Becoming God’s People: A Factory of Idols

Exodus 32:1-14

This fall we’ve been following the Israelites on their Exodus journey through the Red Sea and into the wilderness.  On this journey they’ve been learning little by little what it means to be God’s people: to be remembered and chosen, to be free, to trust God to meet their daily needs even when the things they need seem hard to come by.  They’ve been learning that God is with them in their wandering even when sometimes they wonder if God isn’t.

They’ve also learned, by now, that being God’s people means following some rules.  And even if we, as Christians, don’t necessarily love this characterization of a faithful life as one of following rules, I think we can probably get behind the idea that being God’s people means intentionally living in a way that is pleasing to God – even when we mess up sometimes.  Last week we met up with the Israelites in the wilderness just as they are about to make this whole “being God’s people” thing official.  God says if you’re going to be my people, here are the things I expect from you.  And God gives them the Ten Commandments – and then a whole lot of other more detailed case laws as well.  And the Israelites listen to them all and they say, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” We’re in.

Today we’re going to get to the messing up part.

After the covenant is sealed, God invites Moses back up the mountain.  Moses starts up and once again a dark cloud covers the mountain, and on the seventh day God calls to Moses out of the cloud, and Moses steps in, becomes enveloped by heavy mist.  He stays there for 40 days and 40 nights.  While he’s up there God is giving him instructions for building the tabernacle, the tent-like mobile Temple where God will officially live in the midst of the Israelites as they wander from camp to camp there in the wilderness – we’ll come back to the tabernacle next week.  When God is done, God gives Moses two tablets, inscribed by God’s own finger with the covenant that has just been created.

It’s a pretty holy scene up on that mountain.

But the people are not up on that mountain, and they can’t see or hear what’s going on in that cloud.  What they know is that Moses seems to be taking his sweet time coming down.  And they start to get antsy.  You know that feeling when someone is late and you can’t get in touch with them, and at first you try to kind of go about your day as normal, everything’s probably fine, but as time goes on you get more and more worried that something has happened, and maybe a little angry in case something hasn’t, until you’re going down all sorts of rabbit holes and really working yourself up.  I’m pretty sure that’s how the Israelites are feeling here.

But Moses is also more than just a friend or family member who is late, he’s their leader.  He’s the one with the direct connection to this God they’re supposed to be following through this otherwise god-forsaken wilderness.  And if Moses isn’t coming back, they haven’t just lost him, they’ve lost God too.

And that really puts their future up in the air.

So they decide to take matters into their own hands.  They go to Aaron, Moses’ brother and official spokesperson, and they say “Make us gods who can lead us.”  They don’t want cloud and fire and mystery and holiness up on some mountain.  They want gods they can touch and see and wrap their minds around.

So what do you think Aaron says? I’d like to think that if I were Aaron, my first response would be something along the lines of “Uh, I don’t know, guys, I don’t really think that’s such a good idea.”  I mean, this is the person who will eventually become the high priest of Israel.  Instead – and I truly do not know what is going on in Aaron’s head at this moment – he says bring me your jewelry.  Maybe Aaron is getting antsy, too.

My own opinions aside, this is apparently the kind of leadership the people are hungry for.  They bring Aaron their gold jewelry, everything they managed to raid from the Egyptians on the way out, and he throws it into the fire and molds it into the shape of a bull calf.  When he’s done, the people look at this hunk of metal that had once been their bracelets and earrings and they bow down and they say, “Here are our gods who brought us out of Egypt!”

How soon we forget what God has done for us.  How soon we are ready to worship anything else.

Maybe the surprising thing is that the people need something to worship.  Their first inclination when they start to get nervous about their future and God’s role in it isn’t just to throw away the idea of God altogether. It’s to find something else to call God.

You might think that this isn’t the case anymore, in our modern secular society where more and more people every day seem willing to discard the idea of God – but I don’t know.  There are lots of other things we can worship, lots of other things we can put our faith in, even without calling it that.  Maybe especially without calling it that.  And by the way, I don’t just mean that as an indictment of our less religious neighbors, the Nones and the Dones.  I mean that for all of us.

In any case, once Aaron gets going, he really gets going.  He’s going to ride this wave of the people looking to him for leadership.  And so he takes one look at this calf he has created and all the people worshiping it and he says, “ You know what we need?  An altar! I’ll make an altar, and we’ll have a festival!”  There’s another way to read this, actually, which is that Aaron takes one look at the calf and sees what he has done, and he tries to walk it back.  “We’re going to have a festival to the Lord,” he says.  To YHWH.  This calf is the same god as that God on the mountain, just in a different form.  This is all still legit.[1]

Never mind that number 2 commandment: thou shalt not worship idols.

Either way, God is not impressed.  God sees what is going on from up on the mountain and God tells Moses he better get down there.  “Do you know what YOUR people are doing?” God asks Moses. “I have half a mind to just destroy them and start over and make a great nation out of you.”

Moses, alarmed, says, “Oh, no no, God, don’t be so angry with YOUR people.”  And God relents, though we get the sense that God is not yet over it.

I imagine this one of those times for Moses where you know you have to defend someone in a given situation because it’s your job, but you’re just waiting to be alone to really let them have it.  It’s like he’s is fighting for his kid against the teacher who wants to fail him, but on the drive home is going to let that kid know he’s grounded for a month.  With God placated for the time being, I imagine Moses gathering steam as he continues on his way down.  Finally he gets close enough to see and hear the general drunken raucousness going on, golden calf at the center, and his nostrils flare, and in one swift movement, Moses hurls down the stone tablets representing God’s covenant with the people and they shatter into pieces.  Then he takes the calf, grinds it into dust, adds water, and makes the people drink it.  (You don’t remember that part of the story from Sunday School, do you?)  Then Moses turns to Aaron and says simply, “What have you done?”

“Don’t blame me,” said Aaron, “I just threw some jewelry into the fire and out popped this calf.”  (I always liked that line.)

As I said before, it’s human nature to need something to worship.  Most of us probably aren’t too worried about being tempted to bow down to a golden calf.  Not literally, anyway.  But idols aren’t just metal statues.  Idols can be anything we worship that aren’t actually God.  What do you think are some of our modern-day idols, either personally or culturally?

