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;.

 

 

 

 

 

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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;.

 

 

 

What do we expect to see?

A sermon for Proper 24

Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

At lunch the other day, I was at table with Susan Inman a candidate for Secretary of State. I did not know who she was, until we were breaking up. Only then did I realize the depth of her earlier comment “I’m so ready for election season to be over.” I gather she was talking about the frenetic pace of running for state wide elected office. I’m also ready for the election season to be over, though it’s because I’m oh so tired of commercials. Angie and I’ve seen them so often we recognize them before they really get started and rush for the mute button. As tired as I am, I decided to go to last Tuesday evening’s candidate forum. There were no surprises. Plenty of avoid the question answers. Plenty of implications about something else answers. A couple of clear to the point concise answers. And one that hit the spot; although I don’t recall who; the question was something like “What one thing do citizens need?” After a bit of rambling around, the candidate said “Hope.”

The answer is spot on. In troubled times, and these are complicated times, and there are troubles aplenty to be dealt with, all of us, as individuals and as a community, need hope. To lose hope, is to begin the journey to fanaticism.  Karoline Lewis writes:

We know well the triad, “faith, hope, and love” that gloriously rounds out Paul’s chapter on Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13.  …  [note] the order in 1 Thessalonians — faith, love, and hope. The Corinthians need some lovin’.  … the Thessalonians? Their loved ones are dying and Paul said, that Jesus would return in their lifetime. Now what? What happens to those who have died? The Thessalonians need hope. Big time. (Lewis)

They aren’t the first people in the bible to need hope.

Last week, we left Israel in what seems like an okay place. Moses had talked God out of “consuming them.” However, when Moses gets off the mountain and sees what they are up to Moses’ blood boils over. He angrily confronts Aaron who simply says “Well yeah, they gave me gold, I threw it in the fire, and this calf popped out!” Then Moses sees the people running wild, he calls for all those on God’s side to assemble. The sons of Levi do, and before the day is over 3000 people are dead, slaughtered for their transgressions in the affair of the golden calf. The next morning Moses goes to see God, to see if he can make atonement, if he can restore Israel’s fellowship with God. (Holman Bible Dictionary) It doesn’t go all that well.  In short, God tells Moses to begin the journey to the Promised Land, an angel will be with them, but God will not, in part because his presence would consume them.

This morning we pick up the conversation. Like last week, Moses argues with God; he asks hard pressed questions, boarding on demands. He wants to be certain (Brueggemann 5818) God will be with Israel; because he knows that it is God and God alone who makes Israel – Israel.  (Fretheim 3031)

Where God is absent, particular forms of art, literature and social relationships cannot exist. In both eastern European communism and western capitalism we see the effects, though in different ways. In communist countries where the holy dimension of covenant was denied, social relationships became increasingly brutal and empty. Western free-market systems where God’s presence is constrained by consumer economic forces, human dignity fails and life becomes paralyzing and empty. A market society devalues persons who have no productive capacity and relates rapaciously to the environment. (Brueggemann 5839) Its only when God is truly present that any social system provide homes for individuals. And when we fear we are losing God’s presence, we resort to fear mongering. (Mathis) And we see this not only in church or religious settings but also political settings. I suspect it is part of the rising ideological purity that precludes any kind of conversation with any one who is not ideologically pure, as we define it. I worry such fear based ideological fanaticism is finding its way into science, which further addles our ability to see what happening in and to the world around us.

After getting assurances God will be with him and Israel, Moses asks one more question. He wants to see God’s glory? He gets a divinely complicated answer and partial granting of his request. But having been assured, there is life after the golden calf, (Brueggemann 5834) I wonder what Moses expects to see? (Jacobson, Lewis and Skinner)

All of us have reveled after one form of the golden calf or another. And we all know it did not just “pop out;” we are fully aware of our own duplicity in trying to manage the devices and desires of our own hearts. The morning after, as we seek to atone, as we try to put our relationship with God back together, when we go looking for God, when we seek to see God’s glory, to see God’s face, to assure us that life will go on, what is it we expect to see?

