Hang On to What Is Possible: Matthew 4.1–11

Delivered at Ames UCC on January 20, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

IMPOSSIBLE
This story seems to set up an impossible standard for us as disciples, for us as human beings.2019.1.20 apart

As I described last week, Matthew, or that Matthean community, went to great pains in the first chapter of this gospel to demonstrate Jesus’s humanity. His ancestors, though they may be hallowed, are also fallible and frequently function outside systems that are social and acceptable.

The context of Jesus’s own life is no less human: His family is part of the nameless mass of humanity with no control over who governs them or how, suffering the effects of bad temper and bad policy, as they flee to Egypt and then migrate to Nazareth. They are refugees, they are without a state.

Yes, there are superhuman, supernatural elements to the story of Jesus up to this point: the angels who visit Joseph, the star that guides the astronomers, the theophany at Jesus’s baptism, the voice as from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

But still. The character on offer to us is a man, not an angel, not gifted, in any way we have been shown, with supernatural powers or abilities.

Or is he?

TEMPTATION
Immediately after his baptism in the wilderness and the river Jordan, chapter four shows Jesus following the call of the Holy Spirit even deeper into the wilderness and unknown, further away from city and civilization. While there, he is tempted by the devil.

Now, not The Devil, not pointed tail and pitch fork.

Based on the Greek word used in manuscripts, and the Jewish audience for which Matthew’s gospel was intended, this is a character like the Accuser in Job, a diabolical force that is part of creation rather than a discrete being in opposition to it. I like to use the term forces of nonbeing when I encounter this voice in scripture, just to keep my imagination from getting lazy.

So the forces of nonbeing offer to turn desert stone into bread. Jesus declines. The forces of nonbeing take Jesus way up high to give Jesus a chance to see if God would really save him from falling. Jesus declines.

On a mountaintop the forces of nonbeing offer Jesus all of the power and glory of earthly realms. Jesus declines.

Those are not temptations a human could resist.

By the time Jesus and the forces of nonbeing collide, he has been fasting for forty days and nights and the scripture says he is famished. A famished, a starving, person takes food; base animal instinct demands as much.

Furthermore, a person with any smidgen of doubt about God—which is all people—grabs opportunities to be reassured.

And all of the power and glory of the earthly realms is compelling to both the egomaniacal tyrant and to one who would use that power to establish peace; and most likely everyone in between.

Jesus, then, is not like us. He is stronger than any one of us. He has more than the average share of God’s ruach, God’s breath, in him. Whatever the ancestry and setting Matthew so insists upon, in this instance we know that Jesus is of a different kind.

So I guess we can write this story off as all about Jesus, and not at all about us.

Except.

Except for this business of praying and fasting for forty days and nights.

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Borderless God: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11

2018.11.25 loverDelivered at Ames UCC on November 25, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are the result of pastoral preparation, congregational presence, and Holy Spirit participation. Please join me in that mysterious but always delightful process at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays, except in July and August when times vary. Check the calendar for details.

REED
Last week Steve read a long series of passages from the book of Isaiah, and quite well, too. But he had to skip over one of the best lines in that section due to time constraints (and because the Bible is hard to aurally track over such lengths):

On whom do you (Judah) now rely, that you have rebelled against me (Assyria)? 6See, you are relying on Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who rely on him. (36.5b–6)

 What a great image: Egypt, the broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of anyone who leans on it. Ouch! You can feel that, right? You can imagine how it feels to rest your hand on something that you think is stable only to find out that it is wobbly and sharp. You stumble as it injures and collapses.

Biblically, we have a long and complicated history with that broken reed, with Egypt. Practically, we continue to have complicated relationships with any number of Egypts.

JOSEPH AND MOSES AND ISAIAH
Egypt is the land where Joseph, son of Jacob, rises to great power and is subsequently able to rescue his family and his people from terrible famine. Generations later, though, the Hebrew descendants of Joseph are slaves. As such, they pose a threat to their Pharaoh master, who orders a mass assassination of Hebrew children.

The mother of one newborn, Moses, seeks to save him through adoption by Pharaoh’s own daughter. Moses rebels against that false identity and unearned advantage. He kills an overseer, flees to Midian, only returning later to set his people free at the behest of God. Then Moses and the freed slaves spend forty years going in circles before finding a home.

Years later, we hear the critique in Isaiah. It is directed at the descendants of the slaves, the inheritors of that homeland, from the emissary of the king of Assyrian: What are you thinking, trying to ally with Egypt against us? Egypt will cut you in the end—come with me instead.

