Prayer, Giving, and Confession

A sermon for Proper 24: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

This story begins in verse 1 when God tells Moses it time to leave this place and go to the promised land. However, because Israel is a “stiff-necked people” God will not go with them, but God will send an Angel to guide them. Israel is aghast, and no one put on any rings, earrings, or other ornaments of any kind. Moses isn’t so sure about this angel leader either. He knows he cannot lead Israel without God and like any good leader he wants certainty before setting out to complete this wild wilderness journey (Bratt; Brueggemann). God answers okay, “I will send my presence with you and I will give you rest.” which implies God’s blessing. Only “with you” is not in the Hebrew, and “you rest” is singular not plural (Olson; Brueggemann). It sounds like God is speaking to Moses, not to all of Israel.

So, Moses presses on for more. He knows Israel will not survive on her own (Brueggemann). He knows that only God’s presence will make him favored and Israel distinct. And being distinct is important it points back to the plagues. Israel escape the flies, the deadly pestilence on livestock, the hail that destroyed crops, the dense darkness that none could see in, and death of all first born because they were distinct (Exodus 8:22; 9:4, 26; 10:23; 11:7; 12:23)  (Gaventa and Petersen). Knowing that the plagues are part of the divine plan to free Israel Moses knows all Israel must be included (Olson).

So ~ Moses presses for even more as he asks for a glimpse of God’s glory. God agrees, sort of. The divine goodness, which can be used understood as shalom, or the blessing of the material wholeness of creation, will pass before Moses (Brueggemann). God also reveals more of the divine name;

  • which if you remember begins way back in Exodus 3:6 with “I am the God of your ancestors” (Exodus) 3:6,
  • and progressed to: “I Am Who I Am” and/or “I Will Be Who I Will Be” or somehow both (Exodus 3:14)
  • and then moves on to “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2)
  • and then “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them” (Exodus 29:46) (Olson)
  • and now includes
  • “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,”
    which reveals God’s completely unfettered capacity to be unconditionally generous
  • and “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,”

which reveals God’s capacity to act positively as God chooses (Brueggemann).

However, God continues to stand’s firm about revealing the divine face; that is not going to happen. As we heard Moses does see God’s goodness, that is revealed on God’s backside.

There are lots of curious tidbits is these verses. However, there are two gleanings I’d like to focus on this morning. I want to give credit to Walter Brueggemann who brings both of them to our attention. Brueggemann sees in Moses behavior a model for Prayer. Moses requests are daring, and insistent; which are good qualities for prayer. Moses asks to know God’s ways, which is another good quality for prayer. He insists that God go with not only him, but all of Israel as they make their way through the final wilderness stretch to long hoped for promised land. Moses continually asks to see God’s glory, which refers to God’s awesome, shrouded, magisterial presence; after all it is God’s presence that makes all the difference, not just some brilliant shining light, or some awesome thunder and lightning. Above all that we might seek in our prayer life, nothing ~ nothing is more significant or life changing than God’s presence.

Moses prayer is also deeply theological. Moses is singularly, we could say relentlessly concerned with the person and presence of God. He just keeps insisting that God be there, not only with him, but also with Israel. But, Moses also knows how to stop, when to stop. He while acknowledges his own considerable freedom in prayer, at the same time he honors the unique supreme sovereignty of God (Brueggemann). What would our prayer life be like if it sounded like a determined respectful insistence to know God’s life changing presence for ourselves and our community that is strong enough to reveal our trust in God’s graciousness and mercy, and respectful enough to honor God’s unknowable divine-self?

Brueggemann also sees a model for giving in this story. Moses is relentless in his request, his demand, that God be present with Israel as they make the final leg of the trip to the promised land. God is equally relentless in keeping to God’s self the unknowable, mystic person of God. God is at the same time inconceivably generous in revealing God’s self to both Moses and Israel. It is not like Israel, from Abraham on down, including Moses, have been a paragon of virtue, a model of righteous honesty. It is this non-negotiable and unending tension that makes giving possible. This constrained versus liberal model of giving is a worthy addition to a rule of life, our rule of prayer. If we are too constrained or too liberal in our giving to others, we risk destroying the relationship between ourselves and others we wish to help (Brueggemann).

A closing thought. I know I have, and I expect all of us have a prayer we fervently offered. It may be one of those that didn’t really get answered; and perhaps we hang our heads a bit at the memory of such prayer. Maybe we question God’s presence. Maybe we question our worth. But I’ve been thinking, that in such times, or with such memories we just might be a bit like Moses. We did not get to see God’s face, we only got to see God’s back, God’s going; God’s disappearing around the corner, if you will; and it is only after that, that we realize how God has just acted for us (Bratt). Perhaps the shadow of disappointment, or despair is really the shadow of God protecting hand. As the shadow recedes dare we be like Moses, dare we raise our heads, and witness the presence of shalom, the blessing of the wholeness of life? I do not think it is a risk. It is an outward and visible expression of your steadfast faith in the confession of your gracious and merciful God.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 24 A Exodus 33:12-23. 22 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 22 10 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lewis, Karoline. Loyalties. 22 10 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Liggett, James. “Whose Image?” 22 10 2017. Sermons that Work.

Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23. 22 10 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

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Sovereignty and Forgiveness

A sermon for Proper 23: Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

A lot has happened since Moses received the 10 Commandments. Moses, Aaron, and some others go to a meeting with God. Since then God seems to have gone away. Now Moses has been gone for 40 days or so. And so Israel does as she always does when challenged, she grumbles. Only this time she grumbles to Aaron. “Where is Moses?” “Is he dead?” “Now we are all alone (Bratt)!” “You do something for us, something we can see (Portier-Young).”

We know what happens. Aaron takes gold from Israel, perhaps the same gold given to them as a tribute as they left Egypt. He casts a golden calf, an idol. The people make a burnt offering, offer a sacrifice, and then a raucous celebration breaks out. God is furious. Moses isn’t down the mountain yet and already Israel has broken the 1st, and 2nd commandments and who knows what else. In fierce anger, God is going to destroy Israel and make Moses into a great nation. Using God’s words as his argument Moses challenges God:

“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.”

“Remember your promise ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven.’”

“Do you really want to give Egypt a reason to speak evil of you.”

Moses calls Israel “your people.” As Israel’s defense lawyer he pleads “Do not do this.” And God changes the divine mind.