“Human nature,” said John Calvin, “is a perpetual factory of idols.”

And yet I also think idolatry is a tricky thing.  The reason it’s tricky is because maybe we’re not always sure what we’re worshiping and when.  If we put a lot of energy into worrying about money, does that mean money is an idol?  If we revere a particular leader, are we committing idolatry?  At what level does our loyalty to a political party and its ideology veer into idolatry?  My guess is that when we do, or like, or revere, these things ourselves, they are simply parts of a faithful and well-prioritized life; but when someone else does them in a way that we don’t like, it’s idolatry.

Things I’ve heard called “idols” include Trump and Obama, America and Wall Street, contemporary worship music and old church hymns, even sometimes the Bible itself, when each literal word is raised above the Holy Spirit and the love that Jesus taught.

The theologian Paul Tillich defined faith as “ultimate concern.” Sure, we need money, but is it getting in the way of living a life pleasing to God?  How about really?  Sure, it’s OK to achieve success in our careers, but are we making choices in light of our ambition instead of our call?  What is our ultimate concern?

In the end – like with most forms of sin – the question probably isn’t “What are other people’s idols?” but “What are mine?”  Maybe that second commandment, rather than giving us a box to check off or not check off or just a rule to follow, instead invites us into reflection about what our ultimate values and priorities in life are.

And maybe the even more interesting question to reflect on is why, in fact, we as humans are so drawn to the worship of idols.

If I’m honest, I have some sympathy for those Israelites wandering in the wilderness, because I understand wanting to put my hope and trust in something tangible.  It’s hard, sometimes, to trust that God really knows what God is doing, or that God is even really there, when God isn’t someone I can see or have a conversation with.  It’s easy, especially perhaps in moments of high anxiety, to wonder if perhaps I’ve made the whole thing up.  Never mind that these people have literally just walked through the sea on dry land to freedom following this God of cloud and fire.  I like to think that if something like that had happened to me, if God showed up in my life in such a powerful and obvious way, that I would never have doubts again.  But the truth is that it doesn’t usually work that way.  I look back and I can see that thing God did as the result of so many other factors at play, in retrospect.  Or I simply wonder, as the Israelites have already done, where God is now.

In the wilderness of our own lives, we want to believe that someone or something is going to make it all OK, and we, too, want that someone or something to be something we can see, someone whose rallies we can attend, numbers in a stock portfolio, substances that make us feel a certain way – anything that makes that promise tangible to us.

And yet to live as people of faith means to live into the mystery of who God is, this God surrounded by cloud and darkness, this God we can’t see or touch or wrap our minds around, whose very presence with us we sometimes question.  This is the God who travels with us through the wilderness, this is the God who leads us to freedom, this is the God who names us as God’s people.

We long for something black and white, we long for something solid and gold, but God invites us into a life and relationship that is dynamic and mysterious and adventurous and hard but also full of love and grace and provision.

The day after the Golden Calf Incident, Moses goes back to have another word with God.  The future of God and God’s people is still up in the air.  Moses moves once again between his role as leader of the people and his role as intermediary with God, and angry as he is, he pleads with God to forgive them.

God’s forgiveness, in this story, is not an instantaneous thing.  You can read it if you want the details of the conversation.  I know some of these Hebrew Bible stories can shock us a little bit with a God who gets angry, who doesn’t seem to always forgive as easily as we would like to believe.  But I think it’s important to remember that while people’s understanding of God undoubtedly evolved and changed over time, this God of the Hebrew Bible is the same God we meet in Jesus – who also gets mad at the idolatry he sees in the Temple, and at people who make law and not love their ultimate concern.  Stories like these remind us that God’s forgiveness isn’t cheap – but it is real.  The story (at least this part of it) ends with God telling Moses to make two new tablets.  The covenant that was broken is renewed.

And that’s the good news for us, claiming our identity as God’s people today – our God is a God of second chances.  Our God renews broken covenants.

And when the people continue their journey into the Promised Land, it will be with this mysterious, powerful, inscrutable, gracious God in their midst.

 

[1] The CEB Study Bible, p. 138 OT

Becoming God’s People: A Rule of Life

Scripture: Exodus 20:1-17

A couple weeks ago when we were reading about the Israelites crossing the Red Sea I said that I thought that was the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.  If any scene has stuck with you from Sunday School or Hollywood adaptations, it’s probably that one.

But I think today we’ve come to the second most Exodus-y part of Exodus: the Ten Commandments.  If another scene has stuck with you, it’s probably along these lines: Moses emerging from the top of Mount Sinai, stone tablets in hand, while all the people watch on below.

But let’s back up and get there.  Last week we left the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, facing hardship and deprivation, wondering if God was still with them, but also finding grace and provision along the way.  They eat manna and drink the water God provides in the dusty desert.  They fend off attacks from nearby tribes with God’s help.  They start to think about the structure of their community, and how conflicts get solved.  They will be wandering in the wilderness still for a while now, but we could say they are beginning to settle into the wandering, beginning to learn bit by bit what it means to be God’s people.

They have already been wandering for three months when they enter the Sinai desert.  Here God calls to Moses from the top of Mount Sinai, “Tell the people: You’ve seen what I’ve done for you, how I rescued you from the Egyptians.  Now, if you and all the Israelites obey me and keep my covenant, you out of all the nations will be my people, my treasured possession.  You will be a priestly kingdom and a holy people.”

Moses repeats all these words to the people down at the bottom of the mountain and he says, “Will you do it?” and the people say, “We will.”  God and the Israelites have been feeling each other out up to this point, each learning about who the other is and what they can reasonably expect and what life looks like together – and they’re ready to make it official.

God tells Moses to have the people consecrate themselves, to make themselves ready for something holy.  They wash their clothes and get ready.

On the third day there is thunder and lightning and a thick cloud descends over Mount Sinai.  There is the blast of a trumpet so loud, the text says, that “all the people in the camp trembled.”  They stand at the foot of the mountain and smoke billows up from the peak and the mountain trembles, too.

