Choosing to Serve

A Sermon for Proper 27; Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25, Psalm 78:1-7, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, Matthew 25:1-13

Loyalty can be a fickle and funny thing. I have a friend who is a dedicated Razorback fan; there is no such thing as too much Razorback red. However, he has been very disappointed with the performance of the football team over the last few years, so … he has put his Razorback red slacks in the closet until there are some leadership changes. At the moment, my favorite loyalty image is a commercial. A couple is leaving to go to her parents’ house and she tells him he cannot wear that Raiders’ shirt. So, he takes it off, revealing the Raiders’ sweater that is underneath. The next scene is around her family dinner table. He in his Raiders sweater, with those little l-e-d blinking lights that go all around like that; and she and all her family, including the dog, are in Kansas City Chiefs’ apparel. It ends with her asking him “Can you at least turn the lights off?”

This morning we hear the story of Joshua challenging Israel to choose who they will be loyal to. For some background information; ‘Joshua’ means Yahweh delivers. He was born in Egypt and became Moses’ high minister. He was one of the twelve spies that Moses sent to explore Canaan, and along with Caleb gives the only positive report. The other ten are focused on the numerous people, and their fearsome warriors. As we head a couple of weeks ago, just before his death Moses anoints Joshua to be his divinely appointed successor.

Now Joshua was given 2 missions. He is to lead Israel as they conquer the people who occupy Canaan. He is also to allocate the land among the tribes (Olson). Israel crosses the Jordan River to begin their mission, Joshua circumcises all the people and observes the Passover. Then he leads Israel to victory over six nations and 31 kings; though he does not completely conquer all Canaan’s previous occupants. Joshua dies at the age of 110, and is buried in Timnath-serah (Easton). Much like our reading a couple of weeks ago, this is a transition story. As Israel prepares to take possession the promised land, he asks them to recommit to following God. It is a cleaver challenge. He reviews Israel’s history:

  • all the way from Abraham,
    (and in verses we do not read)
  • through Egypt,
  • through the wilderness wanderings,
  • the blessing curse of Balaam,
  • the fall of Jericho, and
  • the victories over the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites,

and then he tells them choose this day the god you will serve; and immediately he pledges himself and his family (which may include his tribe) to serve the LORD.

Israel replies We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God. This is not the choice we think we hear. There is no individual aspect to it. ‘Loyalty’ is probably not a strong enough word. There is an element of unease because this pledge is grounded in reverence to and dependence on their relationship with their lord and master (Coote). ‘Lord meaning king not necessarily god; but it is that dependent relationship.

After 25 years Israel is victorious, so why is there a need for the challenge to choose who Israel will serve? Well it turns out there is real risk. Doug Bratt notes Israel is in a

strange land whose ways prove to be attractive to her. Canaan’s women are beautiful, and her gods seem powerful (Bratt).

If Israel is distracted and forgets the Lord, they will lose the gift of the Land. Israel’s history is full of apostacy and idolatry. They apparently assume that they can serve Yahweh and other gods at the same time. They have worshipped gods from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Shechem, of the Amorites and the Baals (Coote). Joshua’s challenge forces Israel to answer serious questions:

  • Who are these foreign gods?
  • What old gods do we need to leave behind?
  • What are the consequences of leaving one or many gods to follow a different vision of the divine? And Yahweh is a different vision of the divine.
  • Do they have a reality apart from the one true God?

Joshua challenges the easy relativism of being loyal to God and (quietly) honoring other gods, that come up at any of the moment, or happen to be of the land, or perhaps an idea, or some convenient product (Epperly). The challenge reminds Israel their victories were never the results of their superiority, their sincerity, their faithfulness, or their obedience; their victories were solely dependent upon God. Likewise, their future is solely dependent on God’s faithfulness, mercy, powerful word, and the transformation of their hearts (Olson).

In the exuberance of going into the promised land the people choose.

Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord

…. who did those great signs in our sight,

protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed,

who drove out before us all the peoples who lived in the land.

Therefore, we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.

Now, if it were me, I’d say “Great, well done!” But that is why Joshua is the leader. He declares You cannot serve the Lord! He knows it is important for them to realize the danger that they are in if they make the pledge to serve God and then fail to do it (Gaventa and Petersen). And the people hear him, and they proclaim No, we will serve the Lord!

