by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam son of Nebat.

When all Israel saw that the king would not listen to them, the people answered the king,

“What share do we have in David?
    We have no inheritance in the son of Jesse.
To your tents, O Israel!
    Look now to your own house, O David.”

So Israel went away to their tents. But Rehoboam reigned over the Israelites who were living in the towns of Judah.

Then Jeroboam built Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and resided there; he went out from there and built Penuel. Then Jeroboam said to himself, “Now the kingdom may well revert to the house of David. If this people continues to go up to offer sacrifices in the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, the heart of this people will turn again to their master, King Rehoboam of Judah; they will kill me and return to King Rehoboam of Judah.” So the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold. He said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” He set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.  --1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29 (NRSV)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

I’d like to tell you the story of two judges: Judge Cohen and Judge Klein. Both Jewish. One older - Judge Cohen. One younger - Judge Klein. Judge Cohen sat on the bench for over 30 years. Judge Klein was new to the bench, having just been appointed as a judge. Both of them, served at different times as the judge overseeing complex litigation in all of Los Angeles County. The complex litigation court is one that hears and presides over the cream of the crop when it comes to caseloads. Not your typical personal injury or motor vehicle accident. But cases that involve large numbers of people. That have substantial impact. Cases like class actions. Or coordinated cases - cases that deal with national issues, such as those related to asbestos exposure, or breast implants, or huge fires. Or massive price-fixing cases. They are cases that bring in the brightest and most powerful attorneys from around, not only the United States, but across the world.

Having served as the judicial officer overseeing the complex litigation courtroom for 20 of his 30 years, Judge Cohen had been responsible for decisions affecting not only California, but the U. S. and even the law in other countries. 

One might have expected him, then, to be incredibly proud of this work. One might have even expected that he might have become somewhat arrogant. After all, by the time he retired, his name was on the majority of published opinions in complex litigation cases throughout our country.

But, this was not who he was. Judge Cohen was, by his very nature, a humble man. He carried massive legal briefs home each night in a brown paper shopping bag. He read every word. And, when the powerful attorneys had amassed in the courtroom for argument, with one quiet question, he would hone into the very heart of the matter before him, would give space for all the parties to make their responses, would listen respectfully and carefully to each argument, and would then make his decision, most of which would hold up on appeal. An example of a humble, gentle, public servant.

Judge Klein took Judge Cohen’s place after he retired. Now, Judge Klein was as brilliant, if not more so, than Judge Cohen. Perhaps it was his lack of experience. Perhaps it was his sense of insecurity at filling the very big shoes left by Judge Cohen. But, when Judge Klein took the bench it was as if he had something to prove. Berating attorneys. Mocking their arguments. Often failing to remain neutral in an argument, instead deliberately trying to provoke the parties. Even verbally abusive to his staff. The power of his position appearing to go to his head. Feeding his ego. Making him arrogant, thinking that everything was about him. A type of “me-ism” that often occurs as one gains power and wealth.

This story of two judges, Judge Cohen and Judge Klein, is analogous today to our story of two kings: Rehoboam and Jeroboam.

Rehoboam was the son of Solomon. Solomon, who was the son of David, who we heard about last week as he was anointed king over a unified kingdom of Israel - all twelve tribes together under one king, David. Who reigned for 40 years. 

David’s son, Solomon, succeeded him in the dynasty. We know Solomon for his wisdom and as a great builder, especially of the temple. We also know him for his hundreds of wives, many of whom were from foreign countries. Whose gods distracted him. So that, in addition to the God of Israel, Solomon began to worship their gods, as well. It was because of this - because of Solomon’s lack of fidelity to God - that God declared judgment - that God would dissolve the united kingdom and take the northern tribes from him and from the house of David. And that this would happen during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, one of our two kings in today’s story.

