Long before the creation of social media, Moses gave the people of Israel instructions for how to come together and behave. We need this now more than ever.
Be quiet and respectful of the people around you. Turn off your cell phone. Be aware that people are trying to read, do research, and study. No food or drink allowed.
These are the rules for a library, right?
How about this: Cheer loudly for your team, stomp your feet, and clap your hands. Take selfies and post them on social media. After you see a great play, jump to your feet and high-five the people around you. Eat and drink all you want, but try not to spill on the person in front of you.
These are the rules for a sports stadium.
You would never confuse the two, would you? If you follow the rules for a stadium in a library, you’ll be forcibly removed. If you apply the rules of a library to a stadium, people will wonder what’s wrong with you. You’ll get some dirty looks if you tell the sports fans around you to be quiet … so that you can read a book.
Physical spaces have rules. Although none of us follows them perfectly, we know the expectations. Libraries, stadiums, churches, schools, medical offices, workplaces, and homes all have sets of unwritten rules. When the rules are not understood and followed, life becomes chaotic.
Unfortunately, we are now spending more and more time online in spaces called digital platforms. You know them well: Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, and others. Because these digital spaces do not have clear rules, they are chaotic. An author and entrepreneur named Eli Pariser says that Twitter is like a “vast, cavernous expanse where there are people talking about sports, arguing about politics, yelling at each other, flirting, trying to get a job all in the same place with no walls, no divisions. … No wonder it’s a mess.”
He’s right. Twitter is a mash-up of a library, a sports stadium, a political rally, and a singles bar. Total chaos.
On the TED Radio Hour, Pariser was interviewed about how we can reshape our digital platforms to be more welcoming and safe. Good physical spaces are almost always structured, he observed, and people understand the rules. “We all know that there are some behaviors that are OK in a bar that are not OK in a library,” he said, “and maybe vice versa.”
The problem with social media is that people don’t want to follow rules. And the result is the creation of digital spaces that are not welcoming or safe. The online world has become a dangerous place to visit, with rampant cyberbullying, invasion of privacy, identity theft, and offensive images and messages.
So, what can be done?
Pariser believes that there are certain qualities of public spaces that can be used in a helpful way on digital platforms:
If such qualities became the rule in the online world, we would all be much safer and more comfortable. A poll was done with people in 20 countries, and they agreed that they wanted these qualities in their digital spaces.
Moses Understood the Need for Rules
The same is true in the church, and in other religious communities as well. Going back to the book of Deuteronomy, we find Moses instructing the people of Israel to behave in a certain way. He is giving them rules for living together in the promised land.
First, Moses creates a space where the Israelite will feel welcome. “When you have come into the land,” says Moses, “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit … and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling” (Deuteronomy 26:1-2).
That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? In the promised land, the rule is to take a portion of your harvest to the place of worship. If you show up with an offering, you will be welcomed. Pariser says that welcome is the foundation layer, the level where you ask the questions, “Do I feel like I belong here? Do I feel like I’m invited here? Do I feel safe here?” According to Moses, if you take an offering to the place of worship, the answer to all three questions is “yes.”
Next, you connect with the priest and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us” (v. 3). That’s the second rule for the place of worship: Connect with the priest. Meet him, tell him where you are coming from, and give him your offering. This connection is so important, person to person.
Then you begin to understand. After the priest takes your offering, you make a statement before God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and then he became a great nation, mighty and populous” (vv. 4-5). This is such an important story, a sacred history that is shared by all of the people of Israel. This is how people “make meaning together,” says Pariser; it is where people across different groups find common ground. Understanding comes from a shared story.
“When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us,” you say, as an Israelite, “by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (vv. 6-8). This story of liberation is the shared understanding that unites all the people of Israel. It is told each year on Passover, and it continues to inspire people to trust in God’s power and focus on the liberation of the oppressed.
Finally, you act. After setting your offering down before the LORD, Moses says that you “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (v. 11). Yes, you give your offering to God and you celebrate — you celebrate with the priests and also with “the aliens who reside among you” (v. 11). Acts of generosity and celebration should always be inclusive, not exclusive. A safe and welcoming space should include as many people as possible.
“Humanity moves forward,” says Pariser, “when we find new ways to rely on and understand and trust each other.” Moses knew this long before the invention of social media, which is why he gave the people of Israel new ways to come together and act.