There are two scenes in this story 1. the making of the idol and celebration that follows and 2. God’s response, and Moses plea. Let’s take a closer look.

Yes, Aaron casts a golden calf. But is it really an idol, is it really another god? After the idol is made Aaron says: “These are your gods.” Notice ‘gods’ is plural; why plural if there is only one casting? Is the calf envisioned as an animal mount, perhaps a divine one, with a god, or even the Lord riding upon it? Such iconography is common in the ancient Near East (Gaventa and Petersen). Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find an explanation about the calf (Brueggemann). And there is the kappōret (Leviticus 16:6) or footstool build for God’s use in the Tabernacle (Kaiser Jr.). Perhaps the calf is the kappōret. Aaron also says, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” Note ‘Lord’ is all caps, if you go to the Hebrew it reads ‘Yahweh’ which indicates the feast and celebration is for or to God! Aaron also does what has been authorized to do! Back in chapter 20, an altar has been authorized, burnt offerings have been described, and offerings of well-being are defined (Exodus 20:24), these are exactly what wayward Israel is offering. On top of this in chapter 29 Aaron and his sons are consecrated as Priest to serve God and Israel. So Aaron is just doing what he has been ordained to do!

All this is a bit like a murder mystery. The story looks like it flows from front to back. However, some scenes that are connected are interrupted by other scenes, sometimes whole chapters. It is up to the reader to figure out what the sequence is.

Here there are two choices. The first is that this scene follows the fuller story of the ten commandments we read last week, which is followed by Israel’s consecration, so we have a real existential threat, Israel has simply broken her covenant with God. If this is the case then this may be a precursor of Israel’s behavior. In 2 Kings 23 (4-25) Josiah, one of the few faithful Kings of Israel, sets out to reform Israel. He destroys the idols, alters, holy poles, and priest of: Baal and Asherah, the gods of the sun, moon, and constellations, Molech, Astarte, Chemosh, Milconm, in places from Geba to Beer-sheba, Wadi Kidron, Topheth, Bethel, and Samaria. That is a lot.  Josiah commanded that the Passover be kept; which had not been done since the time of the Judges. Which means that not a single King of Israel, not one, not even David or Solomon, observed Passover!

The second choice is that this scene follows Aaron’s consecration, which emphasizes all the power, prestige, splendor, and wealth of the his newly established office. Which suggest that Aaron falls to the temptations of his office.

It is also possible to read the conflict as Moses vs. Aaron. This is a conflict that repeats throughout Israel’s history. We read about conflicts between Levites vs. Zadokites, torah priests vs. temple priests, Pharisees vs Sadducees, and Jews vs Greeks (Brueggemann).

Both stories have a common theme we should pay attention to. Israel is impatient with God, and Aaron seemingly goes down a path of pledging allegiance to God and the other gods who happen to be available. It sets in motion a behavior we see through all of Israel’s history. It ends with the complete destruction of the ten Tribes of the Northern Kingdom. They have never been heard from or seen since. Later comes the exile of the two tribes of the Southern Kingdom; who do return to their homeland, but who live in an occupied land from then all the way until after the Second World War.

The competition between Moses and Aaron sets up a competition that is also seen throughout all Israel’s history until the 2nd complete destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 AD. The Temple has never been rebuilt.

Both story lines are a warning about how decisions leaders and peoples make can have consequences that last not just three or four generation, but thousands of generations. These are stories that that rebuke any thought “Well this leader won’t be here for long, we can pick up again after this mess is over.” Neither story line is particularly hopeful.

Even Moses changing God’s mind reveals a continuing tension. We want, many people want, God to be infallible, and unchangeable. But what we have here in this story is a clear example of Moses changing God’s mind. Throughout all the Bible God is a strong demanding God, with no tolerance for foolishness, continually sentencing people to lots of fire, darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. God is a God of “sovereignty that will not be mocked.” At the same time, throughout the Bible we witness God’s unexpected, incomprehensible grace and mercy. God is a God of “mercy that forgives (Brueggemann).” A God who is infallible and unchangeable is easier to follow. You know the rules and rest is up to God, we aren’t responsible for anything. On the other hand, a merciful forgiving God calls us to be merciful and forgiving; and that makes us responsible for our inflexible sovereignty and how we give mercy away, or don’t.

Now, I want to be perfectly clear, there is no hidden implication here. I am not accusing any political leader or party of being self-sovereign or lacking in mercy and forgiveness. I am saying all political leaders and parties are; and have been. Moses, is no pure character. Born a slave, he is raised privileged, in the Egyptian royal house. He bravely returns to his people. Then he murders an Egyptian over lord. Instead of facing the corrupt repressive Egyptian system he flees to Midian. When God calls him to go back to help he people his favorite phrases are “Who am I?” and “Your people” which sound just like an exasperated parent speaking to their returning spouse “Do you know what your children did today!” In addition to all the political leaders, I am accusing all the people. In this story and throughout all of scripture in one way or another the people of Israel regularly break every commandment, starting by worshiping other gods all the way through violating Sabbath to coveting anybody’s everything. I include me; and I include you. We are all the wayward children of Israel and her kings, who do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.

The frightening vision is that we are living in dangerous times. Not because there are disagreements, but because we are more and more segregating ourselves into like thinking camps. We are less and less willing to put aside our differences and work for the good of all God’s people. Except for violence towards others, which some of many camps have demonstrated, ultra-liberal students literally shouting down an invited conservative speaker are no better than ultra-conservatives protesting the removal of their beloved but controversial monuments. If we cannot listen to someone who believes what we think is offensive we cannot learn the hardest lessons of life, that are so often spoken by the people we call “other.”

The hopeful vision is that Moses spoke up. Moses dared to argue with the most sovereign of all that is sovereign. The result was forgiveness and mercy. We too can speak up. We can risk arguing with our leaders. We can contribute to changing hearts. We can contribute to the restoration of forgiveness and mercy. The hopeful vision is we are still here. God has not abandoned us. Even though we may be walking through dark shadows we are not alone; the great shepherd is always with us. Look carefully, listen closely and you can see the signs. There are exhausted firemen continuing to fight massive wildfires to save homes and lives. There are police who run towards gun fire. There is the Paramedic sitting with a mortally wounded victim, unprotected from gun fire, so she will not die alone. There a stranger paying it forward for a single mother who is short at the grocery store checkout. There are stories of high school students who go out of their way to honor a somehow disable classmate. There the vagrant who sees someone drop a wallet, picks it up, sees it has a couple of hundred dollars in it, and traces the owner down and returns the wallet. There is much good in this world and it worth fighting for (Tolkien).

