The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
September 26, 2021
Exodus 2:1-4; Ecclesiastes 11:1-6
Our basic beliefs make a huge difference in the way we operate day-to-day. For example, we will treat people very differently depending on if we believe people are at their core, good, or if we have a belief that humans have a natural flaw, an origin of sin. If we believe humans are essentially bad by nature we will expect evil from others and put up all kinds of protections to keep ourselves from anticipated harm. On the other hand, if we think humans were created and God declared them “very good” then things like trust and respect come much quicker to relationships. These kinds of basic beliefs can significantly impact our choices in life sometimes without us even noticing.
Another belief that can greatly affect the way we live is if we believe God will only give us what we can handle. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it never says anything close to that in scripture. If anything, scripture hints heavily that a life of faith is hard, even more, it tells us we should expect hardships, and doing hard things are signs we are living by faith.
Now I get why “God will only give you what you can handle” thrives even though scripture says otherwise. “God will only give you what you can handle” is a much prettier package to sell to others and looks much nicer on the mantle to motivate us in our daily faith walk.
I think one reason this brand of sweetened theology thrives is that as we read scripture, we already know all the spoilers. We know what Mary will find at the tomb on Easter Sunday, we know the first time God asks Noah to build an ark it’s a good idea, we know when Moses’ mother puts her baby boy into a basket in the river that a princess will find him and will live happily ever after…ish. We know things turn out okay, so “God will only give you what you can handle” seems like it fits all these stories.
Unfortunately, for the people in the story when it was first being lived they would not have felt like they could “handle” these things. If we wash away all our knowledge of the next few pages we can see that the truth is “things will be hard.” Let’s try to shed all our knowledge of Moses and meet his mother for the first time.
We pick up in Exodus with a law harmfully impacting the lives of the Israelites. The law says that the firstborn son of every family must be killed. This is a daily reality for the people and many are facing the hardships this law mandates. Then we focus on one mother who is facing the unimaginable. She has given birth to a baby. It’s a boy - her first boy.
This should be a cause for celebration, but the minute he is born panic sets into the family. His father is nowhere to be found, probably trying to distance himself as much as possible so he does not bond with the doomed child. His young sister is vaguely aware of the threat. The most she can grasp is that her parents are afraid and people are not stopping by with good wishes. The mother, through all her anxiety, hangs on to hope, foolish hope, but hope nonetheless.
This mother has no idea how to save her son. She has watched all her friends fail to save their sons. They tried escaping, they tried disguises, they tried lying, but every time the boys met the same end. Then one day, a wild idea comes to her, out of her foolish hope, she considers the option to weave a basket, cover it in pitch and tar, put her 3-month-old child into the basket, and let the basket float in the river while she goes about her day.
This is the part where we let spoilers gloss over her reality. She does not know what will happen to the baby. She knows the waters are fairly steady, that things get trapped and hidden in the reeds all the time, the baby may be safe. But she also knows the animals that eat from that water, and the hazards of the rapids should the basket get rocked loose. Knowing all this, and that the powerful authority wants to kill her child she does the hardest things she has ever had to do. She leaves her child in a makeshift floaty tucked away on the unpredictable waters with only the foolish hope that maybe he will still be there when she gets back and she can kiss his face one more time.
I pity anyone who tells that woman walking away from her baby that “God will only give you what you can handle.” This is not something she can handle. The mothers I know barely let their newborns out of their sight let alone handle what this mother has done.
This story clearly tells us things will be hard; even for righteous people, even for people God loves and has chosen to birth great leaders; even for those who pray enough and give enough and attend worship enough and volunteer enough. Even for us, things will be hard.
God does not regulate how much we can handle and turn the faucet of hardship just to that amount. I wish it was so, but God does not step in and keep this mother from doing the hardest of things. NO. What God does is honors her work of doing something hard by providing a rescue in that river. That river the mother steps into which represents her terror becomes the thing that saves the baby. Because she was willing to do the hard thing she got more than she could ever imagine. God honors those who are willing to do hard things.
As I was reflecting on hard things in life my mind kept drifting to moments we have to examine our own inner selves, our beliefs and truths, our biases and assumptions. There is something about admitting we don’t know it all that is exceptionally hard for humans. God forbid we have to admit we were straight-up wrong about something! Making these kinds of admissions is very much like taking our pride and placing it into a basket and leaving ourselves vulnerable to whatever might come down that river.
