Preachers of the Future: Three Sermons From Young Christians
One hundred and thirty young preachers from across the country gathered in Louisville, Ky. on January 8th and 9th for the second National Festival of Young Preachers.
The ecumenical event is hosted by the Academy of Preachers, an initiative underwritten by the Lilly Endowment and open to young preachers between the ages of 16 and 28.
Young people participating in the National Festival come from 25 states and represent Roman Catholic, Greek Antioch and Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelical and Protestant traditions.
Read below for three sermons which were composed and delivered by participants of the festival.
By Andrew Barnhill
Andrew Barnhill, 23, is a student at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. His mentor is Matthew Williams. He is a member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Will you pray with me? Merciful God, You hear us. Even in the midst of our business and our preoccupation with anything and everything other than you, you hear us and you love us. May you remind us once again that we are indeed more than our work; that we are indeed of value to you? Oil the hinges of our heart's doors that they may swing gently and openly to your coming. Amen.
They are not much younger than me. In many ways, they are at the same place in their journeys. But they always have lots of questions nonetheless. One of the great joys of being at Duke University is serving as a graduate resident for members of the undergraduate student body. Among my duties (dispensing rock salt to melt ice on a snowy weekend, solving conflicts with roommates) is an opportunity to help these students make sense of where they are going, and who they are becoming.
But sometimes it is not so easy. You see, we have a tendency to think that who we are is defined by what we do and how far we get. The idea that we are valuable outside of our work is especially foreign to a generation of hyper-competitive millenials, seeking desperately to reach the pinnacle of career success. Right here. Right now.
But it often isn't one more line on a resume or even one more interview sound bite that is most needed. Sometimes it is rest. Moses and Aaron knew that. Our story of Pharaoh and the brick-making is a story of a clash between the culture of constant work and a culture of worship.
Do you know the story? It is one we often forget. We go to Exodus looking for liberation and the Promised Land, but we often forget the bricks. Let's take a step back so we can remind each other once again of the story of God. For we are living a story of God's people.
Here we are at Exodus 5 where Moses and Aaron begin to organize the Israelite workers; it was like an early version of the AFL-CIO. But their lobbying was more like a demand and it wasn't to a legislative assistant in an outer office somewhere -- it was to the Pharaoh himself. They said, "Hey, the Lord has said let the people go, so they can worship him in the wilderness. Let them go and Sabbath together." Pharaoh didn't get it. Much like the sweatshops of the modern era, Pharaoh just wasn't having it. His workers were going to work. So Pharaoh laughed off the request, saying, "Who is this Lord? I don't know him, why should I let them go." But that wasn't all he did. You know how sometimes somebody says something that just makes you so mad, you want to do something just out of spite? Well, that is what Pharaoh did.
Do you want to hear what happens next? Well, Pharaoh goes to the overseers in charge of his workers and says, "Change of plans. Stop giving the people straw with which to make bricks. Make them get their own straw. And by the way, keep the quota the same. They are lazy, that's why they are calling out to go into the wilderness and worship their god." So the overseers run back and deliver the news, beating the workers when they don't make their quota. For the Israelite workers, there is no rest.
Does this story sound familiar? And not because you've probably heard it at least once in Sunday School? But does it sound familiar because the story of the Israelite workers is our story?
For the $7 an hour worker with three children at home, there is no rest.
For the Manhattan Investment Banker with the worries of aggravated baby boomers up in arms over dwindling portfolios, there is no rest.
For the overburdened caregiver pressed between her own sanity and the needs of her aging relative, there is no rest.
So busy answering emails and responding to text messages that we can't even stop to eat, we instead drive while eating, texting, reading, and making other plans.
"Bricks without straw" is the false notion that people can find health without equal access to adequate healthcare. "Bricks without straw" is the notion that people can live stable lives without adequate pay. "Bricks without straw" is the notion that people can lead happy lives without dignity and equality. "Bricks without straw" is the notion that people can lead lives of meaning without rest.