Like today’s story I think we are lead into a sort of tension; we are called to be aware of the opportunity to confront to sovereignty that will not be mocked and speak; and we are called to be aware of mercy that forgives and celebrate. And at all times we are to trust that our Lord really is right here, right now, and will be forever.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 23 A Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Kaiser Jr., Walter C. New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary The Book of Leviticus. Vol. I. Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. Olivetree App.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Portier-Young, Anathea. Commentary on Exodus 32:1-14. 15 10 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

Invoking God’s Name

A sermon for Proper 22: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46

Last Sunday night Stephen Paddock shot and killed 59 people and wounded more than 500 others. Monday Morning President Trump spoke to the nation. He thanked Homeland Security, the Las Vegas Police and first responders honoring their courage. Quoting from Psalms 34:18 the President said: “To the families of the victims, we are praying for you and we are here for you. And we ask God to help see you through this very dark period. Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Nilsen).”

It is not unusual for elected officials to invoke the name of God, directly or by extending “thoughts and prayers.” Since January 1995, “thoughts and prayers” have been pronounced by national political leaders 4,139 times. Since 2001 it is about 1 per day when Congress is in session (Rowen). This morning we heard the Ten Commandments as written in Exodus. Having President Trump’s words in my mind as I read them, preparing for this morning, my immediate response was “What does it mean to Invoke the name of God?” Curiously enough there are ten points.

The commandments begin with a prohibition against having any other god before you. As there always have been there are lots of alternatives. Then it was Pharaoh or any of the gods from surrounding cultures. We continue to be surrounded by alternatives that draw our attention; there are a variety of sports leagues, political and or economic philosophies, all sorts of entertainment, lots of material possessions; the list is long, and ever growing. The question is “Who has our undivided loyalty?” “Who is our moral compass?” (Gaventa and Petersen; (Harrelson; Brueggemann)

Next is a prohibition against any image of God. It is not an artistic restriction (Keener and Walton). It bans anything that tries to domesticate God so God can be controlled (Brueggemann).

We know that we are not to use God’s name in vain. We know better than to say ‘God’ before any curse; we might even blush or react apologetically when we reactively do so. But that is the not the hardest constraint here. God’s name invokes power and purpose. So, to use it trivially demeans God, and it is a kind domesticating God, and surely diminishes our loyalty. Perhaps most challenging of all are those times we use God’s name for our own purposes, to aggrandize, empower, or enrich ourselves, especially at the expense of another, including God (Keener and Walton; Brueggemann)

Keeping Sabbath is far more elusive then we think. To begin with keeping Sabbath does not include worship. We all know worship requires our active participation, it is a form of work; at our best, it is sacred / sacramental work, but it is work. Sabbath is the prohibition of any kind of work. Its roots are the manna provided in the wilderness (Harrelson). It stands dramatically against the bread of Egypt gotten only by being subjected to oppressive, exploitive ways. Sabbath is totally inclusive. Everyone, you, your spouse, your children, your siblings, your employees, even your working animals publicly take a day away from labor and away from economic activity (Keener and Walton; Harrelson; Brueggemann).

Keeping Sabbath is a transition from the definition of our covenantal relationship with God to our covenantal relationship with each other (Jacobson, Lewis, and Skinner). That relationship begins with honoring our fathers and mothers. The word ‘honor’ also means ‘to be heavy’, i.e. to feed our parents. A broader covenantal implication is generational; we are not to deprive our parents or elders out of their homes when they are no longer economically productive. For Israel, post-slavery social, and economic security is built on strong intergeneration covenantal relationships between generations who for now have power and those who are now vulnerable (Brueggemann). The same is true for us.

Everyone agrees murder is wrong. However, provisions of Sabbath and honor lead us to see that there is more here. The prohibition against killing reminds us that all life belongs to God and therefore all life must be respected. On a social scale, life that is diminished by unbridled greed, and the slow draining of another’s life which is often obscured by policy and ideology or willful blindness is equally offensive as Sunday night’s mass killing (Brueggemann).

Adultery concerns the most intimate of human relationships, which is to be highly honored. Such honor depends on covenantal relations of mutuality that are genuinely life-giving, nurturing, enhancing, and respectful (Brueggemann).

Like murder, we all know it is wrong to steal. And like murder, there is more here than the prohibition against taking stuff that is not yours. There is a material component to life; there are certain material goods that are necessary to live in dignity. Theft includes the restriction or taking away any material goods necessary to sustain ourselves, our families, or our communities. Such thievery is not limited to actions of individuals; it is enabled by social, political, and economic powers that favor one group of people over another robbing them and their descendants of their futures (Brueggemann).

As even a young child I knew it was wrong to lie. I remember the threatened punishment of having our mouths washed with soap for lying. Bearing false witness includes lies. More importantly, it’s focus is specifically testimony given in court (Brueggemann). Covenant community life is not possible without public confidence that there is a place where all else is set aside and the truth is spoken without regard to social standings. Clever manipulation and ideological perversion that hides the truth is a lie (Brueggemann). And to the extent that it allows someone or some group of people to be robbed of their future, it can also be theft, and in extreme situations murder.

The last commandment prohibits coveting or lusting after that which belongs to another. Its concern is the destructive power of and governing our inward desires (Harrelson). The ideal desire of Israel is to do the will and purpose of Yahweh (Brueggemann). The commandment’s primary concern is economic and constraining the impulse to endlessly acquire more and more. Coveting draws power from the illusion of scarcity, which is an expression of doubt; the same doubt expressed by Israel in the desert wondering if God would provide them bread. Scarcity driven lust expresses doubt about God’s generosity. And as it

  • it drives us to endless pursuit of more and more
  • it drives us to ignore Sabbath’s rest (Brueggemann);
  • it drives us to invoke God’s name for our selfish purposes,
  • it drives us to try and constrain God,
  • it drives us to honor whatever seduces us into believing only ‘I’ can secure your deepest desire;

it can tempt us to be like God.