Their pledge to serve God is sealed with the declaration that they are witnesses against themselves. This is not witnesses as in a court room, this is witnessing a legal document. That sealing also includes a large stone as the second witness against them. Israel’s agreeing to serve the Lord has a familiar sound to it. We have heard it before. It echoes a similar pledge at Sinai, a pledge that they rather quickly forgot (Olson). It is also similar to the local Hittite or ruler – subject/slave treaty, in terms of form and how it is put together, so they are already drawing from customs of the surrounding area. (Keener and Walton).

The idea of renewing a pledge to serve or to follow is a part of many Christian worship services, including ours. Every we recite the Nicene or some similar Creed, which is a statement of our faith. But to make a declaration of faith in God/Jesus/Spirit is also to make a declaration to serve or follow (Bratt).

Pledging to serve or follow God may resonate with a political pledge, but there are differences, especially in the US. ‘The people’ in this story is not same as ‘We the People’ of our Constitution. We are culturally and politically different than the people of Israel (Coote). As the ancient peoples did we also understand our faith in the context of our social and political order. As a nation we value individualism, and that is a part of our western culture. The way in which we pledge allegiance to the flag is a part of the cultural context in which we reaffirm our beliefs set forth in the Nicene Creed, and it influences how we understand it. And here we see how Joshua’s challenge is important to us today, just as it was then.

We can simplify Joshua’s challenge to asking ourselves “What other gods are in our world?” The list includes several political, social, economic, cosmic, or other ideologies that shape how we are in relationship with each other individually, locally, nationally, and internationally, and how we behave in those relationships. I can see how some people follow one or more of these other gods, because those gods these ideologies are the source, the primary values behind all of their decisions, that drive how they behave and their relationships with other people, and thus, thus these ideologies become the object of worship. Joshua’s warning does not eliminate wisdom from other sources nor other cultures. It does require an adaption, it requires that such wisdom or knowledge be seen and understood through the lens of God/Jesus/Spirit. The notion of purity in this morning collect is not freedom from moral defect. It is about the relationship that comes first in our lives. In the end it does not matter if you wear your Razorback Red slacks or your flashing Raiders sweater. What matters

  • is does your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit come first?
  • is your relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit the determining factor in how you treat other people and all of creation?

How it does is a part of the wisdom by which we are able to recognize our hope and our inheritance as children of God and heirs of eternal life.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 27 A Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Coote, Robert B. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Joshua. Ed. Leander E. Keck (NIBC) Deuteronomy 34. Vol. II. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. XII vols.

Easton, Matthew George. “Joshua.” Easton’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary. WORDsearch Corp. n.d.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 12 11 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.

Kent, Dan Gentry. “Joshua.” Holman Bible Dictionary. Ed. Trent C. Butler. Prod. Holman Bible Publishers. n.d.

Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25. 12 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

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

 

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Help From the Saints of Ages Past

A sermon for All Saints: Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22,  1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1 -12  

In some circles there is a conversation about how our times may be something of another reformation. Writers, like Phyllis Tickle, point out that about every 500 years or so the church, if not the whole world, goes through an emergent transformation, or sudden explosive evolution that follows a long period of very gradual change (Tickle). And yes, I know the reformed churches celebrated the 500th anniversary of The Reformation last week. But hang with me, because in the end, it is all the saints.

Ross Douthart suggest that neither the Protestants nor the Roman Catholic Church won the bitter wars of The Reformation. He says it was the Machiavellians, the Westerners, who wanted political and economic life set free from the meddling of troublesome priests and turbulent prophets, who have prevailed. Their new gods of the market, capitalism, and strong central states have brought us a more orderly, rational and wealthier world. But this transformation came with a cruelty, and repression and secular inquisitions that made the original look tame (Douthart). 

For centuries our view of this Machiavellian world was a story of freedom. 

We lived in stable communities where people earned a decent living. They had family living close by. They could expect to work in the same line of business all their life, buy and embellish their own home, and enjoy a few years of respectable retirement. Free education meant that if their children did well they could make a better life for themselves, near or far (Brooks, Politics).

But over time power, privilege, and prejudice were dismantled by technology, globalization, and finance. And then came Sept 11 and seven years later the 2008 financial crash. They revealed the second story in which we began to see that the liberation of technology, globalization, and high finance in reality made slaves of us all. We want to rebel against our slavery. We see the flaws in our myth of freedom, but our very identities are bound to it and we are surprised that we cannot let it go. We are disappointed to realize our freedom story is false. Samuel Wells writes that we are also surprised  when we recognize the slave story, is also false (Wells).
The Machiavellian victory in the Reformation wars has also lead us into the practice of idolatry. As long as the freedom story held, our idolatry was hidden from us. But as it crashed, and we were left 

without stable families, tight communities, stable careers, ethnic roots or an enveloping moral culture. [What we were left with] is just a whirl of changing stepfathers, changing homes, changing phone distractions, changing pop-culture references, financial stress and chronic drinking, [all of] which make it harder to sink down roots into something, or to even have a spiritual narrative that gives meaning to life.