Apparently in the years between fleeing Egypt and founding of a nation of their own, the Hebrews established political relations with Egypt. The former captor is now an ally and for the prophet we are studying today, it will be a refuge as it once was for Joseph’s starving family.

2018.11.25 weakJEREMIAH
Today’s prophet, Jeremiah, follows Isaiah of Jerusalem in historical time and in the Bible. Remember that the book of Isaiah spans nearly a century, with three different Isaiahs speaking. Jeremiah’s book is focused exclusively on him and his forty years as a prophet.

Over the course of those decades, Jeremiah witnesses the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonian empire and the forced exile of many people. It is a grievous experience, made more so by what Jeremiah is required to do by God: chastise his own people.

For example, in chapter 44, God says through Jeremiah, “I beg you not to do this abominable thing which I hate” (v. 4). Today we heard Jeremiah today offering God’s reminder not to oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow. There is a direct correlation between their treatment of the vulnerable and their own vulnerability to conquest.

Which the powers that be don’t want to hear.

Jeremiah is many times arrested for subversion and disloyalty, so, in the end, he flees to Egypt, where neither his own leaders nor Babylon can touch him, but where he is always a stranger.

JESUS
I’ll lift up one more story about Egypt, this time as it relates to Jesus, our primary prophet as Christians.

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Sexual Violence and the “Point Vierge”: 2 Samuel 11.1–5, 26–27; 12:1–9

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 21, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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VIOLENCE AND SEX2018.10.21 sophia
In contemporary terms, King David is a violent sexual predator.

At this point in David’s story, he is king of both Israel and Judah. He has accrued so much power that he no longer directly fights in battle, but sends his loyal soldiers instead, including Bathsheba’s husband Uriah. He can also get away with taking naps all the way to eventide—think of it as a five-hour long siesta—and, on seeing an attractive woman, send a messenger off to get her. David has no shame, no fear of being found out. In the twilight of the day, he publicly demands the wife of another.

You might be thinking, “What about Bathsheba? Why was she flaunting her body on the roof? Maybe she was trying to seduce him.”

I don’t buy that argument.

As we well know, the Bible drips with patriarchy and misogyny. The Biblical authors, from Genesis to Revelation, have no problem with demonizing women. Just think of what comes to mind when I say the name Jezebel. If you read between the lines, she was simply a queen who was devoted to her understanding of God and merely wanted to practice her own faith. But thanks to the Bible, her name invokes the most despicable kind of woman. If the encounter between Bathsheba and David is intended to be a story of a cunning woman and an innocently overwhelmed man, the Bible would say as much, and in plain terms.

So, David is a sexual predator. A man who uses his power, which is undoubted in this case, to satisfy his own lust.

He is also violent. We skipped the section about how Bathsheba’s husband Uriah dies.

Uriah is a Hittite, so not a native Hebrew, but his name means “the Lord is my light,” and he fights faithfully for David’s kingship. After learning that Bathsheba is pregnant, David sends a letter to another commander saying,

Put Uriah in the face of the fiercest battling and draw back, so that he will be struck down and die. (2 Sam 11.15)

Well, the commander knows that will be too obvious so, as Robert Alter, the translator we used today, explains, the commander sends Uriah and many other good soldiers into a doomed battle to complete the dastardly deed. David’s unrestrained lust and power result in the death of many innocents.

King David is a violent sexual predator, but he didn’t have to be. Of all the men in the Bible to act as he did, he was the last one who should have. David did not have to, and should not have, because he was a person most blessed by God.
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Serving God In the Story: Joshua 21.1–15

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 14, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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2018.10.14 hurricaneSTORMS
It is good to be here together this morning. It is good to be able to leave our homes without having to negotiate any downed power lines or collapsed roofs, unlike so many of our fellow Americans in Florida. Do any of you know anyone affected by Hurricane Michael? The community where Carla and I honeymooned is gone.

How about Harvey in Texas? Maria in Puerto Rico? Sandy in the Northeast? Katrina in the Gulf Coast?

Do any of you know anyone affected by flooding here in Iowa? And the tornado in Marshalltown and Pella? Last week I spent some time in my basement because of a tornado warning—anyone else?

It feels like weather disasters are coming more and more often, with greater and greater intensity. It feels like that because they are. The warmer the oceans, and they are hotter than ever, the greater the storms. The warmer the planet overall, the more intense the rainfall overall. And the collision between warm, humid air, causes tornados when it encounters cold, dry air.