Solomon had another problem. Although he was a great builder, he did this on the backs of the people. By imposing huge taxes on them. And by conscripting them into forced labor. Into slavery. The man Solomon had placed as overseer of this enslaved workforce was none other than Jeroboam, the second in our tale today of two kings. While Jeroboam was in this role of overseer, God sent the prophet Ahijah to anoint as king over the northern tribes. And, as you can imagine, he quickly went into exile to preserve himself from the reach of Solomon’s power.

As today’s story opens, Solomon is now dead. Rehoboam has succeeded his father. The northern tribes now call Jeroboam out of exile to lead them to meet with the new king of the house of David. To seek from him a lightening of their load. A lifting of the heavy yoke his father has placed on them. That he might reduce the levels of slavery that they have suffered under Solomon’s reign. And, that, if he does, then they will serve him. Rehoboam sends them away for three days.

During these three days, he seeks counsel. First, he goes to the elders. Those who have served his father. To seek advice. They tell him to listen to the people. To reduce the load. To be a servant to them. That, if he does this, if he leads them in this way, then the people will serve him forever. 

But, Rehoboam is new to this position. Perhaps it's that he has something to prove. Or maybe he’s just immature. He seeks additional counsel from his own friends, his younger friends who now attend him. It is their advice he follows. So, when Jeroboam and the northern tribes return after the three days have passed, Rehoboam defaults to the immature, arrogant, young man he is. Mine is bigger than yours, he says to them. A response that is exactly how bullies and immature teenagers act. An understanding of power that is at its very worst. Rehoboam adds to the burden of the oppressed, rather than easing it. And the kingdom falls apart.

Today, we celebrate Reformation Sunday. Like the story of the two judges, this story of the two kings mirrors in some ways what was happening during the 16th century. The church had become a worldly, dominant power. Bishops sought and gained their seats through the wealth of their families. To finish the building of St. Peter’s in Rome, this great edifice to the glory of the church, it’s leaders sought to sell forgiveness in the form of indulgences. Those in power sought to lord it over the poor, trying to find more and more ways to extract wealth from them. It was this that Luther and others railed against. It was this that led to the split of the church, like the split of the kingdom. A difficult thing that we still live into today. 

In our story, Jeroboam was called to be a servant-leader. But, then, he, too, begins to create centers of worship away from Jerusalem to protect his own power and position. Eventually, putting up golden calves for the people to worship. Just as there was sin on both sides of the split of the united kingdom of Israel, so, too, there was sin on both sides of the Reformation. 

It is in our human nature, that, as we begin to amass privilege and power and control, we begin to move away from God. We begin to rely upon ourselves and those things in our lives that we set up as our own gods. Our intellect. Our money and profit. Our homes and our families. Even our religion. These things - these gods - that pull us away from God. This is the theology of glory that Luther wrote about in the Heidelberg Disputation. Where it is all about us. About me and mine. A pervasive “me-ism” that pulls us away from God.

Instead, we are called to follow Jesus, the true servant-leader. This is the heart of Luther’s theology of the cross. That, in Jesus, God comes to us. God meets us in our sin and in our suffering. When we recognize that we cannot do this on our own. God comes to us at great cost. A cost that most of us are unwilling to pay ourselves. A cost borne for us, who can do nothing to change who we are. But, a cost borne for us by God, who is the only one through whom we are changed. 

This is to be the shape of our Christian lives. Where we seek to follow the example of Jesus. We, who, in him, have become perfectly free, lord of all, subject to none. But, also, perfectly dutiful, servant of all, subject to all. It is in this paradox where lordship finds its expression in service. And where the good news of Jesus Christ takes root in us to change us into the servant-leaders God calls us to be.  “Whoever wishes to become great among you, must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you, must be a slave of all.”

May God grant us a life fully claimed by Jesus, that we might fully serve others. Amen.

Preached October 27, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Reformation Sunday
Readings: 1 Kings 12:1-17, 25-29; Mark 10:42-45; Psalm 46

Monday, October 21, 2019

God's Way of Leading: A (Sort of) Godly Leader

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When my son was in Afghanistan, one of the most important aspects of what his infantry battalion did was to meet and build relationships with the local tribal leaders. Afghanistan, like many other nations in the Middle East and Asia, is still organized along tribal, ethnic, and religious lines. We hear about these groups all the time on the news: the Kurds and the Turks are one very recent example.