Humans do not like to admit when we are wrong. We do not like to acknowledge something we said or a belief we held was not the truth. We avoid it at every cost. Businesses are making millions off of this reality. Google feeds you the articles it thinks you want based on the majority demographic around you. Search the same question in different demographic parts of the country and you will get different results. TikTok wants you to stay on the app as long as possible, so it only sends you videos it already thinks you will like. These juggernauts don’t want to challenge you, they know humans run away from challenging information. Google and TikTok are never going to ask you to do hard things. They will reinforce what you already think you know.
One reason my mind went to moments where we have to reexamine an inner reality is that I am obsessed with people who leave cults. I have watched every documentary at least twice on every organization that has been accused of being a cult. It is especially incredible to me how children raised inside a cult can suddenly realize their reality is off.
I am in awe of the stories of those who leave cults because they have done one of the hardest things. They allowed new information to challenge their reality and found a way to ignore the raging beast that says, “ I AM RIGHT” and changed something essential about themselves so they could be better. Listening to their stories, it is apparent how hard it is to change but also how little it takes to crack the facade.
Many of their stories shift in one great moment of realization. They may have been gathering information for a while but the moment they choose to acknowledge that they maybe aren’t right, their whole world shifts.
They build their baskets with articles and conversations with outsiders weaving together information that is contrary to the cults’ narrative. Their curiosity becomes doubt and questions coat their old reality. One person described it as a dark space where they didn’t know which way was up or down, just floating in a void. The easy thing to do at that moment is to abandon the process.
To grab our pride back out of the baskets and double down on old beliefs and go back to the comfortable way of before. Those who choose to do the harder way eventually get to that final piece of the puzzle, the rescue, that removes the cover from their eyes, and the light of truth shines in on them.
To continue moving in the darkness of life, letting new information challenge our reality, is the hardest thing a human can do. The writer of Ecclesiastes knows this too. “Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.”
These verses beg us to keep moving forward even in the hard times because something will succeed. God does not promise to give us an easy path but every story in scripture reminds us that God provides a rescue. God honors those who do the hard things and often it takes someone risking, taking the hard path for God’s people to move forward.
We Presbyterians have a phrase we like to use when hard decisions are being made. We say, “If the way be made clear,” this phrase, however, relies on a belief that God will only give us what we are ready to handle. The votes on every hard decision will only go the way God’s people are willing to go. But what if we are being asked to step onto a hard path? Will enough of us vote to do the harder thing?
The way was not clear to Noah when he started building an ark. The way was not clear to Mary when she headed out to the tomb. The way was not clear when Moses’ mother placed him in the water. Sometimes the way is hard. And that is exactly the way God’s will is directing us. We need to do hard things.
Our congregation has decided to do a hard thing. We have chosen to be a Matthew 25 church and examine our understanding of racism and poverty in our community. We will have to put our pride into that makeshift basket and set it afloat if we hope to achieve God’s will in this. This past week we launched ourselves into learning about what systemic racism is, and over the next few months the Matthew 25 workgroup has invited incredible speakers to challenge our understanding of the systems we participate in.
This is a hard thing for our community, but we can do hard things. God will be with us as we learn, as we listen, and as we lean into new stories and new understandings. I expect to feel punched in the gut a few times, but those hard realizations will help me love more and understand God more. Please, no matter what your first reaction is to being asked to understand systemic racism, we need to do THIS hard thing. In a lot of ways this river that we are placing our baskets into represents our greatest fears, but what if the rescue for us, you and me, for this church, for this community is in this direction? Then we need to be the people who trust enough in God to do this hard thing. I hope you will join us for more of these Matthew 25 discussions so we can do this hard thing together knowing God’s rescue is waiting to scoop us up on the other side of the reeds.
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 19, 2021
Exodus 2:5-10; Matthew 6:25-33
It should never have happened. It should never, ever have happened. There is no way that a Princess of Egypt should have picked up a Hebrew child, turned him over to a Hebrew nursing mother, brought him into the palace and named him, Moses, or “son.” This should never have happened for two reasons. First, it should never have happened because the Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had commanded that all of his subjects, including his daughter, were to throw all newborn Hebrew boys into the Nile so that they would drown. This command was not a suggestion but an order; an order intended to, slowly but surely, eliminate the Hebrew people. The second reason the princess should not have taken the baby out of the ark in which he was floating was that the Egyptian gods couldn’t have cared less about this child. I say that because in Egyptian religion, people did not matter. They were simply pawns in the great birthing and dying sequence that played itself out generation after generation along the great river. So, our first question of the day is, “Why did the princess do it? Why did the princess save this child?”