Our bodies can feel the change, can feel the strange. The recent days of high heat with fewer hours of daylight and turning leaves felt fundamentally wrong. Long, dark mornings should come with cold air and gloves, not bug spray and sweat.

It is like we are living in a different place. We did not move, but it is as though we are living in a different land than forty, or even four, years ago. We may not be climate refugees like the people of the Mariana and the Marshall Islands, but we are now exiles from an era when we did not have to talk about family emergency plans, bug out bags, and the tipping point for human survival. So this speech from the book of Joshua can speak as much to us now as it did for its original audience.
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Who We Want in Charge: Exodus 19.3–7 and 20.1–17

Delivered at Ames UCC on October 7, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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IN CHARGE
Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

If the story of Potiphar’s wife and Joseph from two weeks ago—the story of one person trying to wield their power and privilege to demand sex from another—was timely, today’s story of the freed Hebrew slaves receiving the Decalogue is equally so.

MAGISTRATE
When last we saw them, the slaves had safely made it to the other side of the Sea of Reeds. Freedom, at last! And there was much rejoicing. Then what?

The slaves have all of their family members and all of their stuff. But for generations they have been under the direction and control of their Egyptian overlords and owners. They have been, unwillingly yet totally dependent on the rules and customs of the Pharaoh they left behind. How will they organize themselves in freedom? The Hebrews did not flee with fully formed, coequal branches of government. In addition to being homeless, then, they are also lawless and unorganized.

Naturally, they keep turning to Moses. It was all Moses’s plan to leave, he’s the one who got them all stirred up, made them think the unknown would be better than the stewpots and graves of Egypt. Plus, Moses has the ear of God. So Chapter 18 (v. 13), just before our reading today, says “Moses sat as magistrate among the people…from morning to evening.”

Which Jethro objects to, strongly.

JETHRO
Jethro is Moses’s father-in-law, a priest from Midian, a people distinct from the Egyptians and the Hebrews. On his arrival at the Hebrew encampment, Jethro is horrified by Moses’s failure to delegate, and so his abrogation of his special role as prophet of God. The man who has the ear of God should not be determining meal plans, tent configurations, or whose camel pooped on whose sandals.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro says, and tells Moses to divide magisterial duties by groups of ten, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand. Create a chain of command and accountability, Moses. “Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you,” Jethro says (v. 22b).

Moses does, and so ends the chapter. And so begins God’s own instructions.

DECALOGUE
The Hebrew people may now be organized and have sufficient judges to attend to daily concerns but what are the terms under which they judge? Maybe they were following Egyptian legal precedents or had adopted the laws of Midian, Jethro’s land. We do not know.

We do know that right after the description of implementing Jethro’s system for governance, God offers the people substance for that system.

To restate them in the terms I used when we studied the Decalogue earlier this year:

  1. Don’t bail on the power of freedom.
  2. Don’t make up a holiness to accommodate your preferences.
  3. Don’t use holiness to unholy ends.
  4. Don’t work all day every day.
  5. Don’t ignore the wisdom of your elders.
  6. Don’t lie.
  7. Don’t kill.
  8. Don’t steal.
  9. Don’t spread false rumors about others.
  10. Don’t lust after the people and resources you see on the other side of the fence.

These are not easy laws to keep. They restrict some of our most basic drives and common habits.

They restrict our appetites, like the hunger to consume objects and bodies. They restrict our tools of avarice, like rumormongering and deceit. They restrict our tendency to avoid grace, like working on weekends and vacations and insisting on learning everything the hard way.

These laws want to teach us that it is better to sacrifice striving to prayer, hubris to integrity, and craving to neighborliness. God wants to teach us that within a society, there is no room for striving, hubris, and craving, not if you want it to stay organized.

OUR SOCIETY
Our society is in a crisis of striving, hubris, and cravings. At the local level we seem to be doing okay, but I’m not so sure about the national. No matter the place on the political spectrum, no one is happy, and everybody is yelling:

You stole the election!
You stole our jobs!
You are just voting that way to stay in power!
You are just trying to get more voters so you can get power!
You demean the “unborn”!
You demean women!
You are a liar!
No, YOU are a liar!

And now the judiciary, the magistrates on whom we depend to interpret the laws of this land with thoughtfulness and rigor, without partisanship or rancor, is being torn apart apart. Fifty senators confirm a judge whom over 2,400 law professors would not.