It was important for the U.S. military to have these relationships. Because, through them, they could learn what the Afghan people were thinking, they could build alliances, and they could work together to root out the Taliban or Isis or other similar groups. 

If you were here last Sunday and you listened carefully as we read from the opening verses of Ruth, you might have heard these words: “During the day when the judges ruled…” You see, as the descendants of each of Jacob’s 12 sons had grown, each of these families became tribes. The 12 tribes of Israel.

So, by the time of the book of Ruth, these tribes had grown to the point where God had appointed leaders for each of them. Judges is the term used in Scripture. And yet, these judges, were really no different than the local tribal leaders that my son’s battalion dealt with in Afghanistan.

Today, though, we move into a new way of being for Israel. The book of Ruth acts as a kind of hinge in the Old Testament, moving us out of the early developmental years of the nation of Israel, into the years of the monarchy. The book of Samuel, broken into two separate books, begins to trace the kings who ruled over Israel. In Samuel we follow three main characters. Anyone want to take a shot at naming them? Samuel, the prophet. Saul, the first king anointed by God through Samuel. David, Saul’s successor.

First Samuel covers the reign of King Saul. A reign that begins magnificently, but eventually fails. It seems that Saul experiences what leaders often do - that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Saul has turned away from God, failing to follow what God has asked him to do. By the end of this first book, Saul has been killed, along with his successor - his son, Jonathan.

As our reading opens, Israel has just been through a civil war - a battle to determine who will be the next king. We read in 2 Samuel 5:1-5. 

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.” So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years. At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.  --2 Sam. 5:1-5 (NRSV)

How many of you have ever herded sheep? It is not easy. And I speak from experience. They often run in circles, are easily spooked, and regularly led astray by sheep within the herd who lead them in the exact opposite direction where you want them to go. It is a frustrating and crazy-making thing - this being a shepherd. To be a shepherd takes great patience. Great calm. And an ability to gently nudge the sheep forward. In the direction you want them to go. 

This is exactly what David - the shepherd of sheep - has been called to do by God with the 12 tribes of Israel. With God’s own people. To show great patience and calmness. And to gently nudge them in the way God wants them to go. This is what, in God’s eyes, a leader looks like. How God desires David to lead. How God desires us to lead.

Do you think of yourself as a leader? I would venture that you are. Perhaps you hold or held a leadership position in your workplace. At school. In your community. In an organization. Or among your friends. Certainly, if you are or have ever been a parent, you are a leader. What is your model of leadership? From what source do you understand what leadership looks like? 

We are living in fraught times at the moment. When this question of leadership looms very large, especially as we move into a season of elections. When we look in the public sphere, what kind of leadership do we see? Is it the leadership of empire? Of power and dominion? The kind of leadership the world seeks, where power is the goal. Power and wealth. And control. Leadership that seeks to keep people apart. That seeks to keep people fighting against themselves. To preserve its power and wealth and control.

Or do we see leadership that is shepherd-like? Like David. As complex and human, as much a saint and sinner as all of us, yet humble. Patient. Caring for his people as a shepherd preserves his sheep. 

Our reading continues in 2 Samuel 6:1-5. 

David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.  --2 Sam. 6:1-5 (NRSV)

As they moved the Ark to Jerusalem, David and all Israel celebrated. Notice that this was their greatest celebration. Not the battle victories or even the unification of Israel. Instead it was this Ark. This place where God resided. Where God’s Word resided. David knew that Jerusalem was already the cultural, economic, and political center of Israel. But, he also knew that Jerusalem would not, could not, be complete, could not become the people God desired them to be, without the Ark of the Covenant. Without the presence of God. As the Ark was moved to Jerusalem, it was this that led David and all Israel to their greatest celebration. To dance with abandon, with all their strength. To sing and to dance in complete and utter passion and joy in the knowledge that God was present with them. 