This reality did not cause our problems. But its existence makes solving them that much harder. Sometimes we need to stop.
Self-Storage units are now a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. The cable television show, "Hoarders", details the lives of people who are struggling to escape homes packed from floor to ceiling with stuff acquired, and never thrown away. And that should come as no surprise. For some reason or another, we like our stuff. And we do not like to give anything up -- our purchases, our trash, or, yes, even our time. We refuse to displace our agency and we refuse to stop. But sometimes we need to do just that. We need to rest.
There is an ancient rabbinic tradition that says if we learn to celebrate the Sabbath properly and fully even once, the Messiah will come. This is a striking view because it somehow argues that Sabbath is the fulfillment or the completion of a religious life that is fully tuned to the ways of God. It makes sense then to look at Sabbath observance as one of the most reliable and authentic signs of faith.
Let us take a moment to look at what Hebrew Scripture teaches about Sabbath. In Exodus, the longest of the 10 commandments says that we should do all our work in six days but on the seventh we should not do any work, nor should we allow anyone else to work -- not our children, not those who serve us, not the resident aliens, not even our livestock and animals. (Exodus 20: 8-11) Everybody gets a day off.
In fact, the biblical idea of the Sabbath is even larger than everyone getting a day-off. Israel's scriptures command that the land be given a Sabbath -- a year of rest every seventh year (Lev. 25:1-7). Every seventh year, all debts are to be forgiven. (Deut. 15:1-11). The idea of Sabbath is even written into Israel's creation accounts. "God rested on the seventh day from all the work he had done." (Genesis 2:2)
Our scriptures understand it. Our story tells it. But do we imbibe it? Do we speak the language of Sabbath? If you were to walk into a certain Christmas shop in the State of Washington, you might be drawn in by the unique, yet all too familiar words in front of you. There is a small sign on the door that reads: "Christmas Spoken Here."
What a nice phrase: "Christmas spoken here." Wonder if we altered the phrase just a bit, to read, Sabbath Spoken here. What would it mean if we put up such a sign in our churches? In our hearts? In our communities?
It would mean that the language of Sabbath has become our grammar, our language of existence. The principle of Sabbath is a theological and a political statement. It is a statement that we are not finally defined by our work. We are not defined finally by our output or our productivity or our utility. Every being, has a value independent of their use. The universe is not finally defined by its functionality or development or productivity. It has inherent value and a right to be in and of itself. This is the truth of Sabbath -- we are created for joy and love. Others are created for joy and love. The earth is created for joy and love.
Let me pause here for a moment. So many times we want a God and a Christianity that comes to us in our work. Most of us really don't believe that we have a value greater than what we do from 8 to 6 every day. But Sabbath connects us to a God who loves us even in those hours when we feel unaccomplished. Sabbath commands us to a God who loves us even when we don't feel like we have any value at all.
The Sabbath reminds us to step away from the world for a moment, to enter a deserted place. When I lived in England, it was easier to find an analogy. During my time at Oxford, my fellow students and teachers would stop for tea each day, never letting a day go by without the ritual. Such a few moments take us away from our work, away from the drudgery of what we are doing.
Jesus knew that.
In Mark 1:35-39, we hear it. "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place." It was from that place alone with God that Jesus re-launched his public service.
In Luke's Gospel, we see that on the day before he chose and called his twelve disciples, Jesus went out to a mountain to Sabbath.
But it is also about stillness. T.S. Eliot writes, "I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you ... Which shall be the darkness of God." Sabbath is a time not just for rest, but for wrestling; a time of deep discernment, for re-centering oneself in God and in our truest self. It is where we confess we've lost our way, where we let go of the props that sustain the fantasies and compulsions of the false. It is how we bring ourselves back home.