Just who is in charge here? Who has the authority to determine how we will live together? What are the mechanisms for accountability? What are the consequences for violations?

According to this story, the consequences are suffering for generations.

GENERATIONS
This is the element of the Decalogue that I didn’t address last spring but will now: it’s that threat from God about punishment.

God says that if we make false idols and worship them, we will be punished, as will our children, and their children, and their children. But those who take on the ethic of true neighborliness that is in the remaining teachings? Thousands of generations after them shall know kindness.

Maybe that’s really what is at issue in our national rending: not partisanship, but shortsightedness. So narrow a focus on the next election cycle that we refuse the hear the solid advice of people from another party, like Jethro. That leads to the elevation of shiny idols on altars that quickly rot.

We don’t get to blame God for the suffering that will come when it all collapses.

We have to ask ourselves if in our choices today will someday lead our grandchildren to look us in the eye and say, “The thing you did was not right.”

Our goal is for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to say our names with thanksgiving because before our days were done we intentionally shared the burdens of giving up striving, hubris, and craving, so that by their day this scorching desert will have been left far behind.

Whether it is the midterms or the midweek, we do not expect one person to solve all of our problems. We look for leaders of tens, fifties, hundreds, thousands, and millions. Then we ask if they are working as hard as we are to hold themselves to the standards that we hear from God but that really transcend all religions:

  1. Only use power for freedom.
  2. Let holiness, or wholeness, set our tastes.
  3. Let wholeness determine our means.
  4. Take long breaks from the talking heads and give our minds a rest.
  5. Talk to the survivors of the fights for rights.
  6. Be honest even if it costs us.
  7. Question, rather than threaten, those we disagree with.
  8. Fix the systems that are broken, but without putting in a fix.
  9. Choose the sound over the salacious.
  10. Curb our appetites so that they do not consume us or those around us.

Or, as we will sing in a moment, ask to be each others’ servants.

AMEN Continue reading

Get in the Long Line: Exodus 20.12–17

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

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

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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Covenant Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love: Exodus 20.1–11

2018.6.3 earth needsDelivered at Ames UCC on June 3, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays (except in July and August when things change up, so please check the calendar here).

DEALMAKING
Look at God, working the deals.

Last week God asked Moses, who is now in the desert wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, to say to the people, “You saw what I did back there. Now, if you will just bind yourself with devotion to me, you will be my most special people for all time.” I helped you, now you serve me. God wants a little something for God’s trouble, it seems.

But we are not Moses and Moses’s people. We have witnessed no plagues, no walls of water providing safe passage. What have we “gotten” from God? What has God done for us lately, that God can make demands of us still?

To use Advent as an answer: hope, peace, joy, and love.

ADVENT
Last week I handed out copies of the church’s schedule of seasons and holidays along with their traditional colors. I invited you to put those into your own personal calendars as a means to remember that our finite lives are within the infinity that is God.

Today I’d like to continue the practice of putting our everyday into the context of our faith, this time by bringing Advent into Ordinary Time. Not only is the time of faith cyclical, as exemplified by the perpetual calendar of the church, the time of faith is all seasons at one time. We are no less in Advent today than we will be in December.

But as a refresher, Advent is over the four weeks before Christmas. I wish I didn’t have to put it that way because then it sounds like Advent is the Christmas prep season, the Christmas pre-season. It isn’t. Advent is the first season of the Christian year and it is followed by the twelve days of Christmastide. So Advent stands on its own.

Advent stands on its own because it is not just pointing toward the birth of Jesus but to his execution and mystery, too. We spend that month preparing not for one night, but for another year of studying and praying the full story of God in Jesus Christ. Advent’s means for doing so are the weekly themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. In Advent we are preparing for the story of a holiness in whom, through whom, and with whom, we can receive hope, peace, joy, and love.

But that didn’t start with Jesus. What God has to give didn’t begin just two thousand years ago. Let’s look at today’s passage.
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Ground Your Time in God: Exodus 19.1–6

Delivered at Ames UCC on May 27, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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APOCRYPHON OF JOHN

The One is illimitable, since there is nothing before it to limit it,
unfathomable, since there is nothing before it to fathom it,
immeasurable, since there was nothing before it to measure it,
invisible, since nothing has seen it,
eternal, since it exists eternally,
unutterable, since nothing could comprehend it to utter it,
unnamable, since there is nothing before it to give it a name.

