Questions and Reflections

Category: Old Testament

Until Finally... [Sermon Manuscript]

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Pastor Marc's sermon on the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 29, 2020) on Ezekiel 37:1-14. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below. 

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One of the things I’m not doing much of - right now - is driving. My car, on most days, just sits in the driveway. I occasionally turn it on to go to the grocery store or to church. And on sunny days, I move it to the street so that my kids have more space to play with chalk. Since I’m trying to love my neighbors as best as I can, I’m spending most of my time with my feet on the ground rather than on the gas pedal. Now I know not all of us can stay at home like I can. Some of you are doing amazing work as nurses, doctors, and first responders - and others are keeping us fed by staffing grocery stores and making sure all our online shopping orders arrive at our doors. Your lives are really busy and stressful right now - and I pray you can find moments to rest - because you are truly making a difference in the world and I’m so grateful for everything that you do. I, on the other hand, get to stay at home. Yet that doesn’t feel like the privilege it actually is. Because as my car sits in the driveway with its wheels going nowhere - the rest of the world seems to spin much faster than it should. Even in those moments when we find ourselves feeling really bored, the anxiety that’s in our part of the world is very heavy. More and more of our friends and neighbors have officially been diagnosed with the coronavirus. And many of us are worried about our finances because we either lost our job, had to lay off workers, and we have no idea what the stock market is going to do next. No longer are the news reports that made us anxious last week only about other people. Those reports are now about us too. I don’t drive right now because I know I shouldn’t be going anywhere. But I also don’t even feel like getting into the car because there are these other forces around us that seem to be driving the next part of our story. 
 
Today’s reading from the book of Ezekiel was originally spoken to a community full of anxiety and fear because they were living far from home. Ezekiel was a prophet who was maybe 30 years old when the armies of the Babylonian Empire conquered Jerusalem, forcing the people who lived there to leave and rebuild their lives hundreds of miles away along the banks of the Euphrates river in modern day Iraq. Ezekiel, who had begun his ministry pointing out the many ways the people of Jerusalem failed to love God and their neighbors, was now living in a land not of his choosing. He and the rest of the Jewish community were in a new place where their old way of life no longer worked. They needed to build new shelters, new routines, and change their expectations of what daily life could be like since they were now living in a future that they didn’t expect. For some, this new adventure was difficult but not impossible - because they had wealth and other privileges that helped them maintain, to some degree, the lifestyle they were used to. But for others, this new reality undercut their sense of security, purpose, and hope. As we hear in today’s passage, the community cried out saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” For these survivors of war, violence, and forced migration - these dried bones were both metaphorical and very real. They thought they knew how their world worked. They thought they knew God. But then something came - an external force - that shook the very foundations of what they knew and it left them feeling vulnerable, scared, and afraid. 
 
And it’s at that moment when God gave Ezekiel a vision rooted in the very words the community was already saying. God placed Ezekiel in a valley full of dry bones. Those bones represented everything the community was feeling and experiencing. All their fear; all their worry; and all their not knowing about what would come next - everything that was draining their life - was there, in that valley. And once Ezekiel acknowledged all that was lifeless around him, God gave him new words to speak. These words were not words that Ezekiel came up with. Rather - God gave him an external word - one that broke through all the things that were taking their life away. Yet this word did not undo what the community and Ezekiel were experiencing. Things weren’t going to go back to the way things were because life doesn’t work that way. The lives we live are real - and we are shaped by every experience that we have including those moments that leave us feeling undone. Yet God’s promise to you is that your undoing will not be what defines you. Instead, God gives to us a new word - rooted in our baptism and in our faith and renewed daily by God’s grace. And it’s this external gift from God that will be what ultimately shapes us and forms us to live that new life that, in God’s eyes, truly defines us. 
 
