Gratitude and Unexpected Gifts
Today at Grace we are starting a new series of sermons on faith and fear. Over the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about having ‘faith over fear’ but the reality of our lives isn’t that simple.
Reasons for fear are all around us, and if you aren’t aware of anything to be afraid of, let me know – as a fan of true crime I can tell you all sorts of situations that you should terrified by. Fear is all around us but reasons for faith and hope are all around us as well. We are not helpless spectators of our lives, we have the strength to confront and counteract the terrors of this life. There is a drive within us that says the worst thing does not have to be the last thing. As Christians and followers of Jesus, perhaps we could say that in our lives it can feel like Good Friday, but we know Easter Sunday is coming.
Even when we trust that Sunday is coming, it can feel like we’re stuck in Good Friday, and the fear that comes with that is anything but good.
With that, let me tell you a couple of things about this week.
This week, I spent a lot of time getting ready for the first Sunday since last March that I haven’t been alone in the sanctuary. For nearly 16 months, I’ve been by myself on Sunday mornings, and for much of this pandemic I’ve been my own production crew, recording and editing the services. I’ve had to learn how to be a cinematographer, editor and producer, none of that was covered in seminary.
I am eternally grateful for the volunteers that we have that are streaming the service and helping with all the audio/visual aspects of the service this week. Y’all have no idea how excited I am to be done with being my own production crew. I didn’t have to set up lights, microphones or a camera, I can’t tell you how good that feels. Most weeks, recording the sermon would take around 3 hours. At least for myself, because I knew I could edit and fix things in post, I would record take after take and eventually edit out all of my errors so the three hours of the sermon recording would only feel like three hours. Editing took 15 to 20 hours a week and the whole process was about 30 hours if not more. It is a huge relief to not be doing that.
But, because I’m not alone, I’m not in complete control. I trust every one of our volunteers and I am thankful that I’m not alone, and yet, when I was alone, I was in control of everything. If I messed something up, there was always another take and I could edit out every mistake.
For the past year, I’ve had a very clear deadline, Sundays come with regularity. I knew what needed to be done by Sunday morning and if that meant recording a service on Saturday and staying up all night to edit it, only to have the service uploaded to Facebook and YouTube at 6 in the morning on Sunday, so be it. I was exhausted, but I made my deadline and could start working on the next service. I found myself in a pattern and routine that wasn’t healthy or helpful, but it was a schedule, it was a routine, it was a new normal, but all that changed this week, it’s a change for the better, but it’s still a change.
Years ago, a mentor of mine told me all change is grief. At that point in my life, I was getting ready for what was a good and healthy and necessary change in my life, but I didn’t feel good about it, the closer the change got, the more I dreaded it. That’s when my friend said all change is grief. They went on to tell me that it doesn’t matter what the change is because every change is an entrance into the unknown and what are we more afraid of than the unknown?
We can find ourselves in a fearful and unhealthy situation, and the longer we’re stuck in that disfunction and dis-ease, the more we become used to it, and the easier it is to be prepared for. It becomes a habit, it becomes a way of life, which is why co-dependency is as common as it is destructive. Change, however, means entering into the unknown, and the unknown will always be fearful to us.
I did not have an extra 30 hours this week to record and edit a service, but multiple times throughout this week I told myself how much easier life would be if I could just did everything on my own.
On one hand, the level of isolation that we’ve had in the past 16 months hasn’t just been healthy, it’s been necessary. For the sake of loving one another as we love ourselves, physically distancing necessary. Now, as we can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel, our distancing habit is hard to break, which is why, on the other hand, we have to recognize that we’re holding together our faith and our fear. We are not in an either/or moment, we’re in an era where it can feel as if we are struck by everything at once. If we ignore that, we can’t deal with it.
The Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann noticed a pattern in the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. Once you know this pattern, you can recognize it all around you.
Here’s the pattern:
We start with a certain orientation in our lives, there’s a direction that we find ourselves in and there is a normal that we are used to. In the scriptures, Jospeh being the kings favorite prisoner in Egypt, it’s Moses knowing the Pharaoh is going to refuse the freedom for the people but still demanding it, it’s Jonah not wanting to go to Ninevah. There are all these moments in the scriptures that normal, it’s the way things are because it’s the way things.
We all live with a certain orientation in our lives, but then something happens that brings about disorientation. In the Hebrew Scriptures, Joseph finds their way into freedom only to be unrecognizable by his siblings, Moses leads the people into freedom only to have the people complain about how freedom is harder than the life in slavery that they once knew, it’s Jonah being stuck in the belly of the fish. Bruggemann noticed that in the Hebrew Scriptures and in our lives things are not always as simple or as easy as we want them to be.
Its kind of like this – sometimes a river is just a river, but every now and then something ends up in the river that shouldn’t be there. All of a sudden the river isn’t just a river, it’s an eco-system, but it’s not just an eco-system, it’s a polluted eco-system that needs to be protected, and if they river is going to be protected than we need to know what’s polluting it. We need to see how the river isn’t just a river, our orientation, our normal, shifts.
The brilliance of Bruggemann is that he saw disorientation as the invitation to reorientation. We have those moments where a river is just a river, and then it’s more than a river, only so it can be back to being a river again.
As Bruggeman wirtes, “Our life of faith consists in moving with God in terms of:
(a) being securely oriented;
(b) being painfully disoriented; and
(c) being surprisingly reoriented.”
I don’t know where you would find yourself in this movement, but I think a lot of us are on the edge of being surprisingly reoriented. We’re still a bit disoriented, but we can see hope on the horizon.
It’s as if our lives have been like Psalm 13 where it begins, “How long will you forget me, Lord?”
If you have ever felt forgotten by God, remember that this feeling is a verse in the Bible. We, like the Psalmist wonder, “How long will [God] hide [their] face from [us].
And yet, even as our lives often have moments that feel like the beginning of Psalm 13, things don’t end in disorientation. Psalm 13 moves from isolation and fear to a new reorientation in the life of the psalmist where they write, “My heart will rejoice in your salvation. Yes, I will sing to the Lord because [God] has been good to me.”
If the hope of Psalm 13 is true, here’s what we don’t believe, and can’t believe about God – if we rejoice in God’s salvation and will sing to the Lord because God has been good to us, then we don’t believe and can’t believe that God caused this pandemic or that God made this happen to teach us a lesson. God created a cosmos filled with freedom, potential, and possibility. Evolution witnesses to the beauty of God’s creativity. At least for myself, evolution points us towards the endless potential that is not just within the cosmos but within us.
The hope and the promise of Psalm 13 is not that God caused or causes our disorientation, rather, and better, the hope and promise is that God sees us though our disorientation so that we might find our way into reorientation.
I see this hope in the life of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement that we are a part of at Grace. If you were with us last month, you learned a lot about the life and faith of John Wesley but one thing that I didn’t tell you is that even on the other side of John’s Aldersgate experience where his hear was strangely warmed, John didn’t always believe that he believed.
When John Wesley was in his sixties he wrote a letter to his brother Charles and said, “I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…And yet, to be so employed of God!…I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know.”
On Wesley’s death bed, his last words were, best of all God is with us. Throughout all of John Wesley’s life, he had questions and doubts, even on the other side of his Aldersgate experience, and yet Wesley was certain that God would alway be with us, no matter our uncertainties.
It’s this promise that God will always be with us that brings us to our reading today. It’s a reading about coming to faith, but it’s also a reading about living with questions and doubts and fears.
One of the first things to notice in our reading from 2 Kings is that Naaman is a part of the nation of Aram. Aram isn’t in Israel, in fact, Aram would have been an enemy and a threat to Israel, but the author of 2 Kinds writes that Aram, this foreign military leader and enemy of Israel, was given victory by the Lord.
Do you think that God does good things in the lives of the people you don’t like? Can you believe in a God that cares for your enemies and even brings them into victory?
That’s the kind of God that the author of 2 Kings wants to tell us about.
Naaman has some sort of skin disease, we’re not really sure what, but it was a noticeable ailment, likely eczema, but it also could have just been extremely dry skin or a bad sunburn. When the Bible writes about leprosy, all sorts of various skin diseases are included in that, not just Hansen’s disease.
We’ve got to remember that 2 Kings was written centuries before germ theory. People had a decent idea of how plagues spread, they could observe a disease moving from one person to another, but they didn’t really understand the how or the why. This is why people with obvious skin ailment, like Naaman, we’re often shunned and forced into social and physical distancing.
Naaman, however, hears the hope for a cure. A slave girl from Israel tells Naaman that Elisha might be able to heal him and Naaman thinks why not give it a shot. The king of Aram sends a letter and what seems like a downpayment to the king of Israel, and the king of Israel thinks he’s being set up for a fight. The king of Israel doesn’t think that Elisha can do anything to help, Naaman is going to come to Israel sick and is going to go home sick. The king of Israel is certain that Aram is trying to start a fight, but Elisha tells the king to have faith, which is an easy thing for Elisha to say, his power and position isn’t on the line, but the king trusts him and Naaman comes to Israel.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s home, Naaman expects the red carpet to be rolled out, but Elisha doens’t even answer the door, he send out a messenger. Imagine if the president needed a favor from you. You were told that a member of the president’s cabinet was going to come to your home so you could help them, but instead of answering the door, you put a note in your dogs collar and sent them out the door because you can’t be bothered.
That’s kind of how Elisha reacts to Naaman. Naaman thinks they are going to get the royal treatment, but Elisha barely takes notice of them. More than that, all Elisha tells Naaman to do is take a bath. It’s the simplest of instructions, it’s like being told all we’d need to do as a nation to get past this pandemic is wear masks, be physically distanced, washing our hands and getting vaccinated. It all sounds way too easy and simple. Shouldn’t healing be harder than that? Shouldn’t we have to climb Mount Everest so we can meet with the healer that will send us on a journey to collect rare ingredients that can be turned into a potion?
Naaman thinks it should be hard, but Elisha knows the answer is almost always more simple than we want to admit.
Sometimes all you need to do is take a bath.
Naaman wants to give up, but his servants talk him into trying, after all, if Elisha would have told Naaman to start an arduous journey, Naaman would have started right away, so why not give the easy solution a try?
Naaman is healed, Elisha and the grace of God, brought healing and wholeness to Naaman’s life, not merely because their no longer diseased, but because without this obvious disease, Naaman can be a part of the community again. He’s no longer shunned, he’s no longer told to keep his distance, he can find his way back to the table with friends. Naaman has moved from disorientation to reorientation, which is why he’d really like Elisha to send him home with two mule loads of dirt.
The two mule loads of dirt are a bit like a souvenir. If you’ve ever been on a vacation and brought home a cheesy t-shirt, it’s kind of like that. But it’s also a reminder of just how special and holy this moment and this place was for Naaman. He doens’t want to take his new life for granted, he needs to carry this healing and hope with him, so he’s going to literally take the land with him.
As Naaman is gathering their things and getting ready to head home, he’s living with faith, he’s felt God’s grace in his life, but now he’s afraid. Naaman has some questions and fears because Naaman’s boss doesn’t believe in the God of Israel, Naaman’s co-workers have all sorts of different beliefs and practices and Naaman knows that life is going to get complicated, it might get so messy that when Naaman’s boss goes to bow before their god, Naaman is going to have to bow as well, because otherwise their boss is going to be stuck on the ground and you’ll never get promoted if you boss has fallen, can’t get up, and you just walk away from them.
We all know what Elisha, the prophet of God, is going to say to Naaman, right? Turn or burn, Naaman. You can either stand for something or fall for everything. Of course Elisha, the prophet of God in the Old Testament is going to say to Naaman, how dare you compromise your faith in God by bowing in devotion anywhere else!