As for me; I don’t know! I cannot imagine size, nor shape, nor color, nor density, nor any other characteristic; except that whatever we see will convey the knowledge and experience of faith, love and hope.


References

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

“Holman Bible Dictionary.” WORD – QuickVerse , n.d.

Jacobson, Rolf, Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner. Sermon Brain Wave. 19 10 2014.

Lewis, Karoline. Dear Working Preacher. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Mathis, Eric. Working Preacher Exodus 33:12-23. 19 10 2014. <workingpreacher.org>.

Remember

A sermon for Proper 23

Exodus 32:1-14, Psalm 106:1-6, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14

It’s been devastating. Nothing, has gone as expected. Nothing, is as it should have been. Everything is gone; what was, is no more. What’s to be is worse than imagined, its unknowable. Shackled, he kneels in the ashes of annihilation; his bound shaman, marching out with other captives, falls to the ground; as he is crudely pulled up the Shaman whispers “Remember.”

For us, the last week has been about remembering. Last Sunday at 10:41 am Lilly Grace was born. I rejoiced in her birth; as I remembered her mother’s birth. Late Thursday afternoon we learned Michelle, Russell and Lilly Grace were at LeBohneur. Lilly Grace was not eating well, nor showing the results of feeding. By the time we arrive, she was getting fluids for dehydration, and IV antibiotics for as suspected urinary tract infection, and had a spinal tap, protocol to eliminate meningitis. Now it was time to intentionally remember. Even with some specifics, much was unknown, and generating all sorts of fearful imaginations. It was time to remember what was known; time to remember that in the midst of the unknown that in the midst of deep-deep fear you are never alone. It was time to remember that I, that we, that Michelle and Russell that Lilly Grace are beloved of God. As of Friday evening Lilly Grace was eating, and peeing and pooping. As of Saturday noon, her culture was still clear and a plan for discharge was formulating. As of this morning, they are home. It is still time to remember and give thanks for all the support and prayers; time to remember the once and future dreams of Sunday past, as fragile as they may seem. It is time remember.

This morning’s reading from Exodus, falls neatly into two parts: the making of an idol, and divine repentance. Both are stories of remembering, or not.

Last week, we heard the delivery of the Ten Commandments, and we left Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai as Moses goes to God’s presence for them, because they were so afraid of the thunder and lightning of the divine presence. In the intervening chapters, we read about all sort of laws and the divine instructions for: the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Covenant, the table for the bread of the Presence, lamp-stands, curtains, hangings, the bronze basin, additional lamps and oil. We read about priestly vestments: the Ephod, Breastplate, etc. We read about liturgy: ordination, daily offerings, incense, and so on. We read about a half shekel offering for ransom. Finally, we read about the calling of Bezalel and Ohiliab who are to use their skills to craft all God has given to Moses. There is a lot here. And all of it is given to Moses so Israel will remember that God is in their presence. Which sounds kind of odd, because one would think the pillar of cloud and fire, the crossing at the sea, sweet water, manna and dove and more water from the rock at Horeb would be easy to remember. You’d think they’d remember that Moses is on the mountain alone because Israel is terrified of being too close to God. Apparently not, after 40 days, that would be all the way back to September 2, the day after Labor Day, (Hoezee) Israel decides to take their future into their own hands.

So, they go to Aaron, Moses’ brother, and second in command, and ask him to “make gods for us, to go before us, because we don’t know what’s happened to Moses.” Aaron tells them to give him the gold they got from the Egyptians, as they were being freed from slavery.  (Fretheim 2972) He carves an image of a bull-calf, a symbol of Canaanite fertility, and an effort to control one’s existence, (Brueggemann 5765) and casts the molten gold around it. Then he proclaims “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Yahweh.”  (Strong’s Hebrew, 3068) So, yes, recognizing other gods is a violation of the recently received commandments, and so is making an idol, but Aaron still recognizes that Yahweh is God; why else proclaim a festival to Yahweh. What is he doing? The phrase “to go before” is used only to refer to divine messengers, so maybe Israel isn’t looking for another god, but a divine messenger. (Fretheim 2973)

