God in Disasters: Genesis 6.5–22, 8.6–12, and 9.8–17

Delivered at Ames UCC
on September 9, 2018.
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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DISASTER
How do you tell the stories of the disasters in your life?2018.9.9 failings

When I talk about being hospitalized for a mental health crisis in high school, I always express gratitude for the adults outside of my family of origin who helped to make that happen. When my wife talks about her childhood home burning down in the middle of the night, she always mentions how Tinkerbell, the family fox terrier, alerted everyone and saved their lives.

Maybe your disaster is about a lay-off from work; a suicide; a car accident; a heart attack; an assault; a stroke; a fall. From the Italian for “ill-starred event,” disasters befall us all. How we tell the story of each reveals something about us. It reveals something about what we notice, what we value, and why we live as we do in the aftermath.

This is especially true when in the telling of our disasters we invoke the presence of God, like in Noah’s.

NOT SUITABLE FOR KIDS
I have said it before and I will say it again, I do not know why we teach this story to children, how so many happy, cartoon depictions of this story ever proliferated. Look at the broad strokes: Humanity becomes so naughty that God not only kills almost all the humans, but the animals and the birds, too, with a flood. How can a story like that instill in a child anything but fear of failure and God alike?

It’s not that I completely disagree. Humans are bad and so there are floods.

Humans are bad at thinking globally or in terms of natural systems. We are also bad at accepting the consequences of our actions. The climate change behind rising sea water and unprecedented storm seasons is on us. So is the engineering and city planning that leaves whole populations of humans, animals, and birds at ongoing risk.

The bad thinking and actions of humans does lead to flood. However, that’s very different than saying a specific group of humans are bad and so God inflicts the disaster of a flood.

Lots of Christians say just that, blaming Katrina and the death toll in New Orleans on the gays, as just one example. But doing so feels an awful lot like a repeat of the conversation between God and Adam in the garden: Why did you eat that pomegranate, Adam? Uh, she made me!

Blaming God by way of queer people is a way to avoid taking responsibility rather than a faithful characterization of God.
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Wombs of Women: Ruth 4

Delivered at Ames UCC on August 12, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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THE TRICK
2018.8.12 wombs Remember how Ruth used sex to trap Boaz into marrying her and redeeming Naomi’s land? The next day we see Boaz trick a kinsman, referred to either jokingly or pejoratively as So-and-So, into giving up his claim to the role of redeemer-kinsman.

Recall that being a kinsman-redeemer is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s preferences for manna and mercy over money and might. There is no profit in buying Naomi’s land because Naomi will continue to work it for her own benefit and buy it back one day. Yet the opportunity to honor covenant living is powerful enough that it will take a little doing to get it away from Mr. So-and-So.

So Boaz tells a lie: If you serve as redeemer you also have to marry Ruth.

No, he doesn’t.

The only marital law regarding widows is, as I described last week, between brothers. Mr. So-and-So is not a son of Naomi or a brother-in-law to Ruth. Nonetheless, Mr. So-and-So is duped (or possibly glad to be shut of the kinsman-redeemer burden).

And so, after a little sandal removal, the honor of being a kinsman redeemer is Boaz’s. And the sacrifice of being husband to Ruth is, as well. For when Boaz and Ruth have a son, it will count as son to her late husband.

THE WOMEN
No wonder the townspeople then begin to celebrate: Look at the good and godly choice Boaz has made. They cry out,

May the Lord make Ruth like Rachel and Leah,
may your house be like that of Tamar!

Wait, what? What kinds of blessings are these? Who would want to live like Rachel and Leah and Tamar? Are they actually offering a curse?
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Get in the Long Line: Exodus 20.12–17

2018.6.10 trustDelivered at Ames UCC
on June 10, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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UNEASY
Since it is June and we are six months away from it, I think that I can say, without ruining anyone’s holiday, that Christmas makes me uneasy.

As you may be picking up, I’m using these first weeks of Ordinary Time to go a little more deeply into the other holidays and seasons of our tradition and how they create a bridge between us and our ancestors and our successors and God. So last week we had Advent; today we have Christmas.

And Christmas makes me uneasy.