Elisha says to Naaman, “Go in peace.”
It’s as if Elisha says to Naaman, I know you are afraid and you’re anxious and you have all kinds of fears, but you can hold that fear if you remember the faithful peace of God. Elisha says to Naaman, go in peace, enter into the awkwardness, the confusion, live into the disorientation and reorientation of your life, because the God of peace will always be with you.
As you think back over the last year, what’s the dirt that you want to carry with you? What do you need to remember? I love that Naaman wants to bring dirt because, fundamentally, dirt is dirty. It’s not clean, it’s not all that easy to carry, but Naaman still had gratitude for the unexpected gift they found in the dirt.
Maybe the dirt that we need to carry with us is remembering that we can be reoriented, that just because something is normal, doesn’t mean it’s good. Maybe the dirt that we need to carry with is the hope that we can endure, we can preserver. That dirt isn’t easy, and it’s hard to carry, but even when we’ve been distanced, we haven’t had to carry it alone.
What gratitude do you have for the unexpected gifts of the past year?
For me, it was learning that I really could preach through a book of the Bible, one verse at a time. The letter to the Philippians is endlessly fascinating to me, every time I read it, I see something new and I didn’t think anyone else would be all that interested in a sermon that looks at the meaning of Greek words, but I was wrong, and I’m grateful for that.
The dirt that I carry with me, the gratitude and the unexpected gift that I never want to lose is the reality of our adaptability. We can change, we can make mistakes, we can try again, and we can press forward.
What’s the dirt that you are going to carry with you? As we head into yet another new normal, there is something that you need to take with you, there is a gratitude that can help to shape the reorientation of our lives on the other side.
Even more than the gratitude that will guide us forward, there’s something else we need to remember, go in peace. With our fears, with our worries, with our doubts, with our questions, we go in peace. And that’s why, whatever our new normal will be, we will always get there by the grace of the communion table.
During Christ’s last meal, he was at a table filled with worries, fears, doubts, questions, betrayals and anxiety. At that table, Christ was there with peace, extending and offering the grace of God no matter what. Everyone, always, has a place at this table, and it is the welcome and the hospitality of this table that reminds us how we can live with peace, how we can have faith even in the midst of our fear. So let us come now to the table together…
June 7 – 12, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Psalm 18:1-16, 46-50
Notice – 2 Samuel 22 takes place near the end of the story of David’s kingship and it also recorded Psalm 18, with a few minor variations. But before David was fully accepted as Israel’s king, David faced King Saul’s jealous hatred (see 1 Samuel 18:5-18, 23:14-15). Looking back, David compared God’s care over him to a thunderstorm. God’s power awed David, and he praised God for it. David used a simple, straightforward phrase: “I love you, LORD, my strength” (verse 1). Do you ever struggle to pray, alone or with others, because you fear you don’t know the “right” words? How can David, the great poet/king, encourage you to just tell God directly, in language as simple or elaborate as you choose, what is in your heart?
Pray – Lord, thank you for faithfully loving me, “warts and all,” just as you faithfully loved David. Keep deepening my understanding of your ways all my life long. Amen.
Read – Exodus 15:1-3, 34:5-10
Notice – The song in Exodus 15 came after God gave the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the sea, a dry path. When the army tried to take the Hebrews back to slavery, the waters returned and the pursuit ended. Scholar John Goldingay wrote, “Miriam and Moses don’t wait until they can get to church before declaring God’s praise…The great power’s leader thought he was the preeminent power in his world, and that made him think he was god, but God has shown who is God.” * Scholar Maxie Dunnam wrote, “The meaning of the story is not found in the drowning of the Egyptian soldiers. No one should rejoice at the death or defeat of another human being. Rather, the story symbolizes the death of evil—God’s victory in ‘the struggle between good and evil.’” ** How can you, like Jesus, learn to rejoice in the defeat of evil without hating or rejoicing over the bad fate of people who’ve gotten caught up in evil?
Pray – God, you call me to be faithful. I really want to be. But I thank you that I can trust your faithful love and grace more than you can trust my strength or determination. Amen.
- John Goldingay, Exodus and Leviticus for Everyone. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 67.
- Maxie Dunnam, The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Volume 2: Exodus. General Editor: Lloyd J. Ogilvie. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987, p. 163.
Read – Psalm 66:1-12
Notice – Scholar John Goldingay wrote that this psalm “issues from a time when [Israel] has come out the other side and is flourishing. It can now look back and see that it was being tested or refined. Such a crisis shows whom you can really trust, where your security lies, and whom you recognize to be in control of the world. Crises reveal character.” * We aren’t fully on the other side of the coronavirus crisis, but we at least hope the other side is in sight, so this psalm can speak to us. What lessons do you believe you’ve learned (if any) during the last year about “whom you can really trust, where your security lies, and whom you recognize to be in control of the world”? Do any of your previous answers to those questions seem more hollow or inadequate to you now? In the wake of this testing, refining time, how would you now define where your security lies?
Pray – God, many times I wished you’d just wave a magic wand and make the virus go away. But you don’t quite work that way – yet you work. Help me learn the lessons you want to teach me as we emerge from this pandemic. Amen.
- John Goldingay, Psalms for Everyone, Part 1: Psalms 1–72. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013, p. 202
Read – Psalm 30:1-5, 11-12
Notice – Psalm 30 reflected a time of severe trouble. Whatever the specific circumstances, the psalmist’s focus was on how God had driven away the threat and restored joy to life. Difficult times can make God feel absent even for people of faith. (Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1 on the cross.) We sometimes use the phrase “God showed up” to describe times of recovery and restoration. How does joy in our lives grow more from God’s presence with us than from circumstances? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “I read these words: ‘The United States Supreme Court today unanimously ruled bus segregation unconstitutional in Montgomery, Alabama’…The dawn will come…’ ‘Weeping may endure for a night,’ says the Psalmist, ‘but joy cometh in the morning.’ This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.” * Can you think of “dawn” times in world history? How do you look forward to God bringing a joyous “morning” to our world now?
Pray – Lord, as I face hard times where “weeping may stay all night,” I thank you that the worst thing is never the last thing. In the end you always have and always will turn sorrow into joy. Amen.
- A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James M. Washington. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1986, p. 504.
Read – Psalm 126:1-6
Notice – The first half of this psalm was a journey in memory. The Israelites never forgot the Exodus from Egypt – their “defining story” – nor the jubilation of being set free from exile. “Yes, the LORD has done great things for us,” the psalmist affirmed – God lifting them up from their lowly status was a permanent part of their history. What do you remember as a time when God did “great things” in your life? How do you keep that memory alive? The second half of the psalm became a prayer, based in the confidence that the same God who did great things in the past would do them again. Are there parts of your life in which you echo the prayer, “Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts”? In what ways can you nourish your confidence that, in the words of Psalm 30:5 we read yesterday, “Weeping may stay all night, but by morning, joy”?
Pray – God, thank you for the times when you did great things for your people. Help me to live in the confidence that, sooner or later, you always act to uplift and bring joy to the lowly. Amen.
Read – John 20:19-22, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
Notice – After Jesus was crucified, everything the disciples thought they believed about him seemed lost. He was dead, and if that wasn’t enough, by Sunday his body was missing. The disciples were hiding, afraid the authorities would come after them next. But no one had stolen Jesus’ body. Jesus was their Messiah, in ways that went beyond their wildest dreams. “Jesus…stood among them” and gave them his peace, his purpose (“As [God] sent me, so I am sending you”), and his power (“Receive the Holy Spirit”). And the risen Jesus went on to change the angry young Pharisee Saul into the tireless apostle Paul who won people in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica to faith in Jesus, and later wrote them the succinct counsel about rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks. How did Paul tell the new Christians in Thessalonica to handle pressure? Do you handle stress differently because of your relationship with Christ? “The implication of Paul’s words is that real joy depends on one’s relation to God, which is permanent and unchanging.” * How have you found gratitude in the past year for God’s love and promises even in life’s hardest moments?
Pray – Jesus, breathe your joy and courage into me. Give me ears to hear and strength to live out the part of your mission on which you are sending me. Amen.
- Paul Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. New York: United Bible Societies, 1976, p. 121.
Tomorrow Will Worry About Itself
At Grace we are in a series of sermons on faith and fear. Over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at some of the most common fears that we have and passages in the Bible that speak to those fears and worries. One of the most common phrase in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid” which is interesting because it tells us two things. First, it tells us that God’s dream for our lives is not found in fear. God does not want us to be afraid. Fear is not meant to be the defining feature of our lives. But the second thing this tells us is that people in the Bible were afraid, a lot.
Typically, we don’t have to tell people to not do something they aren’t doing. I have never had to tell anyone, “Do not lick the bottom of your shoe”. If the phrase, “don’t lick the bottom of your shoe” was one of the most common phrases in the Bible, what would that tell us about the people in the Bible?
Do not be afraid is the most common phrase in the Bible because God doesn’t want us to live in fear, even though we are often afraid.
In 1947, the poet W.H. Auden wrote, “The Age of Anxiety”. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry for the Age of Anxiety and this poem Auden writes:
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play . . .
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.
When you think about the mood of the United States on the other side of World War II, do you think of an age of anxiety? Nostalgia always comes with rose tinted glasses and if you’re old enough to remember the TV show Happy Days, you know it was a documentary, but you also want to tell yourself those were the good ol’ days.
If the late 1940s and 50s were the age of anxiety, what does that mean for us?
In this age of amplified anxieties, we are, statistically speaking, safer than ever before. The overall crime rate in the United States has fallen by 74% since 1993. (https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/11/20/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/) The oddest thing about this decline is that the vast majority of us imagine that the crime rate has increased. Not only that, when the crime rate was higher, people, on average, felt safer and were less worried about crime.
In “The Science of Fear” Daniel Gardner writes, “We are the healthiest, wealthiest, and longest-lived people in history. And we are increasingly afraid. This is one of the great paradoxes of our time.” Gardner goes on to show that the more informed we are, the more access to information we have, the more likely we are to be influenced by fear-driven messages.
Take the water in Flint, Michigan for example. The water in Flint was so toxic that 42 criminal counts against former Michigan State officials were announced earlier this year. At least 12 people died due to the unsafe and untreated water in Flint.
If I were to offer you a bottle of Flint water, you would probably turn it down, even though by February of 2019, every home in Flint had clean water. A few weeks after every home had been tested and was proved to have safe water, the United Nations-sponsored “World Water Day” was celebrated in Flint, with 12 semi’s filled with bottles of water. The water wasn’t bottled in Flint, let alone Michigan, and cars lined up around the block to pick up that bottled water because the residents of Flint didn’t trust the testing that proved the water in their homes was safe.
They might have trusted the testing and they could make sense of the science that proved their water was safe, but that didn’t mean they could quickly trust the tap water they had been terrified of. And who can blame them? Can you imagine years of knowing that the water in your kitchen sink could kill you, and then all of a sudden, it’s OK. Even when you know it’s OK, how long is it going to take for you to feel OK?
Bessel van der Kolk is a psychiatrist, researcher, and author that specializes in trauma and is best known for their book, “The Body Keeps the Score”. What van dec Kolk proved is something that we all feel at the core of our being, even when we don’t want to admit is true, “…neuroscience research shows that very few psychological problems are the result of defects in understanding; most originate in pressures from deeper regions in the brain that drive our perception and attention. When the alarm bell of the emotional brain keeps signaling that you are in danger, no amount of insight will silence it.”
They go on to write, “Being traumatized means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past.”