Perhaps Aaron is trying to split the difference, trying to please the people, and at the same time keep the covenant. (Hoezee) It’s sadly ironic because what Israel and Aaron are trying to do is exactly what God is showing Moses how to faithfully do. (Brueggemann 5767) Still, Israel is disloyal by confusing a divine messenger with God and giving primary importance to the messenger. (Fretheim 2977) And to push their action over the top they rise up in revelry, a self-centered celebration, abrogating an earlier God centered celebration at the forming of the covenant.  (Ex 24:10) (Brueggemann 5768) Thus ends the first of this morning’s stories of remembrance; this one all about not remembering, or self-centered warped memories, either way God is forgotten.

Suddenly we are on the top of the mountain with Moses and God. God tells Moses “Look at what your people are doing! They are a stiffed necked people. Leave me alone, I’ll consume them and make a great nation of you.” I know this this conversation; more than once I have said to Angie “Look at what Your daughter did!” She would have none of it, ~ neither would Moses. The next thing to notice is that this is a court room drama. God has file a lawsuit accusing Israel of violating the covenant, and the consequence is to nullify the covenant; (Brueggemann 5769) which is far worse than annihilation it is removal from God’s presence, exclusion from  God’s care and concern. (Fretheim 2982)

Moses rebuts God’s command. He will not leave God alone. First he asks “What sense does this make, you only just saved them from slavery?” Then he asks “What will Egypt think of you?”  (Fretheim 2987) Then he reverses God’s opening complaint “Remember your people, Abraham, Isaac and Israel whom you promised …” Reminding God of God’s unconditional promise, made to Abraham way back in Genesis 15, (Brueggemann 5772) raises the importance of God being true to God’s self.  (Fretheim 2988) Although nothing has gone as it should have; nothing is like it’s supposed to be; God hears Moses “Remember.” and repents (Young’s) of the divine intent. Consequently, the very people who forgot are saved, when by Moses’ prompt, God remembers. (Hoezee)

From here on remembrance is central to the continuing story of God and God’s people. Till the end of Deuteronomy we continually hear “O Israel remember and do not forget.” In the coming of the Divine son we hear “Remember.” In the celebration of the Eucharist we hear “Remember.” At every baptism we hear  “Remember.” (Hoezee) At the edge of every grave we hear “Remember.”

Everyone at one time or another forgets that God is God and we are not. It causes us and others all sorts of difficulties. Sometimes some of us remember and balance is restored. But always God remembers so the way to God’s eternal care and concern is forever available.


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 32:1-14. 12 10 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Strong’s Talking Greek & Hebrew Dictionary. Wordsearch, n.d.

Young’s Literal Translation. Olive Tree, n.d.

The imperceptible helping presence of God

A sermon for Proper 21

Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16, Philippians 2:1-13, Matthew 21:23-32

So last week it was some two and a half months into their wilderness journey when the Israelites began to complain about the lack of breakfast and dinner. This morning, well we don’t know how long it’s been. I looked at a map that marks the Exodus journey, and it’s near as far from Sin to Rephidim, as it is from the sea to Sin. That wasn’t much help, because we really don’t know where Rephidim nor Sin actually are. We do know Horeb and Sinai are the same place. The Bible tells us that in chapter 19 they get to Saini, so if they don’t get to Sanai until then, how do they draw water at Horeb/Saini in chapter 17, as we read today? Cartographers are scratching their heads. Theologians remind us “Hey – Horeb means mountain of God.” (Hoezee) essentially: this is where God is. And since Israel is asking “Is God with us or not?” let’s not worry about there where of this mystery, let’s learn from what’s happening.