The Church Today
We need this now more than ever, and we can do it in the life of the church. The key is to welcome, connect, understand, and act.
As we create safe spaces, the first step is always welcome. Members of a church need to be more than friendly — they need to be truly welcoming. Unfortunately, we often go to church with the attitude of a guest, not a host. Consider this mindset: As guests, we are focused primarily on having a good time. We enter the church and look for our friends. We sit where we want to sit, with little regard to making room for others. We listen to the church’s music and decide whether we enjoy it or not. As guests, we are basically consumers, concerned about our personal comfort. The experience is all about us.
How different it is to be a host. In this role, we are focused primarily on serving others. We greet our guests at the door and look to connect them with people they would enjoy. We sit in places that will leave room for others and help them feel comfortable. We pick church music that our guests would like, even if it is not our favorite. As hosts, we are concerned about the comfort of others. The experience is all about them. Church members are continually challenged to act like hosts.
Then we connect. Some churches have a passing of the peace, which enables worshipers to make a connection with one another. Others begin their services with a prayer of confession and assurance of God’s forgiveness, which restores the connection between worshipers and God. In either case, life-giving connections are made, and we are reminded that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Next, we understand. The stories of the Bible help us to make meaning together. They teach us who we are, as well as whose we are. Whether the passage is the story of God liberating the Israelites or Jesus calling the first disciples, we begin to understand that we are part of God’s sacred story. Then the sermon deepens our understanding of how God wants to free us from any kind of captivity, and how Jesus wants us to follow him in faith. The story of God’s saving work began in the distant past, but it continues today — and we are part of it.
Finally, we act. When we gain an understanding that we are God’s people, we naturally want to behave like God’s people. This means that we act in new and different ways. Instead of destroying our enemies, we try to love them. Rather than cursing those who hate us, we pray for them. Instead of plotting revenge, we work on forgiveness. And instead of hoarding our resources, we share them.
We do this not because we are suddenly good and noble people. Instead, it is because our actions are shaped by Jesus, the one who loves, prays, forgives, and generously shares.
Because we live in a world of chaos, we need calming places to gather and deepen our relationships with God and with each other. Eli Pariser challenges us to create spaces that are a “beautiful place to live … a place we get to know each other. A place you’d actually want not just to visit, but to bring your kids.”
So let’s do it. Let’s create a comfortable place for people to know one another. A place you’d actually want to bring your family. The church will be such a place, as long as we welcome, connect, understand, and act.
—Henry Brinton and Carl Wilton contributed to this material.
Brinton, Henry G. The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 25.
Zomorodi, Manoush. “Eli Pariser: How Can We Reshape Our Digital Platforms To Be More Welcoming Spaces?” TED Radio Hour, July 23, 2021, www.npr.org.
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Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
What Does the Text Say?
Psalm 91 is a lesson about the assurance of God’s protection for those who trust in him, but its specifics are cast in poetic rather than literal language, and to fail to grasp the nature of that language is to miss much of the meaning of this psalm. Two ancient names for Israel’s God — Elyon (“Most High”) and Shaddai (“Almighty”) — open the psalm, and both refer to the mountainous dwelling of Israel’s patron deity, more commonly known by his name in verse 2, Yahweh (“the LORD”). It is impossible to take the words of verses 10 and following literally, and much confusion has come from equating misfortune with punishment. Evil does befall those who trust in God, and the book of Job, among other canonical writings, challenges the notion that evil can be attributed to divine punishment or a lack of faith. The poetry of the Psalter, here and elsewhere, should not be tortured on the Procrustean bed of dogma; the writer of Psalm 91 is expressing the sense of utter security that comes from faith in God using language analogous to the lover’s declaration in the Song of Songs that her boyfriend’s legs “are alabaster columns” (5:15); the words are meaningful but not literal.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
The Devil’s Favorite Bible Verse. It may be news to some that the devil is well-acquainted with Scripture. In this psalm reading, we find the Bible verse the devil quotes, as detailed in the gospel reading from Luke 4:1-13. Perhaps these verses are among the devil’s favorite because some of them seem so obviously not true. Psalm 91:9-10, for example: “Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling-place, no evil shall befall you.” Really? Face it, preacher. It’s patently not true. Yet, this is something many Christians believe. They believe that because they try to live a righteous life, that God will reward and bless them, and keep bad things from happening to them. When bad things do happen, unlike Job, they’re ready to “curse God and die.” Will God protect us (v. 14) and give us a long life (v. 16) just because we go to church every Sunday and try to do the right thing? On the First Sunday of Lent, the preacher can help the congregation begin their Lenten journey by asking congregants to give up their expectations as to how they demand God should act. God is God. That’s the first lesson of Lent.