God calls to Moses, and as the people watch, Moses ascends, disappearing into the smoke.

And then, the text says, God spoke these words.  The ones we just heard: Have no other gods before me.  Don’t make idols.  Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.  Honor the Sabbath, and your father and your mother.  Don’t kill, or commit adultery, or steal, or bear false witness, or covet. 

These things, according to God, are at the very core of what it means to be God’s people.  They’re not the only laws God will give the Israelites.  The next few chapters are full of more, and Leviticus comes after that.  But these ten are the core of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For something so at the core of what it means to be in relationship with God, though, I think it’s safe to say that the legacy of the Ten Commandments is mixed.  Many of us may still see them as the most basic tenets of what it means to be faithful, if not almost universal rules for what it means to be good and moral people.  There may also be those of us who question their relevance today, at least some of them – I’m going to guess we’re all on board with “thou shalt not commit murder” but what about taking God’s name in vain? It’s possible, also, that some of us may feel like something is missing – that if we were going to pick our top ten rules for being God’s people, we might have included others, like more about caring for the poor.

Some of us may see the Ten Commandments as all well and good but also think they don’t really matter so much anymore, because they represent “the Law” from which we as Christians are freed.  What it means to be God’s people (we might say) isn’t following commandments but having faith in Jesus.

But on the other hand we fight over whether they should stand in front of courthouses.  The Ten Commandments continue to have a hold on us, both culturally and individually.

There’s plenty that could be said, and has been, about every one of these commandments.  We could talk, for example, about whether the prohibition on murder extends to killing in war, or in self-defense.  We could talk about what it really means to take God’s name in vain – what if it’s more than just an occasional “oh my God,” but more about when we do harmful things in God’s name?  We could talk about all the idols we make, not just out of wood or silver or stone, but out of the things we put before God in our lives, like money and popularity and success.

But instead, I want to talk about the Ten Commandments as a whole.  The Israelites are, in the wilderness, beginning to learn what it means to be God’s people.  And one of the first thing God tells them is that being God’s people means living like God’s people.   This is not a chosenness that lets them get away with anything they want, it’s a chosenness that comes with the burden, and gift, of obedience and loyalty.

And since we understand ourselves to be God’s people and part of God’s continuing story, I think it’s worth asking what that looks like for us now.

In the Gospels, someone asks Jesus what the greatest of the commandments is.  He answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength.  And the second,” he says, “is like it: love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22; Mark 12; Luke 10)

He’s not quoting any of the ten when he says that – he’s quoting other passages from Deuteronomy (6) and Leviticus (19) – but some scholars have pointed out that the Ten Commandments can be read in this light.  How do we love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength?  We have no other gods, we make no idols, we don’t take the Lord’s name in vain and we honor the Sabbath.  And how do we love our neighbors as ourselves?  We honor our parents, we don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or bear false witness or covet.  It’s at least a start.

The thing is that we may say we don’t need the law anymore because now we are God’s people in a new way; we’re God’s people by faith and we live that faith by loving God and our neighbors.  And yet if you’re anything like me, maybe you still need some help.  Because loving people is great, but if I’m honest I’m not always sure what that looks like or what that means, concretely.  And I believe in the Holy Spirit’s guidance on these matters, but also believe that having some things spelled out for me can help.

In monastic communities, they have what is called a Rule of Life.  This will say things like you gather for worship at these times; that you will spend the rest of your time in worship and study.  They say things like you wear clothes that are plain and cheap, that you regularly confess your sins, that you care for the poor and the old and the sick and welcome guests like you are welcoming Christ.  They also dictate the way you are supposed to relate to the other people in your community, both peers and superiors.[1]

All that is of course much more specific and detailed than the Ten Commandments, which are by and large very broad, leaving a lot to be filled in.  But I’ve found myself really attracted to this idea of living intentionally as God’s people and the way those specifics have the potential to shape our daily lives by holding us accountable to our priorities.  And I wonder if we can think of the Ten Commandments as the first Rule of Life.  It’s the one that sets a baseline for all other Rules of Life.

So here’s something for you to think about this week: if you were going to make a Rule of Life for yourself, what would you include?

We claim to be God’s people in the world.  How are we intentionally living that out?  What are we setting as priorities?  What makes us distinct from others wandering in this same wilderness?  Is it in how we spend our money, how we spend our time?  Is it in how we treat the most vulnerable members of our community?  Is it in being willing to confess our sin instead of defending it?  Some of all these things?  How do we spell out what it means for us to love God and love our neighbor?

How does the witness of the saints we named today help you think about that?

The good news is we don’t have to do it perfectly.  Living as God’s people isn’t about checking all the boxes all the time.  It’s letting ourselves be shaped and formed by God’s grace as we figure out what it means in practice to worship God in all aspects of our lives and to live well in community together.  And this grace isn’t even a New Testament concept, as we often make the mistake of thinking.  As we’ll hear about next week, Moses will barely be down from that mountain before the Israelites break about half of the commandments in one fell swoop (maybe you’ve heard of this little incident involving a golden calf?)  And yes, God gets pretty worked up about it.  And no, God doesn’t abandon them.  Because they are still God’s people, and there will be more chances.

And we are God’s people, and there are always more chances.

And still God calls us, over and over, to live like we know it: to live like we are God’s people.  Because it is through God’s people that God will achieve the very redemption of the world.

 

 

[1] I recommend The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century by Joan Chittister on the Benedictine Rule and its relevance today.

Becoming God’s People: Into the Wilderness

Scripture: Exodus 17:1-7

Last week where we left off, Moses and the Israelites are at long last on the far shore of the Red Sea.  They’ve crossed the sea on dry land, they’ve watched the waters roar back into place, they’ve seen the bodies of those who previously enslaved them tossed onto the shore.  Finally, freedom is theirs.

It might seem like this is a good time for the curtains to close on a happy ending.  Maybe add a few scenes of the Israelites’ new life outside of Egypt just for a nice little denouement.  But as I said last week, this is still the beginning of the story.  Because now that they’re free, it’s time to figure out what it means to live in ongoing relationship with the God who freed them.

