• Rev. Izzy Harbin

A few days ago, the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 vote, decided to overturn Roe v. Wade, which removes federal protection of women who seek abortions, reverting the matter back to the states. As such, states are taking this unprecedented opportunity to limit or prohibit, and criminalize the seeking of or obtaining an abortion using a variety of methods that seek to control a woman's agency over her own body.

This decision overturns 50 years of precedent. For decades, it has been an agenda item for ultra-conservative Christians who argue they are pro-life and are protecting the unborn child. The continued push to re-make the Supreme Court into a body that would have the political will to overturn Roe v. Wade has been in the making since Roe v. Wade passed in 1973. While these individuals have a deep desire for our country to be a "Christian" nation, we are not just Christian, we are a melting pot of religious traditions and no tradition at all; thus the need for the concept: Separation of Church and State.

The issue that divides us so is reconciling one’s religious orientation with one’s scientific understanding of what we call life and when life actually begins. The foremost fundamental question is, "Does life begin at conception?" In order to answer this question, we must look at the science and understand the biology of cells and how cells come together to form the fetus that will then become life. What we know is that when the two cells—one from the female and one from the male—come together, what they form is the potential for life, not life itself. There are still many stages these cells must go through in order to actually produce life - a being that possess self-awareness or a consciousness of self.

In truth, we may never agree on a definition of what constitutes life. We may find ourselves forever at odds with each other if we continue to use the concept of life begins at conception when there is no scientific evidence to support this position. There is also little religious or scriptural evidence that life begins at conception. In the world of religion, life is associated with the breath of God and the ability for a person to breathe in the whole of God. That first breath a child takes after emerging from the mother's womb is a sure sign of life; the breathing in the whole of God.

As a person of faith, I have wrestled mightily with this issue. We like to think that it is a simple either/or proposition, but it isn’t. There are many nuances to the abortion issue, and it should be met with a more measured response. For those who have never been in a position where they’ve had to choose whether or not to have an abortion, there is no way for you to fully comprehend the weight of this decision. No one wakes up on a Monday morning and decides on a whim that they are going to abort their child. Women take seriously all of the ramifications of having an abortion, and what it means to bring a child into the world. Both have huge impacts on the well-being of the individual carrying the child and the child that is being brought into the world.

Why was Roe v. Wade so important?

It codified, at the federal level, the constitutional right for women to have full agency over their bodies, to include access to abortion and other reproductive health services without interference. By overturning Roe, these decisions will now be left to individual states, many of which have trigger laws that will go into effect in the next 30 days or less. Some of these laws are so invasive regarding the individual civil liberties of women that we have regressed more than the 50 years Roe has been in effect. Most of these laws do not have any provisions to safeguard children or women who are victims of incest or rape, to include rape within the marriage; ectopic pregnancies which place the mother in danger; miscarriages, which are not the same as abortions but are being treated as such; pregnancies that reveal severe mental or physical deformities, some of which can place the mother, the child, or both at risk of death and certainly means incredible hardship on the families of these children; women who are disproportionally low-income or who are already living in the margins of society; nor do these laws make provisions for any other eventuality where the mother’s life might be in danger. Some of these laws are also attempting to restrict access to methods of contraception and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF). States like Missouri are also trying to ban women from traveling to other states to receive care or from receiving RU486, known as the morning after pill, even when receiving medication through the US Postal Service.

What does all this say about who we are as a people? Where is our compassion for the women who are being subjected to such draconian measures?

What my faith teaches me is that compassion is my highest calling. God calls us to be the very best versions of ourselves that we can be—this does not include telling other people what they can and cannot do with their own bodies. This does not include forcing my religious agenda onto someone else. Whatever it is you believe about God, God’s law, or religion in general is your choice alone. There isn’t a single right way of finding God, no matter how often you scream it from your pulpits and from the streets. There are many paths to God and God has many ways of interacting with all of creation. There is one thing that I can be certain of – if I walk a path of love and compassion, I will not walk a path of condemnation and division. I cannot do both at the same time.

No matter which side of this issue you are on, please take the time to listen to each other and to understand what is at stake for those who seek these services. Do not rush to any conclusions regarding the moral character of a woman who seeks abortion services. Most women are doing the absolute best they can with the resources available to them. Love them right where they are.