It is a good thing to invoke the name of God. It is a righteous thing to remind those who are sick or injured, or in any way diminished that God sees their circumstances, that God hears their cry, that God is present, even as they traverse the shadows of death, anguish, and fear. However, offering “our prayers and our thoughts” is not enough. When we invoke the name of God, we commit / recommit ourselves to the covenant life. In the Episcopal tradition that commitment is a part of our baptismal covenant. When we invoke the name of God

  • we commit /recommit ourselves to keep God first in our lives all the time
  • to invoke God’s name for good of all creation
  • to keep Sabbath, for ourselves and others
  • to care for of all generations, those who came before us, and those who will follow
  • to respect all life as belonging to and reflecting the image of God
  • to live in mutual, nurturing, respectful covenantal relationships
  • to give, not take, that which promotes life for others
  • to respect the truth, especially at the gates of justice
  • to discipline our self-desires, and
  • to live from the abundance of manna God provides every day

When we invoke the name of God we commit /recommit ourselves to living God’s plan for our lives; which is what we’ve have been exploring this morning. The details of how we live into the divine plan for our lives is entrusted to us  (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner).

How your, how our commitment to Houston, Texas, Florida, Mexico, The US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the western states fighting wildfires, and the victims and families of the Las Vegas shootings and the people of Las Vegas, and those in Nate’s path will manifest themselves is for each of us, and for us as a church to study and discern. I trust, dare I pray, they reflect the abundance of God’s grace and mercy, now and always.

Amen.


References

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 8 10 20017.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Nilsen, Ella. Read Trump’s Full Speech on the Las Vegas Shooting. 2 10 2017. <https://www.vox.com/search?q=Read+Trump%E2%80%99s+full+speech+on+the+Las+Vegas+shooting&gt;.

Rowen, Ben. What Science Says About Thoughts and Prayers vs Policy. 5 10 2017. <theatlantic.com /health/archive/2017/10/thoughts-and-prayers-vs-policy/542076/>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

 

 

 

Exodus to a new creation

 

 

A sermon for Proper 19; Exodus 14:19-31, Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:21-35 

I have mentioned our family beach traditions. One of my favorite is riding the waves. We love the rough water; wading out waist to chest deep, waiting for the perfect wave, timing it just right and riding it in using your body as a surfboard. It is exhilarating. There are moments not quite as exciting but are none the less memorable. There are times when the water going back into the ocean is literally rushing, so much so it can knock you down, and pull you out to sea. Hurricane Irma delivered an extreme example when all the water on some west coast beaches was blown out to sea. There are also times when the waves break unexpectedly; on more than one occasion I remember being hammered as a wave, taller than me, broke right on top of me driving me into ocean bed. Irma delivered an extreme example of this when all the water blown out to sea came rushing back. All the stories showing people walking on dry ocean floor warned people not to stay because the water would come back violently and far too fast for them to get out of the way. Irma’s blowing the ocean away and the ocean rushing back sounds a bit like this morning’s exodus story of crossing the Red Sea; except for the walls of water on either side. However, before we get there, let’s review what happened after last week’s Passover liturgical story.

The Passover Liturgy is given through Moses to Israel. That night death swept across the land. We touched on the complex reality that the story includes the death of every 1st born male (child or animal) in every Egyptian household, irrespective of their role in the oppression of Israel. Egypt is so mortified and terrified, that Pharaoh allows Israel to go. They also gave Israel a bounty of silver, and gold jewelry, and clothing (Exodus 12:35). There are additional liturgical instructions for unleavened bread and for the redemption of firstborn sons. Then, after 420 years, Israel, 600,000 strong, sets out. They wander around in the wilderness for a time and the Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night (Exodus 13:21). Then Pharaoh has a change of heart, gathers 600 chariots and goes after Israel. Chariots functioned mainly as vehicles for archers, who were relatively safe on their mobile platform; think tank. The typical number of chariots deployed is 200 to 250; so, 600 chariots is much larger than anyone would ever expect. Collectively they are a weapon of mass destruction, which is Pharaoh’s intent (Keener and Walton). Egypt catches up to Israel at the sea side; Israel complains:

Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?  Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness. (Ex 14:11-12)

Moses answers

Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today (Exodus 14:13)

We pick up the story this morning with the Angel of God and the Cloud swapping places.

We all know Israel walks across the dry sea bed to freedom, and the Egyptian army is completely destroyed. As with last week’s story there is a difficult bit of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart which leads to the death of the Egyptian soldiers. There is no reason to hash that point again. What is interesting in today’s reading; however, are the references to creation stories, both from Genesis and of the surrounding cultures.

Israel is between the waters of the sea and the Egyptian army. God and Moses encourage them to go on. They would of course, except to move on        is to enter the deadly waters of the sea. The sea is an image similar to the chaos that cover the face of the earth, before creation, it is a symbol of death (Bratt). In Isaiah, we read about God who “pierced” the sea “dragon Rahab” (another name for Leviathan) “and dried up the sea” to make a way for Israel out of Egypt (Isaiah 51:9-10) (Harrelson).

The story is also recounted in Psalm 74 (vs 12-15).

We heard this morning that The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night (Exodus 14:21); ‘wind’ is the same word in Genesis 1:2 a ‘wind’ from God swept over the face of the waters. (Olive Tree); thus, “God does a deed as powerful, original, and life-giving as the very newness of creation” (Harrelson, Brueggeman). I wonder if future stories about Irma will evoke similar memories? Or, if the story of new creation within Exodus will inspire recovery efforts in the devastation following any disaster, to be a commitment to a new creation?

In surrounding cultures, there are similar stories. Baal defeats Yam and Nahar, the “sea and river” gods, marking a victory for order, creation, and fertility. Babylon’s god Marduk defeats Tiamat, a sea monster, in the creation myth of Enuma Elish (Harrelson).

God’s control of the sea is central to Israel’s salvation story; it begins with the story of crossing the Red Sea and ends with Israel crossing the Jordan River, which God dries up so Israel can enter the promised land (Josh 4-5) (Harrelson). God not only shows Israel the path, God clears the way; more than seven times.

Another piece of the story found in surrounding countries is the Cloud. For Israel, the cloud is a rear guard protecting their escape. It also provides light at night (Brueggeman); it takes a while for 600,000 people to move even a short distance. The cloud brings darkness to the Egyptians, a reminder of the 3 days of darkness of the 9th Plague (Exodus 10:22) and yet another symbol of the “pre-creation chaos” (Bratt) earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, (Genesis 1:2).