So on this fifth Sunday of Lent, your bones might feel pretty dry. You might be worn out, empty, and just plain tired - tired of being anxious, tired of being at home, tired of not living the life you wanted, and tired of having something else shape the life that you live. All those feelings are normal; all those feelings are valid. Yet I hope that in your dry bone moments when your patience is thin, and you are feeling overwhelmed by the noise of a busy house or by the oppressing silence of being alone - in those moments, I invite you to lean into what God has already given you. This Lent, we’ve been spending time remembering and learning how to share that moment when Jesus was real to us. That is a holy gift meant to sustain you during your dry bone days. So let’s continue to add to the story we’re going to share - a story that began with “Once upon a time there was…” “And every day…” you lived your life a certain way. “Until one day…” Jesus was there. “And because of that…” the life you lived was now shifted in subtle and not so subtle ways. Yet you noticed that as you lived, something new was animating your life. At first, you weren’t sure if anything really changed but then you realized this new thing mattered because your dry bones were no longer the only thing that defined you. Instead, you discovered how Jesus enters into our world; into our anxiety; and into our suffering. Because God knows that we need an external word to cut through the troubles of today and to remind us that it’s God’s love that is driving us and our world. So I invite you to remember your story; remember your baptism; remember your faith - and trust that it’s hope, not anxiety; peace, not unknowing; and love, not fear, that holds your life. Let’s now add to the faith story we’re learning to share. And as you pay attention to the breath of God that still gives you life - finish this sentence: “Until finally…” 
 
Amen. 



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Reflection: Re-learning the old story

At the last minute, I made the executive decision to change today's reading from the Hebrew Bible. Rather than spending time in the book of Isaiah, I took us back to the opening chapter of the book of Exodus 1:1-2:2. We'll hear this passage again in August when we focus on Moses's origin story. But today I want to focus on a different part of the Exodus story: Pharaoh's order that all male babies of Hebrew descent should be killed.

The last major story at the end of the book of Genesis is centered on Joseph (aka Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat). He had become, over time, an important leader in the Egyptian government. After using the gifts God gave him to interpret dreams, he managed to save himself and the kingdom from ruin. A famine decimated the wider area but Egypt thrived because Joseph saved all the excess wheat they grew during plentiful years. His family (including his 11 brothers) and their households (including wives, kids, slaves, employees, and more) crossed the border into Egypt, become economic refugees. They did not know that Joseph was now a high-ranking official but, in a very colorful moment, the family was reunited and old grudges were forgiven. The Hebrew people settled inside Egypt, building homes and raising their families. They retained what made them culturally unique and assimilated only slightly into the wider culture. As time went on, the people in Egypt grew weary of the Hebrew people. They feared the Hebrews would replace them and the Egyptians would become marginalized. So in an act of political violence, the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrew people but that didn't satisfy the Egyptian xenophobia. They chose to do more. So, in a terrifying moment, the Pharaoh ordered male newborns to be killed once they were born. With the death of the male babies, it was assume the Hebrew women would be forced to marry Egyptians, transferring any wealth and property to the Egyptians or they would just die out. The Pharaoh ordered a genocidal act and the Hebrews, including their midwives like Shiphrah and Puah, did what they could to resist this command.

As you listen and read our story from the gospel according to Mathew today, keep in mind this Exodus story. The parallels are intentional and help us understand what Matthew chose to describe. When we forget the story of the Exodus, we end up missing the deep spiritual terror seen in the genocidal act Herod the Great ordered on the children of his people.



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Refection: A New Vision of Life

The following observation is obvious but important to say anyways: the readings from the Bible we hear on Sunday mornings come from somewhere. When the Holy Spirit first inspired these words, she gave them to specific people in specific places. Those people could, through prayer, worship, and study, understand them. As these words were written down, compiled into books, and passed on to us centuries later, the Holy Spirit shepherded that process so that these words could make sense to us too. When we pay attention to where these words come from (i.e their context), we discover the word God wants for us. These verses come from somewhere and where they are in the Bible matters too.

