This week I had the privilege to speak at two different services. The first was at Bethany United Methodist, where I preach each week. The second was a lot of fun, I was invited to speak at a revival service at Ebenezer United Methodist Church Sunday night. I had every intention of writing two distinct sermons and speaking on two different topics; however, I think I ended up writing a part 1 and then part 1.5, a continuation from the morning. I don’t claim to be any great orator, I simply share where God has me in this moment and hope that helps someone listening.
I shared from Exodus 12:1-14, a passage of scripture where God tells Moses how to prepare for the last plague against the Egyptians so that the Israelites might gain their freedom from slavery. The last, and arguably the most devastating, plague was the killing of the first-born.
The story tells us that the Israelites were given specific instructions with how to make a sacrifice so that they might avoid the death of their first-born. When you first read this, you think about God’s greatness delivering Israel from the tyrant Egyptian nation. Now I don’t want anyone to think I believe the Egyptians were the good guys. No, I know they are the enemy here and the outcome of this story is a great one… for us. But you have to shed a tear, one has to weep a little, your heart must be compelled by the thought of an entire nation losing their first-born. Not only the people, all the first-born animals as well. The mass carnage, the massive loss of life, the grief and agony of an entire nation must have been incredible.
Yet when we read this, I too am guilty of thinking only on the Israelites, not worrying about those people who are “not us.”
One of the biggest changes I have noticed in myself since I found out I was going to be a pastor over the last 6 months is how “soft” I am becoming. There are a lot of ways to put it, I am becoming more tender-hearted, starting to feel more compassion for others, I am seeing the cup others have to drink… the analogies go on and on. The reality is, I am crying all the time. I don’t like to cry. I don’t think there is anything wrong with crying, but in general, I don’t like to cry.
Yet since I have become a pastor, I find myself getting all misty-eyed far more often than I used to. I hear about someone in need or something sad or bad that has happened to a neighbor in our community and it really breaks my heart. When I hear the prayer requests the church brings each week, my heart is filled with your pain. I truly feel the need of the people around me. I say this not to tell you how great I am. I am definitely not. I am not trying to brag, in fact I think I am becoming a little vulnerable by sharing what a softy I’ve become. I should also say that if I were really honest, I might share some of the silly things, less important than prayer requests, that have also made me cry. I will save that for another day.
I think what has changed for me is that I have prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” almost every day for the past 6 months. I have prayed those words ritualistically while not allowing them to become a ritual. I have said those words methodically, day after day, but have purposed in my heart to mean every word that comes out of my mouth.
In class we are reading a book titled, “Lectio Divina” which means something like “praying the word.” This book talks about how we are to read the Bible. The author says to hear the voice of God in the Bible it requires, “loving, calm, reflective, personal pouring over the text.”
This is what I have tried to do with the Lord’s prayer and I believe why I have become such a softy or more aware of the “not us,” the Egyptians from our story in Exodus, but you could place anyone outside of yourself in this category.
If we pour over the text, the words we so often pray but seldom contemplate, what would we find? If we open our soul’s doors to the one who lovingly makes Himself available in the text, what would we hear? What might be waiting for you in a common passage of scripture you have read countless times but need to “lovingly, calmly, reflectively, pour over the text?
In Matthew 6 where we have the Lord’s Prayer, we hear God is not some ethereal being, way up in the heaven. No, God is our Father. “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” That image along of God being our father is worthy of many days of contemplation and appreciation for who He allows himself to be to us.
The part that I believe has made me such a softy, the reason I am tearing up so often is the line that we pray, “and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This is where the “not us” comes in. If we mean what we pray, we hold no grudges against anyone, regardless of who they are. When you really forgive someone, you move on and wish them no ill will.
We have this idea that in order for us to be forgiven or in order for someone else to deserve forgiveness, they have to writhe on the ground for a while before we will help them up. Jesus, the ultimate example of forgiveness, was on the cross and cried out “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Just like that, forgiven. He saw the filthy around him, the “not us,” the “other” people, you and me, and said we are forgiven.
Forgiveness is a choice. Forgiveness is a discipline. Forgiveness is Lectio Divina, reading the word and understanding God is alive and the words are powerful for your for the “not us”, for all of our lives right now.
Think about the “not us” the others in your lives. Think about those you may not be forgiving, even yourself. Forgiveness has a way of softening your heart, it has a way of making you vulnerable, it has a way of making you open to where God is in your life. We don’t forgive because anyone deserves it. We don’t deserve it. As you go through your life this week, think about the others around you, the “not us.” Ask God to “forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven our debtors” and mean those words.