Here I Go Again

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Here I go again.
Most of us live in a high-learning-curve world. Trying to make sense of a world that was different than the one we knew 10 years ago, or even a year ago. As I restart this blog, I will look at ideas that touch on this reality, a reality that I, along with you, are living.
Here’s a snapshot of where I’m coming from:
I was thinking about starting up my blog again, as I drove down the Kansas Turnpike from Lawrence to Winfield about two months ago. That trip is something I do once a month to visit family and friends in that area that I left about 2 ½ years ago. I was thinking about all the new beginnings I’ve had in that 2 ½ years—beginning with my husband’s hospitalization and death; then taking early retirement from a job I’d had for 11 years; moving from the house I’d called home for 11 years (because when you live in a parsonage [a house owned by the church you pastor] that’s sort of what you have to do); moving in with my daughter; moving out temporarily while contractor’s made a large basement space into 2 rooms and a bathroom for me; moving back into her house; attending a new church; beginning a new part-time position this past March; moving to my own apartment this past July 15. And a few other things thrown in. Oh, and knee surgery this past June 1. You get the picture.
My guess is, it’s not that much different than your life. We make plans, then, as people say, “Life happens.”
So, I was driving down the Kansas Turnpike, thinking about all the life that “had happened” in the past 2 ½ years; I thought about getting back to blogging. A song by Whitesnake came on the radio, and I thought, “That’s it! That’s what I’m feeling, and where I need to start.”
The words of the song:
“And here I go again on my own
Going down the only road I’ve ever known . . .”
So, here I go again. More on my own than I’ve ever been—and I’m 63! I’ve never lived on my own, really. I was 18 when I got married during my first year in college, and I had moved from my parents’ home to live with my Grandmother before I got married. I’ve never lived in an apartment before. Well, my husband and I lived in one his last two semesters of seminary; it was in the main seminary building, and we left our door open all the time. I don’t leave my door open here at all.
I have no doubt that your journey and mine will be similar in many ways. Probably not the actual life that “happens” to us, but certainly the need to begin again; the need to keep going when we aren’t sure where or how; the need to learn more than we think we can or want to; and the need for God and for other people.
Yes, “here I go again on my own” is the feeling many times, but we are never on our own. There is a Creating, Loving, Sustaining God who refuses to let go—even when we don’t know it. And there are people. You may have to search, but they are there. Probably closer than you realize.
May you find strength in God’s blessings as you continue to “go again” . . . and again . . . and again.

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New Beginnings…God-beginnings

New beginnings! Springtime and sunshine! Excitement! New life!
New beginnings. Springtime and rain. Letting go. Scary No guarantees.
So, which of those describes “new beginnings”? All of the above and so much more.
We have just celebrated the 6th Sunday of Easter (not the 5th Sunday after Easter), and resurrection and new life are all around us.
Colors abound in our yard: iris in at least three shades of purple, deep moron, yellow, multi-colored yellow and purple, white and purple; huge pink bushes, and colorful trees. Peonies are just about the join this color explosion. Spring is all of that.
But that’s not all it is.
I entered spring truly needing the colors of life around me; I entered spring needing the good news of the promise of new life. I imagine I will enter spring this way for the rest of my life.
The end of winter I walked through my last eleven days with my husband, including the day he entered the hospital (February 24) with an infection (we thought), through our 42nd wedding anniversary in ICU (February 27), and through his death (March 7). It wasn’t an infection, it was an extremely aggressive and rare form of leukemia/lymphoma.
No matter what your winters are like; no matter what level of pain and barrenness they bring; no matter when your winters come (they aren’t always December 21-March 21); there is the promise of Easter. The promise of springtime, of new life, of excitement and vitality.
Your struggle might not be the death of a spouse or other loved one. Perhaps your struggle lies with issues brought up at a church meeting—or those you just happened to overhear two parishioners talking about in the hallways at church. Too often issues you didn’t even know existed. No matter what the issue, there is hope.
Perhaps your struggle is with a family member—a child or spouse with addictions or mental illness—and the time they demand drains your energies and you’re afraid that everyone at church knows it and, worse, blames you instead of offering to help.
I don’t know what your winter time is like. Except that it can be a scary time of uncertainties, of feelings of hopelessness and helplessness.
I do know what you don’t need—clichés made up to make you feel better. So, I won’t offer any.
The most I can do through this medium of blogging is perhaps to remind you that there are others praying for you when you can’t pray (and if you’re reading this blog, I am praying); there are others hurting with you; and there are people willing and waiting to be supportive and encouraging, if only you will ask (hard to do, I know!).
And I believe with all of my heart that God is with you always, even—perhaps, especially—in the worst of times, the winter times. Sometimes we need eyes to see.
During David’s (my husband’s) illness and death, I wrote down times I felt God with me. I have three full pages, and I’m sure there were many I missed. This story is one of the longer ones, but such a blessing and an assurance of God’s presence at a time I needed it.