With the failure of both the myths of Western Liberalism and of Neo-Conservatism many people turned to  an alternative populist political myth. However, just as technology, globalization, and high finance make ever increasing demands of us, political populism does too. At first the demands are reasonable  because we believe in the benefits of what we are being offered. When the benefits fail, and we realize that we are being controlled, we find ourselves enmeshed in idolatry. We are now being controlled by what we believed would bring us freedom. David Brooks writes

If [our] politics are going to get better we need better myths, unifying ones that are built on social equality… [it cannot] be fixed by political means. It needs repair of the deeper communal bonds (Brooks, Politics).

Douthart goes on to speculate that if the church had remained united it

might have served as a stronger moral check on the new powers, a stronger countervailing force against greed and secular absolutism.

He sees in all the

pan-national institutions, [like the] United Nations … European Union [and all] NGOs, a kind of ecclesiastical power, a churchlike form of sovereignty, on the basis of thinner, less dogmatic but still essentially metaphysical ideas — the belief in human dignity and human rights.

But he concedes that we recognize that they are a “thin vail over a dark power” (Douthart).
Curiously enough Neither Douthart, Brooks nor Wells is pessimistic. Brooks writes we need a counter moral vision and he thinks the America’s traditional biblical ethic is still lurking somewhere in the national DNA (Brooks, Week). Douthart notes we do not know the ending of our saga. And Wells ponders:

Are we going to allow ourselves to be possessed by pernicious and deceitful powers? Or will we discipline ourselves through obedience and thus allow ourselves to be owned by the truly liberating spirit of grace?
And thus, we arrive at the saints.

In the wonderful hymn I Sing a Song of the Saints of God we hear how God asks ordinary people do extraordinary things:

by letting our light shine so that our world may know that God is alive, 

by seeking beauty, healing, and justice in our midst,

by aspiring toward holiness

by being a person of stature, grace, and hospitality, sharing God’s healing love and 

by breaking down barriers of race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality,

all of it throughout the ordinary business of everyday life  (Epperly). We can take offour Halloween masks and be who are called to be (Knowle-Zeller).
We are not the first community to be divided by the choices of a turbulent emergent future. John the Elder’s community is divided. They are separated from society and have an us-against-them mentality (Black). John tries to remind them they have good reason to hold on because they have experienced the truth of living in the presence of the risen Christ and the creator God (West). He reminds them that justice (1 John 2:29) and purity (1 John 3:3) are a response to God’s prior action not a precondition of grace. They are called to, and they can, go into a future shaped by Jesus’ death and resurrection, by which they can withstand uncertainty and loss, even death, with vigor and hope, because they are already children of God (Black).

There is a similar conflict in the community of John of Revelation. The Emperor’s cult is a significant challenge to the early Christian community, costing some their lives. Moreover, there is a division about accepting Gentiles into their community (Kiel). Revelation is realistic in its concern with power and the exercise of power, both in the divine way and in opposition to it (Rowland). It also provides a glimpse of the future  that is built upon the past, but one that also carves new channels for God’s activity and interaction with humanity (Kiel). It is not easy route. It does not mean there will be no suffering (Gaventa and Petersen). It does mean the faithful witness of the great multitude can be the vocations of others, including John’s community, including us. Witnessing against the beast, refusing to compromise, and espousing the way of the Lamb includes many who never “named the name” of Jesus but who lived and live lives that continued in the way of the Lamb. They are also, and will be, included in that great multitude of “All Saints” (Rowland).
The stories of the saints of ages past show us the road we have to travel, and the challenges we will face, but they also the strength that has already given to us as children of God. We do not know the ending of our saga. But we can trust the biblical story. We can discipline ourselves, we can draw confidence from the grace and power of the resurrected Jesus, that enables us to take off our masks, to honor one another, to work together to tend to creation, to the earth, and all humanity (Gen 1:26). We can mold the shape of our nation’s and world’s defining myth, which is grounded not in slavery, nor in freedom, nor in the allure of technology, globalization, and high finance, nor political populism, but in the grace and power of God, because we are the blessed Children of God.