When George Schultz was Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, he had a ritual test for every ambassador that returned from his first visit back to Washington. He would spin the globe in his office and ask the Ambassador to put a finger on his country. When his good friend and former Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield returned from Japan, he put him through the same routine. But this time, Ambassador Mansfield put his finger on the United States and said, "That's my country." Schultz is fond of telling that story as a way of reminding us all that wherever we go we are not to forget to look after the welfare and interests of the true country to which we belong. But that story is important to us today, because it reminds us that wherever we go, Sabbath can bring us back to God.
In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott tells the story of a little 7-year old girl who was lost and couldn't find her home. She walked up and down the street with tears streaming down her face. She was lost. A police officer saw her, stopped and asked her what was wrong. "I can't find my way home," she said. I'm lost." The officer said, "Get in the police car."
Eventually, they came to a building, and the little girl's face lit up. "That's my church. You can let me out right here." The officer said, "Oh no, I shouldn't let you out here." She said, "O yes. It's safe. That's my church, and I can always find my way home from here."
Places of faith ground us; they center us. Almost as if we are floundering beneath the water trying to poke our heads above, observance of Sabbath brings us back to center, brings us back home. According to the Psalmist, our offering of Sabbath is not a forced or commanded response. It is rather a natural and spontaneous follow-up to God's goodness and work during the week. "For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy."
Thomas Merton lived much of his life as a monk at a Monastery in Kentucky. Here Merton prayed, taught, and wrote about his search for God. In one of his memorable experiences, he tells of coming here to Louisville, where he had a revelation. He describes it this way: "In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of renewal. In the Sabbath, we are not faced with lostness and emptiness, but with found-ness and renewal.
Here in Louisville, much like Merton saw it, we live in alienating times. Our nation is troubled by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our public schools, even here in Louisville, are in crisis. There is a growing division between the upper class and the lower class. There is a growing division between those who think all people should have equal rights and those who think we are moving too far to the left. Once more, faith is often misused and misunderstood, both by those who adhere to it and those who do not. But to quote Jon Stewart, "We live now in hard times, not end times."
It is our intention in the story of God to construct a new story of radical love, to govern by the practice of Sabbath in a world in which there is no rest. It is our intention to reorder ourselves to where there is no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, black and white; to reorder ourselves in the spirit of the Sabbath. It is a daring act of ethical imagination that we might stop to rest. It is an act Pharaoh just did not understand. It is a daring act that all creation might, for but a few hours, surrender their work to make themselves whole once again. It is an act Pharaoh just did not understand. It is a daring act that just might be enough to restore our sanity, resurrect our unity and reignite our love.
By Reginald W. Sharpe, Jr.
Reginald Sharpe (19) is a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta. His mentor is Lawrence Carter. He is a member of the Baptist church.
"I am incomplete from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, but I am pieces of the Master so they call me a Masterpiece."
It is that great existential philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich, whose voice echoes through the libraries of time to remind us that the courage to be is the courage to accept yourself although you are unacceptable. How unhappy we are to be so blessed, how greedy we are to be so full. I wish I had this. I want that. I need a new suit. I have to get me so more shoes. I got to have that new CD. Trying to keep up with Jones'. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence not realizing their water bill is higher. Covetousness, the excessive desire and greed for gain will lead you to believe that you are incomplete. But when we take inventory and scrutinize our lives we will be able to do as Tillich said and accept our unacceptable selves and come to the consciousness that we are Incompletely Complete.
The story is told of a farmer who had a goose that could do something supernatural. He discovered that every now and then the goose would lay a golden egg. He would be so elated and excited because he was making millions of dollars from these golden eggs. The only problem was the goose would not lay them everyday just every other week or so. So the farmer would try to wait patiently but the goose was not laying the golden eggs as often as the farmer would like. So one day he decided to kill the goose and cut it open to get all the little golden eggs out of the inside of the goose. When he cut the goose open he found nothing except for internal organs and guts. At first glance we can look at the farmer and say what an idiotic, foolish, absurd, and misguided man he must have been. But wait, we are just like the farmer and that goose when it comes to God. How many of us have killed God in our own lives because we loved God more for what God does than for who God is. Just like the farmer we fall in love with the blessing and diss and dismiss the blessor. How cold-hearted we are. We've turned our sovereign God into nothing more than our Santa Claus. We have turned the One who gives us victory into nothing more than a vending machine all because we are drowning in a society that is being constricted by covetousness and being suffocated by selfishness.