Prior to the pandemic, at least one in five persons had a generalized anxiety disorder. We all have moments of fear and anxiety, but a generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by consistent and excessive worry. If you don’t know what that feels like, I’m a bit jealous, because it feels like a smoke alarm going off even when there’s no smoke.
A few weeks ago, a smoke alarm went off because my parents taught me that I need to change smoke alarm batteries every time you change the clock, but I forgot to do that this year, and last year. In the middle of the night and there was this faint beeping coming from the living room. I would have slept completely through it, Irene probably would have too, but our puppy Oats woke up and she woke everyone up with her.
Have you ever tried to talk a barking puppy back to sleep? Trying to talk yourself out of anxiety is a bit like that. You can do it, but if the alarm is still going off in the background, your puppy is just going to start barking again. Thankfully, Irene heard the false alarm, changed the battery of the smoke alarm and calmed Oats down, all while I stayed comfortably in bed. Once the alarm was off, our puppy Oats was able to go to sleep, but if Irene wouldn’t have stopped the alarm, Oats would still be up.
In a sense, our fear and even our anxiety, is a good gift from God, because we need alarms to help keep us safe.
Imagine that you are mowing you lawn, and all of a sudden you see a snake slither through the grass.
What’s your first reaction going to be? Even before you are fully conscious of what you’ve seen, you’re going to be anxious and afraid, you might even jump back a bit. You are going to automatically respond with fear to the snake in the grass, which is evolutionary evidence of an ancient experience that still influences us today.
Snakes were, and are, a mortal threat, so humans learned a lesson about snakes and fear. When it came to our ancient ancestors, the ones that didn’t learn this lesson didn’t get a second chance. Natural selection did its thing and our fear and anxiety about snakes became hardwired into the human brain. You can go anywhere on the planet, even in arctic regions where there are no snakes, and people are afraid of snakes. Tests have even been done with monkeys raised in captivity, monkeys that had no previous experience with snakes, and even they show this automatic anxiety and fear in the presence of a snake.
The physiological reaction that we have to fear and anxiety is a good gift from God, this internal alarm keeps us safe, but sometimes it’s a false alarm, sometimes we know the alarm shouldn’t be going off, we know everything is fine, we know there isn’t a snake in the grass, but it feels like a snake is slithering up our leg.
So let’s imagine, that for a little over a year, our community was infested with snakes. We were all told that if there was no other option and if you were really careful, you could go outside, but it’s safest to stay inside because you never know when you could get bit. Thankfully, after a year, a special boot gets made and snakes can’t bite through it. Once you have your boots, you can go back to normal.
The first time you go outside with your new boots, are you going to watch your step? If you see the breeze blow over a few blades of grass, what’s your imagination going to tell you about what might be lurking in the distance?
For more than a year, we haven’t just had anxiety and fear about COVID, it’s been a year of amplified anxieties around racism, economic inequality, underemployment, unemployment, affordable housing, access to education, childcare shortages, and treason.
And today, Jesus says to us, don’t be afraid. Part of me wants to say back, Jesus Christ do you know what we’ve been through? To which I imagine Jesus would say, yeah, I do, don’t be afraid.
As we are finding our way forward even with our fears and anxieties, we need Jesus to remind us that fear doesn’t have the final say. The worry, anxiety and fear that we live with doesn’t get to be the defining feature of God’s dream for our lives.
Jesus says, “don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet your heavenly [God] feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you”.
When reading a passage in the Bible, it’s often helpful to think about the context of the words and what’s going on around them. Jesus tells us to not be afraid, to not worry about our lives in the middle of what’s called The Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount builds on itself. This isn’t a meandering sermon, like one of mine. The Sermon on the Mount is purposeful and it develops from one thought to the next. Just before telling us not to be afraid, Jesus talks about what it means to see the world with eyes full of light. Jesus tells us that since we are blessed when we are poor in spirit, since we are empowered and entrusted to live as salt and light, we can start see ourselves and one another in a new way because we’re living as partners with God’s abundance.
Look at the birds in the sky, they don’t sow seed or gather crops into barns, and God takes care of them. Even with this heat, the flowers of the field grow and bloom. If the same God that watches over the sparrows clothes creation with such beauty, can you trust that God will take care of you?
Jesus says instead of worrying about what we’re going to eat, drink, or wear, instead of worrying about tomorrow, instead of worrying about our worries, “desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
The Greek word for righteousness is δικαιοσύνην (dikaiosynēn) and in the ancient near east δικαιοσύνην was used to describe a just verdict and it literally means judicial approval. The root word, δίκαιος (dikaios) means correct, just, or innocent.
The New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine responds to what Jesus is says in the Sermon on the Mount like this, “OK. I’m going to worry anyway. I think worrying is in my DNA. My mother worried; her mother worried; all the way back to Mount Sinai, the women in my family worried. But we all had coping mechanisms. Turns out, they are pretty much the same thing Jesus advises. If you are prepared, which means you have your priorities in order – that ‘you strive first for the kingdom God and [God’s] righteousness’ – then you have no need to worry….for you, by the power both of the Spirit and your own dedicated work, will be fine.”
When it comes to our worries, fear, and anxiety, in the Sermon on the Mount, it comes down to this, Jesus says, “stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Tomorrow will come, and new worries will meet you there, so let them wait till tomorrow.
Today, do your best to live into the fullness of your priorities. Do what you can and let the Spirit meet you in all of the places and spaces where you can’t. As worries, fears and anxieties come and go, and they will, Jesus says, “Each day has enough trouble of it own”, worries and fear will come and go, and God’s grace will always be with you. As worries come, look at the birds of the sky. As your anxieties get the best of you, consider the lilies of the field. Try to judge things correctly, do your best, and God will take care of the rest.
Your best might include therapy, your best might be medication. Bessel van der Kolk, the author of The Body Keeps the Score recommends yoga to nearly everyone he works with on post-traumatic stress so they can re-learn how to be present and aware of their physical self and what they are feeling in the moment instead of what they are imagining in their minds.
The birds of the air are doing just fine. The lilies of the field will bloom. And you will be OK. If there weren’t so many reasons for us to be afraid, the Bible wouldn’t have to remind us to not worry. So in your anxieties, with your fears, do your best, and the grace of God will take care of the rest. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and when it gets here, we can deal with it, so for now, in this moment, relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, and remember that God is with you.
Would you join me in prayer…
June 14 – 19, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Psalm 56:3-4, 10-11
Notice – – During the Great Depression, in his inaugural address, President Franklin Roosevelt said, “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”* Psalm 56’s expression of deep trust in God was repeated in Psalm 118, sung at the end of Passover seders, and quoted in Hebrews 13:5-8. Trusting in God’s unfailing love, the psalmist, Jesus and the early Christians asked, “What can anyone do to me?” When we read the question, “What can anyone do to me?” our first (frightening) thought may be, “People could do plenty to me.” Only as we look below life’s surface does the psalmist’s question make more sense. What bad, perhaps even malicious, obstacles has God’s presence helped you survive, or even turned to a good purpose? How does that affect your ability to trust God moving forward?
Pray – God, I want to learn to live with the same kind of trust the psalmist expressed. Teach me each day how to put my trust in you whenever I am afraid. Amen.
- Speech transcript and sound clip found at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5057.
Read – Isaiah 41:8-10, 13
Notice – God pledged to strengthen and help any descendant of Abraham willing to join in God’s redemptive mission for the world. Later, the apostle Paul, who counted on God’s strength for his life mission, extended Isaiah’s promise to all Christ followers. “If you belong to Christ, then indeed you are Abraham’s descendants,” he wrote (Galatians 3:29). Through the prophet Isaiah, God offered freedom from fear, and strength and help for our spiritual journey. What are some of the main ways that you go about accessing the promised strength and help? Many scholars believe chapter 40 on in the book of Isaiah spoke to Israelites living through the bitter experience of defeat and exile in Babylon. Few things could make people feel more powerless. What situations are you facing that leave you feeling powerless and afraid? Read today’s passage again, and put your name in place of “Israel,” “Jacob” and “Abraham.” As you do, ask God to speak courage to your heart.
Pray – God, I wish all the bad in our world would just go away right now—but it won’t. But you promise that you can and will ultimately make it all come out right. Give me courage to do my part in working with you. Amen.
Notice – “Jesus’ audience would have been ordinary peasant people who had to worry about their next meal all the time, yet Jesus tells them not to worry about anything. He asks them instead to view the world with new eyes, in order to see all around them evidence of God’s care and provision.”* Worry generally focuses our energy and attention either on the past (‘I wish…”) or on the future (“What if…”). Jesus called us into the present, the only “time” we can directly affect and use to meet with God. Practice pausing your worries and concerns, and sensing God’s presence with you. Keep doing this (whether you call it “meditating,” “going to your ‘happy place’” or some other name you choose) until you are able to ‘be’ with God anytime, day or night—in the present moment. Can you think of things you spent a lot of time and energy worrying about that never happened? How does worry differ from wise foresight or precautions? What are some more effective, sustainable approaches to life’s challenges than worry?
Pray – Jesus, you modeled a life of peace and trust. Help me to keep learning how to live a life in which my energy can focus on your purposes rather than my fears. Amen.
- Eugene Eung-Chun Park and Joel B. Green, study note on Matthew 6:25-34 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 17 NT
Read – John 14:25-27
Notice – Describing Jesus’ last night before the cross, John wrote the ominous words, “When Judas took the bread, he left immediately. And it was night” (John 13:30). But the darkness didn’t overcome Jesus, the light of the world. With evil people plotting and Easter’s light only visible by faith, Jesus told his followers that he was leaving them his peace. The “fight or flight” response to danger seems to be hard-wired into our brains. Do you believe Jesus promised to wipe that out, or can he just give us a better way to deal with it when something triggers it? Are there places of dark fear and anxiety in your life today? How can Christ’s love and care free your heart and mind to live in the peace he came to give you?
Pray – Jesus, thank you for offering me a peace that isn’t temporary, that nothing can take away from me. Now please help me to live into that peace more each day. Amen.
Read – Philippians 4:4-7
Notice – The apostle Paul’s statement that God’s peace “exceeds all understanding” may make more sense when we realize that he sent this letter from a dank, dreary Roman prison cell (cf. Philippians 1:12-14). Even there, he had God’s peace. And he shared a key he’d found for living in God’s peace: to take anything that might worry him and give it to God in prayer. Paul advised, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” Almost as if he heard us saying, “How?” he added, “rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks” (verse 6). What are some things that trigger ugly, anxiety-producing thoughts in you? How can you incorporate Paul’s wisdom about taking those things to God in prayer more fully into your daily life?
Pray – Jesus, I want to turn my worries into prayers. I lay before you all the things that worry me today, and I open my heart to your gifts of peace and contentment. Amen.
Read – 1 Peter 5:6-10
Notice – Early Christians faced hostility, ostracism and often persecution. They might be beaten, imprisoned or even executed. Peter wrote a stirring call to those people. As they lived in conditions guaranteed to make people anxious, he urged them to bring all their anxieties to God in trusting prayer. Peter and those early Christians looked beyond the boundaries of this life. They trusted that all earthly struggles are only “for a little while,” while God’s restoration of us to the kind of life humans are meant to live is an eternal reality. What does it mean for you to cast all your anxiety on God? In what ways have you learned to trust that God cares for you? In what parts of life, if any, is it still hard for you to trust that? Read John 21:15-19 to see why Peter could say with such confidence that God will restore you, and make you steadfast, strong and firm. Are there failures from which you want God to restore you? Are there areas in which you wish to be more steadfast or strong?