I pray that as we act in ways of leadership in our homes and communities and workplaces. As we elect new leaders in our congregation next Sunday. And as we elect leaders in our state next month and in our country next year, I pray that we will keep in mind these images of God’s desired leadership. Leadership that is shepherd-like. Humble. Patient. Leadership that is like that of our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Leadership that seeks to bring people together. 

But, mostly, I pray that we will seek leadership that has, at its very core, the joy and passion for the presence of God. So that we, too, like David, may sing and dance with all abandon.


Preached October 20, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Pentecost 19
Readings: Mark 11:8-10, Psalm 150, 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 6:1-5

Responding to God's Love: Ruth - God's Hesed

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

This fall we’ve been reading stories of people who lived out God’s calling for their lives through the relationships they had with God and with other people. Today is our sixth story of covenant and relationship. Before we begin looking at today’s story, we’re going to see how well we remember the previous five stories.

To do this, I need five volunteers. Each one of these people represents one of our stories. Your job, first, is to figure out which story they symbolize. Your second job is to, then, identify the order that these stories appear in the Bible. If you need it, you can use the pew Bible to help jog your memory. 

  • Gen. 2:16-17 - Plant, symbolizing creation
  • Genesis 18:14a - Bread, symbolizing Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality
  • Genesis 32:28 - Wrestler, symbolizing Jacob wrestling with God
  • Exodus 3:5 - Barefoot, symbolizing "holy ground"
  • Deuteronomy 6:5 - Ten Commandments or tablet, symbolizing God giving Moses the Ten Commandments

Now that we’ve reviewed these stories of God and God’s relationship to people, let’s hear today's story. It’s also about relationship, although God doesn’t play a direct role in this story. So, perhaps, for us, it’s an important story. Because in these times after Christ, we don’t see a visible God present in our world, but more of a hidden God, working behind the scenes, just as in today’s story.

During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man with his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab. The name of that man was Elimelech, the name of his wife was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They entered the territory of Moab and settled there.

But Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, died. Then only she was left, along with her two sons. They took wives for themselves, Moabite women; the name of the first was Orpah and the name of the second was Ruth. And they lived there for about ten years.

But both of the sons, Mahlon and Chilion, also died. Only the woman was left, without her two children and without her husband.

Then she arose along with her daughters-in-law to return from the field of Moab, because while in the territory of Moab she had heard that the Lord had paid attention to his people by providing food for them. She left the place where she had been, and her two daughters-in-law went with her. They went along the road to return to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her daughters-in-law, “Go, turn back, each of you to the household of your mother. May the Lord deal faithfully with you, just as you have done with the dead and with me. May the Lord provide for you so that you may find security, each woman in the household of her husband.” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept.

But they replied to her, “No, instead we will return with you, to your people.”

Naomi replied, “Turn back, my daughters. Why would you go with me? Will there again be sons in my womb, that they would be husbands for you? Turn back, my daughters. Go. I am too old for a husband. If I were to say that I have hope, even if I had a husband tonight, and even more, if I were to bear sons— would you wait until they grew up? Would you refrain from having a husband? No, my daughters. This is more bitter for me than for you, since the Lord’s will has come out against me.”

Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth stayed with her. Naomi said, “Look, your sister-in-law is returning to her people and to her gods. Turn back after your sister-in-law.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to turn back from following after you. Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.”  --Ruth 1:1-17 (CEB)

Today, we read only a portion of the story of Ruth. Ruth is only one of two women with an entire book in scripture that is dedicated to telling her story. Who knows the other book? Yes, it’s the book of Esther. Esther is a Jewish queen. Ruth is neither Jewish. And, she is definitely not royalty. Yet, she is one of only four women who are named in Jesus’ genealogy, or history. Our key verses today are from chapter one. The book of Ruth is only four chapters long and it’s a great story. So, when you get home today, I encourage you to read the rest of Ruth.