For the third time since their departure Israel faces extreme thirst hunger (Ex 16:1) or thirst (Ex 15:25). Before they complained. Today they quarrel. Quarreling does more than raise the emotional level. The root of ‘quarrel’ is a legal dispute. (Portier-Young) (Harrelson) Walter Brueggmann notes “Israel isn’t complaining about being thirsty, they are demanding proof that God is present.” He writes:

The only evidence of Yahweh’s presence that Israel will accept is concrete action that saves. Thus Israel collapses God’s promise into its own well-being and refuses to allow Yahweh any life apart from Israel’s well-being. (Brueggemann)

Terence Fretheim notes, they are seeking a way to coerce God to act, (Fretheim) much like Satan is tempting Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple to goad God to act. (Brueggemann)

We all know Jesus tells Satan “… it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Mat 4:5ff) So we know testing God is a dangerous idea. But the real danger here, is perverting the relationship with God. Israel has essentially tried to place God at their beck and call. Moses isn’t really much better. Yes he turns to God, but not to seek help for Israel; he’s asking God to save his skin. (Brueggemann)

This behavior leads to two sorts of unfaithful and dangerous behaviors. The first is to not take reasonable precautions, like wearing seat belts, while proudly proclaiming “God is my protection.” The second, and in my experience, is more prevalent, leads people to think, and say “God did not heal me/you because I/you don’t have enough faith.” (Fretheim) I don’t know about you, I’ve heard both. Both are flat out corruption that reduces faith to utilitarianism, (Brueggemann) a philosophy that seeks the good for the most, of greater concern,  its focus is consequences, not inherent value or motives; (merriam-webster.com utilitarianism) and consequently ignores those frequent times when our way, our desire is not God’s way nor God’s desire. In many respects it reduces God to a product that commercials do their best to convince you will not only solve your immediate problem, but subliminally suggest it will transform your life beyond your imagination. (Ashley) (Brueggemann)

Now we all know stories of floods (Gen 7) and fire (Gen 19) and pillars of salt (Gen 19:26) and plagues (Ex 7) and the wrath of God. So we might be taken back a bit by God’s response. There is no wrath, no scolding, not even a moment of “Now listen here …,” ~ there is none of that. (Hoezee) God tells Moses, “Get your staff, take some leaders; go to the rock at Horeb. I will be there; strike the rock and water will come out of it so the people may drink.” That’s it; ~ and not.

Moses used that very same staff, to make the waters of Nile undrinkable (Ex. 7:17). Once again, Moses is God’s manifestation of a divine extension of creation. In turning the Nile red with blood, in holding back and returning the waters of the sea, God, through Moses, demonstrates divine creative activity. Here a creative act provides Israel with water; and as water is essential to life, it’s also another gift of life.  (Petersen and Beverly Roberts Gaventa) (Fretheim) That water is under rock formations in the area does not negate God’s hand at work. Once again God is working through the natural and through the human (this time Moses) to provide blessings, and to give life to God’s people.

We are in the midst of our own wilderness trek. Though we are not likely to run out of water, indeed if you ask the road engineers we’ve an overabundance of the stuff, but, we have faced experiences that give rise to the questions “Is God here?” or “Has God abandoned us?” As God is imperceptibly standing in front of Israel at Horeb, God is imperceptibly here. God did not abandon Israel in the Sin dessert, God has not and will not abandon us here. That is not to say that God will grant us every wish. 1. Not every wish we desire is life giving, and 2. God’s ways and timings are not ours. So, while it is desirable to express our concerns to God, it is also desirable that we seek God’s reply and presence, which, by this morning’s story, is likely to be discerned in nature and/or in/or by family, friend, or stranger. And when we experience the presence of God, it’s our calling, actually a requirement of our baptism, to share it; in reality to seek and share it. (BCP 304)

When a community or a church has questions of God’s presence, when a church seeks God’s voice, God’s guidance, it’s the work of all the leaders, of all the people. Not all the work is the same, nonetheless, everyone is a part of: the questioning, the seeking, and the discerning process. It’s hard work. I’m not so sure ours is as hard as Israel’s trek across the desert, at least it’s not as physically challenging. I am sure we are not alone. I want to go back to our Baptismal Covenant. Not the proclamation of faith, which is critical, not the praxis vows, which are equally important, but to the response we make as each vow is presented: “I will, with God’s help.”