Pray – Jesus, keep me clear-headed, keep me alert. Let me use those qualities to let you carry my anxieties, rather than trying to carry them myself. Amen
Afraid of Each Other
At Grace we are in a series of sermons on faith and fear. The most common phrase in the Bible is do not be afraid and this tells us two things, first, God’s dream for our lives is not found in fear. Fear is not supposed to get the final say. Fear is not meant to be the defining feature of our lives and so God says to us again and again, don’t be afraid. And yet, because do not be afraid is the most common phrase in the Bible, we know that the people in the Bible were often afraid. For the next few weeks, we will be talking about some of the most common fears that we and today we’re talking about being afraid of one another.
This may be a question that you haven’t considered for quite some time, but the last time you took a flight or rode the bus, were you eager to make small talk with your seat mate? For the folks that are with is in the sanctuary this morning, could there be anything more terrifying than me asking you to turn and start talking with someone you don’t know about your deepest fears?
Or maybe you can think about it like this – a few months ago when you and everyone else at the grocery store were masked and struggling to put produce in one of those plastic bags, did you acknowledge the struggle or did you stay quite because you didn’t know how others would react or respond?
There are insignificant ways that we’re afraid or simply uneasy with one another because we’re not sure how others are going to respond to us. But there are significant ways that we are afraid of each other too.
I am not only a pastor, I’m the child of a United Methodist pastor, which means I have a hard time answering the question, “Where are you from?” In Iowa, I have lived in Waterloo, Dunkerton, Indianola Cedar Rapids, Spencer, Urbandale, Indianola again, Fairfield, Waterloo and Des Moines. When I was in elementary school, our family was living in Cedar Rapids. For the first few years that we lived there, our house was just outside of the Wellington Heights Neighborhood. When I was growing up, the church that my dad worked at was in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood, which was a little confusing to me because even though our family spent a lot of time at the church that was in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood, church people would sometimes say, in a variety of ways, it’s a good thing that you don’t live in the neighborhood.
As a kid, I always thought that it was weird that the people who went to church in the Wellington Heights Neighborhood were afraid to live there. I couldn’t figure out what they were afraid of. All I could do was think about one of my friends from school, Isaac. Isaac and I often walked home from school together because we lived on the same street but about a block apart with Isaac living on one side of 19th street and us on another. Isaac lived just inside Wellington Heights and we lived just outside.
It took awhile, but eventually I figured out why people were afraid of Wellington Heights, why so many people were scared for my safety but not concerned for Isaac and that’s because Isaac was black, like many of the people that live in Wellington Heights. One side of 19th street wasn’t all that different from another, but you wouldn’t know that by the way people talked about it.
I doubt I am the only person that grew up with an unspoken fear of ‘them’.
We don’t always explain what we’re afraid when it comes to ‘those people’. For the most part, the biases and isms that we have and grew up with went unspoken but always felt. Maybe, like me, people never told you why that neighborhood wasn’t safe or why you couldn’t trust those people. Sometimes our unchecked biases are discussed with the same banality as conversations about the weather – as easily as we say it’s going to be hot this week we can say to one another you don’t want to be there after dark.
On that note, did you know that some towns in Iowa had Sundown ordinances written into their city code well into the 1980s? If you don’t know, Sundown Towns are segregated cities that use laws, intimidation or violence to ensure that they are white only. Sundown towns are why Green Books, travel guides for black drivers were created.
John Baskerville was a history professor at the University of Northern Iowa and he also played with the band Checker and the Bluetones. In the mid-80s, at a Checker and the Bluetones concert, here in Iowa, Baskerville said, “the local sheriff notified City Council members at the concert that an ordinance prohibited a ‘colored’ person from being in town after dark. At the time, the council members agreed to suspend the law ‘for the night.’”
John Baskervile, the history professor and blues musician, was welcome to entertain the people of that Iowa town for a night, but but only for a night.
On the northern side of the Mason Dixon line, it’s easy to tell ourselves that racism might be a problem down there and it isn’t an issue up here, but that simply isn’t true.
I was on a bike ride this week and while out on the trails I came to a realization about fear. When I’m on my bike, I wear cycling shoes that clip into my pedals. Clipping in makes the ride a little more comfortable, it helps you to ride a little faster, but clipping in also means that you are more likely to fall over. Every time you come to a stop, you have to unclip your shoes because if you don’t, you start to lean over and you find yourself on the ground, which happens to me more than I’d like to admit.
I don’t know how other cyclists feel about falling, but at least for myself, almost every time I fall, it happens because I panic and forget how to unclip my shoes. I don’t fall because I hit something, I don’t fall because of a bump on the trail, I fall because I start to think about how it’s going to feel when I fall, I start to imagine the chain of events that are going to take place and what sort of scratch I’ll end up with. I fall because I’m thinking about everything that could go wrong which means I forget to do what’s right.
Our fear of one another is often, not always but is often, found in imagining what could go wrong. When we begin with fear and false assumptions about one another, we will never be able to see the image of God in one another. Or as our reading from 1 John puts it, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, [they are] a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from [Jesus]: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”
The Greek word for fear is φόβος (Phobos) and it’s where we get the word phobia. Literally, φόβος (Phobos) translates as panic flight and has the connotation of a bird fluttering away in fear. One translator defines φόβος (Phobos) as “fleeing because feeling inadequate”. That’s the root of phobia, we feel inadequate, so we flee, or force others to.
FDR was inaugurated as president in 1932 after defeating Herbert Hoover in the election. Hoover is the only president to be elected from Iowa, so part of me wants to like him, but Hoover was so unpopular as a president during the Great Depression that shanty camps for persons experiencing homelessness were called Hoovervilles and if you wanted to fly a Hoover flag, you’d take your empty pocket and turn it inside out.
At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, the national unemployment rate was at 25%. Fear and a sense of inadequacy filled the United States and this fear and inadequacy that people felt was real, but it was also recognized by FDR and others that the fear people were feeling only made the Great Depression more difficult to get out of. Fear dug the nation into a pit and the continued fear that was felt only made that pit deeper. That’s why, during his inaugural address, FDR said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. It’s a great line, even though we can admit that it’s not entirely true because spiders still exist.
FDR started to lead the nation out of the Great Depression because FDR inspired people to rise above their fears, to have faith in abundance instead of our fears of scarcity and inadequacy.
10 years later, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States joined in the fight and entered WWII. In response to Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942 FDR issues Executive Order 9066 which led to the imprisonment of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans that were forced to abandon their homes and businesses, many of them lost everything they had.
The same president that said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself succumbed to the fear of racism and bigotry. The dehumanizing fascism that was being fought against in WWII was embraced by the United States through Executive Order 9066, FDR believed those people are dangerous, those people are a threat, so we have to get rid of them.
Over 2/3rds of the Japanese Americans that were imprisoned during WWII were born in the United States. There was no evidence of collusion, there was only fear and racism. Yet even with the injustice forced upon them, nearly 2,000 Japanese Americans incarcerated at an internment camp in Mississippi joined the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. This unit was segregated and made up of almost entirely second generation Japanese Americans along with native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. This 442nd Regimental Combat Team became one of the most decorated military units not only in WWII but in United States history earning 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor and 7 Presidential Unit Citations.
It wasn’t until the end of WWII that Japanese Internment camps closed. For three years, Japanese Americans were imprisoned because the president that said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself as afraid of them.
FDR became the fear that he first spoke out against while soldiers of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team took the fear that was forced upon them and turned it into courage.
“If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, [they are] a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from [Jesus]: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.”
If you say you love God, if you claim to be a follower of Christ, you have to try to be a person of love, regardless.
Our reading from 1 John is blunt. If you claim to love God but you cannot love the people around you, you’re a liar. This word for liar in Greek has the connotation of being misleading or deceiving, it almost has the feel of counterfeiting.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a fraud, I don’t want to have a counterfeit faith. The fullness of faith, John writes, is found in loving one another. It’s not simply refusing to hate someone, it’s choosing to love them. Just a few verses earlier in the letter John writes, “Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.”
Here’s the good news about this love, it’s not a feeling. John doesn’t tell us that we need to have warm and fuzzy feelings about everyone. Jesus never says that everyone needs to be our Valentine. Love isn’t a feeling as much as love is faith in action.
Some of you know this already, but in the New Testament, the Greek word for love that is most often used is ἀγάπη (agape). There are a variety of different words in Greek for love, there’s a word for the love that we have of family, there’s a word for the love of friends, there’s another word for romantic love and there’s even a Greek word for love that essentially means self-care. But when John writes about love, when Jesus talks about love, the word they use is ἀγάπη (agape).
The author Madeline L’Engle writes that “Agape love is…profound concern for the well-being of another, without any desire to control that other, to be thanked by that other, or to enjoy the process.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that, “Agape is disinterested love…Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. It begins by loving ofter for their sakes…Therefore, agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both.”
Can you think of someone that you’d rather not see live into the full potential of their life? Some people have those knick knacks in their homes that say, “Live, Laugh, Love” can you think of anyone that you wish would have a pillow in their home that said, “Die, Cry, Hate”?
In 2016, 41% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans saw the other political party as a threat to the nation’s well-being according to Pew research. Seeing someone as a threat goes beyond disagreeing with policy decisions or even strongly disliking their party platform. I strongly dislike black olives, but I don’t think they’re a threat to my health. But when it comes to registered voters, nearly half of each major party sees the other as a threat and seeing someone as a threat isn’t a passive disagreement, it’s an active hate.
Agape, this love that Jesus leads us to, is the steady intention of our will towards another’s highest good. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says that he came so that we might have an abundant life. Abundance is the opposite of inadequacy, and do you remember what the root of the Greek word for fear is – fleeing because of feelings of inadequacy.
Love casts out fear because love seeks the fullness of life while fear wallows in imagined inadequacy.
C.S. Lewis writes, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
How often do we create our own hells out of a lack of love? As the song goes, “Love hurts, love scars, love wounds and marks…” The love that Jesus leads us to isn’t always easy, more often than not, love hurts because we’d rather have an unbreakable heart than be vulnerable enough to love one another.
Who do you need to love this week? You don’t need to buy them a box of chocolates and a card, you don’t have to call them up and see if they want to go to dinner and talk things out, maybe you don’t even need to talk to them at all. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you…”
If you are praying for someone, they don’t have to know. Jesus never says love your enemies and become their best friend. If the only way you can love someone is by keeping a distancing and maintaining firm boundaries with them, that’s what you need to do.
I need to admit that I struggled to bring this sermon to a close, if you couldn’t tell already. I can’t give you three easy steps to take when it comes to loving the people you hate because I haven’t figured out how to love everyone. June is Pride month, and Pride didn’t start as a parade, it started as a protest and riot lead by black trans women, especially Marsha P Johnson that were and are often denied the dignity they deserve. Not only is it Pride month, this weekend is the celebration of Juneteenth. On June 19, 1865, nearly two months after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Union General Gordon Granger, arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform enslaved African-Americans of their freedom and the end of the Civil War. Granger’s announcement of liberation and freedom put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which had been issued more than two and a half years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln.
Juneteenth is an Exodus story, it’s a celebration of liberation and freedom, Juneteenth deserves to be a federal holiday which it finally is for the first time in this nation’s history and I hate that we live in a nation that can believe in original sin going back to Adam but can’t believe in the sins of American racism and slavery that started in 1619.
I am learning to tell myself that I don’t hate people as much as I hate the beliefs, policies, and actions of others and myself that are based in inadequacy, that keep us from living into the fullness of life that Jesus wants for all people.
This love is still working on me, I have to practice it every day, which is why we’re going to have a time of spiritual practice and prayer called Lectio Divina. Lectio Divina is a practice of mindfulness and prayer with scripture reading.