When David was first moved to the Hospice floor, we were asked to wait in the family room while he got settled into his room. Joanna (my daughter) came up to me and said,
“Have you seen the movie that is sticking out on the shelf?” I said, “No.” I went over
to the shelves with movies on them. The one that was sticking out was “Butch Cassidy
and the Sundance Kid,” the movie that David and I saw on our first date,
Christmas Day 1969. I took it to David’s room and left it propped up on the t.v.,
then I took it home with me.

New beginnings! Springtime and hope. It’s all around. May we have the eyes to see.
Praise be to God!

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Worshiping in Spirit and in Truth

 “Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim, where our ancestors worshiped?”Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” John 4:19-24

Jesus’ definition of worship as being performed by those who worship “in spirit and in truth” rolls off the tongue pretty easily. God is spirit, so we worship in spirit. Check. God is truth, so we worship in truth. Check.

Maybe we answer too fast! Jesus’ words are not about making a checklist so this woman—and us by extension—can feel good because she has accomplished worship. “Spirit” and “truth” embody ways to live, which is our true worship.

When Jesus speaks to her of worshiping in spirit and truth, he is taking worship away from some activity that excludes people, like the temple with its various “sections” outside the main worship center for people who were “unclean”: women, the lame, Gentiles. In other words, worship includes this woman who has offered Jesus water. It must have been an amazing moment for her.

Not only does Jesus tell her everything she’s ever done, but he has welcomed her into the heart of God, worship. Because worship is about Spirit and truth, not place, not gender not ethnicity, God is available to all.

“Spirit” and “truth” are about how we live our lives, and so worship is about how we live our lives, not just something that happens on Sunday morning.

Worship is here. Worship is with us now. Worship, like ministry, is active; it it intentional

The Godbearing Life* defines ministry as “the grateful response of God’s people, whose activity in the world and with one another suggests a new way of being alive. Ministry is not something we ‘do’ to someone else. It is a holy way of living toward God and toward one another.” It is this “living toward God and toward one another” that worship fosters, as we worship and live “in spirit and in truth.” Worship and ministry are intertwined.

We can worship the God of Spirit and Truth anytime, anywhere. We can minister anytime, anywhere. It is what we are created to do.

One of the truths that Marie Roberts Monville talks about numerous times in her memoir, One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting**, is that when times were rough, she would begin wondering what she should do and the answer was always the same: worship God. Sometimes that was all she could manage to do.

Sometimes that is all that we can manage to do. Always, that is enough. Thanks be to God.

The Godbearing Life: the Art of Soul Tending for Youth Ministry” by Kenda Creasy Dean and Ron Foster; Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 1998.

**One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting, by Marie Monville; Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013

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Seriously Speaking

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “you must be a prophet. 20 So tell me, why is it that you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place of worship, while we Samaritans claim it is here at Mount Gerizim,[a] where our ancestors worshiped?”

21 Jesus replied, “Believe me, dear woman, the time is coming when it will no longer matter whether you worship the Father on this mountain or in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans know very little about the one you worship, while we Jews know all about him, for salvation comes through the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—indeed it’s here now—when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way. 24 For God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.”  John 4:19-24

This section of the story contains enough information for a number of reflections, and I am sure that I will provide at least two in the weeks to come!