On that far shore of the Red Sea, safe and free and headed for the Promised Land, the Israelites look around them and they see – wilderness.

It’s rocky.  It’s barren.  And it’s vast.  And most importantly, it’s not where they are supposed to end up.

And yet here they are.

And here they are destined to wander for a time, caught in between the land where they were slaves and the land that finally awaits them.

The wilderness is an in-between time. It is a time of wandering, going back and forth, wondering why they are there, never seeming to make much progress in the journey at all.  As one writer put it, in the wilderness the Israelites are a people “stuck between promise and fulfillment.”[1]

Have you ever been in the wilderness?

One of the books on my shelf I return to again and again is called Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis.  Its author, Lauren Winner, wrote it as a series of thoughts and essays about feeling like she was in what she called the “middle of her spiritual life.”  She found herself there after two major life events: her mother died, and she got divorced.  She had come to Christianity as a convert, with all the passion and enthusiasm that entails, but now, she said, “as everything else was dying, my faith seemed to die too.”[2]

But it wasn’t dead, it was just changing, being tested and making room for uncertainty.  I think this is the kind of experience that can be described as being in the wilderness: somewhere between the beginning and the end, where you’re not really sure where the road leads or if you’re on the right road at all.  You might find yourself there in any number of ways that life doesn’t follow the straight and sure path you once envisioned.

But the thing is it’s in the wilderness that the real story begins to take shape, the story of becoming God’s people.

It’s not long after the thrill of victory at the sea that things start to get real.

The Israelites journey for three days with no water.  Finally they come to a place where there is water, but the water is bitter, not fit to be consumed.  The thrill of freedom is already beginning to wear fade.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at God.  This is about to become a pattern.  But then God shows Moses a special tree and Moses takes a branch from the tree and sticks it in the water and suddenly, the water becomes sweet.

There, the Bible says, God tested them.  God gives them a “statute and ordinance,” and God tells them that if they obey, it will go well for them. God doesn’t say what happens otherwise.

That night they camp at an oasis.

But it’s not long before things start to go downhill again.  This time, the people don’t have any food.  They yell at Moses.  “Why couldn’t God have just killed us in Egypt?” they say.  “At least there we had food.  Have you brought us out to this god-forsaken desert just to starve us to death?”

Moses takes it up with God.    That evening quails cover the camp.  And the next morning, the people wake up to see that fine, flaky bread has fallen from the sky.  Manna, they call it, from the Hebrew for “What’s that?”

But God tests them again, telling them to only gather enough for the day, not to try to hoard it for tomorrow.  It would not be entirely fair to say the people passed the test.  The extra manna they collect rots away, but still the manna keeps falling, every morning, for the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert.

That brings us to today, in the wilderness of Rephidim.  The people’s bellies are full, but once again, there is no water.  The people yell at Moses.  This time Moses yells back.  “Why are you testing God?” he says.  You see, the Israelites can test God too.

These years that the Israelites spend wandering in the wilderness are many things, but one thing is that they are a time of testing.  And that should be expected.  Remember, this is a new divine-human relationship.  The Israelites have followed out of Egypt a God who spoke to their ancestors, but who seems to have suddenly remembered them after many years.  God has nothing less than the redemption of God’s creation in mind, but it remains to be seen whether this is really the people who God will use to accomplish that purpose.

New relationships are always, in a sense, a time of testing.

I don’t necessarily mean in an overt way, though I do think back to old episodes of I Love Lucy that I used to watch, where Lucy and Ethel would dress up and put on wigs to try to catch Ricky and Fred in the act of flirting with other women.  (Yeah, sometimes I just like to go for the really modern pop culture references.) That’s the kind of testing that would raise some red flags in pre-marital counseling with me these days.  But in new relationships, boundaries must be navigated, common areas have to be sought.  I think of this even as the parent of a toddler.  How far can things be pushed?  How can I best get you to listen to me and follow my instructions?  Will you still love me if I push things too far, or if I snap and yell?

These are things that have to be worked out together in real time.  And that’s what God and the Israelites are doing.

But of course this relationship between God and the Israelites is no ordinary relationship; it’s not a relationship between equals.  And that means the testing isn’t the same on both sides.  Maybe you remember this story from a little later in the Bible: When Jesus is in the wilderness, just before he begins his earthly ministry, Satan appears and tempts him.  In a vision, he brings Jesus to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem.  And he says, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for as it is written, God will send his angels to catch you so you don’t even hit your foot on a stone.” And Jesus says, “As it is also written, ‘Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.”  (Luke 4:9-12).

Human beings aren’t supposed to test God.

If Jesus had done it, if he had thrown himself off of the Temple, he would have been demanding that God prove Godself.

And when the Israelites test God in the wilderness, demanding water, they’re doing the same thing.  The verse Jesus quotes to Satan even refers back to this wilderness period.  On the one hand, you can see where they’re coming from.  They need water.  It’s not like they’re demanding caviar here.  They’re not asking for special treatment, just fulfillment of their basic human need.  And I suspect that our most adamant prayers often do the same.  Most people don’t have a crisis of faith because God didn’t make them rich and famous.

And yet the last words of today’s passage are telling.  They tell us of the renaming of this place in the wilderness, from Rephidim to Massah and Meribah, because it was there, the story goes, that the Israelites asked, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

So far in the story, God has rained hail on the Egyptians, led the Israelites through the sea on dry land, brought them safely to the other shore.  When they’ve been thirsty, God has given them water to drink.  When they’ve been hungry, God has rained quails and manna from heaven.  When the Israelites test God by demanding water once again, by making water the condition by which they will believe that God is still with them, they forget all the ways God has already shown them God is.

And yet it’s such a human thing, to think that God is only with us and only watching over us when we have immediate and tangible blessings to point to.

In the wilderness of your own life, have you ever felt like God is testing you?  Maybe in a month when you weren’t sure your paycheck would stretch to the end?  Or during the long illness of a loved one? Or a time in life when everything just seemed to pile up and become more than you could handle?  Did it feel like God was putting all of that on you for a purpose, to see if you would be faithful even when it got hard?