References

Black, C. Clifton. “The First, Second, and Third Letters of John (NIBC) 2 Peter 3:17.” Keck, Leander. THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE COMMMENTARY (NIBC) Galatians 6:18. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Brooks, David. “The Week Trump Won.” 26 10 2017. newyorktimes.com. <https://nyti.ms/2yQclxS&gt;.

—. “When Politics Becomes Your Idol.” 30 10 2017. nytimes.com. <nytimes.com /2017/10/30/opinion/when-politics-becomes-your-idol.html>.

Douthart, Ross. “Who Won the Reformation?” 1 11 2017. nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html. <nytimes.com /2017/11/01/opinion/protestant-reformation.html>.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <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.

Kiel, Micah D. Commentary on Revelation 7:9-17. 5 11 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Knowle-Zeller, Kimberly. “Wearing masks.” 31 10 2017. episcopalcafe.com. <https://www.episcopalcafe.com/?s=Wearing+masks&dSozmAkhgHvNE=Dv%5BkXI1%40B6.x8&jdtlMgxFsTviCbzV=U%5DSRdm2Tt1HV8vnX&gmxBluobUAyHNiqk=859Uj3OR%40%5BLdnfNo&AQiKFeghfLnTywR=%5BKsINqyVHek*%40mM&gt;.

Rowland, Christopher C. “Revelation.” Keck, Leander. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.

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

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Wells, Samuel. “Two stories that define our world.” 31 10 2017. christiancentury.org. <christiancentury.org /article/faith-matters/two-stories-define-our-world>.

West, Audrey. Commentary on 1 John 3:1-3. 5 11 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

A Contradictory Life

A sermon for Proper 25: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46

Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. Yes, we jumped from Exodus 33, over last 7 chapters of Exodus, the entire book of Leviticus, the entire books of Numbers, and the first 33 chapters Deuteronomy. Here ends the Book of Deuteronomy. This is the story of Moses seeing the promised land but not being allowed to cross into it. We hear about Moses’ death, his unknown, unknowable burial place, and the thirty days of mourning by Israel for her sometimes scorned and sometimes beloved leader. We hear about the anointing of Joshua. We hear the praise of Moses as God’s unique prophet, who knew the LORD face to face and to whom there is no equal.

This is a story of ending: the end of Moses’ story, the end of Moses giving the Torah, the LAW as defined in Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is the end of Moses’ leadership, the end of Israel’s wilderness journey, the end of Israel as a nomadic people.

This is a story of beginnings: Joshua begins his leadership of Israel, Israel’s beginning residence in the promised land the beginning of cosmopolitan Israel, of Israel as a nation of cities the beginning of Israel’s Temple-centered relationship with God.

This is a continuing story, Moses’ story is over, Joshua’s story is beginning, God’s story with Israel, God’s story with all creation continues (Gaventa, and Petersen).

This is a story of contradictions. Moses was God’s faithful servant. He left a life of luxury in the Egyptian Royal House to return to his people, to God’s people. He left the burning bush to lead Israel out of captivity in Egypt. He stood between Israel’s rebellious nature and God’s fierce anger. Moses was also a less than a faithful servant. The first thing he does on his arrival among the Hebrew slaves is to kill an Egyptian overlord and flees to Midian. He continually questions God’s decision by asking “Who am I?” He threatens to quit “What am I to do with your people?” At Meribah, he does not follow God’s instruction to speak to the rock to give water to the people of Israel. On his own, he strikes the rock with the staff God gave him (Exodus 17:1-7). On the surface, this is not a big deal; however, it questions the power of speaking, as if giving voice to God’s word is not enough. There is the possible implication that Moses believes the staff has some sort of power, which diminishes the power of God’s presence. So yes, Moses disobeys God, and is a less than a perfect servant; at the same time, he is also the unparalleled servant of the Lord. This contradictory relationship is seen in Moses relationship with Israel. Israel frequently rejected Moses’ leadership, “You have brought into the desert to die!” But, at his death, they are deeply grieved (Bratt).

When I read this lesson I immediately started thinking about the lessons of transitions it has to offer us. St. Stephen’s is in a big transition as I move to part-time, and some divine guidance is certainly welcome. However, the divine muse was strangely silent. What eventually emerged is the contradictions surrounding Moses, we have just explored. I want to explore a couple thoughts about contradictions, within the context of transition.

As a nation, we are in a time of change. The political upheaval we are witnessing is a sign of changes in our economic traditions, our relationships with other nations, our internal relations along lines of race, sex and gender, our relations along class lines. Another manifestation of these transitions is what to do with all the statues and memorials to controversial leaders from our past. I want to take a very brief look at two.

