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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Tonight, I was with my wife at a local restaurant. As we were preparing to pay for our meal, there was a man already at the checkout; his wife was standing behind him a good 5 or 6 feet waiting patiently. He turned and looked my way with an unpleasant scowl on his face and I smiled and said hello. He was in a suit and tie and looked like he had just come from church. His wife was in a dress and light sweater. After paying, he turned back to me and asked if he could give me something. I said yes, and he handed me two small pamphlets.

One of the pamphlets I’d seen before; very common in “Baptist” circles entitled This Was Your Life. It is in cartoon form and opens with the burial scene, a guy being laid to rest in his nice suit but is then told by a booming voice to rise. The next scene is the man physically rising from the dead and questioning whether he is dead or not. At the bottom of each page is a scripture passage from the original 1611 King James Version of the Bible, the only authority in many Baptist churches.

So, why am I writing about this encounter?

When I was a child, the church taught me a script, I was taught this pamphlet inside and out. Here’s the jest of what I was taught:

1. I was a horrible sinner because of the sin of Adam and the fall of Adam and Eve while in the Garden.

2. The sin of Adam caused all of humanity to be born totally depraved.

3. Salvation only comes to those who accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and who are baptized as a sign of deliverance from sin – that we die to our old self, and we are resurrected with Jesus Christ and raised to new life as we are raised out of the water.

4. Once I was saved, I would always be saved, unless I willfully sinned against God and did not repent by turning away from that sin.

5. In the final days, if I was still seen by God as a follower of Jesus Christ, then I would be resurrected to new life and given a new body and live in heaven with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit for all eternity.

6. My decision to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior was one that I should not take lightly because my soul literally hangs in the balance.

We learned the “Roman Road” to Salvation.

Romans 3:23 – For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.

Romans 5:8 – But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 6:23 – For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Romans 8:1 - There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.

Romans 10:9 - That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

Thank you, Paul, for Jesus-splaining Jesus’ own words.

As I think about what to write next, I must admit that my anger is getting in the way of me formulating my next thought. This man that I encountered tonight didn’t give that tract to the cashier, he didn’t hand it to Ouida or anyone else standing in the vicinity, he handed it to me. I believe he handed it to me because when he looked at me, he immediately knew I needed saving.

Not too long ago I had some folks show up at my door who were proselytizing and passing out literature about “being saved” and I told them I was an ordained minister. They didn’t care. They continued to hustle their product trying to get me to realize that their way was the only way to find the one, true, living God through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

STOP! Just stop!

I don’t need to be saved. My friends don’t need to be saved. My congregation doesn’t need to be saved. No one needs to be SAVED!

If you want to believe that the Biblical text is the literal word of God, so be it. If you need to reject science, philosophy, biblical scholarship, psychology, and more, that’s okay too. But you do not have the right to perpetrate your version of God and/or scripture on the rest of the world.

When Jesus told his disciples to go into the world and proclaim the kingdom of God, Jesus was specifically talking about the present kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of community, of love, of compassion. Jesus said that the kingdom is within – it isn’t out there somewhere, distant, and far away, it is written on our hearts, and is seated in our minds.

God wanted us to enter into the fullness of life, to taste the highs and lows, the good, the bad, and the ugly. God wanted us to fail and to rise again. If God didn’t want us to experience life as it unfolds for all of us, then all God had to do was not create the serpent. We try to make the Genesis passage some horrible failing on our part, but God is the one who created all that they knew in the Garden, including the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Tree of Life, and the Serpent. God could have created us as perfect humans to dwell in paradise for all eternity, but then why would we need God? What would be the point?

We act like what happened in the Garden of Eden was some surprise to God or that God didn’t expect us to be human. Yet, we describe God as all knowing, all powerful, and all present. God can’t be both informed and uninformed at the same time. It doesn’t work that way.

The God I serve wants me to worship and praise him of my own volition. God is not interested in coercing people into submission. He explicitly told the Israelite people to welcome the alien residents among them reminding them that they were once captive in the land of Egypt. God’s admonition was to get them to recognize how easy it is for the oppressed to become oppressors. God didn’t design us to be oppressed, but to walk in freedom.

