Sunday, October 06, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Squabbling," Judges 2:1-5, 17:6, 1 Samuel 8:19-22, 2 Kings 24:18-20a

Sermon 10/6/19
Judges 2:1-5, 17:6, 1 Samuel 8:19-22, 2 Kings 24:18-20a

The Story, Part I:Squabbling

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about ways that God establishes to help the Israelites remember their relationship: God will be their God, they’ll be God’s people. And they’ll put God first, and love God with heart, mind, soul, strength, and they’ll express this as they live out the law, caring for each other, loving one another. And now we see why. The people still haven’t quite come into full possession of the Promised Land. There have been wars and setbacks, and Moses has died and Joshua is now leading them. And already, people are losing their connection to God and the law. Joshua has declared that he and his house will follow God. But this isn’t the case with all the Israelites. Some of them have started paying attention to the practices and beliefs of the people around them. And in our first reading, from Judges, God calls them out on their behavior. They’ve broken covenant. What follows is a long period of ups and downs for Israel. The people start to focus on needing a king. They are sure that will fix their problems somehow. But it’s just one more demand in a long string of demands the people put to God, insisting that if God just does this one more thing, then they’ll be good for God. “If you just do _________ for us God, then we will truly be your people.” They think they want a king. They think that will fix everything. But of course, if they can’t follow a divine ruler, why would they follow an earthly fallible king? Still, God, speaking through Samuel in our second text, grants them what they desire. It comes as no surprise to us as readers, though, that it doesn’t work out. By the close of their season of king after kings, the people are further than ever from following God, they’re broken and divided, and they’re sent into exile. 
So how do things unravel? All throughout the books of 1 and 2 Kings, (books of history in the Bible, which recount the long line of the leaders of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) in addition to details about standout events in the reign of that particular king, the author also “scores” each reign in this way: The author either says that the king “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” an unfortunately rare comment, or that the king “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” - that’s how the reign of too many leaders is summed up. That’s clear, and unambiguous. They did good, or they did evil. And given those two choices, we know what we’re supposed to strive for at least, right? We want to do what is good in God’s eyes. 
But what strikes me, in our readings today, is that while this language - good or evil in God’s sight - is directed at the rulers, the kings, in Judges, the author says this: “And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The text doesn’t say specifically. We can, and will, look for some context clues, but we can also mull over these words ourselves.
“And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” What would be wrong with this? Is there anything wrong with this kind of thinking? Why shouldn’t we all just do what’s right in our own eyes? I’m sure sometimes I tell people something very similar to this: you have to do what you think is right. And there are ways in which I think that’s true. It doesn’t seem like there’s a clear right and wrong choice in every situation we encounter, does it? Sometimes figuring out the best thing to do seems like a gray and murky endeavor. So figuring out what’s right is something we have to take responsibility for, and we do that as we exercise our gift of free will, as we work out our sense of ethics - the guiding moral principles that govern our lives. And we know, of course, that we do not always come to the same conclusions about what is right as those around us. Sometimes, that’s ok. Maybe two different families come to different conclusions about whether one parent wants to stay home to care for children in the household. And after mulling over options, one family decides that they think it is most important that the children see their parents as workers, balancing careers and home life. And another family decides that it is most important that at least one parent is home, providing direct care for the children at all times. Is one conclusion more right than the others? I don’t think so, not if all involved are doing their best, looking at the best results for their households, and then trying to act in accordance with their ethics, their guiding moral principles. Is that what “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” means? 
However, sometimes we slip from knowing there are times when people come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong in ways that make sense, to feeling like there is no real right or wrong at all. This is what’s called “moral relativism.” Moral relativism means that “in … disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and … because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.” Everyone is just figuring things out for themselves, sometimes people come to different conclusions about what’s right and wrong, and we should just accept that - and accept people’s differing conclusions. Many people feel strongly that this is true. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” A good thing. 