The most obvious answer to this question seems to be given to us in the passage. In verse six: “When she opened the ark, she saw the child. He was crying and she took pity on him.” The obvious answer then, is that the princess had pity on the child. To most of us, this would seem appropriate. We have all taken pity on someone; a lost child, someone who is homeless or hungry. This answer resonates with us. Yet I would offer that this is not the correct answer. The correct answer is that the princess cared. I realize that the difference between these two words may seem like nothing more than semantics. But let me explain. Pity is a feeling. Pity is a feeling that can elicited by any number of encounters. As I said a moment ago, it can be triggered by a lost child, hungry people, or those whose lives have been upended by natural disasters. Yet, pity is not action. Let me ask, how many of you have felt pity for someone yet not done anything about it? Caring, on the other hand, as it is used in scripture is not the emotion of someone saying to us, “I really care about you,” meaning they have feelings for us. Caring in the scripture means life-affirming actions.
This definition then leads us to our second question, which is, why did she care? Why was her pity turned into caring? Why was her emotional response to this child turned into action? Again, this would seem to be out of character for an Egyptian princess whose entire life had been lived in a political and religious environment in which all people, much less Hebrew people, had any particular value. Why did she care? I would argue that she cared because she was designed to care. Let me explain. When we read these stories from Exodus, we are not reading them as if they are individual tales told without context. Instead, they are part of the total package of the Torah, the first five books of the scriptures. What this means is that we are reading this story in the context of the opening story of Genesis, where God creates human beings in God’s own image. By creating us in God’s own image, God is creating human beings who are not only capable, but are designed to care because God is a caring God. In other words, if God cares about this world, meaning that God acts in life-affirming ways toward this world, then those who are created in God’s image are designed to do the same. Thus the princess was designed to engage in life-affirming actions.
This concept that God is a God who cares, who acts in life-affirming ways, is at the center of Jesus’ words in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we read this morning. What Jesus is sharing with those gathered to listen to him is that God does more than feel kindly toward God’s people. God not only knows what the people need when they are hungry and afraid, but, Jesus implies, God will give it to them. God will provide. In so doing Jesus is taking these people back to the great stories of Exodus. Jesus is reminding them that God heard the cries of God’s people in captivity and set them free. Jesus is reminding them that in the wilderness when the people were thirsty, God provided water and when the people were hungry, God provided quail and manna. The God that Jesus represents to those who gather on the mountain is one who cares, who engages in life-affirming actions so that God’s people do not have to worry or be afraid. Instead, they can focus on striving for the Kingdom, which means being people who care, who engage in life-affirming actions.
This belief then leads to our final question of the morning. “If God cares and has designed us and empowered us to care, why is it that so many people don’t care? Why is it that so many people, rather than engaging in life-affirming acts, engage in death-bringing acts?” This answer is complex and multi-faceted. For our purposes this morning I would simply say that over time, the image of God has been diminished in humanity as a whole and in human beings individually. What I mean is this ability to care has been eroded by fear, anger, hate, envy and any other negative attribute you can name. These death-dealing ways slowly but surely extinguish the image of God. Thus, when people are victims of abuse, hatred, anger or are trapped in systems that do them harm, the image of God within them can be hard to find. Yet, as John Calvin reminds us in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, the image of God is never completely extinguished. While it may go underground, it can never be fully lost and the possibility that this image can be reclaimed and with it the ability and the impetus to care is always present. The image of God is like the pilot light Cindy and I have in our gas-log fireplace. It is always on, barely seen, yet with some additional fuel, it can create a blazing fire.
This possibility, that the image of God and the call to care can be salvaged is why this church matters. For you see, we are a community of caring. We are a community that is founded upon God’s caring for the world in Jesus Christ. We are a community that is constantly caring here in this building, in the community, the country, and the world. We care through life-affirming actions for those who are homeless, hungry, and in need. And by so doing, we keep the image of God alive and active in ourselves and others. We remind one another that we are to be a people who care. We encourage one another when it seems as if life is beating us down and diminishing God's image within us. So I want to thank you for being that community of caring. I want to thank you because the world needs communities like ours, that not only feel pity for those in need, but do something about it. We care.
My challenge to you for this coming week is this, to ask yourselves, how am I caring for others because the image of God is alive and well within me?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 12, 2021
Exodus 1:8-22; Matthew 18:1-11
Twenty years ago today the skies were silent and empty. All domestic air travel had been canceled. People were trying to rent cars to drive home from distant destinations. We watched in horror as time after time the images of the twin towers collapsing were being burned into our brains. Then there were the ongoing broadcasts of first responders hoping against hope that survivors would be found. There were desperate families seeking loved ones who had gone to work in the towers as if it were another day and had not been heard from. There were the pictures and stories of those who made last minute calls to family before their lives were lost. In all of that we knew we had seen the face of evil. We had seen the face of evil, meaning that we had seen human beings who were willing to kill themselves to extinguish the image of God in other human beings. For that is what evil is. It is the intentional destruction of the image of God in others, meaning that evil can be seen in the taking of thousands of lives at the twin towers, or in the actions of an online troll who uses social media to destroy the lives and reputation of those they don’t like. Evil is about diminishing or destroying the image of God in others.