So in the words of some of those girls in my second grade class. "We must check ourselves before we wreck ourselves." Today for a few moments I invite you on the journey with us as we consider three perspectives of this sin and hindrance called covetousness. We will look at the Problem of Covetousness, The Private Pain of Covetousness, and the Prescription for Covetousness.
The Problem of Covetousness
There are three diseases that covetousness causes. The first is ungratefulness. If we are always desiring what others have and possess we have obviously stopped being appreciative for what we have. Eric Hoffer suggests, "The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings." Now I know why those seasoned Baptist deacons at my home church used to sing for devotion and say, "Lord I thank you, Lord I thank you for my journey. Lord you've brought me from a mighty long way." But when you are saturated in covetousness it causes ungratefulness. The second disease it causes is greediness. It's greedy to want and desire things that you already have and to want and desire things you probably don't need. In this society fixed on materialism, consumerism, and capitalism, Wall Street could not care less about your street. However we just can't play the blame game on The White House or Wall Street, we are all guilty of this sin. We have all missed the mark on this commandment. I want you to go inside of your brain. Pass the temporal lobe and go inside your hippocampus where long-term memory is stored. I want you to just reflect on what's in your closet. Some of us can't get to our closets because we have so many shoes that have become the carpet in our bedrooms. First think of all the shoes you have. Now think of all the little boys and girls walking around barefoot. Think of all the clothes to the extreme left and right of your closet that you haven't worn since spring of 2008. And now imagine all those wearing rags because we are so selfish. Let us not forget they we are not blessed to be selfish. Blessings flow, but many of us have become the greedy clung in the pipes from heaven that have stopped God's blessing from flowing to the less, the lost, and the left out. The pivotal problem in our society is we continue to stuff the greedy and starve the needy.
The last disease covetousness causes is ungodliness. Coveting is the first step to committing idolatry. When we begin to want the prominence, prestige, possessions, and property of others or things we do not need, if we are not careful we will begin to want stuff more than we want our Savior. We will want material things more than we want the Master. Covetousness causes ungratefulness, greediness, and ungodliness.
My brothers and sisters I don't want you to be like the dog in this popular fable. One day this dog was walking along side this creek with a bone in its mouth. As he was walking along he happened to look over into the creek. The dog stopped because he saw what he thought to be another dog staring back at him in the creek with what looked to be a longer bone in his mouth. It was only his mere reflection. However he thought I want that bone to so he began to fight for the other bone and ends up losing the bone he had in his mouth. He lost the bone he had and ended up walking home with nothing. Let me talk to the preachers, don't lose what God has placed in your mouth fighting to get what God has placed in somebody else's mouth. Don't forfeit that which is uniquely yours because another preacher looks like they have something better in their mouths. That is the problem of coveting.
I am incomplete from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, but I am pieces of the Master so they call me a Masterpiece.
The Private Pains of Covetousness
This commandment is different from all of the other commandments. One through four deal with our Sacred Lord, five through nine deal with Societal Laws, but the 10th Commandment deals with our Self-Languish. The 10th commandment is the only commandment that if you break it no one will know except for you and God. God raises the moral standards and elevates ethical responsibilities in this commandment. God does not want his children to be guilty of looking well on the outside but not living well on the inside. There is nothing worse than being a public success, and yet a private mess. There is a duality presented here. There is a dichotomy established here. Rabbi Weiman Kelman calls it the duties of the limb versus the duties of the heart. Coveting is a private pain in the heart that must be examined by our Christological Cardiologist. Covetousness ruined Eve in the garden, scarred David and Bathsheba, and murdered Uriah. Coveting is a cancer and if it goes undiagnosed can be a silent killer. Ask bishops and pastors around America. Covetousness is a private condition but will lead to public destruction.