With that in mind, we need to remember that today’s reading from the book of Isaiah 2:1-5 does exist on its own because Isaiah has a chapter one. Chapter one is not an easy book to read. Many of its verses sound like a lawsuit where God indicts and sentences the people of Israel. The people and their leaders failed to live up to the vision God had for them and war has come their way. Although chapter one placed the prophet Isaiah in the early 700s (when the Assyrian empire destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and eliminated 10 of the 12 Israelite tribes), the final form of this book knew the entire history of Israel, including how Babylon in 587 BCE destroyed the Temple and depopulated Jerusalem. Even though the people worshiped God faithfully through prayer and rituals, the people’s relationship with each other was broken. Everyone cheated; everyone sought their own self-advancement; everyone fought to maintain their own privileges; and no one cared for the common good. The test God gave God’s people was to see how they cared for the most marginalized and powerless (widows and orphans in ancient Israel). Seeing their plight ignored, God ended chapter one by declaring Jerusalem judged guilty and putting them under threat from the God who once made them prosper.

But then, chapter two comes and we hear an unexpected word of hope. We expected the lawsuit to continue yet we are given a vision of a new future. Chapter two is not designed to cancel out chapter one. But it does say, quite boldly, that God is not done with God’s people. The vision God has will, someday, truly come. And God’s purpose for God’s people will be lived out. All people, regardless of their faith, will trust God because God’s people will show, through their care for the marginalized, the future God wants for us all. We begin this Advent season by being honest about our own context. We come from somewhere, with our own challenges as an individual and as a community. Yet in our baptism, we are grafted onto a new vision of God’s future where all people thrive. And this vision will require all people to re-evaluate their way of life and their identity. God’s vision isn’t about continuing our life as it is now. It believes in a change that will require sacrifice, prayer, and a willingness to be honest about makes us who we are. Yet there’s hope in this hard work because when we walk in the light of the Lord, we see a new kind of life where competition, self-centeredness, and violence are replaced with forgiveness, mercy, and love.



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Reflection: Struggle

In the game Oregon Trail, one of the elements that needed to be overcome was rivers. The game invited players to jump into a covered wagon on its journey from St. Louis to Oregon in the mid-1800s. After suffering broken axles, hunting for food, and contracting dysentery, players needed to cross several rivers. Players always hoped that these crossings would be uneventful but the wagon sometimes tipped over, causing wagon tongues to float way. Rivers, in Oregon Trail, were boundaries that needed to be crossed so that players could enter their promised land.

Today's first reading Genesis 32:22-31 begins at a river. Jacob, with his family and his wealth, is on his way to meet his brother Esau. Ever since their time in the womb, these two siblings have been in constant competition with each other. As a young child, Jacob pretended to be his brother in order to gain his father's blessing. Esau, in response, cursed his brother. Since then, Jacob's entire life was under Esau's curse. Jacob knew he needed to reconcile with his brother. But Jacob was unwilling to face his past. He needed to be transformed into something new. So God, in a colorful moment, intervened and the nation of Israel gained its new name.

In the ancient world, rivers were "believed to be infested by demons."* Jacob, when confronted by the unknown being, did not know what he was struggling against. He assumed he was fighting a demon but when dawn broke, he realized he was struggling with God. In that moment, his past and his assumptions collided with his present reality. He became open to new possibilities.  Jacob then asked for a blessing because he knew his struggle with God required him to become something new. Jacob's name change did not ignore or diminish his past. Rather, God's gift of a new identity signifies his transformation into something more than he once was. In our baptism, we are, like Jacob, given a new identity. We are not limited by what we have done or by what others have said about us. Rather, in God's eyes, we are God's beloved. And since we are loved, we get to live new lives that bear the marks of all our struggle while God's carries us into God's Promised Land.

*quote from page 233 of The Torah, a Modern Commentary (Revised) edited by W. Gunther Plaut, 2006.