What Does the Text Say?
This passage is often taken as a classic summary of Paul’s understanding of the universal call of the gospel: All those who “believe” and “confess” that “Jesus is Lord” will be “justified” and “saved” (vv. 9-10). Such an interpretation is not unwarranted, but needs to be situated within its particular context. Paul’s concern here is not primarily with the expansion of God’s covenant to include Gentiles (or “Greeks,” as in v. 12) within the earlier covenant with Israel, but rather the inclusion of Jews within the new covenant that God establishes with all humanity in Christ (see 10:1-4). That there is now “no distinction between Jew and Greek” (v. 12) is not the result of God’s treating “Greeks” like “Jews,” but rather of God now relating to “Jews” and all others in the light of what has been done in Christ. It is the gospel which “we proclaim” that now makes clear that the “word” said to be so near to everyone in Deuteronomy, was always, in Paul’s view, “the word of faith” (v. 8) and not some law demanding perfect obedience (which may explain his omission of the final clause, considering it likely to confuse rather than clarify). The hope for all people — both “Jew and Greek” — is found in “call[ing] on the name of the Lord” (v. 13) revealed in “Jesus [who] is Lord” (v. 10), rather than reliance on one’s own works.
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
Confession Is Good for the Soul. Lent is, among other things, a time when confession plays a huge role in the 40-day journey to Easter morning. The word “confession” is often understood to mean “acknowledging guilt,” or “owning up to a transgression.” But it also means simply to affirm, or acknowledge. The word is used twice in this short text. A sermon appropriate for the First Sunday in Lent is a sermon that reviews what we confess. This might mean taking a look at some ancient creeds. The service might also include not only a prayer of confession (in which the word is used in its ordinary meaning), but also an affirmation of faith, or “confession” of faith. The sermon might address the issue of what confession is required that, without which one could not be considered a Christian. Can we be a Christian and not believe in the virgin birth, the resurrection, the Trinity or the divinity of Christ? Here, Paul seems to suggest that a Christian is one who declares that Jesus is Lord.
What Does the Text Say?
Some scholars and preachers have sought to interpret Jesus’ temptations in light of 1 John 2:16. Employing this interpretive tool, the “desire of the flesh” equates with the devil’s test to turn a stone into bread (v. 3); the “desire of the eyes” aligns with the temptation to rule over all the kingdoms of the world (vv. 5-6); and the “pride in riches” [or “pride of life”] purportedly agrees with the devil’s taunt that Jesus will suffer no harm irrespective of whatever suicidal choice he might entertain (vv. 9-11). To be sure, the last correspondence is less obvious in the NRSV, but restating it clarifies the parallel between 1 John and the last temptation. Specifically, the devil hopes Jesus will challenge God, so as to test God and the limits of God’s protection (i.e., the devil attempts to entice Jesus with the claim that God’s “riches” are owed to him). Another classical interpretative approach is to view the temptation narratives literally. In short, the devil appears in physical form to test Jesus. Based on this assumption, Jesus and the devil begin their contest in the wilderness, continue sparring as they travel to some towering summit above the world, and conclude their battle on the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. However, it’s not necessary to subscribe to either interpretation mentioned above. Given that Jesus “ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished” (v. 2), it’s quite possible that, as the number of days he went without nourishment increased, the temptations were visionary experiences rather than actual bodily encounters with the devil. It’s well-known that during an extended fast — such as 40 days and nights — the drastic deprivation of food (and water) produces dreams, hallucinations or other bizarre mental images. Although Luke only narrates three temptations, it’s possible that there were more. Luke’s opening observation that Jesus was “in the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil” suggests that the temptations were ongoing (vv. 1b-2). Even Luke’s closing remark — “When the devil had finished every test …” — adds further support to the notion that there could have been more than the three recorded temptations. Arguably, then, while the author of Hebrews did not specifically reference Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, his observation that “we have [a high priest] who in every respect has been tested as we are” suggests that Jesus faced a myriad of trials and tests encompassing every facet of human existence (see Hebrews 4:15).