Here’s the thing though. If someone believes that racism is ok, should we just accept that they have a “different point of view?” Is right and wrong murky, or clear? If someone believes it is ok to beat and abuse their children as part of discipline for children’s misbehavior, is that just a different parenting ethic? If someone has decided that, after careful consideration, murdering someone isn’t wrong as long as they “deserve” to die, do we have to accept their conclusions? “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Ah. Perhaps there’s something amiss, really amiss, when we read that God’s people are all doing whatever they think is best. And then we add in the context, what we know from what we talked about last week, and what we know from the rest of today’s texts. We know that the people have spent years receiving the law - how many commandments? (613!) So apparently God thinks that in at least these instances, the people don’t need to decide what’s right and wrong. God has given them guidance. And we know that in the first part of our text from Judges, God declares that while God has kept the covenant they’ve made, the people have not. They’ve broken the law. In particular, they’ve not remembered to keep God first. They’ve all just done whatever seemed best to them. And the result was that their identity as God’s set apart people has started to crumble. 
Eventually, the people are sure they can fix their relationship with God if they can just get an earthly king to rule them, like all the other nations have. That’s what they need: a person they can see, who can talk directly to them, who can enforce rules and regulations with power and authority. Then, they will stay on the straight and narrow. God tries to dissuade them. God is their ruler. They shouldn’t need any other kind of king. But after a period of Judges, set up to judge but not rule, the Israelites still want a king. Before our passage from 1 Samuel, Samuel, the prophet, tries to tell them all the ways they are going to regret asking for a king. But they don’t listen. And God, hearing their complaining, concedes. They can have a king. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t fix their problems, and by the end of 2 Kings, God’s people have been conquered, and they are exiled - kings included - to Babylon. 
In Judges, in 1 & 2 Samuel, in 1 & 2 Kings, we see a people wrestling with questions about authority. Who’s in charge? Are they in charge of themselves? Is a judge in charge, or a king? Or is God in charge? Who’s going to be the ruler of their lives? Who will be the authority for the Israelites? We still have to answer these questions today. And I think, so often, we try to answer just like the Israelites did. Oh, I think they wanted God to have some power and authority in their lives. Just not all. They wanted God to be there to protect them, to encourage them, to tell other people what to do, to punish other people when they were wrong. But they also wanted God to leave them alone when they reached a different conclusion than God about what was right. Aren’t we the same? What kind of authority and power do you want God to have in your life? How does God rule in your life? Do you want God to be a mentor, a friend, but not someone who tells you what to do? Would you rather that God didn’t rule you?  
I think we’re afraid that if we give our whole lives to God, if we let God be in charge, then we end up powerless. We forget that God is not a dictator. We get to decide whether or not we want God to rule us. We get to decide whether we will let God be the authority that guides of our lives each day. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power if we choose not to be God’s people. It just means that God, who loves us, wants our willing hearts, not zombie followers who can’t make choices. But, if we choose God, if we give God the authority to be the only true Ruler of our lives, we have to come to terms with this: God isn’t interested in giving us mild suggestions that we are never going to listen to. We might have to figure out what God is leading us to do, but God doesn’t have a murky sense of what’s best. We might wrestle with how to live out God’s commandment of love, but that doesn’t make it any less of a commandment. Do we want God to rule us? Or would we rather do what’s right in our own eyes? We can’t have it both ways. 
This week a group of us from First UMC, North Gouverneur, and other area churches traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to see, among other things, the production of Jesus at the Sight and Sound Theatre, known for putting on elaborate, visually stunning productions about stories from the Bible. Jesus, naturally, told the story of Jesus’s ministry, from his calling of the disciples, through Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. What stuck most for me, besides the really cool special effects, was Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was betrayed and arrested. In the production we saw, as Jesus prayed, he wrestled with voices in his mind trying to lure him away from doing what Jesus knew he must. We read in the scriptures, Jesus asking God, his parent: “If it is possible, can you take this cup - this path - this suffering - away from me?” But of course, we know that Jesus concludes, “Not my will, but your will be done [God].” And that’s what Jesus repeated over and over in this production - “Not my will but yours be done, not my will but yours be done!” They aren’t words that come easily to Jesus. They are wrested from the depths of his soul. If we think Jesus goes lightly to his death just because he trusts God, we’re wrong. He would rather any other path was the path to which God was calling him in that moment. But Jesus has made a commitment: Not my will, but your will be done. He knows he can’t have it both ways. If God is God for Jesus, if God is Ruler of the Universe, then even Jesus must choose God’s will over his own. God won’t force him. But that doesn’t mean both choices, both paths are right. Jesus chooses not his own will, but God’s.  