The woman’s first comments, however, are an interesting place to begin. They have been interpreted by many people to be a way for her to sidetrack Jesus from the “real” issue—her living with someone who is not her husband.

Why is it so easy to assume that she was not serious, but just being sneaky? There is no reason to assume that she was trying to derail Jesus. Instead, I read in her question a desire to engage him in a religious discussion.

She has concluded that he is a prophet. Pretty astute, if you ask me. And, perhaps just as important to her, he had not judged her. For those reasons alone, she might have felt freed to openly talk with him about important matters, which was something that she couldn’t do with other people, at least with other men who might know the truth. And, remember, she has determined that Jesus is just such a man.

I think it is sad that many people have often assume ulterior motives from her, when there is no way from this story to prove what is in her mind. From her actions, it seems clear that she was seriously searching for something and she thought this man had the answer. So, she asks him a serious question about an important issue. And Jesus’ response indicates that he thought she could handle a serious truth. There is no reason to assume ulterior, “let’s-change-the-subject” motives.

Many women serving in churches today know what it feels like to be treated lightly, when you are seriously following God’s lead. Many have experienced having their comments overlooked, only to have them repeated my a male and then taken seriously. (This isn’t limited to the church, as studies have shown.)

The example of the woman at the well is that we are to remain true, and to keep doing what we know is right. We are to keep our relationship with Jesus open and growing, just as the woman at the well does with Jesus.

Their relationship continues to develop as they continue their conversation. And what happens in all healthy relationships has already begun to happen here: the woman at the well is becoming more of who God created her to be because of her relationship with Jesus.

May this week find all of us blessed with this truth: may we grow more and more into the person God created us to be, because of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

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Surprise! The door flings wide open

 

16 “Go and get your husband,” Jesus told her. 17 “I don’t have a husband,” the woman replied. Jesus said, “You’re right! You don’t have a husband— 18 for you have had five husbands, and you aren’t even married to the man you’re living with now. You certainly spoke the truth!”

When we first see the meeting between Jesus and the woman at the well, it appears that there is nowhere for the conversation to go; it appears hopeless.

Jacob's Well, Shechem

Jacob’s Well, Shechem

The two people involved are a male and a female, strike one. One of them is Jewish, the other one a Samaritan, strike two.One of them is an insider, and one an outsider, strike three.

But in this case, three strikes didn’t mean “you’re out” or “no hope.” Because Jesus the Christ was one of the two people involved. Where there seems no way, God can make a way.

That way is paved with love and acceptance, with truth and challenge.

I love this part of the story! Jesus tells the woman to go and get her husband. When she says, “I don’t have a husband,” things begin to change. If most people were writing this story, Jesus’ next line might go something like this: “Why, you just lied to me. As a matter of fact, you have had five husbands! I guess that technically the man you are with now isn’t your husband, but you are living with him as if he is, aren’t you. How dare you try to pull something over on me!”

Yeah. That was a possibility. And I have to wonder if that isn’t the kind of response she expected. We don’t know.

But Jesus says nothing like that—nothing even similar. “You are right . . . . What you have just said is quite true” (Message). That must have blown her away. Partly because in that section of   “. . . .”  Jesus states the facts of her failed marriages and her current living situation. Neither of which would endear her to most of that culture.

I can’t begin to imagine how she felt at that moment. Yes, she says that he is a prophet, but even at that, wouldn’t she have expected a prophet to condemn her life, like others had?

This section speaks to all of us who have ever experienced rejection, shame or guilt. Jesus does not reject or condemn the woman because of what society sees as her sins; he accepts her. And this is a beautiful thing.

He could have easily slammed a door on the conversation. Instead, his acceptance of her opens the door so she can continue to listen and eventually have a relationship with Jesus, the living water.