What Is One Possible Approach to the Text?
Sex, Money and Power. If Lent is all about confession, it is also about temptation. Many interpret the temptations of Jesus in terms of the rubric offered in 1 John 2:16. If we follow this rubric we could say that the devil attacked on three levels: the flesh, money and power. For our purposes, it is easier (and perhaps more relevant to our times), to say that the three most common temptations we face today are sex, money and power. Sex: it is virtually impossible for anyone using a computer these days not to see images they wish they had not seen, and many people, women included, become addicted to this habit. Moreover, marriages face enormous challenges from the sex-crazed culture in which we live. Money and the making of it are also huge temptations. The love of money can lure us away from our families, so that when our children graduate from high school we scarcely know who they are. Power, likewise, is a driving force in our lives, for who would not like a promotion and would not work harder and longer hours to get it? The sermon, then, is a survey of the temptations that we face and it concludes with the gospel, the good news, that there is a remedy: the word of God. “I treasure your word in my heart so that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).
For the First Sunday of Lent
Leader: God of rainbow and promise,
People: God of the swirling waters of baptism,
Leader: God of the dark night of doubt,
People: God of comfort and call,
Leader: Dwell with us this holy season of Lent
People: And lead us from temptation to trust, from fear to love, from despair to hope, from sadness to joy.
Go in peace. Give up something if it brings you closer to our Lord, who gave up so much for you. But to feel still closer to him, take on something. Take on someone's guilt or sickness or fear of death and, by sharing it, offer it up to God as your Lenten sacrifice.
And may God put your observance of Lent to work for your growth in faith, hope and love for the sake of him who bore our burdens and carried our sorrows, even his crucified and risen Son. Amen.
Call to Confession
Our God is ever more ready to listen than we are to pray. Let us bring our whole selves to this time of prayer, opening our hearts to God in honest acknowledgement of our shortcomings.
In these moments of stillness, let us think back to those wonderful resolutions that it seems we just made as the new year began. It is only February and yet ... we confess those resolutions thoughtfully made were quickly broken. So we come to you again, accepting God, to admit we have fallen short and to give our good intentions another try. We confess that we have squandered our time instead of having meaningful interaction with the children in our lives. We regret that we have neglected our lonely neighbor, our elderly church member, our homebound acquaintance. We are sorry for the times we have spoken in anger or impatience when a listening ear or kind word would have helped instead of hindered. In these moments of silent stillness, we offer our private confessions for those things which weigh down on our hearts and minds. (Silence.) Unburdened now, let us choose an intention and pledge before God to make our intention a reality as we travel the Lenten road to the new life of Easter.
Assurance of Pardon
My friends, know that God hears our prayers which we say together and which we have lifted in the silence of this sanctuary of safety and love. Lent offers us a chance to begin again, knowing that God knows us through and through and loves us still. In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Come, Ye Thankful People, Come
If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee
Now Thank We all Our God
Worship and Praise*
Living Hope (Wickham)
God Moves in a Mysterious Way (Riddle)
His Mercy Is More (Boswell, Papa)
*For licensing and permission to reprint or display these songs on screen, go to ccli.com. The worship and praise songs suggested by Homiletics can be found in most cases on Google by using the title as the search term.
on Deuteronomy 26:1-11
The community created by Jesus should always be the most welcoming and safest of spaces. Today’s church should be a place where people can feel welcome, make connections, understand God, and let their actions be guided by Christ.
We know, from social psychology, that spaces shape behavior. When researchers put softer furniture in classrooms, participation rates rose by 42%. And spaces even have political consequences. When researchers looked at neighborhoods with parks versus neighborhoods without, after adjusting for socioeconomic factors, they found that neighborhoods with parks had higher levels of social trust and were better able to advocate for themselves politically.
So, spaces shape behavior partly by the way they’re designed and partly by the way that they encode certain norms about how to behave. … there are online spaces that encode these same kinds of behavioral norms. … For example, behavior on LinkedIn seems pretty good. Why? Because it reads as a workplace, and so people follow workplace norms. If LinkedIn is a workplace, what is Twitter like?
—Eli Pariser, quoted in Zomorodi, Manoush. “Eli Pariser: How Can We Reshape Our Digital Platforms To Be More Welcoming Spaces?” TED Radio Hour, July 23, 2021, www.npr.org.