In Lectio Divina, you read a passage multiple times and each reading offers us a new kind of mindfulness and intention with scripture. The first reading is just a reading, we get a sense of what the passage says and we notice any words or phrases that may stick with us. Next, we read the passage again thinking about what is happening in our lives, with what is going on within you and around you, why do those words and phrases connect with you right now? As we read the passage again, we consider what God might be saying to us, how is the Spirit speaking to you, where is Jesus leading you? Finally, we read the passage one more time contemplating where we should go from here. If Jesus is leading you in to being more loving, how will you follow?
As we start, get comfortable in your seat. Notice if there is any tension in your body. Has all this talk about loving the people we hate made you clench your jaw, does your back feel a tight? Notice those places in yourself that are tense, and try to relax, lower your shoulders, relax your jaw and take a deep breath. Remember that even when we are liars, God’s love is still with us.
Let us pray as we practice Lectio Divina…
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. We love because God first loved us. If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, [they are] a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen. This commandment we have from [Jesus]: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.
June 21 – 26, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Psalm 27:1-5
Notice – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, at the furneral of four girls killed in a church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, “Like the everchanging cycle of the seasons, life has the soothng warmth of the summers and piercing chill of its winters. But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of dispair to the buoyancy of hope.”* Israelites who prayed and sang this psalm saw Babylon destroy Jerusalem, saw Rome overpower their land — yet they still trusted. Christians saw Jesus crucified, the apostles Paul and Peter martyred by Rome, prayed the psalm in dim Roman catacombs — yet they still trusted. What difficulties test your trust, and seek to makd you afraid? How can you trust that in the end God will always keep the promise to set you up high, safe on a rock?
Pray – Jesus, grow in me an ever-deepening trust in your eternal presence and power, and your great heart of love. Amen.
- “Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” in James M. Washinton, ed. A testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986, p. 222.
Read – Leviticus 19:33-34, Deuteronomy 10:14-19
Notice – We often think of Old Testament Israel as tribal in the extreme, caring only about their own people. But here we read, “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself.” Israel’s faith stressted God’s Concern for all people, especially those who needed help. In theory (though too often not in practice–e.g. Isaiah 58:2-10), Israel was a nation in which eveyone was responsible to seek the well-being of all. God told Israel to remember their history as poor immigrants when they were a settled people into whose land others might immigrate. What does this suggest about how God sees people of all nations and races? As God’s follower, how can you live out that same spirit in your attitudes and actions today?
Pray – Lord of all, when dirreence offends me, or when prejudice enrages me, remind me that you can to change my heart. Help me, like you, to meet evil with good. Amen.
Read – Matthew 5:43-48
Notice – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last Christmas Eve sermon on December 24, 1967. It included thse words: “Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return…. This is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, ‘Like your enemies,’ because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like…. I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself…every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear.”* One of the most common ways we deal with fear is to turn it into hate towards those we fear. But following the teaching of Jesus, Dr. King said there’s a better option. To those he called “our most bitter opponents,” Dr. King declared, “We will meet your physical force with soul fource. Do to us what you will and we will still love you…. be assured that… we will so appeal to you heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory… the truth crushed to earth will rise again.** How can you more and more live in to the God-given spirit of agape toward whatever frightening people and foruce you face, big or small?
Pray – O God, make me an instument of your peace. Grow in me confidence in the long-term power of love, the world-changing power that makes me a follower of Jesus. Amen.
- “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” in James M. Washinton, ed. A testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1986, p. 259.
- Ibid, pp 256, 257.
Read – Luke 9:51-56
Notice – Just knowing Jesus was going to Jerusalem led a Samaritan village to refuse to allow him to stay in their village. Jews hated Samaritans, a mixed race born of Assyria’s policy of wiping out the identity of conqured peoples (2 Kings 17:24). Samaritans hated Jews, who snubbed theri offer to help rebuld the Temple (Ezra 4:1-4). Each side’s fear of the other had hardend for 700 years. The Samaritan woman was astonished that Jesus would ask for something as simple as a drink of water–yet Jesus reached out to Samaritans, again and again, rather than fearing or avoiding them. In Luke 9, the Samaitan willagers were rude unwelcoming. James and John reacted as we are often tempted to. “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to consume them?” they asked. But Juesu said no. Have you ever been in a position either to fan the flames of hatred highter or to lower the teperature and move toward peace? Which course did you choose? How did things work out?
Pray – Jesus, it’s true that “hurt people hut people.” But you refused that path of fear and anger even when snubbed. Transform my heart to be more like yours each day. Amen.
Read – Act 8:5, 25: Acts 10:9-28
Notice – Jesus’ example made a difference, and Acts reported that the apostles preached in many Samaritan villages. But even after what happened at Pentecost, Peter still felt the reluctance he’d learned all his life about mixing closely with Gentiles, especially Romans. God had to propel him dramatically, using a startling vision, to break down some of thse inner barriers. (This is a great story–if you have time, read the whole thing in Acts 10:1-11:18.) Peter’s vision struck him so hard because, like all devout Jews, he carefully followed the laws (especially in Leviticus 11) which forbade eating “unclean” meat. Those laws were not about kichen hygiene, but about an approach to ceremonial “cleanness” before God. entering a Gentile dwelling also brouht cememonial impurity (cf. John 18:28). What made Peter’s mission “clean”? Are there any places of people you avoid because you fear that might make you “unclean”?
Pray – God, it feels so natural, in so many ways, for me to divide the human family into “us” and “them.” Teach me what your taught Peter–that in your eyes, there is only “us”. Amen.
Read – Galatians 3:26-28, 1 John 4:18-21
Notice – At the foundation of all Christian faith is the trust that God loves us, that God created human beings out of love and for love. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is the embodied of the love that is God. Jesus showed us how this love shapes life for the better. And that belief makes a real difference in how we relate to all other people, those who are close to us and those who are “other.” Paul told the Galatians that in Jesus ethic, economic/social and gender distictions all lost their power to divide us and cause fear and separation. Why would perfect love drive out fear? Have you ever experienced a situation in which as love developed for another person, fear of that person decreased and disappeared? 1 Joh 4:20 may make us uncomfortable: “If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar.” To what extent do you agree that hate for human beings rules out genuine love for God? Why would that be the case? Can you think of practical steps that move you in the direction of caring about “others,” about people that you may see as dangerous enemies, as deserving of fear and distrust rather than of love?
Pray – Jesus, somestimes I find your ways applealing. Sometimes I find them hard. I need your grace to guide and energize me to more and more see everyone as a person you love, even the ones who frustate or scare me. Amen
Loneliness and Fear
At Grace we are in a series of sermons about faith and fear. The most common phrase in the Bible is do not be afraid and this reminds us that God’s plan for our lives is not found in fear. The defining feature of our life isn’t meant to be worry, anxiety, or fear. But at the very same time, we have to recognize that the Bible says do not be afraid so often because we are often afraid. Together we are exploring some of our most common fears and today we’re going to be looking at loneliness.
Due to the pandemic, we were all forced into exposure therapy for loneliness. As you may know, exposure therapy is a psychological treatment that helps us confront fears and phobias because when we’re afraid of something, we tend to avoid it. With exposure therapy, therapists and psychologists work to create a safe environment for people to face their fears. For example, a person with social anxiety might start by imagining they are giving a speech in front of a crowd, then they would move on to practicing a speech with their therapist, before finally giving a speech to an audience. Virtual reality tools are even starting to be used with exposure therapy so people can see, hear and sometimes even smell the situations they are afraid of with people that are afraid of flying feeling and smells of recycled air of a plane.
With clinical exposure therapy, there’s always an out. Exposure therapy brings you closer to a fear, but lets you take a step back when you need to, but last year, we couldn’t help but be continually exposed to our loneliness.
Psychologists at Harvard did research on loneliness throughout the pandemic and in October of last year, 36% of those surveyed reported feeling lonely frequently or almost all the time. (https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/02/young-adults-teens-loneliness-mental-health-coronavirus-covid-pandemic/) Researchers were surprised to discover that the highest feelings of loneliness during the pandemic were young adults aged 18 to 25 with 61% of those surveyed feeling lonely frequently or all the time. It had been assumed that those most used to being connected with others online would be the most comfortable with our quarantine isolation, but that simply wasn’t the case.
Of all the research that I did into loneliness this week, one of the more interesting studies I found compared research done by Michigan State University and the University of Pennsylvania. In Michigan, researchers studied the use of technology and social media among older adults finding that an increased use of email, facebook and video services like Skype or zoom was linked to lower levels of loneliness, better self-rated health, and even fewer chronic illness. Conversely, in Pennsylvania, researches studied the use of technology and social media among young adults and found that a decreased use of social media and zoom reduces feelings of loneliness and anxiety. (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-sidebar) In comparing the studies, it was theorized that for older adults, technology was used to enhance existing relationships and added to feelings of connection while among younger generations, technology and social media was the relationship so these connections were not enhanced and can feel less authentic leading to higher feelings of loneliness.
The historian Susan Matt has explored and written about how technology has helped to shaped and define our emotions over the centuries. She writes that when mirrors began to be affordable in the late 19th century it, “made people think about how they looked to others much more than they had before.” Susan goes on to show how self-security increased throughout the 19th and 20th century with the development of photography. In her research, Susan even points to the invention of the radio as the beginning of our cultural intolerance of aloneness and silence.
It seems obvious, but it’s worth remembering that there is a difference between loneliness and solitude. You can find yourself in the middle of a crowd and feel alone just like you can be utterly alone but at peace. Loneliness often comes with a sense of lack and isolation, feeling as if something is missing, loneliness feels like estrangement and discontent. But solitude is abundance, inner growth and development, even feelings of connection.
No matter how extroverted you are, you need to develop the peace that comes with solitude just like no matter how introverted you are, to experience the fullness of life you can’t always be alone.
The book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible opens with two creation stories that teach us an important lesson about loneliness and connection. There is one creation story in Genesis chapter 1 and there is a slightly different creation story in Genesis chapter 2. No one knows for sure why these creation stories were placed back to back, but I like to see them as speaking to the why of creation instead of the how. These stories point us to the beauty, wonder, and poetry of the world.
In the first creation story in Genesis 1, God begins to create the heavens and the earth and in six days, God speaks creation into being. Each day God creates and calls this creation good. The Bible begins with a sense of original goodness and by the sixth day when God creates humanity, God says we are supremely good. The second creation story in Genesis 2 takes place in a garden and in a single day. The book of Genesis goes out of its way to make these differences obvious, it’s written in Genesis 2:4, “This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created. On the day the Lord God made earth and sky…” One creation story is placed right next to the other so we know we’re reading about the why and not the how of creation.
In this second creation story we still see original goodness, we meet the God that creates out of joy and abundance, but in this second creation story we also see the first thing that God says isn’t good. It’s written in Genesis, “It’s not good that the human is alone. I will make for [them] a helper that is perfect for [them]”. (2:18)
The Hebrew word for helper in this passage is עֵ֖זֶר (ezer) and it literally means helper, it’s not a tricky word to translate. Occasionally this passage from Genesis is read at weddings, and while this passage can be romantic, it’s less about romance and more about having a companion, a partner, an equal that will help you and that you can help in return.
Out of all the original goodness that the creation stories of Genesis point us to, the first thing that God says isn’t good is loneliness, it’s not having a helper.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we all need a helper, we all need companions because as God says, it’s not good for us to always be alone. The fullness of life is not found in our isolation but our connection, the abundance of life is found in how we participate in the original goodness of creation with and for one another. And yet, our experience with loneliness can feel impossible to break out of because loneliness can create unhealthy thought patterns. It is easy to find yourself in the self-defeating trap of thinking feeling lonely makes me anxious and depressed, other people don’t want to spend time with me if I’m anxious and depressed, because I’m anxious and depressed I have to be alone.