God of all creation, we call on people everywhere to stand alongside women, especially those living in the margins who occupy states where their rights have been stripped from them, and agency over their own bodies has been relegated to the government. Show us what we can do to ensure that women’s bodies are protected from draconian laws and practices. We also pray for our already over-burdened foster care system, for those who are living in poverty and cannot afford adequate medical care, and for those who may attempt to end a pregnancy without medical aid. God, in your mercy, show all children and women that they are loved. Give women the courage to tell men no and to demand their right to appropriate birth control. Show us how we can walk in solidarity with women, without judgment. In your many names we pray. Amen.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

Most of us are familiar with the story of Palm Sunday, the day that Jesus rides in on a colt or a donkey into the city of Jerusalem just prior to his death. If you’ve ever seen the movie Jesus Christ Superstar you might recall the scene in your head, folks lining the streets waving palms as Jesus and the disciples come through the back gate of the city singing Hosannah. Or the musical Godspell where the sing the iconic classic, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord…” Yes, we can see and hear the crowd of folks as they welcome this teacher, preacher, holy man into the city. But there is a short passage in the Book of Luke that is often not read on Palm Sunday, or ever, really.

Luke 19:41-44 – “As Jesus came near

and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you, and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

I find it remarkable that Jesus is expounds on demise of the city as he is headed into the city to meet his own demise. He makes a clear point in the first sentence, that his message to the people was all that was necessary to recognize the things that make for peace. Let that sink in for a minute. Jesus’ message was a message of peace.

Let’s think about what Jesus’ primary focus in the Book of Luke – the beloved community. Jesus emerges among the pious Jews of his day who were steeped in the traditions and ancestry of the Jewish people. But we see Jesus’ presence among the people, mostly those marginalized by the church: women, the less-than-pious, tax collectors, the poor, the sick, the oppressed, and even some Pharisees. What Jesus does is remind all of us that compassion is our highest calling.

Discipleship is a secondary theme of the Book of Luke, connected to the primary theme of the personhood of Jesus and his need/desire to walk among us. Discipleship, though, is not a simple task or part of some check-list, it is a way of life and requires self-reflection, repentance, and a desire to love beyond the bounds of one’s own capability. In the world of discipleship, we are called to make manifest the kingdom of God right here on earth. It is a fundamental necessity to see God’s presence in the world, active and alive in Jesus as our primary example of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling.

When Jesus speaks of peace in this open sentence, he is issuing a word of admonishment to those who would call themselves followers of Christ. He is pointing out the unfortunate fact that while they may see themselves as part of God’s kingdom, they are missing the mark because of their desire to keep some out of the kingdom. The exclusive club intentionally disowns the very people Jesus touches on a daily basis. This was not God’s plan for peace.

Jesus makes it clear that because of their need to build barriers along the path to God, all of their safeguards and structures would crumble. His last statement, though, is chilling, “…because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.”

There is this moment of realization, every time I read this passage, that most of us would not recognize God if he were standing right in front of us. We think we would, but I fear we would not. In this day and time, anyone talking like Jesus would find themselves locked up in a mental institution and most likely given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Still, we want to believe that we’ll all be embraced by Jesus/God if they were walking among us now, but I’m not so sure.

The life that we are called to live in response to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is grounded in our relationship with God and our relationship to others. We cannot have one without the other. How we treat others, how we love and live in community actually matters to God. When we start or end a conversation with God’s condemnation of others, we have missed the point of God’s kingdom.

Phillip Gulley said it best, “You know that you’ve created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” Gulley, like myself, recognize that setting aside our petty differences is central to our understanding of the true nature of God. We were all created in the image and likeness of God. All of us. When we attack one another, call each other names, or degrade someone because of their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious affiliation, we are essentially saying to God, “You messed up when you created the world and all that is in.”

Where we live and to whom we are born is all a cosmic game of chance. Anyone of us could have been born in India to a Hindu family, or born in Sri Lanka to a Buddhist family, or born in Russia to an Orthodox family, or born in the US to a non-church going family, none of which makes us less the children of God that we were created to be.

The way of peace is simple. We MUST see God in the everyday, ordinary lives of ALL people. We MUST live lives of compassion toward ourselves and others. We MUST hold each other accountable in love. We MUST be the light in the world that shines in the darkness. We MUST.