Almost immediately the questions began. We wanted to find out who these people were who could do such a thing. We wanted to know how these people had evaded detection while training in the US. We wanted to know who recruited them, funded them, and sent them. We wanted to know who was to blame so that we could deal with them appropriately. But the one thing that did not get a great deal of thought was how did these men come to participate in such a great evil. What I mean by this is that these men were not born as haters of the West. They had ordinary childhoods without any great trauma. So how is it that they could be so swept up in Al Qaeda, that they were willing to kill themselves and thousands of people they did not know, whom they had never met, and who had never done them any harm? Or to put it simply, how does evil do this? How does evil grow? I ask, not out of morbid curiosity or for some academic purpose. I ask instead because if we know how evil grows then maybe we can find a way to short circuit its power; to offer the world a counter narrative so that instead of evil there is good.
To discover how evil grows I offer our text from Exodus as a template, because I believe that was its intent. The intent was to help God’s people understand how easy it was for evil to grow and flourish, so they might avoid it. So here is the narrative of the growth of evil. Evil often begins with a single individual who believes that they should possess all power; in this case Pharoah, whom the text implies has taken power by overthrowing his predecessor. Evil grows then through a series of steps. First, the one seeking to consolidate their power needs an “other” or an “enemy” on whom to focus. In this case the “other/enemy” is the Israelite people, and by the way this is the first time the Hebrews are referred to as a people. Second, it is necessary that the “others/enemies” become an object of fear. Pharoah does this well by telling his people that the Hebrews are more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians…both of which are lies. Third, this fear then gives Pharoah an excuse to oppress the Hebrews, which allows the Egyptians to see the Hebrews as less than human. They are more like animals used for labor. Finally, because the Hebrews are less than human it allows Pharoah to propose killing all the male boys, first at birth by the midwives, but then by the entire population. Evil has grown, spread, and infected the entire populace. I would argue that it was this same narrative that was followed by Bin Laden prior to the 9-11 attacks.
The question then becomes, is there a way in which this progression of evil could be short circuited? Is there a counter-narrative to that of the growth of evil? The answer to these questions is yes and yes. And to find it, we need look no farther than two women, the Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah. They are enlisted in Pharaoh’s evil scheme to kill all the male children so that the Hebrew people could not rise against him and so that the girl children could be married to Egyptians and bear Egyptian children. This command of Pharoah left the women with three options. First, they could go along with the narrative of evil and kill the children. Second, they could resign and allow someone else to do the killing. Or three, they could choose to write a new narrative, one of protecting the vulnerable, which is the choice they made. They would lie to the king. They would risk their lives, but they could protect the vulnerable. This is a different narrative because it says that the children are not “others/enemies.” It says that the children and their parents are fully human. It says that these children deserve life and not death. And the women made this choice because they feared God. Fear here does not mean fear of punishment. Fear here means having awe and respect for God. They understood God to be one that cares for every life, Hebrew or Egyptian. In these actions they not only short circuit evil they create a new narrative…the narrative of protecting the vulnerable. This, for those women, is the narrative of those who fear God.
This sermon series is about doing the will of God, and at the heart of God’s will is protecting the vulnerable. I say this not only because of what Shiphrah and Puah did but because protection of the vulnerable is one of the great narratives of Torah and of the life and work of Jesus. We can see this in the Law of Moses, reading from Exodus 22, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan…If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.” The counter narrative of protecting the vulnerable applies to how God’s people are to treat foreigners who live among them, widows and orphans who have no one to protect them, and to the poor who have limited resources. Jesus continues this narrative when he tells the story of the separation of human beings into sheep and goats, with the sheep at God’s right hand and the goats at God’s left hand. Those who sit at God’s right hand are those who have protected the vulnerable hungry by giving them food; the vulnerable thirsty by giving them something to drink; the vulnerable homeless by taking them in; the vulnerable prisoner by visiting them; and the vulnerable sick, by caring for them.