It is easy to think of times we could have slammed doors instead of opening them. Sometimes you can be 100% in the right (well, maybe 90%) and still slam doors. When we follow Jesus’ example with the strength of the Spirit, we,too, can be loving and accepting, truth-telling and challenging.

I pray that God blesses each of us with the grace to accept people where they are, and to open doors so they might know Jesus more deeply. In the process, we will not be disappointed!

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Questions and Answers

 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” “Please, sir,” the woman said, “give me this water! Then I’ll never be thirsty again, and I won’t have to come here to get water.”           John 4:11-15
cropped-img_2234.jpgThe woman asks Jesus a lot of questions. But he doesn’t answer any of them!

I have been watching episodes of “Joan of Arcadia” with my 15 year-old granddaughter. These verses from the gospel of John remind me of the times that Joan asked God why she had to do something, or she asked for more information. God always responded with, “I don’t work that way.” All Joan wants is some reason for doing the seemingly crazy things God asks her to do. But she has to act on faith.

Jesus seems to work the same way here. He doesn’t give the woman what she wants, and he doesn’t answer her questions. Is there something wrong with her questions? Is there something wrong with wanting to know how he will get the water? Is there something wrong with wanting to know if he is thinks he’s as good as Jacob? Why doesn’t Jesus just answer her? Why won’t he answer us? I know, “God doesn’t work that way.” Sometimes it seems like life would be easier if God did work that way. Just answer our questions!

The woman might have been thinking the same thing. Then, Jesus offers her more that she dared to ask. She had brought one pot to the well, and Jesus offers her the whole well! Jesus offers her what she needs instead of what she wants. He offers her nothing less than God, nothing less than himself, living water.

She, of course, doesn’t know yet that that is what Jesus is offering. But Jesus knows. He knows that trying to prove himself to her just won’t work; he knows that trying to compare himself with Jacob will get him nowhere. He knows that answering her questions isn’t really what is needed. So he offers her what she desires, acceptance. Then beyond that he offers a life that overflows and that is eternal.

The rest of the story lets us in on more of what Jesus actually offers, and we will look at that in the future. But for today, it’s enough to know that we may have to let go of the questions filling our minds in order to make room for Jesus’ answers, which are often to different questions than we are asking.

Listen well, for in the listening is the living water of eternal life.

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Exodus 2:1-10: a look at confidence, courage, love and mercy

Today I am sharing another sermon that highlights women in the Bible. It was given by Rev. Joanna Harader, pastor at Peace Mennonite Church, Lawrence, KS, on June 22, 2014. I am publishing it with her permission. (I proudly claim her as my daughter, in case you were wondering.)

 

This morning we are continuing our “Sunday School Revisited” worship series. There are certain biblical stories many of us heard as children in Sunday School–stories like Creation, and Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the whale, and today’s story of baby Moses floating in a basket down the Nile river–stories that, as a child, I just took for granted as “church stories.” Yet as I got older and looked at the Bible from a more mature perspective, many of these stories did not seem like cute little kid stories. In fact, many of them seemed quite complicated–and even disturbing.

As we talked in worship committee about what to do for the summer series, this idea of “Sunday School stories” came up, and it turns out I’m not the only one to have an ambiguous relationship with some of these well-loved tales. Thus was born our summer focus on “Sunday School Revisited.” I am really looking forward to this series–both the opportunity to wrestle with some of these stories myself and the chance to hear others explore these familiar (and one not-so-familiar) texts.

We began, appropriately, with Creation in Genesis. And now I get to move into Exodus and think about baby Moses and his little boat ride down the river. I remember that as a child I loved this story. I mean, really really loved it. The little boat. The little baby. The unexpected rescue. The heroic big sister. (I was, after all, also a heroic big sister.) I honestly don’t remember what kind of lesson or moral my early Sunday School teachers pulled from this story, just some vague recollections of coloring in pictures of baskets and water and bulrushes.

I also remember that this was presented as a story about Moses–the beginning of the larger Moses saga; part of the Moses-as-hero motif–along with the burning bush and the walking stick-turned-snake and the parting Red Sea.