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  • Rev. Izzy Harbin

38 Now this is what you shall offer on the altar: two lambs a year old regularly each day. 39 One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; 40 and with the first lamb one-tenth of a measure of choice flour mixed with one-fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and one-fourth of a hin of wine for a drink offering. 41 And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening and shall offer with it a grain offering and its drink offering, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord. 42 It shall be a regular burnt offering throughout your generations at the entrance of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there. 43 I will meet with the Israelites there, and it shall be sanctified by my glory; 44 I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priests. 45 I will dwell among the Israelites, and I will be their God.

By chapter 19 of the Book of Exodus, the people of Israel arrive at Mt. Sinai. It is at Mt. Sinai that Moses receives the 10 commandments, the law, and other instructions regarding the building of the temple and the anointing of priests for God’s service to the people. Through each detailed instruction to Moses, God reminds Moses that these laws are to protect the people, to guide the people, and are there for their instruction so that they will not wander off and worship other gods.

After the make-shift temple is constructed and the altar is in place, God reiterates the covenant that God made with Abraham. First, there is the sacrifice of animals (not humans), along with a grain sacrifice (that of choice flour), a small amount of oil (olive oil), and a drink sacrifice (that of new wine). These offerings are to be made morning and night.

Later in the Hebrew Bible one of the prophets calls for an end to all sacrifices proclaiming that God doesn’t want our sacrifice, but rather our hearts.

If we place the progression for spiritual activity into context, God is working with the people to change how they worship and approach God over time. In the beginning, there is the elimination of child sacrifice, which becomes animal sacrifice. By requiring them to engage in this practice two times daily, it develops a habit among the people of praying to God, spending time with God at least two times per day (plus all of the other sacrifices made for all of the special days and holidays). In other words, God his helping the people develop specific worship habits. Eventually, though, God says no more sacrifice other than your whole being. A different kind of human sacrifice. It is almost as if God had to take them full circle in order to figure out that the kind of sacrifice God meant from the beginning was a spiritual one, not a literal one.

By the time we get to the end of this passage, we find the famous words that God used with Abraham, “I will be their God,” words that reflect the promise of the covenant made between God and Abraham.

These words represent a key concept in the ancient world, every people, regardless of origin, had a community God that they worshiped. The Israelites were no exception. Throughout the Biblical text, we see the people of Israel working out for themselves exactly what this “God” represents to them. They go through many iterations from the beginning of the Genesis story, but with each shift or change, it is accompanied by the notion “They will be my people, and I will be their God.”

Our passage today reflects God’s willingness to dwell among the people in a way that the gods of other nations fell short. Most other gods resided at a distance from their people, rarely interacting with those who worshiped them. The God of Abraham, on the other hand, wanted to remain close to the people. Even though we are seeing a distancing in the ways in which God interacts with the people, especially from the time of Adam where they spoke directly with God, to Noah who also spoke directly with God, to now where God must be hidden by a cloud; there is still a desire to be intimate with the people. The creation of the temple allows for that closeness. God is saying to the people, I want to dwell among you.

All of the preparations for the temple were detailed by God to the people so that God could dwell in the Holy of Holies among the people. God wanted to be fully present with them, but also knew that the power of God must be contained in some way so as not to disrupt the fabric of all living things. The Holy of Holies provides this kind of safety much like protecting ourselves for radiation poisoning. Even the vestments of the priests were engineered to certain specifications so that they would be protected. The kind of energy that they would have come in contact with must have been extraordinary.

God’s desire to dwell among them must have been so important that God was willing to risk all of the inherent problems with the Ark of the Covenant and the construction of the temple. When you read through the Book of Exodus, each detail is planned so meticulously that you cannot help but notice the care in which God takes over protecting the people. This is a special bond that God is creating here on earth between God and the people. It isn’t to be taken lightly. But it also cannot last forever.

Over the next several weeks we are going to be looking at this theme, “I will be their God.” We will be exploring the few passages in scripture where God makes this pronouncement and how the people respond to such a statement. With each assertion from God, there is a subtheme that runs through that particular passage.

Week 1 – Dwell Among Them

Week 2 – Return to Them

Week 3 – Restore Them

Week 4 – Promises to Them

Week 5 – The New Covenant

With each of these passages we will see how God is moving us through time from his original covenant with Abraham all the way to the new covenant in Jesus. This movement is critical for our understanding of how God interacts with the people and how God continually reminds the people, “I will be their God.”

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