There are two occasions in scripture where Jesus is asked what kinds of deeds must be done in order to have eternal life. Two times. When the rich man asks him this question, we get a lesson on the material things of this world that we must give up in order to place God at the center of our lives. When the lawyer asks Jesus this question, we get the story of the Good Samaritan. In each of these stories, Jesus refers back to the law and names specifically God’s law to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

When you are badgering people to receive your version of the gospel, or when you are smugly judging people and handing them pamphlets about going to hell for all eternity, you have absolutely missed the gospel message. This is not what Jesus professed at all.

In the two passages where Jesus is asked directly about what it takes to have eternal life, he had the perfect opportunity to lay out Paul’s “Roman Road” or Jesus could have given us his three main points: to accept him as our personal Lord and Savior, to be baptized, and to go and sin no more. Funny, Jesus didn’t say any of those things in relation to eternal life. None of them.

I don’t dispute Paul’s words that we have all screwed up. What I do dispute, though, is the general interpretation of those words to mean that those who do sin must follow a very narrow prescription in order to be loved by God. It is my contention that God wants us to screw up a lot. It is through our mistakes that we learn how not to behave. Sometimes we make mistakes that aren’t easily fixed. There are those among us who break the law by taking the life of others, or steal what does not belong to us, or fixate on all kinds of worldly things that become our idols. Without these challenges, though, how are we to ever know what it means to truly place God at the center of our lives. If we weren’t imperfect, we would never seek anything external to ourselves that even remotely mattered.

In truth, it is in our seeking that we find. If it were already apparent to us, what is the point of seeking?

Jesus often asked questions of his disciples. He wanted them to think through what he was trying to teach them. We are not outside the margins of needing to learn as well. Jesus’ teachings all led back to a few simple things – Love God, love your neighbor, love yourself. Show mercy. Be compassionate and kind. Have faith – walk with intention and be engaged in action. These are simple things, but they are not easy. It was never meant to be easy. Too easy and we’d ignore it thinking it isn’t worth our time. Too challenging and we would get frustrated and fill the void with something else. When we are told in the Biblical text that God will never give us more than we can handle, it is being made clear that challenges will come but that we have been equipped to navigate turbulent waters. When we fall in the midst of a challenge, we cannot assume that we necessarily did something wrong or that our faith was weak, but rather, we should look at what we learned having come through it battered and bruised. More than anything, my scars teach me to be more compassionate toward others; to never treat others the way that I don’t want to be treated.

So, to the man at the restaurant who handed me the two pamphlets, thank you for being so concerned about my soul that you were willing to actually develop a relationship with me and discern how you might help me become the best version of myself that I can be. Oh wait, that isn’t what you did, is it? Instead, you assumed you knew me just by looking at me. But you don’t know me, you don’t know anything about me.

Jesus traveled all around the Sea of Galilee bringing a message of hope, a message of peace, a message of love. If nothing else, can we please stop trying to scare people into submission? God isn’t going to send you to hell. Hell is a mythical place established by the church as a way to control the masses. Besides, the more afraid people are of going to hell, the more money they’ll pay to the church in order to stay out of hell. It is one of the greatest Ponzi Schemes in history.

I have to consistently remind myself to not become the thing that I hate. I keep trying to hold space for those who think differently than me, for those who believe that God is a wrathful God who is going to pick and choose who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. I really do try. But there are times when it feels like too much. I just want to scream at the top of my lungs, “You’re wrong!” which means, “I’m right.” And that just feels icky.

So, here is where I’ll leave you. God loves you. I know that God loves you because I believe God created you. I believe through the creation of the whole of the universe, there is a divine spark in all living things. ALL!!! I believe that God wants us to live in community; something that we are hardwired to do. I believe that God desires us to be compassionate and kind human beings who love and show mercy to others. I believe that God desires for us the very best in life, but that we cannot have ALL of anything because that makes us selfish and self-centered. It is our selfish and self-centered nature that makes us human, it provides us with the necessary tools for survival, but they are also the traits we must overcome in order to live with others in peace.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Updated: Aug 10

Author's note: Long post warning. I pray it is a good read.

Matthew 19:16-22


16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness. 19 Honor your father and mother. Also, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

The 1st commandment of the 10 Commandments reads: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” Most often, we only see the last phrase of this scripture when describing the 1st of the 10 Commandments – “you shall have no other gods before me.” I haven’t decided yet whether the elimination of the first part of this text is critical or not, but it feels as though important context for this 1st commandment gets lost when left out.