It’s easy to see, of course, from an adult perspective, that Moses is not the hero in this story. Moses is just a little baby. It is the women who are the true heroes of the story. In fact, the opening of Exodus is one of the few places in scripture that we see multiple women confront and overcome the destructive force of empire.

The story really begins not with Moses’ mother putting him in the basket, which is where we always started in Sunday School, but with the two Hebrew midwives Shiphra and Puah. Actually, the story starts with the Pharaoh’s fear of the Hebrew people–these descendants of Joseph who are thriving in their new home of Egypt. This fear that leads the Pharaoh to imagine non-existent threats and create inhumane solutions.

Pharaoh insists that Shiphra and Puah kill every male baby that is born to the Hebrew women.

As readers, at this point we already know a couple of things about this particular Pharoh: he is paranoid and he is ruthless. Two qualities that would make me think twice about going against his orders. Shiprah and Puah, though, know the Pharaoh better than we readers do. Yes, he is paranoid and ruthless. But he is also, apparently, not too bright–at least not when it comes to matters of childbirth. The midwives come up with some story about the Hebrew women being more “vigorous” than Egyptian women. “They give birth before we even get there,” the midwives insist. And through a combination of his ingrained ignorance and prejudice, Pharaoh buys this explanation.

So it is thanks to Shiprah and Puah that Moses–and many other Hebrew boys–survive their births. But, since the midwives are not cooperating, Pharaoh instructs “all his people” to throw every Hebrew boy into the Nile. Can you imagine a community where one group of people is instructed to take the boy babies of another group of people and throw them in the river? Can you imagine living in Iraq right now where your identification as Shiite or Sunni might get you killed? I heard an Iraqi woman this morning on NPR talking about the day armed men stormed her village and simply took away her brother–who has four daughters.

This story of the cute baby in a basket is set against a very troubling background. The mere thought of infanticide is, of course, deeply distressing. Then add to that this dynamic of all of Pharaoh’s people being instructed to be agents of this brutality . . . somehow we didn’t dwell much on this aspect of the story when we talked about it in Sunday School.

Into this nightmare of a scenario, Moses’ mother, Jochebed, has a baby. I imagine she was not happy to discover it was a boy. To be honest, at first I was a little bothered by the brief statement in verse 2: “When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months.” I thought, well, what if he had not been a “fine child”? Would she have just let him be thrown in the Nile?

But then I thought, “What parent doesn’t think their newborn is a ‘fine child’?”. This wrinkled, squawking, mess of a mini human emerges into the world and the parents are beside themselves. Every newborn is the most beautiful baby in the world, destined for greatness, loved and adored. For Moses’ mother, I’m sure that Miriam was also a “fine child.” And Aaron. And now this unnamed boy whose life is in danger.

And I learned something interesting about the Hebrew in this passage. The phrase used here, ki tov, is the same phrase God uses in Genesis to describe Divine delight in creation: “God saw that the light was good.” The land produces plants of all kinds, and God saw that it was good. God creates wild animals, and God saw that it was good.

Moses’ mother gives birth to a boy and she sees that he is good.

And because she sees that he is good, she hides him for three months. This is another part of the story we never talked about in Sunday School. In Sunday School, Jochebed’s big accomplishment is hiding her son among the reeds in the basket. But now that I’ve raised an infant myself, I realize that hiding a baby for three months would be the hardest part of the whole endeavor. For one thing, I assume she was pregnant before she gave birth, which means people would have known a baby was coming. For another thing, babies cry. A lot. Plus, Aaron was about three at the time. Have you ever tried to get a three-year-old to keep a secret? There is a whole lot of skill and effort behind that little bit of the narrative: “she hid him for three months.”

The basket, of course, seems inevitable to us. It is the foundation of the Moses story. But from the text it seems like the basket was more of a last minute effort when Jochebed figures out she isn’t going to be able to hide the baby forever. Maybe the authorities have been asking questions or a nosy Egyptian neighbor came knocking on the door one night when the baby was crying too loud. Or maybe the baby is just getting too big and the stress is getting to be too much. For whatever reason, Moses’ mom is done hiding him and decides to follow Pharaoh’s orders after all and put him in the Nile. Of course she grabs a basket first–interestingly, the Hebrew word for this basket is the same term used in Genesis for Noah’s ark–and covers it with tar and pitch so it will float.