Robert E Lee did lead the army of Northern Virginia in rebellious action against the United States. It was possibly an act of treason. He did own slaves. That was an unquestionable moral wrong. Like Moses, and rebellious Israel, there is more to his story. Prior to assuming command of the Army of Northern Virginia Lee faithfully served the US Army as a general, including service as the Superintendent of West Point, where he likely taught officers he probably fought against. After the end of the Civil War , e was asked to lead Washington College, named after George Washington (Virginia Historical Society). The college was in dire straits. And he did restore it to a successful path. Washing College is now known as Washington and Lee University a preeminent school in our country. As you know some statues of Gen. Lee have been removed, and an Episcopal church named in his honor, has been renamed.

The other person I wish to explore this morning is Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court from 1836 to 1864 (Wikipedia). At the time, he was the longest serving Chief Justice. His term was very productive. However, what he is known for the Dread Scott decision which includes the infamous line that

current or former slaves and their descendants had “No rights which the white man was bound to respect” (thisdayinquotes).

Driving home from Little Rock Wednesday I heard that earlier this year descendants of the Scott and Taney families meet in Baltimore for a reconciliation (NPR). A joint statement in part says:

The Scotts and the Taneys believe that Americans should learn from their history, not bury their history,” they have said in a joint statement.

They hope to raise money for a permanent educational exhibit on the site that would contextualize the Dred Scott decision and explore its ramifications in American history. If possible, they said they also hope a statue of the Maryland abolitionist Frederick Douglass can be added (Pitts).

Their task is complicated by the removal of a statue of Taney.

The Scott-Taney families’ reconciliation effort has a lot to teach us as a nation, as a church and as a congregation as we seek to find our way through this time of emergent change (Tickle).

One lesson is that to successfully navigate times of transition we also have to navigate the complexities of our contradictions. It is rare that any group or any person is all evil, or all good; most all of us, like Israel, and like Moses, are a mixture of contradictions. The Scott and Taney families are right, we should learn from our history, which means knowing it in all its contradictory complexity. It also means, as scripture commands us to do to teach it to our children and our children’s children (Deut. 6:7). Deuteronomy 34 shows us how Israel, and Moses accepted their contradictory relationship. It also shows us how God honors such relationships. God never abandons Moses, or any other contradictory biblical figure, and there are plenty, like most all of them. Moses undisclosed burial place and his epitaph Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face (Deut. 34:10). signify divine honor.

As a nation this is the time to reconcile with those with whom we have deep differences and between whom there are deep hurts. The prevailing expectation of unquestioned loyalty to a president or a party is perilously close to following other gods and idolatry. If we start here, we cannot follow the remaining 8 points of God’s plan for our lives. If we cannot follow the ten-point divine plan of life, we cannot reconcile, and if we cannot reconcile we cannot make successful transitions that are a part of life.

As a congregation this is a time to name and accept our contradictions. If we fail to name our contradictions, we will not be able to see the changes that are necessary for successful transition.

As both a nation, and a congregation, this is a time to trust that God will not abandon us for our many rebellions. Our hope is in the knowledge that God is right here, right now and will be, till the end of the ages.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 25 Deuteronomy 34:1-12 . 29 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clements, Ronald E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary The Book of Deuteronomy (NIBC) Numbers 36:13. Vol. I. Nashville: Abingdon, 20151. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 29 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.

Logue, Frank. “Everything Hangs on Love, Twenty-First Sunday after.” 29 10 20107. Sermons that Work.

NPR. “Soctt Taney Reconcilation.” NPR, n.d. APP. 25 10 2017.

Pitts, Johathan. “Roger Taney, Dred Scott families reconcile 160 years after infamous Supreme Court decision.” 18 10 2017. baltimoresun.com. 27 10 2017. <http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/politics/bs-md-scott-taney-reconciliation-20170306-story.html&gt;.

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

thisdayinquotes. No rights which the white man was bound to respect. n.d. 27 10 2017. <http://www.thisdayinquotes.com/2011/03/no-rights-which-white-man-was-bound-to.html&gt;.

Tickle, Phyllis. Emergence Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008.

Virginia Historical Society. Robert E. Lee after the War. 27 10 2017. <http://www.vahistorical.org/collections-and-resources/virginia-history-explorer/robert-e-lee-after-war&gt;.

Wikipedia. Roger B. Taney. 27 10 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_B._Taney.&gt;.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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;.