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Reflection: How God Sees

Today's reading from 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c started in a strange place. Naaman was a successful military commander of Aram, a kingdom centered in modern day Syria. He did not follow the God of Israel yet we hear, in the very first verse, that God was with him. We don't always think about God being with those who don't believe. Yet, that's where this story began. Naaman was a foreigner with immense power given to him by his King and Israel's God. Yet his life was not perfect. Even though he was powerful, he was sick. And he could not remove the leprosy that afflicted him.

However, one of his slaves was a young girl who would be the catalyst for his salvation. She had been captured during one of the many Aramean raids on Israel during this period. Aram's success on the battlefield meant Israel was oppressed by their stronger neighbor. At this moment in history, the power gap between Israel and Aram was huge. Israel could barely defend itself. And in the case of this young woman, her power when compared to Naaman was even more at odds. She was enslaved by the very military leader who succeeded in destabilizing her community. She had no control over the violence done to her while Naaman could exercise his power in any way he saw fit. In the eyes of the world, she was nothing while he was everything. Yet God chose to speak through her. Naaman's healing would not come through his worldly power. Rather, his healing came through the people the world saw as powerless. Because, as evident throughout Scripture, those who have no one to trust but God are the ones who can see God's work in the world. After being informed by the prophet Elisha to go and take a bath, Naaman almost didn't do it. Elisha's words seemed too easy. Yet those around Naaman, especially his powerless servants and slaves, knew what God was up to. They convince Naaman to embrace what God was doing. Naaman finally washed and was healed.

But there's more to the story than a simple healing. We need to look at the Hebrew. Our English translation is based on to truly see what God was doing. In the words of Dr. Rolf Jacobson, "The Hebrew for 'young boy' is na’ar qaton—the masculine equivalent to the young girl (na’arah qatannah) whom the great man had enslaved and from whom his salvation began." In God's eyes, Naaman has become like the young girl - beloved, welcomed, and included. God chose to make Naaman brand new. And in that newness, God encouraged Naaman to see others in a new way, too. He was invited, I believe, to see that young girl not the way the world does, as a slave. Rather, he should see her through God's eyes, setting her free, because she, like every human being, is worth more than any army of chariots, horses, and mighty warriors.



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Reflection: Change Your Mind

What do we do with a God who changed? I realize that's a bit of a provocative statement because we believe (and I believe it too) that God does not change. Yet we are often confronted by a God, especially in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) who does change. In today's story from Exodus 32:1-14, God's mind is changed when confronted by Moses. The story began at Mount Sinai. After being rescued from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites encamped around the holy mountain. Moses went up the mountain to talk with God but stayed hidden in the clouds for a bit too long. With Moses gone for so long, the community grew nervous. They were in a land they were unfamiliar with and had no clear vision of where to go next. Moses gave them a sense that God was with them but that was now missing. The community needed some tangible connection with the divine. So in a moment of need, Aaron, God's high-priest and spokesperson, helped build a golden calf to be worshipped and celebrated. Moses, not knowing what had happened in the camp, was informed by God about the building of the idol. God, very abruptly, chose to renounce kingship over the community by calling the Israelites "Your [aka Moses'] people." The community turned away from God and deserved to be punished. God let Moses know that God's judgment was about to come.

Yet one of the interesting things about this text is also what it doesn't say. Although anger and wrath were mentioned, nowhere does the text explicitly say: "God's anger flared up." Instead, that phrase was reserved for their dialogue. It's implied but never fully stated that God was angry. What God does say, however, is for Moses to "let me alone." This command, at first, seemed simple enough. But God was probably using a bit of reverse psychology. God wanted Moses to ignore God's command. God wanted Moses to intervene and Moses did. Instead of accepting God's commitment to violence or God's invitation to clone Moses for the nation itself, Moses defended the people worshipping the idol below. The community that rebelled against God and often against Moses was the community Moses said God must protect. God’s promises were not directed towards perfect people. God's promises were made to the broken, the imperfect, and those who often fail. God's promises were, and still are, made to people just like us.