The Hittites have stories of gods coming to their aid causing it to rain, and sending a cloud that causes darkness so their enemy could not see their camp, or goes before their troops hiding them (Keener and Walton).

Creating light and darkness are part of the Genesis creation story (Bratt). In the control of both the chaos of water, and control of the dark and light we begin to see that Israel’s’ exodus is also Israel’s new creation. (Sigmon).

One more little creation related bit. In observing Yahweh’s control over the chaos of water and the light and dark, the Egyptian Army recognizes that Yahweh not Pharaoh, or any other Egyptian god, is the Lord of all creation. This is a key lesson of the Genesis creation stories. The sovereignty of God, revealed in binding and losing the chaos of water, is significant to Israel coming to faith (Bratt).

So, this is where all this leads. Not unlike ancient Israel our world is shaken. We face our own exodus from the known, that is, to the unknown, that is to come. There are uncontrolled tyrants, of international, national, business, and faith persuasion, threatening all kinds of people, including us, with all kinds of weapons of mass destruction. It doesn’t matter if it is

  • the North Korean nuclear missiles,
  • or the loss of medical care or the DACA program,
  • or the rise of Neo Nazi, white supremacy,
  • or leftist purists driving any and all dissenters away,
  • or voraciously greedy financiers,
  • or corporate executives,
  • or degenerate ministers and priests,
  • or corrupt local, state, or nation politicians,
  • or dominating local school teachers,

tyrants disrupt our world; they bring fear into our hearts. Such fear often provokes the worst in all of us. We may seek to return to the known, as difficult, and oppressive as it is. Or we may abandon the core of our faith, and anoint our own abusive oppressive tactics with divine imprimatur, the authority of God.

  • We forget the beginning of Jesus last days. Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, not a horse, which is a symbol of imperial power and an integral part of the Roman Legions, the emperors’ weapon of mass destruction.
  • We forget, God alone has the power to cast out the tyrant’s weapons of mass destruction; God alone cast the horse and rider, the purveyors of chaos, fear, and oppression, into the sea (Sigmon).
  • We forget, God alone brings creation, light, and life, out of chaos, darkness, and death.
  • We forget, the amazing grace and love of God, who is the singular causal act of creation, has, and is, and will bring new creation out of existential exodus.

In the mist of your exodus from the known, that is, to the unknown, that is to come, trust the Spirit to direct and rule your hearts, revealing the images of creation, in which the divine shows you your path, and clears the way to a new creation, renewed life in the presence of God.

Amen


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 19 A Exodus 14:19-31 . 17 9 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggeman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 17 9 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Olive Tree. Olive Tree Cross References: Expanded Set. Harper Collins Christian Publishing, 2015.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. Commentary on Exodus 14:19-31. 17 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

Being a part of the continuing story

A sermon for Proper 18; Exodus 12:1-14, Psalm 149, Romans 13:8-14, Matthew 18:15-20

My family is all for traditions. They have changed since we grew up and started families of our own, but we have traditions. Growing up we had birthday traditions, Easter traditions, including the Golden egg, Thanksgiving traditions, Christmas traditions and beach traditions. My mother saw to our keeping our traditions. But ~ she also was not one to let an opportunity, go by.

In college, my middle brother took to buying all his clothes at Goodwill. He had good reasons, they were inexpensive so when, not if but when, he tore something up, it was not such a big deal They were clean. They were in reasonable shape. And best of all ~ no one ever asked.

When it came time for his wedding rehearsal, mom, and a few of her best friends we all knew and loved, went to the Goodwill store, and bought their outfits. They were, well at least ten years out of fashion, and none of us will ever forget the brilliant blue dress with the huge (hold up hands shoulders apart) bright yellow flower. At the rehearsal, everyone erupted in a joyous uproar as they, in place of the bride’s maids, gloriously came down the center aisle.

Some years later it was my parents 50th wedding anniversary. There was a big to do at my sister’s house; and beforehand there was a family thing. No one quite knows how he pulled it off. But, he let us all know he would be just a bit late. We were all there, yapping and waiting for my brother. We hear the front door open and close and all turned to see who had arrived. There he was, in the brilliant blue dress with the huge (hold up hands shoulders apart) bright yellow flower. Mom erupted in laughter and we all joined her. There has been one wedding in his family. Another is on the horizon. We are all waiting for this tradition to continue so we can be a part of the continuing story.

We know the story of the Passover. Or we think we do. It begins with God telling Moses that from now on this is the first month of the year for Israel. It is as if God is starting their history over again right then and there (Hoezee). And there are a host of other details we might not have noticed.

The Passover story is 52 verses long. 23 verses of them are liturgical instructions, intended to become the center of Israel’s tradition (Hoezee). They are the instructions for a ritual reenactment and remembrance of the exodus from Egypt so that it will never be forgotten (Gaventa and Petersen). The liturgy makes the exodus liberation present so that it can be a part of defining and shaping the social reality of current and future generations (Brueggeman). This is clear in the rituals’ wording. Jews observing Passover do not say:

We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

They say:

 We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.

In observing the liturgy participants become the people of the story (Hoezee). How do we continue to become the people of Jesus’ story in our storied remembrances?

The Passover is totally inclusive. We read how every family is to have a lamb. At the time this was extraordinarily expensive, so families were to join together so everyone would be included (Brueggeman). We are also inclusive in our liturgies; the Prayer Book welcomes all people baptized with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our invitation welcomes all those called to God’s table to encounter our risen Lord.

In a small way, we remember the Passover in our weekly Eucharist. We used a form of unleavened bread. The tradition continues in Passover celebrations. Scott Hoezee writes:

The Passover is a traveler’s meal, eaten with your coat already on your back, your best walking shoes on your feet, and your bags packed (Hoezee).

The meal must be eaten in a hurry; people must be ready to go, ready to travel, ready to depart from the empire. It must be done in a hurry remember that leaving Egypt is a dangerous, anxiety-ridden business. The use of leavened bread ignores to urgency and anxiety which is central to the story’s shaping prowess (Brueggeman). We too can ignore portions of our liturgical traditions; I once heard someone say If you can identify the eucharistic wine, you’ve rather missed the point.