My father was a wandering Aramean. These words, so loaded with depth and meaning, are such a reflection of what the Jewish soul should humbly acknowledge. It is an expression of such introspection, a sober reminder, if we are ever tempted to believe that we are in any way better than non-Jews, that our ancestor also was just a wandering Aramean. It is the mission to which our people have been tasked with fulfilling that sets us apart. It is the Jewish mission that is special even if we ourselves as individuals may not be so special.
Abraham was not Jewish, but an Aramean who came to be identified as a Hebrew. He was the first convert to the belief system that we’ve embraced and inherited for the past 4,000 years.
—Eli Kaufman, “Parshat Ki Tavo: A Wandering Aramean,” The Jerusalem Post, August 31, 2015, www.jpost.com.
Kristen, one of my former students from Columbia Seminary, was called to serve a church in rural Ohio. Soon after she arrived, she was looking around the building and found the nursery. When she opened the door, she discovered it had become a storage room. When she asked about it, she was told that it had been years since the congregation had a baby in their midst. Kristen asked if it would be okay if she cleaned out the nursery. Two ruling elders offered to help, and over the next few weeks, the three of them emptied the nursery and repainted it. After visiting a few garage sales, they found a nice rocking chair, changing table, some lamps, and some toys. For a few months, the nursery sat empty. Then, in the spring, a young family visited the church. The parents were delighted with the nursery. The young mother said it looked like they had prepared it just for her daughter, and the elder said, “As a matter of fact, we did. We were waiting for you.”
Leaders have a choice. We can accept the status quo, [and] say that’s just the way it is and we are doing pretty much all we can, or we can choose not to settle for the way things are. Our people are desperate for hope. That’s what leaders do. Leaders hope!
—Rodger Nishioka, “Leaders Hope,” PCUSA.org, August 16, 2021.
Retrieved September 25, 2021.
I preached four nights in a church in Atlanta, a nice, big church with a good crowd, more than I’m used to. There was a moment in the service in which the pastor said, “We’ll now have our moments of fellowship. Greet each other in Christian love,” and you never saw such hugging and kissing and carrying on in your life — people going across the room, and up and down the aisles, and grabbing and hugging. Somebody came up to me — I was down behind the pulpit — and gave me a big smack. It was just really something. Finally, he said, “All right, hold it, hold it. We have to get on with the worship.” Four nights of that.
The last night, he and his wife took me and my wife out to coffee. He said, “Did you ever see such a family church? Did you ever see such love in your life in a church?”
My wife said, “Yeah, well, yeah, I have.”
He said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “I was there for all four services, and nobody ever spoke to me.”
And do you know what he said? He said, “Well, that was because they didn’t know who you were.”
—Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), 45.
Hospitality means letting the stranger remain a stranger while offering acceptance nonetheless. It means honoring the fact that strangers already have a relationship — rooted in our common humanity — without having to build one on intimate interpersonal knowledge, without having to become friends. It means valuing the strangeness of the stranger — even letting the stranger speak a language you cannot speak or sing a song you cannot join with — resisting the temptation to reduce the relationship to some lowest common denominator, since all language and all music is already human. It means meeting the stranger’s needs while allowing him or her simply to be, without attempting to make the stranger over into a modified version of ourselves.
—Parker J. Palmer, The Company of Strangers: Christians and the Renewal of America’s Public Life (Crossroad, 1981), 68.
Place an offering plate in front of the children, and ask them how a person should figure out what to do when the offering plate is passed. Let them know that Moses told the people of Israel to "bring the first of the fruit of the ground" to God (Deuteronomy 26:10), and to do it to show thanks to God for giving them the promised land. Hold up 10 dollar bills, and say that the first of your money should be given to God before you pay for anything else because God has given you everything you have. Then ask the children how much you should give. Suggest that one-tenth of your money, called a tithe, is the amount required by the Bible (v. 12), and as you say this, put one dollar in the offering plate. Talk about where this money goes, and how it supports God's work in the world. Then ask the children how they should feel as they give this offering, and point out that the Israelites were told to "celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house" (v. 11). Hold up the nine dollars that you still have, and say that we should all celebrate that God has given us life in a wonderful land, with plenty to live on after we give our first fruits to him.
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