This is a description of God from The Apocryphon, or Secret Book, of John, which both of our Bible studies read this spring. The premise of this second-century manuscript is that the risen Jesus, post-Easter, has brought secret teachings to the disciple John, son of Zebedee. This is a common theme in the noncanonical, or unofficial, gospels, that only a few are really ready for what God has to offer. And what this secret book offers is a portrait of God before creation.

The Hebrew Bible, our Bible, begins with God inviting the deep to cocreate without any discussion of what God is then or before. Where was God before then? What is there before then? Our Bible has so humanized God, especially in Jesus, that this apocryphon is a strong reminder that God is and must be so much more:

The One is not among the things that exist, but it is much greater…it is in itself, it is not a part of the eternal realms or of time.

Our time, on the other hand, is quite finite.

LIMITED RESOURCE
Management guru Peter Drucker’s writes, in his classic book The Effective Executive, that time is our only nonrenewable resource. We “cannot rent, hire, buy, or otherwise obtain more time.1

The time we have to breathe and learn and love and drive and work and rant and laugh and to laze about is finite. We do not have, in these bodies, endless time. And we have no control over how much time we will get in these bodies. Will we make it to 80? Will we make it to the end of today? On this Memorial Day weekend as we remember the dead of war, we also remember that every second is dear.

So how do we want to live each and every one?
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The Gospel isn’t Always in the Bible: John 11.1–44

2018.2.19 trifledDelivered at Ames UCC on February 18, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read. Please join us for worship on Sunday mornings
at 10:30 a.m.

VIDEO AND IMAGE
How many of you watched the cell-phone footage from the high school students in Parkland, FL, last week? Here’s what one of the teens who recorded them said:

I recorded those videos because I didn’t know if I was going to survive…But I knew that if those videos survived, they would echo on and tell the story. And that story would be one that would change things, I hoped. And that would be my legacy.1

Did any of you see the photo of the woman at the scene with an Ash Wednesday cross on her forehead?

It was actually a photo of two women and the caption said they were parents waiting outside Parkland’s Douglas High School. One woman is blonde, the other red-headed. The red-head is in the arms of the blonde, her mouth open and her eyes closed, her face pressed against her friend’s chest. The mouth of the blonde woman is pulled tight in a grimace, her eyes barely open. It is her forehead that is marked with an ashen cross.

Her forehead is marked with the same ashen cross so many of us received on Wednesday, too. Earlier on the same day that her child died or was at risk of death, she received the cross of Christ mixed with the oil of Psalm 23, and heard the words “ashes to ashes, and dust to dust.”

Unlike the teenager with the cell phone video—whose comments are such an indictment of the world we have allowed him to grow up in—we do not know the mom’s motivation for receiving the cross of ash that day. Nor do we know how it is speaking to her now.

I wish we did. I wish I could know how her faith is serving her today. How did it feel when she saw that cross in a mirror later in the day? Has that ritual provided comfort? Has it become a hollow lie? What function does a ritual reminder of mortality serve when every day gives us opportunity to witness actual mortality? And sometimes really gruesome and preventable mortality?
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Powerful Teachers: John 4.1–425

2018.2.4 wellDelivered at Ames UCC
on February 4, 2018

©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard, rather than read.
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at 10:30 a.m.

PARCHED PEOPLE
How thirsty are you? How thirsty are you this morning? How dry do the tongue of your hearth and lips of your soul get?

I meet with a lot of parched people each week. I see faces dried out by illness and hold hands rough with wear and cold. I hear voices that rasp and squeak as though the struggle to be heard in a world such as ours has made vocal chords rough as sandpaper. I see shoulders held high, as taught with stress as the dried gut of a stringed instrument.

Maybe you would put yourself among them.

Parched for a decent meal, parched for 30 minutes of quiet, parched for a thank you from a boss, parched for a day without a commute, parched for a parent’s or spouse’s health to stabilize, parched for a good prognosis for yourself, parched for a teenager to stop yelling, parched from being a teenager who needs to be heard, parched for just one moment of real hope and certain love.

Some of those thirsts can be quenched, to an extent.  But most are chronic thirsts born of the necessities of earning a wage, the risk of loving people, and the inevitabilities of hormones and aging.

Dehydration is a symptom of human life.

Our tradition does not shy from that truth. Discipleship to God in Christ does not include false promises about what our daily lives or eventual deaths will be like.
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