There are many different approaches that we might make to today’s story. As it opens, we hear that there is a famine in Bethlehem. The irony here is that Bethlehem means “House of Bread.” The “House of Bread” is now empty. And Elimelech, our opening character, and his wife, Naomi,  Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, must leave Judah, their home country and travel to Moab, another country, for food. So, one approach to today’s story might be that of food insecurity. Something that we, here, at Grace & Glory seek to address every week. 

Another approach might be related to the relationship between nations. Because the history between Moab and Judah is complex. Isn’t that something we see and understand, especially, as we grow older. That relationships between nations, as between people, are not simple. Or black and white. But, that they are filled with complexity. Moab and Judah are cousins. The Moabites are descendents of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. They are family. And, yet, there is a long history between them. Warning made to Israel that the women of Moab are seductive and will seduce Israelite men away from God. It’s this belief that eventually results in a law that forbids Moabites from entering Israel’s religious assemblies to the tenth generation. Yet, they are family, albeit, the black sheep of the family. 

To approach from this angle would also work, especially given the news stories this week of the situation at the Turkish and Syrian borders and the long, historic relationship between the Kurds and the Turks - a relationship fraught with complexity.

A third angle, or approach, might be that of immigration. Elimelech and Naomi and their sons are refugees from famine. Traveling to another country for food - a country that might not welcome them wholeheartedly and, in fact, a country that might reject them. That might shame them. Simply for seeking security for their family.

How appropriate this approach might be for us today, when the number of refugees in our world has surpassed the numbers from the time of the second world war and as our own country has continued to reduce the number of refugees it is accepting annually. To be an immigrant in our world today means to be without a country. Rejected. Isolated. Insecure.

A fourth approach (Who knew there could be so many ways to approach this story??) - a fourth approach, might be that of women. And, particularly, the role of women in a patriarchal society. Where one is considered property. Devalued. Not only for one’s ideas or opinions, but even for one’s body. Which doesn’t even belong to oneself. In our #MeToo era, this, too, would be a valid approach.

There are even more approaches. There is loss. The loss Naomi experienced with not only the death of her husband, but of both her sons. And the insecurity that resulted for her. And her daughters-in-law. Related to this is the issue of infertility - that after ten years of marriage, neither of her sons and their wives have had children. And so, there is also loss her. The loss of hope. And as a congregation that has had members experience much loss this year, this, too, would be an appropriate approach.

But, there is one approach that I will call an “umbrella approach.” You know when you open an umbrella and it covers everyone under it, this approach is like that. Because it is an overriding theme that we hear and experience throughout this complex story with so many different themes and approaches running through it.

That umbrella approach is connected to the Hebrew word hesed. We’ve heard that word before. It’s hard to define for us in English. It means “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.” In the Septuagint, which is the original Greek Bible translated from the Hebrew, the Greek word used for the Hebrew word hesed is the word we translate into English as grace. Normally, hesed is attributed to God. It’s a word used hundreds of times in the psalms to describe a God who is faithful. And loving. A God who shows a kind of covenantal love. The same kind of love that we see in the marriage covenant. A love that hangs in. Through the thick and the thin. The until “death do us part” kind of love. That kind of love. It is true that hesed describes the love and faithfulness of our God. The hesed that God continually shows to God’s people. To us.

Yet, in this small story in scripture, the hesed shown is that by Ruth toward Naomi. Ruth, who makes a choice to remain with her mother-in-law, instead of returning to her own mother. Who, then, returns with her mother-in-law back to Naomi’s home village, to her home country. Ruth, who is now the foreigner. Who is willing to risk everything - her family, her country, perhaps even her life - to show love and faithfulness - hesed - to Naomi, her mother-in-law.  

Because, you see, hesed is not just an adjective. Hesed is not just about an emotion. Like the Hebrew word shema last week, hesed is also a verb. It’s about action. About putting love into action. Whether it is to feed the hungry, to make peace between nations, to care for the immigrant, to lift up women and others who for way too long have been treated as “other,” or to simply be with and accompany those who have experienced deep loss, to show hesed is to show love in action. 

This is who we are to be. Because this is whose we are. 