So, by the circumstance of numbers we find ourselves called to discern a new or different way of being Church, in the Episcopal tradition in the Delta in the 21st century. It’s not a rite of the church but rather a necessity of the church. We might hear the calling “Will you seek a way to be the church right here, right now?” In my heart I know our reply “We will, with God’s help.” Amen.


Works Cited

n.d. <http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary&gt;.

Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 28 9 2014.

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Intrepreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 3:1-15. 28 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Petersen, David and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. New Interpreters’ Bible, One Volume Commentary. Nashville TN: Abbingdon Press, 2010. ebook.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 17:1-7.” 28 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.

Turn around, look into the wilderness, and discern God’s sovereign presence.

A sermon for Proper 20: Exodus 16:2-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, Philippians 1:21- 30, Matthew 20:1-16

15 weeks ago we started at the beginning. We heard anew the creation story, ending with Adam and Eve wanting more, perhaps an expression of doubt, which God meets with consequences ~ but also grace. We followed Abram and Sarah into the wilderness, to an undisclosed location of unknown security, waiting for God’s promised heir. We heard of their efforts to hurry things along, surely an expression of misplaced doubt; for their divine heir by Sara arrives ~ in God’s time. We followed Isaac and Jacob with their own doubts about God’s calling, and how each was met with divine fidelity. We heard again the story of Joseph and the sons of Israel arrival in Egypt, where they grow and prosper. We heard how good times are followed by a crisis with a change in Pharaoh administrations the subsequent fall from grace resulting in harsh oppressive treatment. Israel cries out, and God answers with Moses leading Israel, out of bondage in repressive economic captivity toward freedom in a promised land. This time the destination is known, its security is assured, though ~ the route is a bit obscure. Last week, as Israel complains to Moses how he’s lead them to certain death, we witnessed how the latest in military technology designed and used to evoke fear and destroy Egypt’s enemies, is mired in mud, and swallowed up in divinely controlled watery chaos. In every story along the way, there is a divine promise, God’s people lose sight of and express their doubt and or fear, and God responds with signs of power and mercy.

Between last week’s tale, and this morning’s adventure, are Miriam’s and Moses’ songs celebrating God’s defeat of Pharaoh’s army. Three days later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of water, Israel once again complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the wilderness to die of thirst?” God provides sweet water at the springs of Marah. Two and a half months later, with understandable anxiety, due to a shortage of food, Israel, yet again, complains to Moses “Why have you brought us into the dessert to starve? At least in Egypt we had plenty of bread and meat to eat!” God responds, ~ this time with sweet sticky stuff – manna for breakfast, and quail for dinner. We don’t read this far, but there are also rules to follow; simple ones really: gather only what you need to eat, no less – no more, and the day before Sabbath, gather enough for two days, because Sabbath is a day of rest.

As with most, if not all, scriptures stories, there is more here than meets the eye. Part of it involves the miraculous, here it’s the appearance of manna and quail. Both are natural occurrences.  The fruit of the Tamarisk tree is punctured by plant lice; the sap forms yellow-white flakes that congeals in the cool of the night, and disintegrates in the heat of the day. Quail and other migratory birds, blown in from the Mediterranean Sea, can be so tired, they are easily caught by hand. (Fretheim) Neither of these negate God’s hand at work; both are examples of how God works in the ordinary and natural. (Brueggemann) (Fretheim) The significant bit is that God acts to take care of God’s people.