God, in the end, changed God's mind. God articulated a desire to Moses and then rescinded it. Moses stood up to God by reminding God of God's own character. God is faithful; God is slow to anger; God is love. God's own unchanging character means that God's mind will often be changed. God will offer forgiveness, grace, and mercy, before wrath and violence. God will keep God's promises because those promises are what's truly unchanging about God. So when we talk to God in our own prayers, sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is be a bit like Moses and remind God of the promises God has already made to us and to our world.



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Reflection: She

One of the more difficult things I find as a parent is learning when to step back. Often my kids run into a problem or situation where they need help. And as their dad, my first response is to fix it. I do not want my kids to get bogged down or stuck. I want them, instead, to move on to the next thing. But when I step in, my kid's do not always grow. There is a value in being stuck and learning how to figure out what to do next. The best thing I can do as a parent is to know when to step back and let my kids figure things out. And the book of Proverbs was written with this idea in mind.

Proverbs is a book of poetry and these poems are filled with parallelisms. Parallelism is when the second line of a verse restates, in some way, the first. This restatement can sound exactly the same or it can be very different. Proverbs prefers to use these two lines to contrast each other. This is how the book of Proverbs helps us to see "what is good and approved and what is not*." We are invited to puzzle over the meanings - to get stuck in each verse. Because this book wants to show us how, when we are overwhelmed by different voices and opinions, we "can choose the wiser course**."

But what, exactly, is wise? That's a question currently up to debate. We can all name people who we know who think they are always right. And we might think that our opinions and decision making abilities are always top notch. We can find ourselves supporting any opinion that affirms what we already think is right. And we surround ourselves with voices that keep us comfortable while shutting down the people who do not agree with us. We have no problem labeling something "Fake News" if what we're reading doesn't support what we believe. We struggle to know what to trust because even videos can make people say what they didn't really mean. It can feel as if wisdom is in short supply. But we might not agree where such wisdom can be found

The Book of Proverbs (today's reading Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31), then, offers a chance to see what God considers wise. Yet this wisdom, I think, is less about what each individual verse says and more about who the book of Proverbs describes. Throughout this book, we meet the character of Wisdom. Wisdom is typically personified as a she and she is imagined as being present when the universe was made. Wisdom is a master craftswoman, who joyfully celebrates God's holy work. She is God's Spirit in the world, the voice of what is always true. She is the One who advocates for justice and love. And she has seen it all while still delighting in the diversity of our world. She is, for Christians, the Holy Spirit. She is the energy that opens us to learning what it means to fear God, to cling to Jesus, and to experience the gift of faith. When other voices want to turn us towards what is comfortable, she is already speaking to us and showing us a more holy way. When we are stuck, she is Jesus' presence as we struggle to find our way. She is God's energy in the world. And she, as the Holy Spirit, is how God's love helps us find a way through.

* The Fortress Press Commentary on the Old Testament, 2014.
** Anne Stewart, Commentary on Working Preacher, 2019.



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Reflection: Jackals and Ostriches and Dragons

One of the difficulties in translating the Bible is figuring out which animals are actually in there. In the various translations of today's text from Isaiah 43:16-21 that I consulted, the animals identified included jackals, ostriches, wild dogs, coyotes, buzzards, and surly birds. My personal favorite is from the King James Version which translated verse 20 as "dragons and owls." There's something very Harry Potter-esque about having a Bible passage with those two creatures in it.

We don't know exactly what animals Isaiah was thinking of (the Arabian ostrich roamed the Near East before being hunted to extinction by the early 20th century). But we do know what Isaiah was trying to get at. The animals in this passage are animals identified as being ritually unclean. There was something about them that did not match God's own reality of holiness. Humans were to avoid eating them or even touching them. Since dragons and owls were unclean, they were unable to honor God because their very nature made that impossible. Yet, when God shows up, that impossibility becomes possible. God, speaking through Isaiah, looks forward towards what God is about to do. The God who led the ancient Israelites out of slavery is the same God who is about to do even more. Instead of asking the community to remain in their past, God invited them to see into their future. Their present situation will not be the limit to what God is about to do. God is with them and that changes everything.