Christmas makes me uneasy because it has become so divorced from church. Christmas’s disconnect from worship and communities of practice, its embedding in the marketplace, into product development and advertising’s manufacture of desire, makes me uneasy because I fear that there is no way to bring it back home to us.

Home has become part of the problem, too.

In the Christmas story, a king sends a pregnant woman on a journey. Now, marketing tells us that if we do not journey in December, if we do not have a family to reunite with in some idyllic home, we are not really part of the story at all.

Christmas makes me uneasy because, having become so untethered and coopted, complex theologies, weak theologies, and theologies that bear false witness to God are promoted and promulgated without thought to their consequences or resources for their understanding or debunking.

How many people have had their depression deepen in December because they cannot afford to participate in the holiday, in financial or familial terms? How many people have lost the opportunity to understand the hope of Christmas because they have no ground for interpreting virgin births and guiding stars and blaring angels?

Christmas makes me uneasy because the marketing and the pressure and the shallowness so distort its ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts.

BONHOEFFER
Over the last eighteen months, since just before Christmas 2016, I’ve been doing a few things to draw more deeply on our tradition’s ancient truths and eternally relevant gifts: intensifying my prayer practices; returning to the faith leaders of oppressed people through black liberation theology, womanist theology, and liberation theology; and to the faith leaders of oppressed people who have not only metaphorically staked their lives on these stories, but those who have done so quite literally, too. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
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The Words of Our Faith: Philippians 2.1–13

2018.5.13 no wayDelivered at Ames UCC
on May 13, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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OMAR IBN SAID
In the very early 1800s there was a man named Omar ibn Said. He was educated, he tithed, and he taught his Muslim faith to the children of his community in Senegal. Then, at age 37, married and with a family, Omar was kidnapped during a raid, and put to sea on one of the last ships to participate in the Atlantic slave trade before it was banned. Despite being a small and delicate man, Omar survived the middle passage, those six weeks below deck of filth, starvation, stench, and fear. In the autobiography he wrote years later, Omar said that on his arrival at the slave auctions in Charleston, South Carolina, “In a Christian language they sold me.”

However, Omar escaped from the man who would own him. He walked 200 miles, but even though he was under threat for every inch of those miles, he did not give up his practice of praying five times each day. Unfortunately, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Omar ibn Said was captured and jailed.

Then Omar did something remarkable, at least to the white people of Fayetteville.

As the account of Omar I’m basing this on notes, white people were used to being around black people and African people, and they were used to believing that black people and African people were all ignorant subhuman animals, who would do no more than toil and birth more property. Imagine their reaction when Omar ibn Said covered the walls of his jail cell with Arabic. In Arabic, Omar scratched out verses from the Koran that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his life before and certainly during captivity.

The white people were agog.

In our reading today, Paul is scratching out a Christian hymn that presumably already had and would continue to sustain him in his own life before and during captivity.

2018.5.13 witnessCHRIST HYMN
Because in addition to walking and preaching and teaching over thousands of miles all for the love of God and God’s love of all people, Paul also repeatedly went to jail for that very work. That’s where he is as he writes this letter to the emerging church in Philippi.

While jailed, Paul was visited by Epaphroditus, who delivered gifts from the Philippians. This letter serves as a thank you note for that support, and offers furthers guidance for persevering in their faith, even when there are struggles and struggles in their church. That guidance, that guide, is the vision of God in Christ expressed in verses 5–11, which you see offset in your bulletin today.

Known as the Christ Hymn, the words are not Paul’s, but most likely by another, otherwise unknown author and were probably sung by Paul and the Philippians in worship, maybe as part of the rite of baptism.1 The hymn teaches the singers to share in the mind of Christ: Be humble, take risks, give thanks to God.

What a comfort that must have been to Paul. What a comfort, even as a newcomer to a brand-new expression of faith, to have those lines to present in his mind. Not only memorized, but tattooed on his heart, just like those Koranic verses were for Omar ibn Said, so that their meaning could be useful in a time of trial.

OUR HEARTS
What do you think you have tattooed on your hearts?

What holy, weathered, and well-loved words would sustain us should we find ourselves suddenly captive, like Omar, or predictably jailed, like Paul?

I imagine many of us know the Lord’s Prayer by heart. And the more I pray it, the more layers and life I find within each word, as it moves from giving praise, to naming the goal, to asking for sustenance, to confessing brokenness, to requesting protection, and to a conclusion of joyous surrender.