I am incomplete from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, but I am pieces of the Master so they call me a Masterpiece.
The Prescription for Covetousness
The reality of our lives is we are probably not all we want to be, we do not have all we want to have, and we do not attain all we want to attain. We do not possess all we want to possess. We do not drive what we want to drive and some of us do not look how we want to look. Although all of these statements are sprinkled with validity we must all accept the fact that we are incompletely complete. There are pieces of art and works of musical compositions all over this world that are incomplete but yet those pieces of art and music are worth millions of dollars. This is only because they are incompletely complete. The air between you and I looks empty and clear but yet it is filled with carbon dioxide and molecules that cannot be seen with the naked eye. That is because even our atmosphere is incompletely complete.
As a preacher I know this to be true. So many times as a young preacher I make the dreadful mistake of comparing and contrasting myself with preachers young and old. But I had to learn to appreciate my own voice and be thankful for my own style. I had to realize that there are already too many 'copy and paste preachers'. God doesn't want that. There is already too much plagiarism in the pulpit. Don't depend more on Google than you do God. My brothers and sisters in the ministry, we must not be guilty of relying on commentaries more than we do Christ. We must accept our unacceptable selves and realize we are incompletely complete. I may not have the congregation of a Pastor Joel Osteen but I am incompletely complete. I may not have the poise of Gardner C. Taylor, the intellect of Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonheoffer, or the whoop of C. L. Franklin but I am incompletely complete. So what is the prescription? The prescription is simple and potent. We have to learn to work with what we've got! That's what Paul meant when he said, "I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength." Paul was saying I know I'm not all I should be and I know I don't have all I could have but I am incompletely complete. Well I don't know how you feel about it but that makes my soul happy! All the biblical literature we see people 'working with what they've got'. David only had five smooth stones and yet he killed Goliath. Moses only had a rod and yet he split the Red Sea. The three Hebrew boys only had their belief and yet they made it out of a fiery furnace. Daniel only had faith and yet he survived a lion's den. Nehemiah only had letters from King Artaxerxes and yet he rebuilt the city of Jerusalem. King Josiah only had the word of God and yet he changed the nation of Judah. Jeremiah only had a prophecy and yet he was able to warn the nations of God's wrath soon to come. John the Baptist only had a voice in the wilderness and yet he cleared the stage for the true star to shine center stage. Mary only had a virgin womb and yet she carried the one who would soon carry her. That little boy only had two pieces of tilapia and five Red lobster biscuits and yet helped Jesus to feed over five thousand. Peter only had a little courage and yet he walked on water. Jesus only had two nails in his hands, one crown of thorns on his head, one spear in his side and yet he saved the whole world. We've got to work with what we've got!
So we may be incomplete from the top of our heads to the soles of our feet, but we are pieces of the Master so they can call us a Masterpiece.
By Grace Wenzel
Grace Wenzel (14) is a student at Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Her mentor is Doodle Harris. She is a member of the Presbyterian Church USA.
My school has a lot of rules ... shoes must be worn at all times. Students have the number of days absent plus one to make up any work upon absence from school. Marking and/or writing on one's own skin or that of others will not be tolerated. If a student is late to class, he or she will get detention. If the student fails to show up for detention, he or she will get assigned Saturday School. Do NOT cut in the lunch line. The mysterious staircase in the back of the small cafeteria, which, by the way, always seems to stir up speculation, is off limits. Shorts, pants and skirts must be supported to the point of the naval area. While riding the bus, students may not wave, shout, or throw objects at occupants of other vehicles and/or pedestrians. ... And this is just to name a few. There are 17 and three-quarters pages in my student planner dedicated to telling us students what we may and may not do before, during, and even after school hours. I can't even remember the 23 postulates and theorems for this chapter in geometry, let alone all these rules for school. And many of these rules seem redundant and already implied. I don't know about you, but I usually plan on showing up to school with shoes on ... And if not, well, at least I don't throw crayons at the Honda sitting next to the bus at a traffic light in the morning ...