So that means that when God shows up, the unclean wild animals suddenly show honor. When God shows up, the desert is filled with rivers of water. When God shows up, new life comes. If we only look at what God has done in the past, we miss seeing how God who is active in our lives today. The God who loves you is still with you. The God who loves you still has hope for you. And the God who made the universe also made you. You are necessary to do what God made you for: to join your voice with all of God's beloved creation to God's incredible song of love, hope, and a new beginning.



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Reflection: Without Money and Without Price

Now that spring has officially sprung, I long for the new life spring represents.
I look at my garden every day, trying to spot each new bulb as it breaks ground. I stare at my lawn, waiting for the grass to turn from a dried yellow to a vibrant green. I peer at every tree, looking for the buds of new leaves. And I can't wait to hear the song of birds that announce every new day. Spring is a season dominated by nature. But there are other "things of spring" that I wait impatiently for and one of them is the return of the neighborhood ice cream truck.

Ice cream is usually a sign of summer but once the temperature breaks 60, that truck is out and about. I usually hear it circling my neighborhood, with a soft jingle turning loud as the truck nears my home. Before you know it, I'm spending my evenings figuring out new ways to distract my children from noticing the sound. The sound of songbirds and the sound of ice cream trucks is a sign that a new way of life is here.

Today's reading from Isaiah 55:1-9 starts with a jingle from an ancient version of that ice cream truck. The scripture begins like a street vendor would, offering everyone free water, milk, and wine. But this gift isn't a free sample hoping to trick us into buying something expensive. The street vendor of Isaiah 55 is offering a gift of abundant and rich food that will last forever He wonders, out loud, why those around him invest their time, talent, and energy in that which does not truly satisfy. This poetic passage is an invitation for the community to turn away from what takes their life and, instead, turn towards what gives life. And the new free and satisfying life is a life that finds its home in God.

Although written to the community of Jews living in exile, this text also applies to us. Walter Brueggemann writes that these rhetorical questions ask us why we "invest so much in forms of life that cannot work - why work so hard and so long in ways that give no satisfaction; why give life over the demands and rewards of the empire that yield nothing of value in return." We are encouraged to ask ourselves hard questions and to wonder if our way of life is bringing a new life to those around us. What, right now, are we investing in that is taking us away from God? And what are we doing that is taking our life away from us?



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Reflection: Arriving

Today's reading from Deuteronomy 26:1-11 is one of the centerpieces of the Haggadah, the Jewish text that sets the order for the Passover meal. While those gathered around the table re-tell the story of the Exodus, they make a confession to each other and to God as laid out in verses 5 through 8. They admit how they were part of a wandering community that was enslaved by the Egyptians. They testify how God saved them. They affirm that their relationship to God isn't only tied to the fact they were born into the family of Jacob. Their God is their God because God freed them from slavery. What's amazing about this text is that the pronouns here ("you") are singular. These words are meant to be spoken by individuals. It's not the community that's saying "a wandering Aramean was my ancestor;" I'm the one asked to say that. God wants each person to remember their history and, through the act of remembering, realize how God is currently doing the same for them. The God that loved them in the past is the same God who loves them now. And the God who loves them now is inviting them into a new future where God's love becomes what primarily defines them.


A Jewish colleague of mine described this passage as a text about "arriving." It's about remembering where you've come from and pointing to where you're going. When we remember our faith stories, we're doing more than looking at things that happened in the past. Instead, we're re-participating in the ongoing story of how our God makes a difference in our lives right now. The stories in the Bible point us to that realization. It's not enough to read scripture; we need to also make scripture our own. We do that by paying attention to those moments in our lives when God shows up. Your faith is your own and your faith is a gift. It, through Jesus, is already yours. Yet we also have the responsibility to make that faith a true part of who we are. We need to first tell ourselves and then tell others about how God has made a difference to us. And when we start doing that, we start arriving in the place God wants us to be.



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