Your cycle of thoughts might be a little different, but at least for myself when I am caught up in my own loneliness that’s the thought pattern that I find myself trapped in – feeling lonely has damaged my mental health and my damaged mental health has made me lonely.
So how can we break this cycle of loneliness? What can therapeutic practices and our faith teach us about finding our way forward even when we’re feeling alone?
The hard, but obvious, truth about loneliness is that we can’t find our way out of it alone. We need a helper that can help us find our way out of loneliness. And this sounds a lot easier than it is, especially when you are feeling lonely, but to find a friend you have to be a friend, to have a helper you need to be a helper.
This is what we see in our reading from the book of Ruth. Earlier in the service we read a few of the key verses from Ruth chapter 1 but let’s add a little bit of context to them. The book of Ruth begins with moving from Bethlehem to Moab. If you have ever moved before you might recognize the feelings of loneliness that the book of Ruth opens with. Even if you move with a sense of connection to a place, when you get there you don’t automatically feel connected.
Not long after Naomi’s family moves, her husband passes away and a few years after that, her children have died as well. Some of you know the depths of that loneliness and the struggle of everything that reminds you of those that you have loved and lost because each of those reminders comes with a moment of joy accompanied by a feeling of lack because you can’t share the joy with them.
At the beginning of the book of Ruth, Naomi is so lonely that she wants to change her name to the Hebrew word for bitter because the name Naomi means pleasant and she feels anything but that.
Naomi’s loneliness makes her say to her daughters-in-law, the only people that are a part of her life, “Go, turn back, each of you…”
You can see the trap of loneliness that Naomi has made for herself – she feels alone and in her loneliness she makes herself even more lonely. But Ruth breaks through this cycle of loneliness saying to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to run back from following after you. Where 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.”
Life probably would have been easier for Ruth if she did what Naomi asked of her. Ruth could easily turned her back on Namoi because Ruth is in her hometown, she has family and friends, and she knows the community, she has roots in Moab, but Naomi is alone, living as a stranger in a strange land. Naomi is so alone that she is getting ready to go back to Bethlehem, her home town, hoping that the people there might remember her. Ruth really has nothing to gain by leaving her village to find a new future with Naomi, but Ruth knows that Naomi is utterly alone, Ruth knows that Naomi needs a helper, which is why we are still reading her story thousands of years later.
As a church may we never lose sight of the power of solidarity. Loneliness may never be completely absent from our lives but that doesn’t mean we have to go through it alone.
The Harvard researchers that studied loneliness throughout the pandemic, that went so far to name loneliness as an epidemic, wrote as one of their key recommendation on how to go forward that we begin, “Working to restore our commitments to each other and the common good…we have commitments to ourselves, but we also have vital commitments to each other, including to those who are vulnerable.” (https://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/reports/loneliness-in-america) They go on to write, “We should ask ourselves if we are alert to whether people in our orbit are in pain, including suffering loneliness. We can commit to reaching out once a week to someone we think may be lonely, or someone we haven’t connected with in a while. We can recognize that any true morality means helping others not just when it’s easy, but especially when it’s hard, and reach out to lonely people even when they are needy, critical, or self-deprecating in ways that may be irritating and alienating.” or as Ruth says to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to run back from following after you. Where you go, I will go…”
Can we be the kind of people that reach out to others, at least once a week, especially when it’s hard? In the wisdom literature of Ecclesiastes it’s written, “Two are better than one…If either should fall, one can pick up the other.” (4:9-10). Sometimes we’re the one that falls, other times we’re the one there to pick each other up, but we can’t pick each other up if we’re alone.
As a church we recently revised our welcoming statement and said this is who we are, that at Grace: “We celebrate God’s gift of diversity and value the wholeness made possible in community equally shared and shepherded by all. We welcome and affirm people of every gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation, who are also of every age, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, level of education, and family structure, and of every economic, immigration, marital, and social status. We acknowledge that we live in a world of profound social, economic, and political inequities. As followers of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the pursuit of justice and pledge to stand in solidarity with all who are marginalized and oppressed. We are all invited to bless this church with our love, our presence, and our participation.”
It’s one thing to say that, it’s another to be that. The good news is that if you are with us in person or online, you’re already taking the first step. We are in this together, we’re here to be side by side with and for one another.
Research has shown that one of the best ways to deal with feelings of loneliness is to live with a greater sense of purpose, to see yourself as part of the bigger picture. In Psychology Today, a recent study said that seeing ourselves bigger picture is living with wisdom, writing, “Individuals high in wisdom advise others to avoid defining themselves based on a difficult moment, to keep the bigger picture in mind, and to find ways to do something kind.” or as Ruth said to Naomi, “Don’t urge me to abandon you, to run back from following after you. Where 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.”
To face our fears of loneliness we can seek connection, which is great news because even if you are alone and watching this at home, you are making a connection with us. To face our fears of loneliness we can be a helper, we can let ourselves be helped, and in it all we can see the bigger picture.
And it’s with this bigger picture in mind that we’re going to talk about Christian Spirituality and the practices of faith that remind us we’re never alone. God created us for a relationship and sometimes in the church this gets talked about as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you don’t like that phrase, just call it Christian spirituality, because it’s the same things, a personal connection with God.
In the Gospel of John, after the last supper, “I won’t leave you orphans. I will come to you. Soon the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I will live, you will live too…Peace I leave with you. My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Don’t be troubled or afraid.” Or as it’s written in Deuteronomy 31:6, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; [God] will never leave you nor forsake you.” Or Isaiah 41:10, “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you…”
If you were with us last Sunday you might remember that we practiced lectio divina together, this ancient practice of mindfulness and prayer that enters us into silence and solitude so we can seek the presence of God that is always with us. Maybe that’s a practice that you need to continually develop, or maybe you can take advantage of our Guide to Prayer and Study. Every day on Facebook and available at our website we have a daily reading, thought, and prayer that ties back to the message for the week.
With our students getting ready to go to France next week, I started to think about French spiritually and was reminded of the story of Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was born in Lorraine, France in 1611 and the poverty of his peasant parents lead him to joining the army because that was the only way he could be guaranteed a meal. His spiritual journey began by looking a tree. There was no supernatural vision, no voice shouting from the heavens, just a winter day and a barren tree, striped of all its leaves and fruit. In that moment, Brother Lawrence saw the hope of what would be, the silent and patient assurance of summer’s coming abundance. While looking at that tree, he began to look at his own life, thinking about those places and spaces that seemed dead but by the grace of God were waiting to bloom.
After an injury forced him to leave the French Army, Brother Lawrence traveled to Paris, hoping to become a monk. The monastery wasn’t sure what to do with Brother Lawrence, because he didn’t have the training to become a monk and he was so uneducated that the monastery didn’t think they could train him, so they told Brother Lawrence that he couldn’t be a monk, but he could be the cook and custodian of the monastery. While peeling potatoes and following the constant commands of the monks, Brother Lawrence had a realization, writing, “Men invent means and methods of coming at God’s love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and that seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God’s presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of [God]?”
For Brother Lawrence, “common business,” no matter how mundane or routine, was an opportunity to experience God’s love. He writes, ”Nor is it needful that we should have great things to do. . . We can do little things for God; I turn the cake that is frying on the pan for love of [God]…It is enough for me to pick up but a straw from the ground for the love of God.”
What are the little things that you can do for God? How can the common business of our lives, often carried out alone, be seen as invitations to experience the solitude and peace of God that passes all understanding?
Brother Lawrence did write that finding the presence of God while peeling potatoes and cleaning up after monks wasn’t always easy, but it was always worth it, writing that his soul, “had come to its own home and place of rest.”
May you find that place of rest this week, for the grace of God is with you, even when you are alone.
June 28 – July 3, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Notice – Jesus loved people, yet he regularly sought solitude as a way to refocus and cultivate his walk with God. For some of us, the fear of being is overwhelming, even more so in a pandemic. However, solitude can be a useful spiritual practice to learn. “The experience of solitude varies widely from taking advantage of the little solitudes in our days to setting aside planned times of retreat to step out of our daily patterns in order to enter into the silence of God…. Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place.” * Where, both in daily routines and in more deliberate ways, are you able to experience solitude? Do you fear those times, live through them passively, or value the opportunity for spiritual growth they give you?
Pray – Jesus, help me not to shun times of solitude, or to waste them in wishing I were not alone. Teach me how to use those moments, whether minutes or days, into times to draw closer to you. Amen.
- Quoted from https://renovare.org/about/ideas/spiritual-disciplines, a service of the Renovare Institute, founded by Richard Foster, the author of the classic book Celebration of Discipline.
Notice – Following the exodus, Moses found himself trying to iron out every little problem the people had, by himself. But his father-in-law wisely told him, “What you are doing isn’t good…. You can’t do it alone.” It was good that Moses took his role as leader seriously. “The people come to me to inquire of God,” he said. But his father-in-law was God’s instrument to remind him that he wasn’t called to be a solo act, handling everything himself. What tasks do you carry alone right now? Look prayerfully at what parts of them you could share with others. We often carry an emotional burden about challenges in our workplace, family or church, even though there is nothing specific we could do to fix the situation. Or we may be able to affect one part of the problem, but convince ourselves that we alone must figure out the full solution. Have you ever tried to carry “the weight of the world” on your shoulders alone? How can you recognize people God may have sent to lighten your load?
Pray – God, I can’t do your job. Deliver me from the temptation to try to be what you, and only you, can be—the ruler of the universe. Remind me not to try to “do it all alone.” Amen.
Notice – Throughout Africa, more than 100 million children have been orphaned due to the AIDS epidemic. In Genesis 2 we read a simple yet profound human truth: it isn’t good for us to be all alone. Jesus, in a land where poor health and Roman violence left many children orphaned, used that image to promise his followers that, whatever befell their human connections, he would never leave them as orphans. Through the Holy Spirit, he would always be with them. Sometimes seen as bitter and cynical, the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes warmly valued human friendship. “Two are better than one,” he wrote. They “can help each other, can keep each other warm and safe.” Then he added that “a three-ply cord doesn’t easily snap,” which “may imply that three companions are even better than two.” * In what ways have you found value in doing things with another person or two, rather than all alone? In John 14, Jesus gave his followers a glimpse into the mysteries of God. He preceded the verses we read today by promising to send “another Companion” (Greek paraclete, which meant companion, helper, advocate, and comforter, and referred to the Holy Spirit). Then he said, “I will come to you”—in other words, the Spirit’s presence was Christ’s presence. When have you sensed Jesus’ comfort, protection, or uplift without a visible presence giving it to you?
Pray – Jesus, thank you for keeping your promise not to leave me as an orphan. Teach me how to claim you as my Companion and Comforter, even when my circumstances seem the hardest. Amen.
- Brent A. Strawn, study notes on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 in The CEB Study Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013, p. 1061 OT.
Notice – True devotion to God, James said, doesn’t show itself in grand words, whether they are lofty or angry. Our devotion shows most truly as we actively care for and help those who have to face the world alone. In the Roman empire, many Christians suffered from social and legal persecution. But life in those conditions was even harder for orphans and widows, who had no family and very little legal standing to protect them. Which, James asked, would help them more—a biting, angry tirade against the tyrants, or a tangible act of love and assistance? How can we apply the principle behind his words to situations we face today?
Pray – God, I’m devoted to you—after all, I read the GPS. Give me the insight and the courage to find tangible ways to live out that devotion, serving you by serving others who are alone and hurting. Amen.