I know

Love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might and your neighbor as yourself.

and

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.

and snippets from psalms Mary’s Magnificat and the Beatitudes and Genesis.

I have a lot of refrains from hymns to draw on; I’ll spare you those recitations.

But what if I prayed fives times each day, no matter what, like Omar ibn Said did two hundred years ago and billions of Muslims do to this day?

In 2018 I’ve taken on the discipline of praying the divine hours, also known as the divine office. It’s a Christian practice of fixed 2018.5.13 lords prayerhour prayers that go from the time of rising through bedtime: lauds, midday, vespers, and compline. Each hour’s prayer can take as little as five minutes, but the inertia of habits and the easy distractions of measurable outcomes and laundry can be a struggle to overcome.

JUST DO IT
Then I learn about Omar ibn Said and I hear Paul’s continued instruction from prison:

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for (God’s) good pleasure.

Yes, Philippians, yes, Amesians, faith work is hard and faith community is hard, but do the work of faith anyway. Don’t make excuses or be seduced by false comforts. Learn to pray, be in worship, commit to community.

Do the work of faith for you do not do so alone or only for yourself. There is no solitary prayer, or baptism, or communion.

The moment we open our mouths or our hands, we are not speaking or working only for or with ourselves but with the voice of the whirlwind, the hands that carried babies out of slavery, the centuries of disciples whose witness has proven just how weak the forces of nonbeing really are.

Even though on the run, the words of his faith allowed Omar to rest within the holy collective. Even while in jail, the the words of his faith allowed Paul to step into divine freedom.

That’s what I want for all of us.

That’s what God offers all of us: the way out of no way, the language that names the vision that offers the tools that opens the plantation gates and the jail doors and the shackles of violence, division, and distrust that both bind and divide us at this very moment.

2918.5.13 whirlwindBE READY
In our racist society it is unlikely that many of us here today will be trapped in a jail cell simply for the color of our skin though we could easily be because of how the content of our scripture compels us to fight that racism.

So like Omar ibn Said and Paul, if you haven’t already, find the words of faith that most stir and comfort and energize you. Don’t just memorize them but study them, interrogate them, ask yourself and God why they move you so. Know your own witness. And if you have done all those things already, teach us how and what you have gained from doing so.

Let each of us have the words of our faith at the ready so that even when we are fleeing, we remain grounded, and even when our language cannot be understood, our very ability to use it renders our captors agog.2918.5.13 sell out

And let us never again use our Christian language, the language of Christ, to sell or to sell out other people, but to ever and only bear witness to freedom, peace, righteousness and God’s love for all people.

AMEN

1Coogan, Michael, ed. 2001. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Learning and Hospitality: Luke 24.13–35

2017.4.23 easter chrisitansDelivered at Ames UCC
on April 23, 2017

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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ANXIOUS CHURCH DEATH
I am pretty picky about what articles and books I read about Christianity and church life. Some of that is theological. I am not, obviously, going to read anything based on Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians to keep women quiet. Or the work of Christians who ignore the gospels in order to lean on the handful of words in Leviticus’ temple rules to decry queer people. Not everything preserved in scripture is right or holy. I hope you feel entitled to make the same distinction.

But I also tend to ignore articles about The Death of The Church. I think you probably know what I mean because these pieces have been ringing our death knell for at least 20 years, if not 40. Oh! The church is dying! Oh! The good news of life in radical generosity and relationship is no longer meaningful! Oh! Get a smoke machine and a praise band!

The anxiety level among pastors of “mainline” Protestant churches like ours, and that of the membership, can easily surpass any joy. Maybe that’s why I saw an uptick in articles during Holy Week about “how to behave on Easter.”

The notion that my colleagues in Christian ministry felt compelled to write pieces about anything other than the last supper and the garden and the cross during Holy Week, was so curious to me that I had to read a couple. Basically, they were about how regular attendees can be sure not to blow it with less regular attendees or newcomers on our highest of holy days.

The suggestions included not saying “You know, we are here every week,” scooting into the middle of the pew so that anyone who might be feeling shy doesn’t have to clamber over you, not kicking anyone out of “your” spot, and talking to each other. Basically, be thoughtful and polite.