The Passover liturgy also reminds participants that there is more to escape than the oppression of an evil empire. Israel must also escape the creeping presence of other gods the empire uses to legitimize their oppression and abuse (Brueggeman). Israel will struggle with the gods of other lands through the entirety of the Old Testament. There is the golden calf, the gods of the people in the lands they will occupy, Solomon’s offerings to the gods of his hundreds of wives and the continuing kings who did what was evil in the eyes of God throughout 1st and 2nd Kings and 1st and 2nd Chronicles. We are no better; only our gods look like philosophy, political theory, economic theory etc. that we use to justify immoral behavior in all aspects of our lives, personally, socially, in business and religiously. Our personal and national behaviors raise questions about our relationship to empire.

There is an ambiguous aspect to the Passover ritual. Yes, it is a remembrance of Israel’s escape from oppressive abuse and slavery in Egypt. However, that escape requires the death of every Egyptian first born male child and animal. The deaths are not limited to Pharaoh’s house, or the royal court, or the willing participants; every family, is indiscreetly touched by death. If the mid wives Shiprah and Puah, from last’s week’s story, are Egyptian, and the scripture does not say one way or another, do their first-born sons die? Such unilateral violence has been justified throughout the ages. We see it today in the polarization of politics and culture; in the behaviors of extremist of all kinds of causes (Epperly). We heard it in a pastor’s claim that the president has divine permission to “take out” another country’s leader. Personally, locally, and nationally we must be cautious that we do not exploit God’s story for our own selfish desires. This caution includes our tendency to approach all things rationally.

Liturgy involves a certain suspension of disbelief, setting aside our rationality so we can walk with the people of the remembrance story and reenter a defining memory, allowing the remembrance to mold who we are. At the same time, we must live within the story’s boundaries so, we can withstand the current winds of fads and criticism. Yes, we must have good informative material to enlighten our understanding of the story; however, we must live in the memory of our bellies of a hastily eaten meal, in front of our blood marked door post and lintel.

If we don’t,

  • we risk becoming too familiar with empire;
  • we risk forgetting the leaving Egypt is a dangerous anxiety ridden venture (Brueggeman);
  • we risk forgetting the lamb is slaughtered

to identify with the deaths in Egypt long ago as a reminder of the grace of God that alone secures life in the midst of a world where the innocent still suffer, still die, and where God’s long battle with evil continues (Hoezee).

Our Eucharist Liturgy requires suspension of our rationality and being vulnerable so we can be molded by the remembrance by our ancient story. We are part of the betrayal, suffering, and death of Jesus. We are the benefactors of his death because we are the benefactors of Jesus’ resurrection.

In our opening collect, we pray Grant us, O Lord, to trust in you with all our hearts. The Exodus story is a story of trust. God asks Moses and Moses asks Israel to trust. There is no rationale that enables Israel to escape slavery in Egypt. The deaths of the firstborn could just as easily have brought on the wholesale slaughter of all of Israel in angry revenge. The liturgical remembrance of the Passover is to yet again, place ourselves and our families into the hands of God, trusting it is God’s love that brings salvation from everything that threatens us, both externally and spiritually. As Exodus is the defining story for Israel, Jesus’ resurrection is the defining story of Christians. The liturgical remembrance of the Last Supper is to yet again, place ourselves and our families into the hands of God, trusting it is God’s love that brings salvation from everything that threatens us, both externally and spiritually by the betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It takes trust to welcome the outsider gentile, or traitor tax-collector, as Jesus welcomes them after they have offended you and the whole church agrees with you (Matthew 18:15-17). It takes trust to put on the armor of light, to put on put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for our more mortal needs as Paul suggest, because as he writes salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near (Romans 13:11-14); more so now than then not quite 2000 years ago.

So,

my prayer for you this day is that you trust the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, mind; so that you may Love your neighbor (from Luke 10:27) and be a part of the continuing story.

References

Brueggeman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 10 9 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Helmer, Ben. “Congregations and Conflict.” 10 9 2017. Sermons that Work.

Hoezee, Scott. “Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 12:1-14.” 10 9 2017. Working Preacher.

Lewis, Karoline. God Is With Us. 10 9 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. Commentary on Exodus 12:1-14. 10 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

 

 

Tuesday Morning

A sermon for Proper 17; Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45c, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

 

It started like any Tuesday morning, with the usual morning home rituals; getting kids ready, getting wife and self-ready, each car safely heads off in their usual directions. Traffic was about the same. Even the news was it’s customarily nothing self. Morse was looking forward to a typical and routine day. Then he saw the fire in his boss’ eyes. At first, he thought he’d slip on by, but his curiosity got the better of him. So, he stopped to wave hello to Yancey, who was on the phone. And then he excitedly waved Morse in. He heard Yancey say “that is excellent. I will call you tomorrow with the final details.” and then he hung up. Before Morse could open his mouth, Yancey launched into an excited explanation. It involved the company’s long pursuit of a contract with a major corporation to provide a software solution to a massive inventory control need. It is what they did; however, it was a monumental commitment, requiring extensive modifications to interface with the existing accounting, billing, and other systems. Morse stuck his hand out to congratulate Yancey when he heard him say “… so tomorrow I want you to fly up there and start the design interviews. It shouldn’t take more than two or three weeks.” Morse was dumb struck. He’d never done design interviews before. He’d never flown anywhere for the company before. He’d never managed anything near this big or complicated before. Besides, who is going to help his wife with all the family stuff; the shopping, the pets that needed to go the vet, the yard needed cutting, and both cars needed an oil changed and a washing. He heard himself stammer “I … I …. I …. I’ve never managed anything like this; why me?” Yancey assured him he had his back, told him to clear his calendar, get all his assignments to Yancey’s assistant who’d reassign them, review the customer’s RFP, and at lunch he’d give Morse the project details, and they’d start outlining the broad process. Morse mumbled “What am I going to tell my wife?” and Yancey answered, “If she needs anything, have her call me.” In a strangely exhilarating mix of emotions and thoughts, Morse started off towards his cubical.

 

There is nothing more usual than a Tuesday morning. There is nothing more usual than a bush, or fire, or a bush on fire. Unless of course, your boss signs the deal of his company’s lifetime and gives you the responsibility to get it off the ground. Unless of course, the bush doesn’t burn and God has seen, heard, and knows his people’s misery and gives you the responsibility to set his people free. So, starts Morse’s and Moses’ Tuesday.