Notice – The psalmist said that, no matter where we go, God goes there with us. But this sweeping poem didn’t merely assert God’s presence—it also told believers that God’s presence is a good thing, because God will always guide, strengthen, and support us. Jesus began the Lord’s Prayer (which we say each week in worship) with “Our Father who is in heaven.” “Heaven” translates the Greek word ouranos, which meant, not a place far away, but “air” or “sky.” Jesus was not saying God is far away, but around us, above us, wherever we go—the same idea as verses 7-12 in today’s reading. What helps you experience God’s presence? What spiritual difference does that make for you?
Pray – Jesus, at my worst, I feel like hiding from you. At my best, I want you to stay with me all the time—and that’s exactly what you’ve promised to do. Amen.
Notice – Part of our faith heritage, starting with Methodism’s founder John Wesley, is a profound sense of calling and mission. We believe God calls us to be God’s voice, hands, and feet, in a hurting world. God’s work, the psalms said, is to provide a family for orphans, a sustaining relationship for widows, and companionship for all who might be lonely. How can you join in God’s work (and, in the process, build better relationships for yourself)? Do you know anyone who may not be an “orphan” or “widow” in the concrete sense of the term, but who you could uplift by extending God’s love and care?
Pray – God, the psalmist said you are “Father of orphans and defender of widows.” Thank you for always being with me. Give me eyes to see others who are hurting, and use me to bless them with your love and caring. Amen.
Fear and Failure
At Grace, we are in a series of sermons looking at some of the most common fears that we all live with. One of the most repeated phrases in the Bible is do not be afraid and the repetition of do not be afraid tells us two things. First, it tells us that God’s dream for our lives is not found in fear. Our anxieties, worries, and fears are not supposed to be the defining feature of our lives. The second thing the repetition of do not be afraid in the Bible tells us that we need this reminder, often. There are a lot of fears and worries that we live with and because of that we need God to tell us do not be afraid.
The fear that we are going to be looking at this weekend is extremely common, in fact it’s one of the most common sources of anxiety that we have, which is odd because even with how common this fear is, we rarely talk about our fear of failure.
A few weeks ago as this series of sermons got started, you might remember that we talked a little bit about the fight or flight response. We have this early warning system, kind of like an internal fire alarm that helps to keep us safe. Through evolution, our fight or flight response helps to keep us protected and it really is a good gift from God that our bodies can respond to stressful and dangerous situations before we are even consciously aware of how our heart rate and blood pressure are changing.
What gets tricky with our fight or flight response is that the same physiological response that protected our ancient ancestors from lions and tigers and bears can also be triggered by our imagination. This early warning system can be set off by lion crouching in the distance just like it can be set off by standing behind someone in the 10 items or less isle when they have 19 things but you only have 3. The levels of stress aren’t even comparable because if you’re being hunted by a lion, you are lunch, but if you’re at the store you shopping for lunch, and yet, our psychological response to anxiety and fear, real or imagined, is the same.
Perhaps our biggest struggle with failure is that it’s easy to imagine but difficult to define. The easiest way to define failure is to say that it’s a lack of success, but what does that lack look like for you? I’ll just speak for myself, but before I go any further, trust me when I say I’m not fishing for compliments. At the very least, I know I’m not terrible at what I do and at the very least I’m tolerable because people keep showing up. When it comes to speaking in public, I know I do a decent job, and yet, I can always think of something that I could have done better. I can’t help but wonder if someone caught that in the second sentence I stumbled through my words and because of that I’ll never succeed.
That’s a failure that I made up in my mind and every week I think of something that I didn’t quite say right, or something that I could have explained with better clarity, and because I don’t feel like I got things completely right, I feel like I am utterly wrong and that I should end most sermons by saying I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better next week. I will fully admit to my own neurotic obsession with sermons because I never wrestle with the fear of failure more than right now.
I don’t remember this as much as I should, but it’s wroth reminding ourselves that sometimes our idea of failure might not be all that different than someone else’s idea of success.
There are over 7.5 billion people in the world and with that scale it’s hard to imagine how our lives compare to one another’s. But if we shrink that down to a world of 100 people, 18 people wouldn’t have any access to electricity and 14 would not be able to read or write. Only 7 people would have a college degree and 60 people would not have internet access. If the world was 100 people, 78 of us would have a home but 22 would not with 91 of us would have access to safe drinking water but 9 of us would not have clean, safe water to drink. (https://www.100people.org/
If we think of success in terms of health, education, and safety, how many of us are the pinnacle of success? I might stumble through my words and every week I can only imagine how many of you see the sweat stains of my shirt grow throughout the sermon because I can’t help but think about how many of you might be noticing that I sweat under these lights, which only makes me sweat more. I can get stuck in that thought trap of failure, without remembering that I have a home, I can read and write, I have a masters degree, and I’ve never had to worry about not having access clean water or a place to live.
Perhaps it’s not that we’re afraid of failure as much as we are afraid of feeling like we’ve been a disappointment, maybe it’s that we’re afraid of shame.
The psychologist Guy Winch writes, “Shame is a psychologically toxic emotion because instead of feeling bad about our actions (guilt) or our efforts (regret), shame makes us feel bad who we are. Shame gets to the core of our egos, our identities, our self-esteem, and our feelings of emotional well-being.” (https://www.psychologytoday.
Guilt is the reminder that we made a mistake while shame is the feeling that we are a mistake.
After writing eleven books and winning numerous award, Maya Angelou wrote, “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Shortly before his death in 1955, Albert Einstein said, “I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler”.
It is difficult to imagine a more inspiring poet or successful scientist, and yet both Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou felt like frauds, like their lives and talents were a mistake. What they are both expressing isn’t just the fear of failure, it’s the other shoe that drops with our fear of failure, what’s commonly known as imposter syndrome.
When we are afraid of failing it is easy for us to assume that our accomplishments are an accident. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70% of us, myself included, live with what is academically known as impostorism or the imposter phenomenon. The psychologist Pauline Rose Clance was the first to study this imposter phenomenon in the late 70s. She noticed that several of her students shared the same concern, even though they all had good grades, mostly A’s, many of her students didn’t believe they deserved their spots at the university, some even believed that their admission had been an error and it was only a matter of time until their scholarships were revoked. Pauline Rose Clance knew these students well and she also knew that their fears of failure and fraud were unfounded, but she could also remember feeling the same way when she was in graduate school.
Academically, this feeling of being a fraud or imposter is known as impostorism or the impostor phenomenon because psychologists have recognized that to call it imposter syndrome is to downplay how universal this feeling is. Feeling like an imposter isn’t a disease or abnormality, and it isn’t even, necessarily, linked to feelings of anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. The examples of Maya Angelou and Albert Einstein remind us that there is no threshold of accomplishment that puts our fears to rest. They are two of the most successful people I can think of, but they still thought they lacked true success and only stumbled into their lives by accident. Those intrusive thoughts of, I just got lucky, other people could do this better, I’m faking my way through this, can’t someone else do it, just keep creeping into our minds. Which is what we see in our reading today.
At the beginning of Exodus 3, Moses is taking care of the flock for his father-in-law, Jethro. When the Bible gives a detail that, it’s usually a good idea to ask why is Moses is doing this now, what was Moses doing before? Let’s back up a little bit to Exodus – Moses is an Israelite, but the Pharaoh in Egypt is afraid of the Israelites rising up against the slavery that has been forced upon them. The Pharaoh’s fears reach a terrible conclusion, which often happens when we abuse one another because we’re afraid of one another, and the Pharaoh commands that every Egyptian baby boy be put to death. A couple of midwifes, Shiphrah and Puah, practice civil disobedience, they break the law to do the right thing, and protect the Israelites in Egypt. While Moses is a baby, his mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the river, conveniently floating by the Pharaoh’s daughter while she’s taking a bath. Moses is adopted into the Pharaoh’s family, raised with wealth, prestige, and power, never knowing the injustice that made the opulence of the Pharaoh’s family possible. But one day, when Moses was around 40, he goes for a walk and leaves his neighborhood to see what life is like on the other side of the tracks. On that day, Moses sees an Egyptian slave master beating a Hebrew slave and Moses fights on behalf of the slave, killing the slave master. Moses, at the very least, commits manslaughter, and flees Egypt because he’s afraid of what will happen to him.
This is what eventually leads Moses to be a shepherd, taking care of sheep on behalf of his father-in-law, Jethro.
One day, while tending to the flock, Moses is walking with the sheep through the wilderness, Moses notices a bush that’s burning, which ins’t all that odd in the deserts of the near east, after all, it’s a desert, the grasses and bushes in the desert are dry and it only takes a spark to get the fire going. But Moses lingers for a bit and notices that while the bush is burning, it’s not being burned up.
This is a pretty big grilling weekend, so let’s imagine that you are spending some time around a grill, how long would you have to watch that the flames to notice how the charcoal was being consumed? It’s one thing to notice a flame, it’s another to pay attention. It’s as if this passage is reminding us that there is potential and possibility all around us, as some have said, bushes are burning everywhere, we just have to notice them.
Moses pays attention and because of that there is this holy moment where God cries out and invites Moses to lead the people into freedom. God says beginning Exodus 3:7, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. I’ve come down to tale them out of the land and bring them to a good and pray land, a land that is full of milk and honey…So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
For the rest of Exodus 3 and into chapter 4, Moses comes up with excuses as to why he can’t do what God has told Moses he must do until Moses finally says, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.”
In her book, How to Fail Elizabeth Day writes, “Adventures do by definition involve risk, but not having an adventure means missing out on life, a far greater risk.”
Moses would rather miss out on his life than trust that God will be with him through the risk. Moses would rather listen to his own imagined fears of failure that listen to the voice of God that says don’t be afraid.
Moses, it seems, is so afraid of failure that he’s afraid to take a risk. Even though it is the right thing to do, even though God says to Moses I will be with you, God says to Moses I’ll make sure Aaron is with you every step of the way, Moses is still afraid to take that step forward, Moses is afraid of the risk.
Maybe it’s not just that Moses is afraid of failure, Moses might even be afraid of success. The status quo can be easy. When life is only the way life is, even when it’s disappointing you can prepare yourself for the let down. When you think you’re not going to do well in an interview it’s easier to overthink what kind of handshake you’re going to have or to dwell on what you’re going to wear than it is to actually prepare for the interview.
Moses knows exactly what they need to do, he’s been told don’t be afraid, Moses has been told that Aaron is going to help him along the way, all Moses has to do is try, and it’s the one thing that he keeps trying to not do.
Some of you know that I like to ride my bike and that I’ve been on RAGBRAI a few times. The first time I went on RAGBRAI, members of my team kept telling me about rookie mistakes and all the ways that new riders cause accidents and I told myself that’s not going to happen to me. If you’ve never been on RABGRAI, here’s two mistakes that my team told me most first time rider makes – slipping their chain and not getting to the side of the road to fix it. I thought to myself, I might be a rookie on RAGBRAI, but I’m an old soul so everything will be fine. On the first day, with the first hill we rode up, I slipped my chain and got stuck in the middle of the road.
Compared to Moses leading the Israelites into freedom, that’s a minuscule failure, but it was more than enough to make me want to quit. Moses had a burning bush, the voice of God, the promise that he didn’t have to be afraid because God would be with him and Aaron would be too, and Moses still tried to say no – all I had was a little embarrassment. Clearly I’m still not stuck in the middle of the road, I got back on my bike and life went on, but I can remember that failure more than any of the other hills we rode on because that time I failed and I made it up the hill every other time without any problems. We seem to remember our failures more than our successes, in part, so we can learn from them, so when a similar situations arises we can learn to fail better, but we also remember our failures more than our successes because how often do we let ourselves savor a success? When something goes right, do you think about how it could have been better or do you let yourself appreciate and cherish the moment? Gratitude, being mindful and thoughtful of what we are thankful for is both a therapeutic and a faithful way that we can confront our fears of failure. So take the time to be grateful this week.