What will we choose? Choosing God’s path is hard, especially when it bumps up, even collides head on with what we think is best. But God doesn’t really rule our hearts and lives if we only choose God’s way when it neatly coincides with our own. The hardest part of discipleship is choosing God’s path when we’re sure we know better. Yet - not our will God, but yours be done. 
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we give special attention to the gift of communion, and especially when we give thanks and celebrate our oneness in the Body of Christ, as we know that Christians everywhere are joining at the table with us today. It is also a reminder for us: we are not alone. And so what we do doesn’t just affect us. We’re one body. I can’t just decide what’s right for me, not without it affecting my siblings in Christ. So instead of me trying to decide what’s best for everyone - as tempting as that seems! - I choose to be ruled by God. Sometimes, I will be as awful at it as the Israelites were. But sometimes, maybe more and more with a life of following in the ways of Jesus, I will claim with conviction: “Not my will, but yours be done God.” 

And all the people did what was right - in God’s eyes. May it be so. Amen. 

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Wandering with the Law," Deuteronomy 6:1-9

Sermon 9/29/19
Deuteronomy 6:1-9

The Story, Part I: Wandering with the Law

We’re skipping ahead in the scriptures today, as we continue our journey through The Story of the Bible. Last Sunday, as we read from Exodus, the Israelites were on the brink of leaving Egypt, being emancipated from their generations of slavery, and now they’re not far from reaching the Promised Land, this place described as a land “flowing with milk and honey.” It’s a land of abundance, a land that will be their long-term home. But in the interim, between then and now, forty years have passed, and all this time, the Israelites have been wandering through the wilderness, led by Moses. And over these years, besides the grumbling and complaining that they do about their long, meandering journey, and besides the times they really screw things up and forget where they’ve come from and where they’re going, they’ve also been learning about the laws that will guide and shape them as they enter the Promised Land and form a new society. In Exodus, in Leviticus, in Numbers, and in Deuteronomy, we find chapter after chapter of rules and laws about what to eat, what to wear, how to grow and plant, how to worship and pray, how to build, how to be a neighbor, how to deal with crime, how to care for possessions and finances. So many laws. 613 laws or commandments is the traditional count given to the total of all the directives we find in the Torah, the Law, contained in these books of the Bible. 
Even as we work on memorizing Bible verses every week this fall, I feel pretty sure that I cannot remember 613 of them, not by heart. But there’s hope. Aside from a system of teaching and guidance that will help the Israelites learn the laws well, we find in our text for today the key to the laws, the heart of the laws. You might say, for the most part, that all of the other laws are able to be understood as expressions of what we read in Deuteronomy 6 today. What we read here is the most important thing, and we studied it a bit least year. It’s called the Shema, from the Hebrew word “hear,” the first word of these key verses. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” There’s just one God to be god in your life, and you should love that God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. Eventually Jesus will call this the greatest law. He’ll say that all the teaching of the law and of the prophets really boil down to this, that God is the only god worth putting first in our lives, and we should put God first with everything we’ve got. And Jesus will clarify for us that these laws also include the second greatest commandment, a way that we express the meaning of the first, of loving God fully: by loving our neighbor as if we they were our own self. 613 commandments, important, to be followed, but narrowed down in their essence to this: There’s one God to be worshipped. Worship and love that God with everything you’ve got. And you can demonstrate that love in loving others well. That much we can remember, right? 