Does God really work like that?  It seems kind of harsh.  And yet for these Israelites in the wilderness, maybe there are some things they need to learn, before they can move forward as God’s people.

Here’s what I discovered when I read the story again more closely.  God tests the Israelites, but God is never said to test them by depriving them of things they need.  The lack of water is not a test.  The lack of food is not a test.  Instead, God tests the Israelites by setting expectations.  Here are the rules I need you to follow.  Here is what it means to live as my people. Things like not hoarding your manna; trusting there will be enough again the next day.  The test isn’t how we’ll react when everything is taken away; it’s what we’ll do with the blessings that sustain us on the journey.

And then God sits back to see if God’s people will be faithful.

If you ever have been through a wilderness period in your own life, I wonder if you’ve been able to look back and find that there was beauty in the wandering, beauty in living in the in-between.  It’s the kind of beauty I think we often have to see in retrospect.  It’s not a place we want to be, we want to move ahead to the Promised Land, whatever that looks like, or at least be safely back in the familiar oppression of Egypt.  But the real story takes shape in the wilderness.  That’s where we learn and grow, where we figure out what we really need and what’s really important, who we are and who God is in relation to us.  Not in Egypt, not in the Promised Land, but in the wilderness.

Toward the end of her book Still, Lauren Winner tells the story of visiting a church out of town and ending up sitting near a woman who she says “looks like she has seen better days.”  She smells, she wears sunglasses through the whole service, she doesn’t sing the hymns or join in the responsive readings.  And then in the middle of the sermon this woman begins to tap her finger on her knee.  And she just keeps tapping.  And finally Lauren, without thinking, reaches out and closes her hand over this woman’s hand to stop the tapping.  She’s horrified at having done this, but then she says she realizes the woman doesn’t seem to be offended – instead, she realizes she is holding her hand.  And they hold hands for the rest of the service.

Lauren writes, “That is part of what I mean when I say it is life inside this Christian story that has begun to tell me who I really am.”[3]

And I add: even when the wilderness isn’t full of aha moments of growth and learning, or even when it is, maybe it is still full of small moments of beauty like this.

And in fact if you read later biblical traditions about this time in the wilderness, the record is mixed.  Some writers remember it as a time of grumbling on the Israelites’ part and well-deserved wrath on God’s part.  But some remember it as a time of grace and provision, when the Israelites, in the end, got everything they needed for their journey.

That’s what happened at Massah and Meribah.  The people yell at Moses.  Moses yells at the people.  Moses yells at God.

And God tells Moses to take his staff, the same one he stretched over the Red Sea, and hit a rock.  And Moses does, and out gushes water.

And of course in the midst of it all it’s human to doubt, and human to despair, and human to wonder if God is really going to come through.  Because the wilderness is vast and barren, and sometimes we are there for a very long time.

But in the end, we look back and we say – God was with us all the time.

 

 

[1] Terrence Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, p. 187.

[2] Still, p. xv

[3] Still, p. 181

Becoming God’s People: Led to Freedom

Scripture: Exodus 14:1-31

When you think of Exodus, or Moses, the way you learned about them in Sunday School, chances are this is the scene that comes to mind first.  Some of the details may vary.  For example, the text says that Moses stretched his hand out over the sea and the waters were driven back by a strong wind.  In my mind, though, Moses plunges his staff into the water and there’s this explosion of water to either side as they split in the middle.  I think I may have gotten this from Prince of Egypt.  Nevertheless, the image has stuck.

Exodus is a story of liberation, and this scene at the Red Sea is arguably the most Exodus-y part of Exodus.

It’s also still the beginning of the story.

But let’s back up.  We left off with Moses last week at the burning bush, where God has unexpectedly shown up to have a word while Moses is going about his day tending sheep.  God has given Moses a job to do: go back to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.  And Moses, extremely reluctantly, has agreed.  So we begin, today, with Moses poised to return to the land he fled.

He heads out with instructions in hand.  He’ll get the elders of the Israelites together, tell them the plan.  They will go together to Pharaoh.  They will say, “Our God has appeared to us, and wants us to go into the desert to offer sacrifices.  Please let us go – for just three days.”

This is the plan.  They also know: Pharaoh won’t say yes.

Along the way, Moses meets up with Aaron, who God has appointed as Moses’ number 2, the spokesperson of the operation, and they go together to the people.  Moses has been afraid this whole time that the Israelites won’t believe him when he just shows back up out of the blue and says God talked to him.  He’s been afraid they’ll say not only who is he, but who is this God.  But they don’t.  They believe him.  I imagine they must be ready to accept whatever good news comes their way.

So Moses, Aaron and the elders go to Pharaoh and they say, let us go on this three-day journey to worship our God in the desert.  And Pharaoh says ha, ha.  Because obviously when you let your slaves go on a journey into the wilderness, they’re going to come back, right? Actually, it’s worse: Pharaoh doubles down.  These people are lazy, he says, that’s why they want a vacation!  Moses here is just trying to incite them to strike!  For that, I command you to make double the bricks!  What do you think of that?

The people get mad at Moses.  Moses gets mad at God.  Things are not off to a great start.

Or maybe they are.

Don’t worry, says God, when I’m done here, he’ll be begging to let you go.

If you graduated Sunday School you should have an idea of what this looks like.  God unleashes a series of ten plagues on Egypt, designed to show God’s strength against the power of Pharaoh.  Do you remember what they are?  Call them out: Water to blood. Frogs. Gnats. Flies. Diseased livestock.  Boils. Hail. Locusts. Darkness.

That’s nine.

Between each plague, Moses tell Pharaoh to let his people go – on a three day journey to worship God in the desert, of course. But Pharaoh’s heart is hardened – sometimes by God, sometimes by Pharaoh himself.  And at times, as the plagues get worse, Pharaoh relents.  And un-relents.  He will not let the people go.

Finally, it is time for the last plague.

God instructs the Israelites to prepare.  They should slaughter a lamb, smear the blood on their doorposts.  In this way, God will make a distinction: God’s people, separate from the rest.  We could say this is symbolic of the whole story of Exodus: God making a distinction between this one chosen people and the rest.

