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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Exodus 20:7


7 “You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

Matthew 5:33-37a


33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you: Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’.

In the church of my childhood, I always heard the 3rd Commandment preached as an admonition to not cuss at God or to say derogatory things in the name of God, such as the popular “OMG”. After a deeper study of this passage, however, I must agree that this passage is not nearly as concerned with how often we type OMG in a social media post as it is with how often we clam to represent the very being of God, when in fact, we have no idea who God is or how God works in the world.

There is a clear difference between being made in the image and likeness of God and creating God in our own image. But in some sense, this is at the heart of this commandment. We have become experts at anthropomorphizing God or making God into human form and all its many guises. We give God all of our human traits but forget that God wants us to be holy and righteous, which we are not, most of the time.

Philip Gulley put it this way, “You know that you have created God in your own image when God hates all the same people you do.” There seems to be a genuine disconnect between the God we create in our minds versus the God who created us – and no matter how hard we try to conflate the two, they can never be melded together.

No, the 3rd Commandment isn’t just about talking smack, it is about the role we assume when we pretend to know the mind of God. So, how does this relate to our passage from Matthew.

In the ancient world, swearing a vow to God was as good as a signed contract in the present day. If someone vowed to turn over possession of a piece of land and swore to God that it would happen, then the intent was that it would happen. However, by swearing falsely, you make yourself and God out to be a liar. These two passages are linked in that God doesn’t want any kind of misrepresentation going on, whether it is misrepresenting God or one’s self. At the heart of this issue is that when we misrepresent God, people will look at us and be immediately turned away from God because of that mischaracterization, or they will have high expectations regarding something that God never promised. When it doesn’t happen, then we’ll be seen a untrustworthy and not a great emissary for God.

On the other hand, if we speak the truth in love and only guarantee those things which we know we can do and under no circumstances speak for God, our lives will be much less chaotic. This is where Jesus proclaims, “Let your word be ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ We don’t need to complicate the equation with a lot of flowery language. Nor does Jesus tell us we need to explain ourselves to death. When asked a question or when promising to do something, we need to bring our answer back to the bare-bones-minimum, yes and no.

Ultimately, this is about intent. We have a saying in our house, especially when I say, “I didn’t intend to,” (usually something less than stellar), and the reply is always, “Yes, but you also didn’t intend NOT to.” As much as we would like to believe that we get it right all the time, we don’t. We make mistakes. We don’t complete things on time. We fail to follow through on all kinds of issues. At the outset, we are often looking for ways to get out of the task rather than lean into it. Image, though, if we could be more honest about what we are and are not willing to do. Our honesty, our ability to say yes OR no could make all the difference in the world in how we function in society.

We are setting clear intentions with the hope that our actions will follow rightly.

This is huge. It cuts through all the clutter and noise that usually surrounds some of the decisions we make. We are better able to actually follow through with what we commit to without making any kind of false statement. Especially when it comes to speaking on behalf of God—even as a minister, I do not want that responsibility of trying to read or interpret the mind of God. Scripture provides me with the accounts of many who came before me who wrestled with all the same issues we do. They understood just like we need to that God is so much more expansive than we can imagine. I cannot even begin to wrap my head around the enormity of God and the intimacy of God.

When I preach, I provide commentary and teaching on the written words of scripture, my own lived experience, and the lived experiences of others. Sometimes I catch glimpses of the reality of God, but my language is woefully inadequate to ever articulate what those glimpses are. I believe, as a matter of faith, that God is compassionate, loving, kind, a creator, and so much more. But none of us should ever attempt to define God or put God in a box with any kind of authority.

One day, hopefully, we’ll see God face to face and be saturated with the knowledge of who God is; I imagine being flooded with the love of God to the point that I cannot contain it. That is my hope and prayer – and that is the best I can do.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Where to begin – I suppose at the beginning.

When I first received a phone call regarding my profile, I was a little stunned because First Congregational Church in Elkhart wasn’t even on my radar. But I knew after our first Skype session that this was the church for me. There was no doubt in my mind. I hoped and prayed that God was leading me to this place because it felt like the perfect fit.

The day I got the phone call that they wanted to call me to be their pastor, I almost didn’t believe it. I called Pastor DiNino (my mentor) immediately to let her know. We did all the stuff that you have to do to quickly organize an ordination service, and then everything happened at once.

I celebrated my 50th birthday on August 8, 2015.

I was legally married to my long-time-partner, Ouida Lampert, on August 15, 2015.

I was ordained as a minister on August 16, 2015.

I moved to Elkhart, IN on August 19, 2015.

I preached my first sermon as a newly ordained minister on August 23, 2015.

I was installed at First Congregational Church on November 23, 2015, the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Now, here I am eight years later, and it feels like very little time has passed at all.

I will admit that ordained life isn’t what I thought it was going to be. Even though I took worship classes and preaching classes, these are skills that I now realize develop over time. I have discovered that I LOVE writing liturgy. Finding the right words to convey a particular message is a challenge a enjoy facing every week. And while we were taught certain practices in both worship and preaching, I have since discovered that each one of us develops our own system for getting these things done every week.

Another area that I think I struggled with in the beginning is “pastoral care.” Clinical Pastoral Education in a hospital setting, nor having a masters in social work truly prepares you for the kinds of things people come and talk to you about. Nor do these skills help you develop what I now call “ministerial presence” which enables you to go to someone’s home, knock on the door, and invite yourself in for a visit. I would never go unannounced and have improved in my ability to do home and hospital visits, but this is one aspect of the “job” that may always be difficult for me. I do, however, like writing cards, so I always have that to lean on.