So rather than teaching seekers how they might think, or more importantly pray, about Easter, these posts read to me as testimonies to church death anxiety. It was as if Easter hasn’t taught us about how holiness begets new life in spite of death.

EMMAUS
Look at what we hear today. Today’s verses follow immediately from last week’s. From last week’s climax at the tomb with the Marys and Joanne and Peter, we are moved immediately to a road between Jerusalem and Emmaus. The very same day that the disciples have found the tomb empty, the word has spread far enough that Cleopas (who is not a disciple) and someone else (also not a disciple) know all of the details.

When Cleopas and his friend meet a stranger—the rising Jesus did not look as he once did—all of that has already happened. They must have really evoked their disappointment that Jesus didn’t redeem Israel from yet another occupation, because the rising Jesus reminds them, more brusquely than the angels did the Marys and Joanne, that all of this was according to plan. To reassure them, the rising Jesus teaches them to interpret scripture, the Torah, prophets, and writings of the Hebrew Bible.
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Truth: Luke 4.14–30

2017.1.15 jubilant loveDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 15, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A long time ago, it seems now, I taught a course on rhetoric and argumentation. Throughout the semester we went over different types of arguments and logical fallacies: how to make a parallel case, how to avoid a straw man, for example. The project for the term was to take a racial or ethnic conflict—and I came up with 72 different ones ranging from reparations in the United States to Greece’s treatment of the Cypriots—and lay out the arguments on both sides, then make a case for one side.

This required research. And, as the Internet was just starting to be widely accessible, it required teaching the students how to assess if an online source was valid because we were learning that anyone could and would post anything. The criteria were authority, purpose, format and publisher, relevance, date, and documentation.

If only the Internet came with those criteria posted every time we turn on a browser. If only we had to accept those terms with each and every click and scroll. Because twenty years later, the validity of online information is a moot point. Truth has taken such a hit over the last year that the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”:

..relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.1

But here’s something that has been eating at me even more than the collapse of credibility: Post-truth sounds a lot like my theology and that of our branch of the Christian family tree.

For example, one of the stories we did not hear in this year’s cycle with Jesus is his trial in the wilderness. According to the story, Jesus is alone for forty days, beset by ha-satans, the forces of non-being. They have a powerful conversation in which Jesus only responds with scripture, demonstrating a fierce loyalty to God. We know because we have a word-for-word account of their dialogue, as if Luke secured a transcript of this solitary experience forty years after Easter.

This is not possible.
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Faith is Not So Tidy: Luke 3.1–22

2017.1.8 best caseDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 8, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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NEAT AND TIDY
Luke tells a good story, he’s a good story teller. The Gospel of Luke and its sister book the Acts of the Apostle are beautifully crafted cases for Christ. Rather than a collection of Jesus stories with no segues or explanation, each element within Luke’s gospel is connected, and is a stepping stone to the predicted end.

In the second chapter, for instance, a barren woman is able to get pregnant, a classic Biblical sign of God at work in the world. That woman, Elizabeth, now pregnant with John, visits her cousin Mary, now pregnant with Jesus. John gives Elizabeth’s bladder a good kick, and Elizabeth proclaims Mary blessed among women.

This is a foreshadowing of today’s story: John, now born and grown and working as a religious leader, kicks back against those who think he is the anointed one. No, he says, not I. But, the one I have preceded all my life.

In the Gospel of Luke, the structure of the story leaves no room to doubt that Jesus is the Son of God. The structure of Luke’s story of faith is neat and tidy.

But, man oh man, the contents are not. Look, for example, at the company Jesus keeps, right from the very start.

2017.1.8 not just ritualJESUS’ BAPTISM
Although the Christmas story tells us that Jesus is going to be someone special, the audience for that is pretty small, once you exclude the sky full of heavenly host. Jesus’ baptism, then, is considered his debut act of ministry, the moment at which Jesus declares his commitment to God and God blesses that commitment.

The version most commonly represented in art and story is from the Gospel of Mark. In it, John is in rough clothing and eating bugs. John cites the prophecy from Isaiah and predicts Jesus. Jesus is then clearly baptized by John and just as he comes out of the water, the heavens open right in front of everyone, in direct response to John moving Jesus through the water.