It's the same sort of thing with the Ten Commandments, only this time the rules fit on two stone tablets. I mean, I love my principal and all, but does he really expect us to read the rules if they're 17 pages long? In addition to being conveniently shorter, the Ten Commandments are coming from the big guy in the sky, not a group of people sitting around a table at a board meeting. When I read these rules, God's rules to us, sure, I think about how I'm going to try to follow them; stay in line with what God has told me is acceptable. But at the same time, I think about how with all these rules, I'm bound to break a few in life. And so is everyone else ... because everyone is human.
Everyone is imperfect and makes mistakes. So, there's the girl who sits next to me in English class and she has like the coolest shoes ever. They have a multicolored floral print on them and no matter how may days she wears them, they're always clean and new-looking. I totally covet those shoes. God tells us not to, it's in the commandments, but we do. We're human, we mess up; we forget what we're told, like me when I'm envious of my neighbor's shoes. God tells us to keep the Sabbath day holy ... that we shouldn't work on that day and devote it to rest. But we don't follow that one either, do we? Personally, I leave my homework until Sunday evening after youth group. Many Sundays, I have an afternoon soccer game ... both of these things involve working, which is what we're not supposed to do on that day ... Case in point, we break the rules a lot.
Although some may be intentional or to show utter defiance, everyone makes honest mistakes simply because we have so many rules to keep up with. Every day -- at school, work, at home, even at soccer practice, we're drilled with rules that we have to keep up with, apply to the right situation, and even remember when one is thrown out and replaced. After 14 years, I still can't remember which aunt's house it is that you have to use a coaster ... I can never remember if it's one or two laps you have to run at soccer practice when you're late, so I end up running two just in case that's the rule. I always forget to take off my shoes at this one friend's house whose mom is super crazy about keeping her white carpet dirt-free. So why have all these rules? God created us; knew us before we were even formed in our mothers' womb. God created us imperfectly. Not to say that God wasn't perfect in creation, but somehow in all of God's perfection, we were created imperfectly. We just don't get it ... We don't really understand how to act and treat each other with love and compassion like God does. Why would God command Moses to read these 10 Commandments to the imperfect people when God knows we aren't going to learn them and observe them diligently? Even Moses, chosen by God, had broken one of the commandments before even bringing them down from the mountain. Moses killed a guy. And I'm sure Moses probably thought his neighbor had the coolest sandals or the fastest donkey or something like that.
God knows we are imperfect. So why would God even bother with these rules for us, an imperfect people? Because God always gives us a second shot. We learned in conformation class last year that sin is just missing the mark. God forgives and reconciles and gives us chances to try again to hit the target. God's eternal, all-encompassing love is what gives us these second chances with the rules that we've broken. We are all God's children, and God wants us all to have the chance to try again when we mess up. God loves us so much that God is willing to love us even when we goof, experience a temporary lapse in judgment, or just plain mess up.
I had a teacher once. It was first grade; her name was Ms. Newby. I loved Ms. Newby. And I knew Ms. Newby loved me. Ms. Newby taught me so many things that as a 6-year-old, I'd never heard of before. Ms. Newby taught me how to leave the proper amount of space between my words by laying my then-little pinky down on the paper right after I'd written a word so then I'd know just where to start the next. Ms. Newby taught me the clever song about evaporation, condensation, and precipitation. Ms. Newby even taught me what how to draw the fancy upper-case "G" with the little stem extending down the front side. I remember one day in Ms. Newby's class especially well. We were having a spelling test, just like every other Friday. However, this Friday, after the spelling test, Ms. Newby was going to put in an episode of Reading Rainbow. Let me tell you, I loved Reading Rainbow. So, of course, all I could think about during the spelling test was Reading Rainbow. I got through the test, a little more unfocused on the words and a little more attentive to the anticipation of the Reading Rainbow. During the middle of the episode, Ms. Newby called me up to her desk. This was an unusual occurrence, and I was slightly curious for the occasion. "Gracie, on your test, for the word 'sweater', you only spelled out 'sweat'. Now, I know you can spell this word, so how about you finish it right now." At first, I was utterly embarrassed. I was a good speller and did NOT miss words like "sweater". Then, I was mad. My first grade mind was mad at this woman I adored for plucking me from the intriguing world of Reading Rainbow and calling me out for a half-spelled word. I decided to stay mad at her the rest of the day for doing such a thing. It was only much later as an older and more dignified high schooler that I realized she didn't have to do that at all. She very well could have left that word half-spelled, my perfect grade crushed. But she didn't. She cared about me enough to acknowledge the fact that she knew I could spell that word and fix that mistake. Ms. Newby had given me a second shot to hit the target. It wasn't even the rule itself, the correct spelling, that was the point. It was Ms. Newby's concern and love for me that made the difference. In the end I don't think I really even cared what grade I'd gotten on that test.