Just like Moses, we can all come up with excuses as to why we’re not the one to do what God is asking us to do. We can act like our schedule isn’t flexible enough, maybe like Moses we can tell ourselves that we’re too old, we can think we don’t have the right skills or talents and we don’t have the ability to learn the ones we need.
You can try to come up with whatever excuse you need to, but what’s true of Moses is true of you – you are called to make a difference, to witness to and share the liberation and love of God, and you are not alone, so don’t be afraid.
But you know what? Moses still had moments of failure. Not too longer after Moses lead the people into freedom they wanted to turn around. Moses tried to convince the people to keep going, and he could for a bit, but because Moses was trying to be a Lone Ranger, forgetting that even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, Moses failed again and again and again. Moses failed, but Moses also learned from each failure and kept taking another step further to find their way closer to the promised land.
You will fail, and if it hasn’t happened yet there will come a time where I fail you. Sometimes a failure might be a misunderstanding, other times failure could be not living up to whatever you idea of success is, and there will also be times where you fail and fall on your face. It’s going to happen, you can’t stop it, but you can learn from it.
The failures that you are going through now could be the fuel that finally gets you to where you are going.
Failure, just like our fear of it, is universal and unavoidable. It’s going to happen and we are going to be afraid, but God is still with us, the bush is still burning, and you don’t have deal with your failures alone.
And it’s with all of this in mind that I want to talk about a current failure I’m trying to work my way through. I don’t know what might come to mind for you when you think about a pastor failing, but I can’t imagine that it’s anything good because whatever failures we imagine are always worst case scenarios. Whatever failure you might be thinking about, the failure that I’m going to tell you about probably isn’t as bad – so here it is – with our staff and a small group of folks that represent some of the cross sections of Grace, we’re recognizing that our church can be very segmented so if you find yourself connected in one part of the church you might have no idea what’s going on in another part of the church. We’re also seeing how we’ve struggled to connect people to the groups and missions that we have in the church and it’s been even more of a struggle to empower you to dream and try new things.
If you are new to Grace right now, you might not have the whole history, but before I became the pastor here are Grace, the congregation took a survey that pointed towards these conclusions, after that we worked with a consultant to see what first time guests thought of Grace, which only amplified these issues, and since then we had a pandemic that we stayed connected through, but with everything that was going on we didn’t have the capacity to deal with this.
Now, if you have been around Grace for awhile, there’s a chance that you might not think this is an issue or a failure at all, and if that’s the kind of place you find yourself in, I’d simply ask that you talk to someone that’s newer to Grace and see how many names other than our staff they know. Hopefully that’s a not so subtle hint that I’m asking you to talk to someone you don’t know today and ask them about your favorite aspect of the church that isn’t a worship service and see if they know how to get involved.
We’ve started to recognized a failure, even calling it a failure makes it sound more harsh than it is, but it’s a reality and it’s something that we need to deal with and grow through by learning from it. But to learn from this, I need your help. I have to believe that there are Moses moments in all of our lives. The bush is always burning, we just have to notice those places where God is leading us. So what is God leading you toward? In your Moses moment, how can we help you take the next step? We can try, we can fail, and we can try again because God is with us and we’re with one another.
What are you interested in, what are you passionate about, how would you like to get connected, what would you like to see Grace get involved with? Last week we talked about the fear of loneliness and I kept thinking to myself, we can’t talk about loneliness without having some sort of social event to help folks get past their loneliness. I thought about picnics, and games, even having a movie on the lawn, we could have organized a bike ride or put on a mission activity to get people working together, but I didn’t know what anyone might be interested in, so I made excuses to myself that it was easier not to try any of those things than to try one of them and be disappointed.
And if we were going to try one of those things, I’d have to ask for help, which isn’t always my strong suit. I can ask for help and I know I need to get better at it, but as a pastor, I know that I can be really good at guilting people into doing something, because, even thought it’s not true, if you say no to me, you’re saying no to the church, which means you are saying no to God and, of course, that means you’re going to get a zit on the tip of your nose because God is angry at you. That’s not true, you can say no to me, but I often find myself stuck thinking through the power dynamics of a pastor and not wanting anyone to feel guilty for being busy and having other priorities.
Over the summer at Grace, a lot of our regular programming outside of worship is put on pause, and coming out of the pandemic, we’re just not sure what, if anything, you all are interested in right now. So we really need to know, what would you be interested in the rest of the summer, how would you like to get involved, and what do we need to do to help get things started?
I know there are ways that we need to get connected, I know there is more that we can do as a church, I just don’t know what your passions and dreams are, so I need you to let me and our staff know. I need you to listen to that voice of God that reminds you to not be afraid, that inspires you to take the next step because you don’t have to take that step alone.
This Sunday we are sharing communion with one another. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus shares his last supper with the disciples he also takes the time to wash their feet. In the ancient near east, people walked the same roads as animals and they didn’t have boots or shoes, maybe they had sandals, but they didn’t cover much. At the very least, when you entered someones home, your feet were going to be dusty. Sometimes, people would wash their own feet when they entered a home, but if you were with a group and you were the first one to bend down to wash your feet, since you’re already there, you might as well wash everyones feet. It’s kind of like holding a door open for someone, and then another person isn’t that far away so you hold the door open for them. All the disciples walk into the room but no one washes their feet because they don’t want to take care of one another, but Jesus washes all of their feet and then says this is what you must do for one another – as I have loved you, you must love one another.
Jesus knew that all of the disciples were going to fail him that night. Peter was going to deny him, Judas was going to betray him, all of the other disciples were going to flee in fear for what could happen to them, but Jesus didn’t let their failures stop him.
After washing the disciples feet, Jesus says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” I have been stuck by that line, you will be blessed if you do them.
This blessing is not about success or failure, Jesus simply says you will be blessed if you do them, when you love one another, when you live with humility and grace, when you dedicate your life to grace and peace you will be blessed. Jesus asks us to try, so may we be a people who try this week and always
July 5 – 10, 2021
Click on the day to expand the guide.
Read – Exodus 3:2-4, 9-11, 13, 4:1, 10, 13; Deuteronomy 34:10-12
Notice – Moses had a safe, stable job tending sheep for his father-in-law; God had other plans for Moses’ life. God kept calling as Moses offered excuse after excuse. In the end, Moses left his safe life to answer God’s call, and marched into history trusting God to guide him in leading Israel out of slavery. As you read all of Moses’ reasons for not doing what God was calling him to do, consider which of them most resonate with any fears you face. Ask God to day-by-day help you grow, as Moses did, into a person God can use to serve where you are—your home, workplace, or neighborhood—or in a special mission to which you sense God calling you.
Pray – God, you don’t call all of us to huge, historic missions like the one you gave Moses. But at times your call looks big enough that I get scared. Give me your strength to live for you beyond any of my fears. Amen.
Read – 1 Samuel 17:4-11, 32-37, 41-45
Notice – In sports or business, we often talk about a “David and Goliath” story when a “little guy” takes on an established power. The Philistine giant, whatever his exact size (ancient manuscripts differ), was big enough to terrify King Saul and the whole Israelite army. But he didn’t scare David. Goliath was no doubt a veteran fighter, but he seemed to count as much or more on insults and intimidation as on his physical skill. As the Philistine poured out scornful insults toward David, the young Hebrew man wasn’t cowed or distracted. To what extent are you able to be “inner directed,” rather than overly sensitive to what others (especially any giants you face) may think of you? What makes that ability important when you’re tempted to feel afraid of failing?
Pray – God, giants don’t always have to be nine feet tall to feel that way to me. Teach me that you are bigger than any human “giant,” and help me “cut them down to size” by trusting in you. Amen.
Read – Numbers 13:27-33; 14:1-3
Notice – As Israel neared the Promised Land, Moses sent 12 men to scout the land (Numbers 13:1-3). When the scouts returned to give their report, ten of them focused on obstacles and problems, and were terrified. Long before David faced Goliath, they were frightened of the “huge men” they saw in the Promised Land. Only Caleb (along with Joshua—Numbers 14:6) focused on God’s promise and power, and pleaded with people to keep moving forward. This story shows two things about fear. First, it’s contagious—the 10 scouts’ fear spread to most of the people. Second, it clouds the ability to think clearly—once afraid, the people thought irrationally, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” Can you think of times when fear has magnified a challenge you faced, or led you to a damaging response? How can you avoid being a source of contagious fear for others?
Pray – Jesus, had you been governed by fear, you’d no doubt have stayed safely away from this broken, sometimes hostile planet. Please keep infusing your holy fearlessness into my heart and life. Amen.
Read – Psalm 73:1-13, Daniel 8:12-25
Notice – Psalm 73 reflected a spiritual puzzle. People who completely ignored God seemed to be having success—no troubles at all (verses 3-5). If that was the case, maybe serving God was futile (verses 11, 13). Daniel 8’s apocalyptic vision pictured an evil power (probably, originally, the oppressive Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes). Three times it said he would “succeed,” but only in the short term. In the end, “he will be broken—and not by a human hand.” If the evil power in Daniel 8:12-25 was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the “daily sacrifice” likely referred to that king sacrificing a pig on the Temple altar in Jerusalem, deliberately trying to discredit Israel’s God. He was arrogant about his power— “in his own mind, he will be great.” But his army and title did not dethrone God. Can you think of other evil forces that crumbled after seeming success? Can you trust, as James Russell Lowell wrote in “The Present Crisis,” that “behind the dim unknown, standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above [God’s] own”?
Pray – Lord, give me more and more of your eternal perspective on success. Keep my steps from slipping at the times when I see the apparent success of the wicked. Amen.
Read – 1 Timothy 1:3-5, 4:8-16
Notice – In God’s sweeping story in the Bible, we see that God used people who might have been thought too old (e.g. Abraham, Moses) and others who might have been thought too young (e.g. Jeremiah, Timothy). If you are on the younger end of the age spectrum, do older people ever intimidate you, making you afraid to offer your gifts and insights? If you are on the older end of the spectrum, what helps you resist the urge to look down on younger Christians that might want to try things in new and different ways?
Pray – Jesus, as I live in this age-conscious culture, remind me that from your eternal view, age is one of the least of your concerns. Empower me to live without fear, now and in all the years of earthly life that are left for me. Amen.
Read – Isaiah 52:13 – 53:11
Notice – Rabbis debated who Isaiah’s fourth “servant song” was about. The first Christians had no doubt—they quoted this song more than any other verses to describe Jesus’ redemptive suffering. In Jesus, the early Christians saw, God’s servant succeeded by taking the world’s evil and hatred onto himself, and through what looked like failure to human eyes, changed it into a redemptive force. As the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology said, “God’s power is at its greatest not in [Jesus’] destruction of the wicked but in his taking all the wickedness of the earth into himself and giving back love.” * Jesus set the stage for the way New Testament writers applied Isaiah 53 by quoting part of the passage and applying it to himself (cf. Luke 22:37). It all came true in Jesus’ saving death and resurrection, they said. What does Jesus’ way of succeeding in defeating evil as the Suffering Servant tell you about how God defines success? What kinds of evil have you faced? How can Jesus’ example guide you toward the path of genuine success at those times?
Pray – Jesus, you succeeded through self-giving love, through suffering for others and giving your life to offer me life. Reshape any flawed notions of success I may have, and help me to truly succeed by the same divine standards that you did. Amen.
- T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, ed. The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 222.