I mentioned earlier God’s actions in today’s story also includes a test, involving rules that involve Sabbath. And yes, you are correct, the Ten Commandments have not yet been given to Israel through Moses, we’ll read about that in a few weeks from now. But, if you recall, the creation story that begins in Genesis chapter 1 ends:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Gen, 2:2-3)

This morning’s reference to Sabbath (which is in verses just beyond what we read this morning) is a reference to the creation itself. The test is will Israel trust their creator God, will they honor the Sabbath?  (Portier-Young) (Brueggemann) Will Israel give up the old ways where bread comes only from work, fear and anxiety and fully accept the bread of life trusting only in God’s faithfulness? (Brueggemann) Will Israel see how Sabbath stands in opposition to Pharaoh’s oppressive economics and live accordingly? (Fretheim) Of course none of this would be necessary were it not for Israel’s tendency for revisionist history. (Hoezee)

In the first verse we read this morning Israel is longing for the meat and bread of Egypt. There is no mention of Pharaoh’s oppressive ways: (Hoezee) throwing baby boys in to the Nile, taking away means of quality brick production and threatening to withhold food if production drops. Perhaps their crisis of faith, brought on by suffering, (Fretheim) is a natural human response. Walter Brueggmann mentions how anxiety distorts memory of the recent past. (Brueggemann) And that, as Terence Fretheim notes, results in a lack of discernment which leads to: an inability to see, or denial of, God’s active presence. (Fretheim) Nevertheless Israel does what Israel does, fear and doubt prevail; but a significant point is God responds; but not simply to calm their complaining or satisfy their hunger. God provides manna and quail for them to eat so they will know, as Pharaoh’s drowned army pronounced, Yahweh is their God. (Hoezee) (Fretheim) Like the plagues thirst and hunger are intended to reveal that God is the singular source of freedom and life. (Harrelson) And there’s no better setting to get to know and to trust God (Portier-Young) than the wilderness, a place of death. (Hoezee)

The pivot in this story is verse 10. Prior to it, in distorted memory, “Israel associates glory (and the power to give life) with the splendor, wealth, prestige and extravagance of Egypt.” (Brueggemann)  At verse 10 the Spirit turns Israel around where: against all odds against all expectations (Hoezee) they do not see emptiness and death but a place of God’s sovereign splendor. (Brueggemann)

I don’t normally recommend evaluating reality by TV news, which makes its money by accentuating disaster and crises. However, the truth is that all of us, at some point in time, face a crisis, either individually, or as a community, or as a church. And although we might say we want God, or God’s representative, to fix it, we don’t completely act that way. We, as Israel did, complain, and often hedge our bets; remember Abraham, Sarah and Ishmael. And it really doesn’t matter if we believe God hardened hearts or otherwise brought the crisis, it’s here. What does matter ~ is our response. Do we allow the crisis to define us? Or do we learn from Israel’s experience and look to the natural and the ordinary to discern God’s actions and presence. Will we turn around, change our perspective, look into the places we’ve perceived to be wilderness, places of darkness, loneliness and death; and risk discovering the sovereign splendor of God?

Is it really all that important how we respond to crises, great or small? Is it really all that important to trust our creator God, and honor the Sabbath? God is all powerful, so we don’t really have to listen, ~ do we? Yes ~ we do; because not listening not trusting not honoring and not following the divine calling threatens … all God has done, (Fretheim) and is doing.

Life is life, and how we respond matters; it matters:
to us
to our family and friends,
to those who see us:
as leaders
as the Egypt, or Pharaoh of their lives.
It also matters to God, not simply because of a divine plan of universal redemption; it matters to God, because God loves us, love you.  And that will endure forever.


Works Cited

Brueggemann, Walter. The New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E Keck. Vol. Exodus. Abbingdon Press, 2003.

Fretheim, Terence E. Interpretation A BIBLE COMMENTARY FOR TEACHING AND PREACHING. Ed. Patrick D Miller, Jr. and Paul J. Achtemeier. Vol. Exodus. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991.

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

Hoezee, Scott. Old Testament Lectionary Text is: Exodus 16. 21 9 2014. <http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php&gt;.

Portier-Young, Anathea. “Commentary on Exodus 3:1-15.” 21 9 2014. workingpreacher.org. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2136&gt;.