We love because God first loved us. Amen.

Preached October 12, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Pentecost 18
Readings: Mark 3:33-35, Psalm 126, Ruth 1:1-17

Responding to God's Love: It's All About Love

Sh’ma, Yisrael! Adonai elohenu, Adonai ehad! Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Amen.

We have come far from last week’s story of Moses’ call to deliver Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt to freedom. Through the plagues, through the night of the first Passover, through the parting of the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, and the covenant. To the sin of Israel even before Moses had come down off the mountain, then the forty years of wandering in the wilderness. We have come far from last week’s story. To the book of Deuteronomy.

Israel is poised on the east bank of the Jordan, eagerly waiting to cross over into the promised land. It’s a new generation of people. To prepare them to enter, Moses reviews what has happened over these past forty years. We hear his story. Just as we heard Lana’s story last week, we now hear Moses’ story - Moses’ interpretation - of these forty years in the wilderness. 

And so, as part of his review, we come to our readings for today. First, from Deuteronomy 5. 

Moses called out to all Israel, saying to them: “Israel! Listen to the regulations and the case laws that I’m recounting in your hearing right now. Learn them and carefully do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Mount Horeb. The Lord didn’t make this covenant with our ancestors but with us—all of us who are here and alive right now. The Lord spoke with you face-to-face on the mountain from the very fire itself. At that time, I was standing between the Lord and you, declaring to you the Lord’s word, because you were terrified of the fire and didn’t go up on the mountain.”

The Lord said:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You must have no other gods before me. Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them because I, the Lord your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins—even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Do not use the Lord your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the Lord won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.

Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.

Honor your father and your mother, exactly as the Lord your God requires, so that your life will be long and so that things will go well for you on the fertile land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Do not kill.

Do not commit adultery.

Do not steal.

Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.

Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife.

Do not crave your neighbor’s house, field, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.  --Deuteronomy 5:1-21 (CEB)

This recounting by Moses of the law received at Sinai is the second iteration of the Ten Commandments. Between then and now there has been a span of forty years. And the death of a generation - of the first generation to experience freedom. Not allowed to enter the promised land because of their rebellion and disbelief, even though they were eyewitnesses to the mighty acts of God. 

With this retelling of the story, Moses brings the new generation right back to Sinai. To that first giving of the law. Remembering his anger. How, as he came down the mountain with the stone tablets God had given him, he saw the first generation. Dancing around the golden calf - an idol. Already forgetting their covenant with God. It was then that he angrily threw down the tablets and watched them shatter into pieces.

Moses remembers. And he is helping this new generation remember. 

There’s something in his opening remarks that’s very interesting. In verse 3, Moses says to this new generation: “The Lord didn't make this covenant with our ancestors but with us - all of us who are here and alive right now.” That’s actually not true, is it? Because this new generation was not actually present at Sinai. But, Moses’ concern here isn’t history. (It’s the mistake we make when we think of scripture as a history or a science book.) Moses’ concern here is a deeper truth. A story of transformation. In making this statement, Moses is seeking a renewal of this generation’s commitment - of this generation’s covenant with God. Just like we do every time we celebrate baptism, or give thanks for our baptisms, or confess our sins. We, too, are renewing our promise - our covenant - with God. 

Each generation is called upon to enter anew in the covenant that God first made with Israel at Sinai. “All of us who are here and alive right now” are called to enter in and to recommit. We are once again invited into the story of God and Israel, of Christ and the church, of God and our own story. Each one of us. Just as the new generation of Israelites was as they paused to enter the promised land. 

And, so, Moses begins with the first commandment. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Do you notice the gift in this first commandment? We so often view the ten commandments as burden. As rule. As a weight that sits on our shoulders, pulling us down in shame. Yet, they are not a burden, but a witness to a relationship with God. Given to Israel and to us in the context of a relationship. “I am the Lord, YOUR God.” It is out of this loving relationship that the rest of the commandments flow. But, that’s not all. Because, if we read this first commandment carefully, we notice that it isn’t the law that comes first, but a gift. The gift comes before the law. Or in Lutheran terms, the gospel comes before the law here. The relationship begins with an act of deliverance. With freedom. But, what does this freedom look like?