As the clock strikes midnight (let’s pretend, I don’t think the ancient Egyptians had clocks that struck midnight), God strikes down all the firstborn children of the Egyptians – everyone, the story goes, from the oldest child of Pharaoh to the oldest child of the prisoner in jail.

And finally Pharaoh says Go.

The Israelites waste no time.  Pharaoh has changed his mind before.  They grab their things.  They don’t let the bread rise.  Hearts in their throats, they march.  “The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt,” we read, “ready for battle.” And in front of them, the God who will lead them to freedom: present in a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

And sure enough, Pharaoh changes his mind.

He summons the troops.  They prepare the chariots, ready the horses.  They catch up to the Israelites where they are camped for the night, on the shore of the Red Sea.  Israel looks back and sees the army approaching, the sound of horses in the distance.  They had gone out ready for battle.  They didn’t want to actually fight.

Stand your ground, says Moses.  Watch what God’s about to do.

He stretches his hand over the sea – and the waters split in two.  The Israelites march.  The Egyptians gain ground.  But God makes the wheels of their chariots stick.  When the last Israelite is safely on the far shore, Moses stretches his hand out one more time and the waters roar back into place, taking the Egyptian army with them. In the morning, bodies litter the shore.

I think we are right, from a modern perspective, to ask some questions about who God is in light of all these events.  If God is God, we might wonder, why couldn’t it all have been a little bit easier?  Why couldn’t God have just made Pharaoh say yes?  Why did God seem to want Pharaoh to say no?  Just to make a stronger point? Is that the kind of God we worship, punishing people for things they had no choice in?

And what about those firstborn Egyptians?  God heard the cry of the Israelites in slavery.  Did God likewise hear the wail that went up when their families found each firstborn member dead?  Why couldn’t God have ushered the Israelites safely across the sea before the Egyptians got there?  What about bodies on the shore screams “Our God is an awesome God”?

Is that the kind of God we worship?

I think we’re right to ask these questions and I don’t think they have any easy answers.  The answers all get into how literally we read the Bible and how much we are willing to chalk up to human understanding which is limited in any given place and time. God, in my own modern understanding, doesn’t smite people to make a point.  Even in early Jewish commentary, it was said that though the Israelites sang a song of victory when they saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, God stopped the angels in heaven from singing.  “How dare you sing for joy,” God said, “when my creatures are dying.”[1]  I don’t think there’s any way to get around contending with the fact that the people who first lived and told these stories might have told them a little differently than we would now.

But in this story we also learn something else about God, something that holds true throughout time, something that continues to be revealed in new ways throughout the ongoing story of Scripture, and that is that the God we worship is a God of liberation.  God wants God’s people to be free.

ASK: What does it mean to be free?  The obvious answer is not to be enslaved or imprisoned.  But I’d say it means more than that. To be free means to be able to live the abundant life that God created all of us for.

This is specifically true for this one group of people in the story who God chooses for a particular relationship.  But as the story of Scripture continues to unfold, it becomes clear that it is also true for God’s whole creation.

It is true for starving children in Yemen, for Rohingya Muslims in Burma, for civilians running from shells in Syria.  It is true for girls sold into sex trafficking in Thailand, child laborers in Bangladesh, Appalachian communities in the grips of the opioid epidemic, children in camps and cages on the US-Mexico border.

The Exodus story tells us that God is willing to confront the Pharaohs of this world, the forces and powers that keep God’s children bound.  God doesn’t watch from heaven as an impartial witness, the unmoved mover.  God chooses sides.  And the side God chooses is the side of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the suffering.  And God intends to make it right.  Maybe it will seem like God has forgotten, but as we read last week, God will remember.  God wants God’s people to be free.

It is true for young black men caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, for homeless people who long to get off the streets right here in Rosslyn, for people with mental illness left in limbo by our healthcare system, for gay people who have been rejected by their families or kicked out of church.

And, it is true for all of us imprisoned by fear, by greed, by anger, by hopelessness, by the power of sin that weaves its way into our own hearts and our own lives.

Because when we meet this God again much later in the story, when we meet the God who becomes flesh in Jesus, we are reminded that sometimes the things that enslave and imprison us aren’t outside systemic forces, but inside, personal ones.  Jesus comes to confront both the forces of individual sin and brokenness and the systemic sin of the Roman Empire, which as it turns out aren’t so far apart.  And while confronting the powers of Egypt may look like hail and locusts and bodies cast on the shore, confronting the powers of sin looks like dying on a cross.

The story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea gives rise to many questions, but maybe another question we could ask is who we identify with in this story.

Last week we talked about the call of Moses to use his unique history and passion to be part of God’s redeeming and liberating work, and how we are called to do the same.  And so if we are to identify with Moses, the question is, who around us needs to be set free? And how are we called to take part in that work that God is doing?

But maybe it isn’t Moses we’re supposed to identify with here.  Maybe it’s the Israelites.  They are God’s people, just like we understand ourselves to be.  And if that’s the case, what is it we need to be freed from?  What outside or inside forces hold us captive?  And what would freedom from those things look like?  How might God be trying to lead us there?

But there is a third possibility, and that is that we might identify with the Egyptians in this story.

I don’t necessarily mean Pharaoh; I’m sure most of us don’t have that kind of power to decide people’s fates, for good or for evil.  I mean the ordinary Egyptians (by the way, this has nothing to do with modern Egyptians, just the ones in this story) –  the ones for whom the sight of Israelites making bricks is just a normal, daily occurrence; the ones who are ready to carry out Pharaoh’s commands; the ones who see injustice and oppression around them and don’t ask questions, or the ones who deny it exists altogether.  The ones who eat the food and wear the clothes made by slave labor, who deny the racial inequality in our country, the ones who just don’t think we should press too hard for change.  The ones who don’t realize that this is a form of bondage in itself, because as the saying goes, none of us are free until all of us are free.

They are also God’s creation.

We are also God’s creation.

And I think the answer is we can and should identify with all of them, at different times and in different ways and perhaps to greater or lesser extents depending on our social location, but all of them: that we are the ones who participate in the forces of oppression; that we are the ones called to be part of God’s liberating work in this world on behalf of others; that we are the ones who need to be freed.  It’s all of them, sometimes all mixed together so we can’t even tell them apart.