A couple of details about Moses’ and the burning bush. There are lots of reasons to take your shoes off in certain places. One is to acknowledge that the place is special or holy. Another is to be able to relax and feel at home; don’t you take your shoes off when you get home? So yes, God is naming this place as holy, and Horeb or Sinai will be a holy place throughout Exodus and much of the bible. It is also possible that God tells Moses to take his shoes off because God wants Moses to be himself; to remove all pretense, to be vulnerable and open to what God has to say (Suomala). And Moses needs to vulnerable and open. God has seen, heard, knows, and has decided to act on behalf of Israel and that ~ is going to require a human agent. (Epperly, Gaventa and Petersen, Brueggeman). Moses is it. Moses is understandably taken aback. He asks, “Who am I?” which may reflect identity confusion. Is he a son of Israel, is he an Egyptian Prince, or a Midian shepherd (Harrelson)?

A bit later Moses asks for God’s name. The answer is “I am who I am.” or “I will be who I will be.” or both at the same time. Have you ever noticed how similar Moses’ question about himself “Who am I” and God’s name “I am who I am” actually are? Bound up in all this is the possibility that: Moses’ unspoken question is “Who will I become?” and that part of God’s “I will be” is “with you” which is necessary for Moses, to hear and answer God’s unexpected call, and to become God’s chosen leader of God’s chosen people (Bratt, Gaventa, and Petersen).

One of my favorite lines from Lord of the Rings is

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to (Tolkien).

Morse isn’t looking for a major assignment and to be away from home for a couple of weeks, nonetheless, Yancey’s call sweeps him off. Moses isn’t looking for God, nonetheless, God’s call sweeps him off. Both their calls come on an ordinary day at ordinary work (Epperly). It doesn’t matter if the call is to a small thing or to a big thing, it can come any day at any time and always, in the same way, ~ completely unexpected. A divine calling is another way God is constantly moving in our lives (Epperly). The challenge for us is not so much can we hear it? but will we accept it? Peter helps make my point.

Last week Simon proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus renames him Peter saying he and/or his confession will be the rock the church is built on. The very next verse is this morning’s Gospel story when Jesus begins to tell the disciples about his betrayal, suffering, and death. Peter, back to being Simon, rebukes him. Jesus call’s him skandalon … a stumbling rock (Hoezee). Peter and the disciples have a political, Davidic warrior vision of Jesus, who they expect will bring them just enough more power to kick the Romans out. Betrayal, suffering, and death do not fit their image. They do not understand Jesus isn’t bringing them, bringing us, just a little bit more, God/Jesus via Jesus’ resurrection is setting them, setting us free (Lose). At this point, Simon and the others don’t understand what Jesus is doing, and what it requires, any more than Moses understands what God is doing and what it requires.

Jesus isn’t expecting Peter to lead the disciples in telling Israel and then the whole world, that he is offering just a little bit more political and military strength. God isn’t expecting Moses to lead Israel and then the whole world to a slightly more comfortable life. God and God/Jesus are calling Moses, Simon, and the disciples, to proclaim God’s offer of transformative freedom from everything that binds them to the oppressive forces of their lives.

God has seen, heard, and knows what oppresses the Hebrews and he calls Moses to lead them, and the whole world, to divine freedom. God has seen, heard, and knows what oppresses Israel and via the incarnate Jesus calls Simon Peter to lead them, and the whole world, to divine freedom. God has seen, heard, and knows

  • the cries ringing out across our world from poverty ridden peoples, in overseas countries and here in the USA
  • the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Philippines, and the too many more war-torn countries
  • families burdened by lead poisoned water in Flint Michigan
  • the cries of Black Lives Matter
  • the cries of police officers killed in the line of duty
  • those in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and parts of Arkansas who are suffering from the torrential rains of Harvey
  • farmers and others suffering from dicamba drift
  • in the vitriol and hatred of those who denigrate people they deem are other, because of race, national origin, sexual preferences or orientation, illness – mental and other, or anything they deem not normal, and
  • people in all sorts of places, oppressed in all kinds of ways.

God has seen, heard, and knows the cries ringing out across our neighborhoods from those

  • needing help with groceries
  • a ride to the drug or grocery store
  • assistance taking their medicine
  • need the yard cut
  • a listening ear
  • a presence to break the isolation of living alone.

God, God/Jesus is here to deliver them. Such a delivery requires human agency, like Moses, and Peter and the disciples. Which ~ may make us squirm just a bit. And it doesn’t matter if the task seems big or small, the same questions loom. What will your burning bush look like? How will your Tuesday morning go? What world views or political, philosophical, theological, or other thoughts obscure or muddle your Divine call? Will we know who we are? Will we risk becoming who we will be?

I do not know what your burning bush looks like. I do not know what your calling may be. I do not know the nature of its agency. I do not know much of anything. But! this I do know. I know I am who I will be is with you now, and will be with you Tuesday morning, till the end of ages.

 

References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 17 A Exodus 3:1-15. 29 1 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 3 9 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 17 A Matthew 16:21-28. 3 9 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

Lose, David. Pentecost 13 A: Can You Imagine? 3 9 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Smith, Mitzi J. Commentary on Matthew 16:21-28. 3 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

Suomala, Karla. Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15. 3 9 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. n.d. <//www.goodreads.com/quotes/137661-it-s-a-dangerous-business-Frodo-going-out-your-door-you >.

 

Transformation, Discernment, Speak, Act

A Sermon for Proper 16; Exodus 1:8-2:10, Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

 They buried the last of their siblings and cousins of their same generation. All their parents, aunts and uncles, and grandparents are dead. All those family connections that used to link them to the broader world are gone. They are not without family; they have their children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews. Nor are they without friends. There are business connections. But still, it is different. All those ancient connections that grounded life are gone. Truth be told, they are the ancient connections, even if they don’t think they are all that old. At times, they feel as if they are adrift. When unexpected troubles arise, which seems to be more often than before, there are no elders to turn to, and all the advantageous connections are gone, they are just another customer, no one knows Uncle Joe anymore, why would they remember his youngest niece. Yet there is something in the air that keeps despair at bay.

Paul writes

being transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.

He continues about how we are members of one body. However, I think we skip over that notion of transformation, too quickly. Being transformed helps us

 to see what is going right and notice and name where God is at work (Lose).