Not so in Luke. In Luke, we just hear that sometime after everyone was baptized, including Jesus, Jesus was praying, but where and for how long and with whom, we don’t know. Only then does God speak.

That crucial moment almost reads as an addendum to what came before: seventeen verses of John preaching and chastising and getting arrested, then only two about Jesus and his baptism. In Luke, it is the lead up to the baptism and holy blessing that get the attention, that have the weight. And it is not tidy. The lead up to baptism and blessing are messy.

John has rejected his birthright. This one who could have been—should have been?—a temple priest like his father is instead a hollering, river-wading name caller. People, he says, there is one coming who will straighten everything out. But you are a brood of vipers! You think you can rest on who you are related to and do no work of your own. Bah!

Then things get messier, because it turns out that the people who were drawn to John, at least the ones who warrant naming, are tax collectors and soldiers. This first group consists of fellow Israelites who make their living off of taxing their own neighbors on behalf of an occupier, while taking a cut for themselves. The second are the agents of occupation who keep the rule of foreign law, including suppression of resistance, through violence, extortion, and pinning crimes on innocent people. John tells them to clean up their acts and be prepared to be judged by fire.

These are the people chosen by Jesus to be his first witnesses. These are the very first members of what we now call the body of Christ.
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No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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POETRY
I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

TEMPLE PRESENTATION
Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?
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We Are Family: Christmas Day 2016

Delivered at Ames UCC on December 25, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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JOSEPH’S FAMILY
There’s something about the Christmas story that has been bothering me this year.

As we hear in the Luke version of Jesus’ story, the Roman emperor tells everyone to go to their home towns to be registered. So we learn that Joseph is from Bethlehem but living in Galilee. That’s a 70 mile separation, a long way by foot and by mule.

But what is bothering me is why Joseph left his family, why he wasn’t already in Bethlehem at the time of the census. Why did he leave his family, his clan, his tribe in the first place? Did work take him away or war? Was he a refugee or merely an émigré? The story doesn’t say.

We know that it was important for the early Jesus storytellers to link Jesus to Bethlehem, to prove that he was the anointed one predicted in the older Hebrew prophecies. But they could have just said he was there at his birth, they didn’t need this elaborate story of hardship.

FAMILY HARDSHIP
As you all know, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s can themselves be a hardship for some us because of our families of origin.

With the juggernaut of family-themed advertising, those of us whose families are broken or cruel or broke or without a home, can be left feeling lonely, angry, or even like failures by this morning. After seeing ad after ad, we might want to scream, “Why can’t I come to a well-lit house on Christmas Eve to be surrounded by exclamations of joy and shiny gifts?”

Why? Because family is complex.

Maybe that is why our faith ancestors in the community of Luke included Joseph’s distance from his family, when none of the others did. Maybe the followers of Luke heard a holy call to tell a story as complex as real life, a story to remind us that God is in the complexity of real life. Including the complexity of family. Including the family we enter into through God.
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Peace Hangs on One Word: Joel 2.12–13 and 28–29

2016-12-4-yesDelivered at Ames UCC
on December 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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A WORD
A few years ago a poet named Christian Wiman wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. It’s his story of living with cancer, knowing the divine, and rediscovering Christian community, which just happens to have been through a United Church of Christ congregation.

As a poet, it is not surprising that Wiman reflects on the language and kinds of storytelling we encounter in Christian scripture. He states that, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story.” (p. 90) In other words, Wiman believes that the use of stories to talk about life is a way of training us to stake our lives on those stories themselves.

He’s right, of course, that when we choose a religious tradition, we are saying that we would like the stories and ritual and even architecture of that tradition to inform us and our lives. But are we really saying we will stake our lives on them? Are we saying that we will risk our lives as the stories often directly ask?

Take last week’s story about Daniel, for example. Daniel stayed true to his faith regardless of a law that was enacted to scare and entrap him. His integrity revealed how willing people are, in a grab for power, to criminalize others, to make other people out to be a threat.

It was a risk, though. Daniel literally risked his life for the God of the exodus, the God of freedom. Will we? Will we let these stories do more than just inform our lives but be what we stake our lives upon? For me, some days, the answer can rely on just one word.
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