And God’s liberating work continues: in us and around us and despite us.

And the good news is, God knows what we are up against.  And the good news is, God calls us to be part of something new.  And the good news is, by God’s grace, when everything seems hopeless, the seas will part, and we will be free.

And freedom is still the beginning of the story.

 

[1] https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/why-did-we-sing-when-the-egyptians-drowned-1.54039

Becoming God’s People: Moses and the Burning Bush

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-12

We are spending this fall in the story of Exodus, and as you may remember we began last week, in chapter 1, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, making bricks and working in the fields, and with Pharaoh’s attempts at genocide by commanding that all the Hebrew baby boys be killed.  This is the scene that Moses enters onto, the baby boy who didn’t get thrown in the Nile, but placed there in a basket, only to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter herself, who gives him back to his mother to nurse and then adopts him as her own.

Today we’re going to fast forward twenty years or so.  Presumably Moses has grown up as part of the Egyptian royal family all this time.  He speaks Egyptian, probably as a first language.  He knows Egyptian customs and Egyptian social mores and moves easily in this culture in which he has been brought up.  He has probably learned to worship Egyptian gods.  He has had every privilege granted to an Egyptian prince.

And yet one morning Moses goes for a walk and sees the Israelites, slaving away in the fields and making bricks.

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that anything about the scene is really new to Moses.  The Israelites have been slaving away in those fields for Moses’ whole life.  Surely he has gone for walks before.  Surely he has been well aware of the situation, eaten food the Israelites grew and harvested, lived in houses they built.  Their slavery hasn’t been a secret.  Nor has their brutal treatment.

It’s hard to say what makes this walk different from all other walks, except that sometimes we don’t see things till we see them, right?

On the other hand maybe this wasn’t just any morning stroll.  Maybe there’s a part of Moses, now a young adult, that wants to know more about who he is and where he came from.  Maybe recently he’s found himself singing under his breath the Hebrew lullabies his mother used to sing. Maybe as an adult he has more awareness of being different from the people around him.

Maybe this is a more intentional kind of seeing.

We don’t know how much Moses actually knows or remembers about his own history, but he knows that these are his people.  And that means enough to him, now, that when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, he looks to make sure no one is watching, and he kills him.

The next day he goes out again.  The draw is strong, apparently.  This time he sees two Israelites fighting, and he calls them out on it.  He almost seems to invoke his own newfound sense of identity when he says, “Come on, why are you hitting your fellow Israelite?”  We Israelites have to stick together.  The two guys fighting are not impressed.  “Why?” they say.  “Are you going to kill us too?”

Their words are chilling for two reasons.

The first is, they know what Moses did.

But the second is – they are quite clear that Moses is not one of them.

I have often heard immigrants to this country talk about being in this kind of in-between place, with one foot here and one foot in the place they came from, but never really feeling like they fully belong in either.  Maybe that’s a feeling you know.  I think it is safe to say here that Moses does too.

On that day, he went out to see “his people,” but he comes back realizing he is a person with no people: neither fully Hebrew, nor fully Egyptian.

Even worse, when word gets back around to Pharaoh about this little unpleasantness with the Egyptian taskmaster, he tries to kill Moses.  Apparently Grandpa Pharaoh is doing a little soul-searching of his own these days – if, that is, he ever really accepted Moses as his own at all.

So Moses runs.  The text tells us he is fleeing from Pharaoh, but I don’t think it takes a great leap of imagination to think that he is fleeing from much more than that – that he is fleeing from this place where he’s just learning he doesn’t quite belong.

He ends up in the wilderness of Midian, where he sits down at a well for a drink.  There he meets a group of girls, coming to get water for their father’s sheep, and fends off some shepherds who are acting aggressive toward them.  When the girls get back home they tell their father an Egyptian helped them.  Moses gets an invitation to dinner and then to marriage to one of the daughters.

It is with Moses finally settled in Midian that we hear the news: Pharaoh has died.  But this fact hasn’t helped the Israelites.  They groan under their burden and cry out to God.  And God, we are told, remembered them.

I told you last week that Exodus, besides being the quintessential story of liberation, is also the story of the forming of a new relationship – of God and God’s people getting to know each other.  When you hear that God remembered, you might naturally ask: Had God forgotten them?  That’s in fact precisely the question I have scribbled in the margin of my Bible, and I don’t know the answer.  I don’t happen to believe that God is a God who just forgets when people are suffering.  I also know that it seems sometimes like God does.  But either way, God does not wait forever.  Liberation AND relationship are both set in motion in three short verses here.

And that brings us to today.  Moses, one day, is looking after his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, and comes to a mountain named Horeb, in other places called Sinai.  Out of the corner of his eye he sees something.  A bush, on fire.  And yet as he looks closer he realizes the bush isn’t burning up.  He stops.  Have you ever been stopped in your tracks like that in the middle of a normal day?  Has God ever tried to get your attention like that?

As he stands watching, he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses!”

And, like I guess you do when you hear a burning-but-not-burning-up bush calling your name, he says, “It’s me.”

And he hears: “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.  I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  (Your people, Moses, you are still one of them.)

Moses looks away.

But God goes on.  “I’ve seen the suffering of my people in Egypt,” God says.  “I’ve heard their cries and I’m about to make good on my promises to them.  I’m going to bring them out of Egypt and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

And then God lowers the boom: “And you’re the one who’s going to make it all happen.”

Well, what do you say when God says God has a job for you?

You say NO!  Everyone in the Bible always says no, at least at first.  Everyone always has some reason why they are the wrong person for the job.  They’re too young or too old.  They’re not holy enough.  They’d rather get eaten by a fish.  They’re a virgin, and they know how biology works, thank you very much.  If you’re in the Bible and God says God has a job for you, you say no.

By the way, all those people end up doing the job God has for them.

Moses is no exception.  “Who am I to do all that?” he asks God.