It is this transformation that enables Simon to see and say that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. The rock Jesus will build the church on is Peter’s confession, which is the fruit of his transformation (Harrelson). Simon and the disciples have long known who Jesus is, what Simon Peter recognizes is that confessing Jesus to be the Messiah begins to nurture a new community (Boring). Simon Peter is able to discern God’s will and to publicly confess it, at least to Jesus, at least for the moment.

The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in and prospered in Egypt. Not only did they escape famine driven starvation, they grew into a nation. The story is no longer about the multi-generational struggles of a family; it is about the emergence of a nation, Israel. But now all the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are dead. Even Joseph is dead. There is a loss of cultural and national memory. One wonders “Has Israel forgotten the Lord (Harrelson)?” Pharaoh is dead, at least the one who knew and gave all that power to Joseph, that allowed him to rescue and propser his extended family. So, what about the promise? The new Pharaoh is decisive, active, and shrewd (Harrelson). He enslaves Israel. Then he plans a final solution to their threat to Egypt (Hoezee, Exodus).

The name ‘Hebrew’ indicates they have no social standing (Brueggman) and their status as slaves (Harrelson). We heard nothing about God today; so just where is God (Hoezee, Exodus)?

Let’s listen with the discerning ear of a Pauline transformed mind.

The more Pharaoh and Egypt oppress the Hebrews the more they multiply and spread over the land. The nation multiplying and spreading is a reminder of Genesis 1:22 where God tells creation to be fruitful and multiply. It is a reminder of the numerous promises that Abraham’s descendants will be exceedingly numerous (Gaventa and Petersen). Multiplying and spreading is the power of blessing at work and the empire cannot stop it or even slow it down (Brueggman). Oh, Pharaoh tries, he orders the mid wives to kill all the baby boys. They do not. Their story is a story of civil disobedience (Harrelson). Their description of Hebrew women giving birth reveals a liberating power for life which is nothing less than the results of the presence of God at work (Brueggman). We do not know if the midwives are Israelites or Egyptians (Harrelson). We do know the only direct mention of God in this story is their reward for defying Pharaoh, bountiful children. Besides Moses Shiprah and Puah, the mid wives, are the only two people named in this story, which reveals the mothering power of God (Brueggman). A Hebrew mother defies Pharaoh and hides her son. Her ‘fine baby’ (Exodus 2:2) prompts memories of the all the times in Genesis we read “God saw that it was good.” (Brueggman; Harrelson) The baby’s river basket is the same word as Noah’s ‘ark’ (Genesis 6-8) (Gaventa and Petersen; Harrelson; Brueggman) Her daughter defiantly follows the ark downstream and at the right moment connects Pharaoh’s daughter to the baby’s mother as a paid nurse maid. Pharaoh’s daughter is fully aware of her actions, as she forms an alliance with and protects the Hebrew baby, sparing his life (Brueggman). The name ‘Moses’ is a play on the word ‘son’ (Harrelson) another way his daughter is defying Pharaoh.

And what does all this reveal? The Hebrew low-class slaves are oppressed yet multiply and spread across Egypt inspiring fear in the Egyptian leaders. The hand of God is at work. Two midwives defy Pharaoh refusing to kill the Hebrew baby boys. An action inspired by God. A mother sees how fine her son is and acts to till and keep creation (Gen2:15) by hiding her son from death. An action inspired by God. Pharaoh’s daughter defies her own father; adopts a Hebrew boy that came to her humbly in an ark, recalling the birth story of Sargon (an Assyrian King, notable to Jewish readers (Sakenfeld) but what get the attention of the Egyptians is the story’s similarity to Horus’ (an Egyptian god) birth story (Gaventa and Petersen). An insight inspired by God.

So, what we see, with our Pauline transformed mind, is in a story of oppression, enslavement and death, the quiet presence of God at work:

  • inspiring the Hebrews to meet impossible workloads,
  • inspiring couples to marry and start families,
  • inspiring 2 over worked mid wives to defy the Egyptian god-king allowing Hebrew baby boys to live,
  • inspiring a mother to hide her fine son,
  • inspiring his sister to follow and act on his behalf,
  • inspiring Pharaoh’s daughter to knowingly adopt a Hebrew boy into the Egyptian Royal house.

In the shadow of death, the living God of life is: very present, powerfully present, transformationally present.

At any time, there are those whose lives are lived out in the shadows. Sometimes, those in the shadows change. Sometimes, in the light of good news, like decreasing unemployment, and increasing economic activity, there are shadows, we know of towns and counties and almost entire states where there is continuing economic decline and increasing opioid addiction and related health concerns. The questions of Charlottesville’s troubles weeks a ago rage and defy simple answers; perhaps because they are complex questions. The anger about police shootings and police being shot, both of which have happened in the last couple of weeks is real and justified. The effect of changes in immigration policy threatens some families, and is already having an effect on some agriculture operations. Shadows abound.

We live in our own shadow. St. Stephen’s is vibrant in its own way, but we are not growing by the customary ways of counting and our financial wellbeing is declining. Blytheville and Mississippi County have a multitude of jobs, and thousands of people unfit, for a variety of reasons, to fill them. Arkansas with an ever-declining unemployment rate still struggles: with low wages, to improve education, and a stubbornly high number of unhealthy people.

In any of this, in any one of these, we could see the justification to ask, “Where is God?” However, my prayer for us is to be transformed so that you may discern what is the will of God, proclaim it, and act on it. As we have heard such discernment, such proclamations, such actions bear fine fruit that multiples and spreads across the land.

Amen.

References

Boring, M. Eugene. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Gospel of Matthew. Vol. VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols. App Olivetree.

Brueggman, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 27 8 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoezee, Scott. Proper 16A Exodus 1:8-2:10. 17 8 2017. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/advent-3c/?type=the_lectionary_gospel&gt;.

—. Proper 16A Matthew 16:13-20. 27 8 2017.

Lewis, Karoline. Speaking Up for a Living God. 27 8 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Lose, David. Pentecost 12 A: Pausing to Give Thanks. 27 8 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Sikkema, Chris. “12th Sunday after Pentecost (A).” 27 8 2017. Sermons that Work.

Smith, Mitzi J. “Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20.” 27 8 2017. Working Preacher. <workingpreacher.org>.

Suomala, Karla. Commentary on Exodus 1:8–2:10. 27 8 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.