The commandments are intended to form life-giving community compared to the exploitative economy of pharaoh. Having other gods isn’t freedom, but bondage. Working seven days a week isn’t freedom, but bondage. Hurting others isn’t freedom, but bondage.  And on and on. 

These commandments are the boundaries that allow life to flourish. Life with God and with neighbor. Life where everyone can experience freedom. Where no one is exploited. A life that is in sharp contrast to the life that the pharaoh gives - that the world gives. Where there is fear of others, a sense of scarcity and of lack of resources, anxiety, division, brokenness, bondage. This is not the life God desires for Israel. This is not the life God desires for us.

This is why God gives Israel - and us - these commandments. To shape and to form life-giving and loving relationships with God and with neighbor. Because it is all about love.

But, there’s a second part to our readings today. We continue in chapter 6. 

Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!

Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.  --Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (CEB)

These words in Deuteronomy 6 are central to Jewish theology and practice. Twice a day - morning and evening - they are recited. Deeply embedded in the hearts of all Jews, part of who they are. When asked what is the greatest commandment, any Jewish person would recite these words, known as the shema. It is the shema that Jesus - a Jew - recites when asked which of the commandments is the most important. Shema is the first word in this passage in Hebrew. Shema meaning “hear.” Or “listen.”  

The shema is an affirmation of our oneness with God and of God’s sovereignty. Of a God who has delivered Israel  from bondage into freedom. The shema - like the commandments - is all about love. About the unbelievable love that God first showed. How God brought Israel out of slavery. How God, in Christ, has brought us out of slavery. Because. Of. Love.

But, it doesn’t end there. Because, for the Jews, the shema isn’t only about listening to God.  In Hebrew, the shema is always connected to action. It’s like when you hear your parent tell you to do something and, then, you do it. To “hear” in Hebrew is to act. To “shema” is to act. There's no disconnect between the hearing and the doing.  

So, when we hear of God’s unfathomable love for us, our response is to act. In love. To God. And to our neighbor. Particularly, to our neighbor who does not look like us, or act like us, or live like us. We are called to respond with our whole being in love to neighbor and to all creation. Or in the most simple words most of us likely learned as children, “We love because God first loved us.”

Because, in the end, that’s what this is all about. Love.


Preached October 6, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY
Pentecost 17
Readings: Deuteronomy 5:1-21, 6:4-9; Mark 12:28-31

Responding to God's Love: The Power of a Name

Now a new king came to power in Egypt who didn’t know Joseph. He said to his people, “The Israelite people are now larger in number and stronger than we are. Come on, let’s be smart and deal with them. Otherwise, they will only grow in number. And if war breaks out, they will join our enemies, fight against us, and then escape from the land.” As a result, the Egyptians put foremen of forced work gangs over the Israelites to harass them with hard work. They had to build storage cities named Pithom and Rameses for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they grew and spread, so much so that the Egyptians started to look at the Israelites with disgust and dread. So the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites. They made their lives miserable with hard labor, making mortar and bricks, doing field work, and by forcing them to do all kinds of other cruel work.

The king of Egypt spoke to two Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah: “When you are helping the Hebrew women give birth and you see the baby being born, if it’s a boy, kill him. But if it’s a girl, you can let her live.” Now the two midwives respected God so they didn’t obey the Egyptian king’s order. Instead, they let the baby boys live.

So the king of Egypt called the two midwives and said to them, “Why are you doing this? Why are you letting the baby boys live?”

The two midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because Hebrew women aren’t like Egyptian women. They’re much stronger and give birth before any midwives can get to them.” So God treated the midwives well, and the people kept on multiplying and became very strong. And because the midwives respected God, God gave them households of their own.

Then Pharaoh gave an order to all his people: “Throw every baby boy born to the Hebrews into the Nile River, but you can let all the girls live.”