I’ve been thinking a lot about the things we try to remember this week, and how we go about remembering them. I remember when I was little and my paternal grandmother would visit, I would watch in astonishment as she took her pills every day. There were so many! I swear she had about 15 pills she took each day. Now though, I’ve managed to work my way up to my own impressive collection of daily medications - iron to combat my anemia, and pills for high blood pressure, and another to boost my “good cholesterol” with a vegan source for Omega 3, and so on. With all these pills, I’ve found myself needing help remembering to take them every day and to take them at the right time. And so I have them all set up in one of those daily pill dispensers, and I have alarms set on my phone - morning and evening every day - so I don’t forget. And as long as I’ve been taking my pills now - if the alarm didn’t go off … I know I would forget, even still!  
I also adore Google reminders. I can tell my phone to remind me to do things, or add them on my google calendar, a reminder to do such and such thing at a certain time on a certain day, and at the appropriate time, my phone will ding and tell me what I’m supposed to be remembering. It is one tool that’s helped me become more organized and better at following through on things I’m supposed to be doing, a big help for this not-very-detail-oriented person. My mom wants to remember to read her Upper Room Devotional booklet every day, and remember to use her hand weights to strengthen her arm muscles - so she sets them on her kitchen counter every day, right near her laptop, and she doesn’t move them until she’s completed those tasks each day. There’s no shortage of methods we can use to help us remember things that are important to us. What techniques do you use? How do you remember who has what after-school activity? How do you remember what you need at the grocery store? How do you remember all the details of life? 
But I wonder about the most important things. How do we remember the most essential things of all, the kinds of things we can’t just check off of a to-do list? An alarm reminds me to take my pills, and then it’s done for the day, and I don’t have to think about it again. But how do I remember that God loves me, when I need to have it as part of the core of my understanding, and not something I can “complete” on a to-do list? How do I remember, when so many other messages in our culture try and tell us we have to earn love and that it is conditional and temperamental. How do I remember that God loves me even when I think I’m unlovable? How do I remember to treat others with kindness and compassion, to look at them with Jesus’s eyes, to see Jesus in them? That’s not a task I can mark “complete” and just move on. How do we remember the most important things
We talked last week about the rituals God helps the Israelites enact so that they would remember being slaves in Egypt and how God led them to longed-for freedom, like the Passover meal. God gifts us with many practices to help us remember the most important things, like baptism and communion. And today’s text includes more of God’s plans to help the people remember. After the Shema - the reminder that God is one god, the only god, and after the call to love God with our everything, Deuteronomy tells us that we should take these words and recite them, and tell them to our children, and talk about these words when we’re at home, and when we’re away, and when we go to bed, and when we wake up. And we should bind the words to our hands, and make them into a sign on our foreheads, and put them on the doors of our house, on the gates to our yards. Basically, it sounds like these words about God should be everywhere we are, all the time. They should be as much a part of our day as breathing in and out is. And indeed, the Israelites, and even some Jews today try to follow these directions as literally as possible. We could take that approach too - there’s nothing stopping you from binding these words about God and only God and God with your whole heart to your hands and head and house. But mostly - we don’t really do that, not literally. So what can we do? How do we make these words etched on our hearts and souls so we don’t forget? 
For the Israelites, on the brink of entering the Promised Land, God wanted to remind them that they were God’s distinctive people. They were not to be like other peoples, other nations. They followed God. They made God the center of their lives, and they were set apart in their beliefs, practices, and ethical way of being in the world. In the wilderness, they were mostly on their own, isolated from other influences. But in the Promise Land,  they’re going to be constantly surrounded by other peoples and cultures with other priorities, other rules, other laws, other gods. They will be constantly tempted to forget who they are and who God is and how they are called by God to live. We’ll see that over the next weeks, how hard it is for them to remain true to God. How can they remember who they are? The Shema, and binding these words to themselves every way they can is one way they stay set apart. They’re wrapped in God’s word, in the law that is a gift to them. 
What about us? How are we God’s people? What’s distinctive about our pattern of living and being? Today we’ve had an awesome morning with the Ripathon, and I’ve been thinking about our faith and fitness ministry. We’ve tried to shape it, over the years, to be that - a ministry. It’s a challenge, sometimes, to remember, to ensure that it’s about more than working out. And it’s so hard in our culture to make sure we’re sending the right messages about body image and health and wholeness and being created in God’s image instead of striving for a certain physical ideal so that we fit in somehow. 