There is also the challenge that is facing all denominations right now, that of church attendance decline. It is frustrating. I grew up in the South and church attendance was non-negotiable. Today, though, there are so many school and extra-curricular activities that happen on Sunday, many families opt not to attend church. What I have learned, though, is that small churches can be vital churches. We still manage to do a lot of good in our community and beyond. Would I like our church to grow? Sure, I would. I believe that what we stand for, what I preach, and what we have to offer in the way of communal support is vitally important to our community. But I believe that every person needs to make their own decision regarding participation in a Community of Faith.

The work that I get to do for First Congregational Church, UCC is wonderful on its own, but it is also enhanced by my active participation in our Association and Conference. I have been blessed with opportunities to serve the wider church, all of which have made me a better minister. Writing the worship liturgy for our Conference Annual Gathering is always one of the top highlights of the year for me. What a gift.

As I think about what the next 8 years will hold, I am excited about all the possibilities. There are mountains of theology to still study and discern. We have much to discuss in Sunday School as we try to solve the world’s problems. There are more people to help, more school facial tissue to purchase, and more love to give to one another. I am hoping to graduate with my Doctor of Ministry degree in May of 2025. I know after completing that I’ll need a break, so I’m hoping for a sabbatical at that time. But then it is right back to work.

It is my hope and my prayer that you will stick with me and that as a congregation you will continue to grow and be changed by the work we do together. Perhaps in our efforts to be more like Jesus, we can radically change Elkhart into a City that lives its tag line: A City with a Heart. Maybe, just maybe, it is up to us to teach others what true compassion is all about.

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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Matthew 4:1-4


4 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

‘One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

When I went to Egypt on my cross-cultural trip while in seminary, I had the opportunity to see first hand some of the most beautiful iconography I’d ever seen. Icons in the church, though, have not gone without controversy. The question becomes, “Does the icon reach the level of idol?”

I will admit, I have wrestled with this commandment – to not make “graven images” or to worship idols, because it isn’t clear in the biblical text what God means by either the concept of a graven image or an idol. And in some cases, the prohibition to do either one of these things seems contrary to the idea of humanity being made in the “image” and “likeness” of God. Some would even argue that this is a good reason to elevate human form – it is made in God’s image.

Historically, iconography was at the center of one of the most heated controversies in the church. There was a movement that began in the Eastern church in the eighth century that had lasting repercussions. This movement was called iconoclasm. “The controversy began in 725 CE when Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ordered the destruction of an image of Christ that supposedly had miraculous powers. This was soon followed by a series of imperial edicts against the use of images (or icons) in worship” (Gonzales, Essential Theological Terms, p. 81).

So, what was Leo III upset about? What was he responding to?

Commandment number 2 of the 10 Commandments: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me 6 but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

There is harsh punishment for anyone who engages in this behavior. Clearly God was serious about restricting the worship of objects. But let’s get clear about the difference between an idol and an icon.

An idol is an object of worship that replaces God – the object is worshiped as a means of accessing God, or as a way to have a living replica of God that is tangible.

An icon is not worshiped but is venerated. Worship is defined as “to recognize, celebrate, and praise God’s majesty;” to recognize our place in the cosmos and our need for God’s grace. Worship has often centered on the Eucharist, the representative meal that expresses the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and our need to be reconciled again and again to God.

To venerate means to hold in high esteem, to revere.

Idols can most certainly be icons, but icons don’t necessarily have to be idols. How an image is used determines whether it is an idol or not. Also, the practice of iconography, that of creating icons, was also instrumental in creating many of the symbols that represent various aspects of Christianity or religious life in general. The ichthus fish was an early symbol of Christianity just as The Dharma Wheel is a symbol of Buddhism.

We use symbols all the time to create shorthand in communicating ideas. And there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that. However, when those symbols become the object of our worship, as in the golden calf being worshiped as the entity that brought the Israelites out of Egypt, then we have a problem.

In our passage today, we see a different kind of idolatry. Jesus is being offered a chance to change his circumstances by changing stone into bread. Those stones become the object of his desire for what they can do for Jesus, for what they can alleviate in Jesus – his suffering. In this sense, Jesus is looking to a created object to take the place of God’s sufficient grace. We might ask ourselves, “Yeah, but would God really punish us for turning stones into bread (if we could) especially if we were that hungry? I think this is actually a great example of how common, ordinary items can become idols.

The tempter seems to have a grasp of how idols can impact us spiritually. When the tempter asks Jesus to turn stones into bread, there is an assumption on the part of the tempter that the stones will take the place God’s sustenance. If we are separated from what God gives us to sustain us; mentally, physically, or spiritually, then we are lost to that thing. Jesus’ hunger might have tempted him to turn stones into bread, but Jesus understood that physical bread would only last a moment. There isn’t anything that we can make that can take the place of our Creator, the one who made all living things.

By place objects at the center of our being, by worshiping objects that have no inherent value, we usurp God’s connection with us by placing something else in love’s path. If we were to inventory our lives regarding the various idols that have taken resident in our spirit, we might be surprised at how much time and attention we give those things and how little attention we give God.

In the Buddhist tradition, one of their key focuses is on the fact that all things in life are impermanent. Everything that we can hold in our hands will one day fade. Even things in the natural world do not stay the same forever. Rocks erode; trees decay; and grass grows and burns. Nothing stays the same.

God, however, is eternal. I need to learn to trust infinite God rather than my finite self and the finite objects around me. May you wrestle your idols to the ground and discard them for the one who made all things and sustains all things.

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