Narratives are powerful. They can shape lives, communities, and nations. The narThe narrative of God, the narrative of God driven by God’s will, is the protection of the vulnerable.rative of evil is that there are “others/enemies” who are less than human and deserve to be diminished and destroyed. It is a narrative that seeks to eliminate the image of God from those to whom God has given it. This narrative helps to rescue and enlarge the image of God in all human beings, by seeing none as the other, seeing none to be feared, seeing none to be oppressed or destroyed, but seeing every person as the object of God’s and our love, compassion, and care. It is this narrative that calls us then to be intentional in our protection of the vulnerable, for the vulnerable are all around us. They can be children in the Foster Care system. They can be adults with disabilities. They can be the poor who are often forced into borrowing from lenders who charge excessive rates of interest. They can be children with inadequate educational opportunities. They can be families who live without health insurance or adequate housing. They can be the homeless who struggle with mental illness, and a lack of support services and affordable housing. They can be those who have come to our nation from Afghanistan seeking a better life.
The challenge for us then is to ask ourselves first, which of these narratives are we choosing? Then ask ourselves second, if I am choosing the narrative of protecting the vulnerable, how am I living that out in my life?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
September 5, 2021
Genesis 50:15-21; Romans 8:18-30
This coming Saturday will be twenty years since our nation was attacked and the Twin Towers came down with a horrific loss of life. In the days and weeks after that event the nation came together as one, determined not to allow the terrorists to defeat us. Unfortunately, that unity did not last long. Slowly but surely, we began to divide into the competing camps that had existed before 911. And things have only gotten worse and today we are divided over masks, vaccines, abortion, the need for racial reconciliation, the discussion of the history of slavery and race in our schools, climate change, the winner of the 2020 election for president, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Medicaid expansion, welcoming Afghan refugees, voting rights and even whether Covid-19 is real…yes whether Covid-19 is real and kills people. The problem with this level of division is that it is causing people to be angry, depressed, fatalistic, and helpless. And we as a nation are not alone in these divisions; the rest of the world is following suit. The question then is, how are we to respond to these divisions?
The answer to that question can be found in Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, is that we are to be a people of patient hope, trusting that God is still working God’s purpose out. Let me unpack this, beginning with the last portion, that God is still working God’s purpose out. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is an attempt to help his readers understand that from the beginning of time God desired a world that lived in harmony, in peace, and in justice. When human beings messed up this harmonious world, God’s purpose became to remake it. This is the core of Romans 8 where Paul writes that creation itself will be “set free from bondage and decay and will obtain the freedom of the children of God” …meaning that creation will be recreated just as those who follow Jesus have been recreated. In other words, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is just a foretaste of the restored creation that God is at work bringing about. And even though there is suffering in the meantime, Paul says it is not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. He encourages the Roman Christians, and us, to not give up hope because God has not given up on God’s own purposeful plans to remake creation.
This assurance of God’s continuing purposeful activity is what is supposed to call us to be people of patient hope. I know that patient hope can sound like passive wishing. But it is not. First, Biblical hope is not a wish. Hope is a belief in the future based on past actions. When Cindy and I decided to have our driveway redone, we did not randomly choose someone online. Instead, we read reviews, asked for references, looked at other driveways the companies had done and then chose a company with a good track record of good work. We had hope then that our driveway would be well done. This the hope Paul is talking about. The hope that God is recreating creation is based on the recreating work that God has already done for humanity in Jesus of Nazareth. The Roman Christians had experienced becoming new people, new creations in Christ. Therefore, they could have hope that God was doing the same thing in creation itself.
The second part of this equation is patience. Patience here is not a passive acceptance of what is, but the willingness to continue working even when things aren’t brought to completion. I have to say that I admire those who do cancer research. Year after year they experiment and run trials hoping that they will find a breakthrough that will cure cancer. They don’t say, “Well if I haven’t cured cancer in a week, then I will quit.” This is patience. Patience is an attitude that Jesus followers are to have as they work for the Kingdom of God. We are to see ourselves as part of a process of recreation in which we may see little progress, but that lack of progress is not to stop us from engaging in Kingdom actions of loving God and loving neighbor.
If we want to see what patient hope looks like all we need to do is look at the life of Joseph. He was a young man called by God to be an agent of salvation. Even so, his brothers hated him, conspired against him, and sold him into slavery. As a slave he was mistreated, forgotten about, and even when he was at his best, ignored. Yet, through all his misadventures, Joseph was patient. He never whined to God that he was being mistreated. He never gave God a timetable or a set of demands. He lived with hope, believing that God’s past faithfulness would, in the end, be made evident in his life. He sums up this patient hope when his brothers, who once again lie to him about what their father had told them, says this, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” This is the kind of patient hope to which Paul is referring. This is the kind of patient hope that we are to have in the face of all the anger, pettiness, and pain we are all enduring. We are to be patient in hope that God is still working God’s purpose out.
The question for all of us this day, as we head toward the 20th anniversary of 911, is to ask ourselves, how am I showing patient hope, trusting that God is still working God’s purpose out?