So, at Ripit, sometimes people work with mentors - others who have worked hard to increase their strength, or endurance, or health. We practice encouraging each other - building each other up with words and deeds of kindness. RipIt folks participate in challenges - trying to push beyond where they are to reach new goals. And that’s another thing - goals. RipIt members often have something they’re working towards - not just a weight goal, but being able to lift a heavier weight, or dance longer during a song, or breathe easier after a workout. Amber has been leading devotional pilates, encouraging folks to read and reflect and meditate on messages from the scripture that remind us of our intrinsic, unshakable value as part of God’s creation. All of these parts of RipIt help make it not just an exercise class, but a community, and a ministry. These practices that are part of the program help people remember why they want to take part, work hard, and push through obstacles. 
What practices help us stay grounded in faith? Is your faith growing? Do you have goals that you’ve set for your relationship with God? A direction with God you’re hoping to go? Who are your mentors in faith? Who’s encouraging you, and who are you encouraging in discipleship? What faith challenges are you determined to conquer, and how do you work at them each day? As disciples of Jesus Christ, as those committed to following God, we need to immerse ourselves in the distinctive practices that will help us remember the things that we can’t just check off on a to-do list. In our United Methodist tradition, we’ve summarized some of these practices in our membership vows: prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. That might work as a guide for you. Or you may have your own way of setting goals in faith, and intentionally trying to grow with God. But whatever you do, let’s do something on purpose, with purpose. The scriptures attest to the fact that without remembering a purpose, God’s people also forget that God alone is god. They forget to give God their whole hearts every day. We know that we forget, too. So whether you need to bind God’s message on your head and heart, or whether you need to recommit to practices of faith and community that will ground you in God’s word, let’s follow with purpose, and be God’s people. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Amen. 

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Covenant & Emancipation," Genesis 17:1-9, Exodus 13:3-16

Sermon 9/22/19
Genesis 17:1-9, Exodus 13:3-16

The Story, Part I: Covenant & Emancipation

Today we’re tackling two themes, two scriptures, as we continue our journey through the Bible: Covenant and Emancipation. It might seem a little like we’re smushing two separate stories together, and we are, but hopefully by the end of our worship you’ll see how these themes go hand-in-hand. It also might seem like we’re spending an awful lot of time in our journey through the major themes of the Bible right up front - three weeks in Genesis when our whole series is only so long. But the first books of the Bible are ones that are meant to set the tone for the rest of the scriptures, and so the first books lay out for us many of the themes that we return to again and again. Creation, The Fall, and now Covenant and Emancipation. 
Let’s take a look at our texts for today. In Genesis, God appears to Abram, a spry ninety-nine year old. Abram has already been following God’s call. God spoke to Abram and told him to leave his home and start a journey toward a land which God would give him, and Abram went. Now, God tells Abram to walk with God and be blameless, and God will make a covenant with Abram. God promises that Abram will be the ancestor of many nations. He’ll be called Abraham now - that means “ancestor of a multitude” instead of just “exalted ancestor,” what his old name meant. And God will make him fruitful, and not just the ancestor of many, but also the ancestor of nations and leaders. And, what’s more, God promises that Abraham and his offspring will belong to God, and God will belong to them. And God will give them a new home, the land of Canaan. The land where Abraham is now just a visiting stranger will become Abraham’s homeland. As for Abraham, his part of the covenant is to make God God. That might sound like not a very big promise to make, but God’s deals are always more beneficial to us than to God - God is generous like that - and, Abraham lives in a culture where people believed there were many gods, and every tribe and clan followed the god of their choosing. God - Yahweh - the God we know in the scriptures - is asking Abraham to promise to choose God above all the other myriad options. “I’ll be your God, and you be my people.” That’s the covenant God and Abraham make. 