I guess it makes sense that as a child I tended to place myself in the place of Moses when I heard this story. Floating down the river in a little mini boat seemed like it would be a grand adventure. But now that I am a mother, I think more about poor Jochebed, placing that basket–with her youngest son inside–among the reeds in the Nile. I’m not sure how she ever brought herself to let go of the basket, except that she had to.

Moses’ older sister, Miriam, takes it from here. Maybe Moses’ mom had to go back home to watch three-year-old Aaron. Or maybe she just couldn’t bear to watch that basket herself. So Miriam is the one who sees the servant of the princess–the princess!–draw the basket out of the water.

That narrative moment when Pharaoh’s daughter opens the basket to discover the baby–that was never a moment of suspense in Sunday School. In my young mind, it seemed obvious that a beautiful princess (and all princesses are beautiful) would love and care for any poor baby she found floating in a basket in the river. I realize now, of course, that the reaction of Pharaoh’s daughter is anything but a given.

What was Miriam thinking as she hid at a distance watching this scene? Was she relieved that the baby was found? Terrified about who found him? Possibly relieved and terrified at the same time? One thing is for sure, she did not want to have to go home and tell her mother that the baby had, after the hiding and the basket, been thrown into the Nile anyway. So Miriam hid and watched.

And what Miriam saw was shocking, really. Pharaoh’s daughter recognizes this baby as a Hebrew baby right away. And surely she knows of the decree made by her own father that such babies must be thrown into the Nile. But she actually does the opposite of what her father commands. (Perhaps she was a teenager?) Instead of throwing the baby into the river, she takes him out of the river. This is a big deal. It is a huge step of independence and fearlessness–to bring an enemy child into the royal family.

Then Miriam, herself pretty independent and fearless, approaches the princess and offers to find a Hebrew wet nurse for the child. In this way, Jochebed not only gets to nurse her own son, but she, a member of the slave class, gets paid for doing it!

Of course, once the child is weaned, Jochebed must return him to the Pharaoh’s daughter. So this is not quite a happily ever after story. But it also is not the tragedy it could have been. Moses’ story should have ended before it even began. He should have been killed by his mother’s midwife. And if not that, he should have been seized by loyal Egyptians and thrown into the the Nile. And if not that, at the very least, when Pharaoh’s own daughter found him, she should have carried out her father’s wishes and drowned the enemy.

But the women in this story thwart Pharaoh’s violent intent at every turn. Where Pharoah is controlled by fear, the women prove courageous. The midwives fear God more than Pharaoh. Jochebed’s love for her “fine child” is stronger than her fear of Pharaoh. Miriam is perhaps simply too young to know she should be afraid. And Pharaoh’s daughter . . . well, somehow she just knows that daddy won’t punish his little princess . . . I guess.

Of all of the ironies in this story, I think the most striking is this: the character with the least to be afraid of is the only one controlled by fear. It is Pharaoh, the ruler of the nation, the commander of the army, who lets his life be dictated by fear. And it is these women–foreign women, young women, women at the mercy of men in general and Pharaoh in particular–who are able to move past their fear–or at least despite their fear–and act with love and mercy . . . and courage.

Friends, we still live in a fear-steeped world. So I pray that whatever fears threaten to keep you from the path of love and mercy will be overcome by your confidence in God’s leading and protection. I pray that you will be filled with the courage of Shiphra and Puah, of Jochebed and Miriam, of Pharaoh’s daughter. I pray this courage for you so that, over and against all of the world’s decrees of death, you will have the power to carry out the life-giving work of God. Amen.

You can find this sermon at http://spaciousfaith.com/sermons-etc/old-testament-texts/exodus-21-10/     and you can find other writings of Joanna’s on her blog at  www.spaciousfaith.com

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