God’s pronouncement that he, alone, is the one who brought the Israelites out of Egypt, that he alone, rescued them from slavery, says a lot about the character of God in this moment. We see God needing to qualify his demand to be the only god. After all this effort, why would any god want to share the glory in besting the Egyptian Pharoah?

Still, as God’s way of setting initial limits with the people of Israel, it isn’t a bad deal. They are freed from a life of slavery and in turn are asked to honor the one who freed them. Here’s where I struggle, though, with this commandment – God is also the one who arranged for them to be in Egypt in the first place. Why was it necessary for the people of Israel to suffer in Egypt for 400+ years. That seems like an excessive length of time for having committed no crime. And where was God when “his people” were crying out in anguish?

Exodus 3:7-10 tells us, “7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

From this text it appears that God didn’t hear their cries until an appointed time. This isn’t how we usually think of God, especially one that is supposed to be all knowing, all powerful, and all present. For what purpose did the Israelite people suffer? Was God trying to teach them a lesson? Of course, these are all questions that we cannot know the answers to, but still we ask.

In truth, I cannot worship a God who would intentionally cause us to suffer so that at some point they would receive praise and glory for being the liberator. And now we are getting to the point of Sunday’s passage – the concept of liberation.

Sunday’s passage, found in both Matthew and Mark, is about a wealthy man who has many possessions. His question to Jesus is one of liberation, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” The question about eternal life is a tricky one in that there is no consensus among scholars regarding the beliefs of Jews in the 1st century as it relates to the afterlife. There were multiple views of the afterlife. So, when the rich man asks this question, we cannot be certain what he is actually asking.

Oddly enough, this question is also asked in Luke by an attorney, and is also connected with a conversation about commandments, specifically the greatest commandment, “to love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”

In both of these instances, Jesus refers the asker back to the law. In the Matthean passage, Jesus quibbles about the word “good” but then tells the rich man, “if you wish to enter into life then follow the law.” This wording is interesting because Jesus doesn’t use the same word that the rich man does – he doesn’t say ‘eternal life’ he simply says ‘life.’ This discrepancy might also be a clue into the meaning of eternal life or life – both of which could refer to a more authentic way of being in the moment.

In the Luke passage where the attorney asks this question, Jesus asks the attorney, “What does the law say?” to which the attorney replies, “To love the Lord, your God, etc.” The first time we see this phrasing of the “law” is when Jesus is coming up against the religious leaders of the Temple and sums up the law for them, in the Book of Matthew.

The questions surrounding the law, or even the summation of the law, reveals a new teaching by Jesus. Yes, it reflects the general tenor of the 1st Commandment, ‘to have no other gods before me,’ but the love your neighbor as yourself sums up commandments 5-10. It truly is a summation of the whole of the law, as in the 10 Commandments.

If we keep reading our passage though, the rich man is quick to ask Jesus if there are specific laws he should be keeping. Jesus replies with a list, conveniently leaving out the first 4 commandments. And, not to put too fine a point on it, Jesus alters the last commandment, “Do not covet,” to read, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Where is the commandment to put God above all else? Or the commandment to not create idols, or take the name of God in vain? Or the commandment to keep the Sabbath Day Holy?

What I think Jesus is pointing to through his exchange with the rich man is that we are incapable of keeping all the commandments as written in Exodus 20. As much as we would like to believe that we can put God first in all things, there always seems to be something material that gets in our way. For the rich man, it was his wealth and all his possessions. His materialism stood in the way of his liberation. He couldn’t enter fully into life because these things were weighing him down.

For others, it may be some type of addiction, or it could be religious fervor that is without depth or substance, or maybe for others it is people pleasing and the like. There are so many possibilities.

God is consistently patient with us and is always waiting to liberate us from our circumstances. In the case of the Israelite people, they became so entrenched with their captors they didn’t even realize they needed liberating. We can become so ensconced with our own issues that we, too, cannot recognize our need for liberation. It is only after liberation comes that we see just how bad things were. Usually, it takes someone else to point out our struggles, like being unable to see the forest for the trees. And we don’t want to believe that we placed ourselves in the situations that bind us but would rather blame others for our misery.

While God may have guided the Israelite people to Egypt through the brothers of Joseph, he didn’t require that they stay there. They could have conceivably left at any time. Often when we are faced with some sort of hardship, we imagine that it will get better over time. Yet, time passes and things never change, they just continually get worse.

This is why God comes to rescue us.