If you look at the covenants throughout the Bible, this is pretty much always the deal God wants to make. A covenant is a promise between two parties - usually God and us - and it is a sacred promise, a holy promise. Technically, if one party breaks a covenant, the other side is no longer obligated to their promises. But God - God is always faithful, and always follows through, even when we don’t. So - in almost every covenant God makes, all God wants is that we choose God to be the one we follow. Worship God, follow God, love God - be my people, and I’m yours. That’s all God asks, almost every time. And in turn, God promises enormous blessings. It’s pretty humbling - the creator of universe so wanting to be in relationship with us that God covenants with us again and again, just asking us to commit to God in return.
Of course, the Bible is a testament to the fact that we humans are remarkably talented at failing to uphold our part of the covenant. All God wants is for us to choose God, but again and again, the people choose to put other things first. In the Bible, this is called idolatry, and we see it whenever people choose to worship other gods, or whenever they make false images and pretend that they have any real power as a god in their lives. Whenever the people do this, choose other gods, the consequences are devastating, because no one but our Creator can love and care for us, and truly claim the title of “God” but God alone. 
What promises has God made to you? And what promises have you made to God in return? Sometimes we try to bargain with God in our moments of desperation: “If you do this thing for me God, I promise I will start going to church every week, or reading my Bible every day, or being a lot nicer to that person I just can’t stand.” But as inelegant as our desperate pleas are, I think they still boil down to the same thing: when things are hard, when we need God, we’re ready to say, “You’re our God, we’re your people.” That’s the basic covenant. You’re our God, we’re your people. 
Most of us might not be tempted to follow other gods these days, but we’re still pretty proficient in breaking that covenant with God, because we put a lot of other things before God in our lives, in our daily living, in the rhythms that shape us. What things do you see others putting before God when you look at our culture? Money, certainly. I think money has taken the place of “other gods” as one of the biggest temptations for us. Power and status. Career and success. But what about you specifically? What are you most likely to put in the place of God? What do you wrestle with giving a higher place in your life than you give to God? What rules you? If we can’t be truthful with ourselves about answering that question, we can’t be “all in” on our covenant with God, and we’ll never really be holding up our part of the promise. I think sometimes we put family in the place of God, not realizing that the best way to love our family is by making sure God comes first for us and them. I think I wrestle with putting my own plans for my life in front of God’s plans for me sometimes. I want to get my whole life figured out and ask God to bless it, instead of waiting on God’s direction. I think we can put our quest for happiness, that elusive state of being, in the place of God, forgetting that deep contentment comes from God, not instead of God. What has first place in your life, really? How can you put God back in first place? I promise you, God is always ready to make that covenant with you: “I’ll be your God, and you be my people.” Will you make that promise with God? Today?  
Our second reading brings us to the theme of Emancipation, as Moses prepares to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in what we call the Exodus. Generations have gone by since the days of Abraham. And indeed Abraham is the ancestor of many by now, but the people still can’t call the land of Canaan their own. What’s worse? Through a series of events at the end of Genesis, the people have become slaves in Egypt. They’re farther away from Canaan that they were before. And they feel like God has forgotten them. Have you ever felt forgotten? I’ve told you before about the time when I was little when I thought my older cousin had forgotten me in the food court at the mall. And there was the time when my mom forgot to pick me up from junior high because she’d been working on the new pictorial directory at church, and I was sitting out in front of school for about an hour waiting for a ride before Aunt Shari finally came and picked me up. But those were pretty minor in the scheme of things, and different from the depth of despair we face when we feel like God has forgotten us. 
God doesn’t forget though. God hears the cries of the Israelites who are enslaved in Egypt, and God sends Moses to lead them to freedom. Our text from Exodus today describes two ways that God establishes as rituals of remembrance of their emancipation. From then on, the people will regularly remember that God brought them to freedom. It’s hard to imagine that they could ever forget their long season of captivity, or ever forget what God has done for them. But the God of Covenant, who has seen people forget again and again to give God first place in their lives, knows better. God wants to help them remember God’s promises, God’s fulfillment of promises made. 
Writer and philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and his words were famously paraphrased by Winston Churchill, and most of us are familiar with the sentiment. Remembering isn’t just something we do because we enjoy reminiscing. Sometimes remembering can be a life-saving practice that keeps us from making the same devastating mistakes we did before. I think of the times that we have tried to step back from the brink as a society by remembering World War II, and how the persecution of Jews unfolded because so many were unwilling to speak up against injustice in hopes of protecting themselves. We’ve learned, although we often need reminding, that we can’t let hatred against some go unchecked just because we aren’t the targets of the hate. 