Ms. Newby, like God, had given me a second chance. The opportunity only made me admire her more and maybe to stay a little more focused during spelling tests, but that just wasn't the point. The incident made me appreciate Ms. Newby even more, and naturally the rules were for the most part followed because I looked up to her. I didn't want to disappoint my teacher. Of course, I did occasionally, because everyone does, but Ms. Newby's looking out for me gave me the motive to try to live up to what she expected of me. It all parallels with God. God loves us unconditionally and eternally. When God led the Israelites out of Egypt, it was act of love for God's people. It's sort of like trying to pay someone back. We'll never be able to live up to God's love, or pay back all that God has sacrificed for us because of our imperfection. But the least we can do is try. Isn't that what we try to do with all the rules? By establishing this barrier between right and wrong, we show gratitude to God for all God's done for us. God does everything for us out of love. We try to show our thanks and praise to God by trying to behave and live the way God wants us to.
So maybe life's not about the rules. Maybe life's about something bigger, God's eternal love for us, that keeps us motivated to try to keep up with the rules. Because if life was all about the rules, keeping up with every single one, Jesus never would have come into the world for us. If we hadn't broken the rules along the way, that tiny baby never would have been born in Bethlehem; never would have grown up to lay out a path for us and be our light in darkness. If we didn't screw up, Jesus never would have turned water into wine, fed the five thousand, raised Lazarus from the dead, or overturned the tables in the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus never would have come to teach us right from wrong, or teach us about God and the eternal love God has for us. Jesus never would have given his life for our mistakes on the cross. Nor would Jesus have risen from the dead three days later to give everyone hope.
Technically, we're not supposed to read between the lines ... but in God's case, with God's rules, we have to. To understand what God is trying to say, until the thousandth generation, we must read between the lines. Life's not about the rules. Life's about the "why" behind the rules. That "why" is God's all-encompassing, eternal, everlasting love for us, God's children. In the passage, God reminds us of the everlasting love God has for us until the thousandth generation. In verse fifteen, God reminds us that we are no longer an enslaved people in the land of Egypt; we are no longer limited by the long lists of rules institutions have established and demanded of us. Coincidently, in God, the rules are what free us. Being constantly reminded of God's love and sacrifice for us is why the rules are there.
The Ten Commandments surround us; wrap us in this constant blanket of God's love. It may seem at first as though this blanket is limiting and constricting. We may even find this blanket annoying, redundant, and implied, as with God's rules. But when we look closer, we realize that the blanket is actually warm and comforting. When we sit down and think about it, we notice that God cares about us enough to instill these rules of love upon us. So sure, sometimes we may get upset or frustrated with God's rules, but in the end we know that the rules are out of great love and care. We know that by at least trying to follow these ten rules, we are showing God our gratitude and appreciation for all that God has done for us. We know that when we take time to read between the lines, God is there, wrapping us in an eternal blanket of love. Amen.
Grace Wenzel (14) is a student at Ballard High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Her mentor is Doodle Harris. She is a member of the Presbyterian Church USA.