Now a man from Levi’s household married a Levite woman. The woman became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She saw that the baby was healthy and beautiful, so she hid him for three months. When she couldn’t hide him any longer, she took a reed basket and sealed it up with black tar. She put the child in the basket and set the basket among the reeds at the riverbank. The baby’s older sister stood watch nearby to see what would happen to him.

Pharaoh’s daughter came down to bathe in the river, while her women servants walked along beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds, and she sent one of her servants to bring it to her. When she opened it, she saw the child. The boy was crying, and she felt sorry for him. She said, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children.”

Then the baby’s sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Would you like me to go and find one of the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?”

Pharaoh’s daughter agreed, “Yes, do that.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I’ll pay you for your work.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. After the child had grown up, she brought him back to Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I pulled him out of the water.”  --Exodus 1:8 - 2:10 (CEB)

Grace, peace, and mercy to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

How did we get to today’s story? I’ll ask the question I asked last week. Who remembers our story from last week? Yes, it was the story of Jacob wrestling with, we think, God. Jacob was the father of 12 sons (12 tribes). His youngest was Joseph. Remember what happened to Joseph? Sold into slavery by his brothers. Eventually ended up in Egypt and through series of events became second in command to the Pharaoh - 7 years of feast, 7 years of famine. Jacob, or Israel, was eventually reunited with Joseph and, then, moved to Egypt. 

Today’s story is centuries later. Israel has grown into that large people - just as God had promised Abraham. So large, in fact, that the new Pharaoh - who our story today tells us didn’t “know” Joseph - began to mistreat them. To try to reduce their number. Because he was afraid of them. He tried to do this in three ways. First, through forced labor. This attempt was reversed as Israel multiplied in number. Then, by ordering all Israelite first born sons to be killed. Again, this attempt was reversed through the "revolt of the midwives," Shiprah and Puah. The third attempt was to have every male son thrown into the Nile. This, too, was subject to reversal as we read how the mother of Moses does this, but puts him first into a "basket" (The Hebrew word for "basket" is the same word as "ark." Remember Noah?). Moses' life is spared as he is found by a princess, the Pharoah's own daughter. She takes him, raises him, and, ironically, finds a Hebrew woman to nurse him. A Hebrew woman who just happens to be Moses' own mother. 

We hear a lot of stories in our lectionary - stories of our faith ancestors. And, particularly, we hear stories of how God interacts with our ancestors. Sometimes, it's subtle and behind the scenes, as in Moses' early life. Sometimes, it's not so subtle, as in the story from last with Jacob and, as we hear today from Moses' later life. 

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.

When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

Moses said, “I’m here.”

Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.”   --Exodus 3:1-5 (CEB)

This interaction between God and Moses is part of Moses' faith story. Today, we're beginning something new. Beginning today, which is the fifth Sunday and with every other month in which there are five Sundays, I'm going to invite one of you to share your story. You may already see God at work - God interacting in your story in the same way we read in scripture. Or not. Nevertheless, we'll explore your stories on these 5th Sundays.

Here are some of the questions for you to consider today about what your story is:

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What was your family like? 

2. In Exodus 3, we heard the story of Moses' first experience of God in the burning bush. On holy ground. If you can remember, what was your first experience of God? Your first "holy ground"?

3. As you grew up, how did you experience God? How has that changed, if it has changed?

4. Where/how do you see God’s story intersecting yours? Where/how do you see your life story intersecting God’s? 

5. In Exodus 2:23-25, we read a summary of God's work, which is to change our sad songs into glad songs. In addition, in the first six verses of chapter 3, we hear a series of "I" statements by God that show God's concern: “I” have seen their affliction, “I” have heard their cry, “I” know their sufferings, “I” have come to deliver them and bring them up. “I” will send you to Pharaoh. Where in your life have you experienced God changing sad songs into glad songs and truly experienced God's love and concern?

6. Where have you seen or currently see God calling you in your life? What does your future story and God’s look like?

Preached September 29, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Pentecost 16
Readings: Exodus 1:8-2:10, 3:1-5