And I think about the just recently-passed anniversary of 9/11. Eighteen years have gone by since that September day that changed the world, and certainly changed our national identity. As with the aftermath of many wars and tragedies, we say, “Never forget.” And what is it we want folks to remember exactly? Of course, we want to remember those who died, whose lives ended so abruptly. We want to remember that extraordinary bravery and sacrificial action exhibited by so many first responders that day, and the service and bravery of so many “regular people” that day and in the season that followed. I also want people to remember the sense of unity we experienced as a nation grieving together. I want folks to remember how for a brief moment, churches were filled because people could do nothing in the midst of overwhelming fear but turn to God. I want people to remember how we struggled with stereotyping groups of people too, how we had to learn about Islam and how our fear could make us respond with anger and violence if we weren’t careful. And yet, though to some of us 9/11 doesn’t seem that long ago, already all of our children from zero to eighteen were born after 9/11 happened, every one of them. We live in a post 9/11 world, but a generation already doesn’t know what a pre 9/11 world was like. 
Remembering is important, isn’t it - remembering not just the stories we’ve lived through, but also the stories that have been shared with us about what unfolded before we were even born - the stories of our families, our people, our ancestors, our nation, the stories of our faith. Remembering is essential. And so, at the moment that the Israelites are on their way out of slavery, out of Egypt, out of their persecuted existance where Pharaoh has continued for so many years to harm and oppress and kill - just when they ware thinking the could never forget what they’ve been through, God helps the Israelites to remember by setting up some rituals to make sure they will remember. First, there’s a meal. The Israelites will share in this meal of unleavened bread: bread made in haste, bread made for people about to be on the run. They’ll keep eating this unleavened bread in a festival every year even when the have time to bake tastier bread. And they’ll tell their children, the ones who don’t even remember a pre-Exodus time, why they heat this bread. “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came of Egypt.” And beyond that, God says, “I want every firstborn thing to be mine.” That’s a big ask, isn’t it? But one of the plagues against the Egyptians was the death of everything and everyone firstborn, and God doesn’t want people to forget the loss of life that took place in order for the Israelites to escape Egypt, even Egyptian life, still sacred. And so from then on, God asks that every first born be dedicated to God: animals through sacrifice, and humans through dedicating the lives of that child to God. God wants their first things to be given to God. It’s a reminder of God’s place in their lives: God first. God, who saved them, comes first, before anything else. Don’t forget. 
In the moment God gives these directions, the Israelites probably think God is crazy, because they cannot imagine that they will ever forget. But we know, reading through the book of Exodus, that they forget almost immediately! Almost immediately they start thinking that slavery can’t be as bad as they remembered, not compared ot how hard it is to follow God via Moses through the desolate wilderness. Almost immediately, freedom, which they longed for for generations, seems less important than the certainty of knowing what they will eat and drink next. 
Let me ask you: Do you remember everything that God has done for you? Or have you forgotten, sometimes, about the promises fulfilled, the covenants kept, the blessings poured out, the ways God has shown up in your life again and again? I know the answer, because we’re human. Sometimes, we forget. We forget even the most important things. God helps us remember, with sacred meals, with asking us to make signs with our most important stuff, our first and best, that God is our priority above all else. All God wants? To be our God. And all we need to do? Be God’s people. Choose God, and only God. And when we forget, God will help us remember. And when we remember, when we live as God’s people, when we put God first, we experience the true freedom that God so deeply desires for us. 
God wants to make a covenant with you today. Maybe you’re ready to say yes for the first time. Maybe you’re ready to renew, to make new what was broken. Either way, God, the creator of the universe, wants nothing more than to be in relationship with you. Are you ready? Will you let God be God, your first best thing? Will you be part of God’s people, and give God your heart? Say yes, and then get ready. God is leading you to freedom, to blessings, to life. Amen.