For the people of Israel, they were willing to risk following Moses and Aaron out into the desert in order to taste the life they so desperately wanted. The Israelites understood the cost, and knew that if they left, they probably could never return. Even then, it took 40 years for them to see a different way to exist as a whole people. The rich man, on the other hand, was unwilling to risk everything. He could not enter the fullness of life. Even though he also knew the cost to himself, and perhaps others, the only thing he was willing to risk was his liberation. Jesus showed him a better way when he asked the rich man to give up everything he owned. The rich man was incapable of seeing how his wealth trapped him and kept him imprisoned, just as the Israelites were captive in the land of Egypt.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Here is the shortened version of the 10 Commandments:

1. You shall have no other gods before me.

2. You shall not make for yourself an idol, nor bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

3. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.

4. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

5. Honor your father and your mother.

6. You shall not murder.

7. You shall not commit adultery.

8. You shall not steal.

9. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

10. You shall not covet.

The 10 commandments are found in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5. Each represents a telling of the story of Moses, who receives the commandments while on Mount Sinai in conversation with God. These laws were given to the people of Israel to guide them into a righteous relationship with the God who had just delivered them out of the hands of the Egyptians.

In preparation for this series on the 10 Commandments, I met with a couple of folks from the congregation to plan out this series. I really wanted to do something I’d never done before. I don’t ever recall preaching on the 10 Commandments, probably because I find these commandments to be a bit controversial. Let me explain.

These commandments represent the beginning of the journey of the people of Israel. They have not had a relationship with the God of Abraham as a whole people. In fact, if we attempt to read parts of Genesis and Exodus as historical in nature, God develops this relationship with Abraham, God calls Abraham away from his homeland to an unknown territory, God tells Abraham that he will possess the land if he adheres to the covenant sealed by circumcision, but in truth, Abraham never actually possesses the land.

According to Exodus 12, the Israelite people were in Egypt 430 years. In that time, they had forgotten the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Generation upon generation had passed. The covenant that God had made with Abram/Abraham was, in general, forgotten. Their journey into the desert was perhaps far more intentional than we might imagine. It does appear that God’s plan is less than well executed as God brings them into the Sinai Desert, but there are things that God must accomplish with the people before he can bring them into the promised land.

God uses this time to reestablish a relationship with the people. Even as I write that statement, it feels odd to think of the Israelite people as being distant from their God, but they are as human as we are today. Worship of the God of their ancestors fell by the wayside while they were in Egypt, mainly because they were enslaved, and enslaved people rarely have the freedom to worship freely.

When Moses returns to Egypt to seek their freedom, he starts by recounting the wonders of the God of their ancestors, as if to remind them of where they came from and to whom they belong. In this sense, we are kindred spirits in our ability to forget the centrality of God in our lives when we allow so many other things to fill those spaces in our heart. Moses captured their attention and proved to them that God really was on their side. Then, and only then, was he able to successfully lead the Israelite people out of the land of Egypt.

Once in the desert, they wandered for 40 years—two generations of people had to come and go—all to prepare the Israelite people for what was to come next.

Ultimately, the 10 Commandments are the initial blueprint given to the people on how to live in right relationship with God and with each other. Thankfully, the people of Israel continue to evolve and change over time, just as we do today. With each new generation, we see them continue to wrestle with who God is and how God is working in their world.

The people of Israel are not as unique as we’d like to make them out to be. They struggled, just as we do, to understand their ultimate purpose. They had a contentious relationship with the land given to them by God and were under constant threat from other nations. From the Babylonians to the Assyrians to the Roman Empire they had copious amounts of people who wanted the land that they now occupied. They somehow managed to live through captivity and the destruction of their temple in Jerusalem, not once, but twice, and still sought ways to make God their primary concern.

We have inherited this history through Jesus, the Christ, but we see another evolution in our relationship with God through the stories of Jesus. With this series on the 10 Commandments, we are going to look at how Jesus, born a Jew, wise in the law, gives the people of his day a whole new interpretation of the law that brings them one step closer to realizing their full potential as sons and daughters of the divine.

Jesus paves the way for us to continue the conversation and to explore for ourselves how God is still speaking to this generation. We are being called to deep dive into our responsibilities for living in this moment by continuing to bring God back to the center of our lives. When we do this, we will begin to understand our primary task here on earth is to learn to care for one another. Once again, we find ourselves having the conversation about how to be compassionate people.

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