And the thing is, you can see his point.  There he is in Midian, a fugitive from justice, fallen a long way from his rather privileged upbringing.  He’s a person with no people.  He’s not even sure he’s one of the people God is telling him to liberate, let alone someone with any authority over them; the predecessor of the Pharaoh he’s supposed to confront has already tried to kill him.  Who am I, indeed.  There are so many good reasons why this will never work.

We Christians love this storyline: the unlikely person called by God in spite of everything.  But as it turns out that is only half of the story here.  Because yes, Moses has a point, yes, he’s a fugitive and an outsider, but actually, if you think about it, Moses is exactly the right person for this job.

Who better to go to Egypt on behalf of the Israelites than this person who stands perfectly poised between those two worlds?

Who better to go demand freedom for Israel in fluent Egyptian than this man who once fell asleep to his mother’s Hebrew lullabies?

Who better to approach Pharaoh than this person who was once at home in Pharaoh’s court, but who saw the injustice done to the people who were his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, and who got mad about it?

But when God calls Moses, Moses doesn’t see all that.  Moses only sees his failings. He only sees his limitations. He only sees the ways he doesn’t quite fit in, doesn’t quite measure up.

But God sees more than that.  God sees qualities, abilities, history that God can put to use for all that God wants to do next.

I think that sometimes when we talk about being called by God, the problem is we end up being kind of vague.  What does it mean to be called by God?  What does God call us to, and how do we know?  Not all of us get a literal burning bush or its equivalent.  Yet all of us, I think, have things that get our attention once in a while, whether we’re looking for them or not.  An article in the paper or shared online about some injustice in our world.  A friend or neighbor who’s suffered in a way we feel compelled to respond to.  A flier posted at Starbucks asking for volunteers.  Maybe even a hymn that makes us feel like God is asking us to do something even if we don’t quite know what it is yet.

You can be called to a profession, called to a cause that’s not your 9 to 5 job, or just called to respond to a certain person in a certain way at a certain time – any job that is God’s work in the world, that we sense somehow is our work to do.

And for any of these things, when the job seems too big or too risky or too hard, we may think that God must have made some mistake, that this job would be great for someone else to do, but not for me.  And it’s possible that, like Moses, we might be selling ourselves short.

Like I said, we love the narrative of the person called despite all odds, and while that makes for a good story, it’s possible to take this too far.  I wonder if over the summer some of you heard in the news the story of a white American woman, a Christian, who felt God calling her to start a center for malnourished children in Uganda.  She started out just feeding them, but soon children were showing up with complications from their malnourishment, and they needed medical attention, and she started giving it to them.  Only the thing was, this woman had no medical training whatsoever, nor did anyone on her staff.  Over 100 children died.[1]  I heard this story and I wondered if our narrative had failed her, because when we say “God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called,” maybe we forget to add that God can equip the called with a degree from an accredited med school.  There is an arrogance in thinking that we can do anything, no matter how unqualified, just because we are called.

And yet there’s also this risk that we’ll miss the boat because we can’t see beyond our limitations to the gifts and resources God has already given us.

I’ve told you all before that I started seminary before I knew I was going to be a pastor, though I didn’t really know what other work I planned to do.  What I knew is that I wanted to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth and I wanted to invite people into it.  At the end of my first year of seminary, one of my professors made a comment wondering if the reason I didn’t want to be a pastor was because I didn’t think I could.

I was offended, at first, because of course not everyone is called to be a pastor; people are called to other equally good and valid things, and why would he make it about that?

But in the next year or so I began to wonder if he was right.  Because the truth is I had this image of what a pastor was and I could count all the ways I didn’t really fit.  I didn’t think I could stand up and have something to say to people every week.  I’m shy.  Charisma has never really been my strong suit.  Could I really be a leader?  And yet gradually I realized – you know what I like?  Words.  And maybe I can lead through them.  It’s not that I didn’t have limitations, but it’s also not that I didn’t have any gifts.

Take someone like Greta Thunberg, who has been in the news a lot lately as a leader of a global movement of young people against climate change and the inaction of so many of us in the face of it.  I don’t know that she sees this as a divine call, but I see her as doing God’s work in the world.  She’s been open about the fact that she has Asperger Syndrome, which makes her awkward and means she doesn’t always pick up on social cues.  I imagine there might have been a time when she wondered if she could really do this – as a teenager and one on the autism spectrum at that, but as it turns out, both are part of what makes her a powerful leader. Her age gives her authority to speak about the future.  Her Asperger’s means the comments and insults hurled at her roll off in a way they might not otherwise. She calls being different her “superpower.”[2] And her passion is fighting climate change. You see – she’s the perfect person for the job.

Yes, God may call us to things we never thought we could do, and things we may well need to be further equipped to do.  But God also wants to put to work our gifts, our passions, our experiences, our stories – even our brokenness.  God, most of the time, doesn’t call us despite those things.  God calls us because of those things.

Well, Moses has his arguments at the ready.  He says I’m no one.  God says I’m someone.  Moses says, Who are you? God says I am who I am.  Moses says I’m not a good speaker.  God says I will give you the words.  Moses says Please just send someone else.

As much as Moses protests, God doesn’t let him off the hook.  But God also works with him.  God recognizes his limitations as well as his gifts.  God gives him Aaron, who can speak in a way that Moses can’t.  But Aaron also can’t do this work on his own.  He isn’t Moses.

Because the truth is also that we are all a jumble of gifts and passions and limitations and imperfections and experiences who make us who we are.  And we are all called to do God’s work in this world.  But we are never called to God’s work alone.  We are always called together.

How does God want to use your particular jumble of those things to further God’s story of liberation?

Because that’s where we’re headed.  God’s people are enslaved and they must be made free.

And God knows the perfect person for the job.

 

 

[1] https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/08/09/749005287/american-with-no-medical-training-ran-center-for-malnourished-ugandan-kids-105-d

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/02/greta-thunberg-responds-to-aspergers-critics-its-a-superpower

Becoming God’s People: Fear God, Not Pharaoh

Scripture: Exodus 1:8-22

If you grew up with the story of Exodus, or even encountered it later in the movies, you probably know it first of all as a story of liberation.  That’s certainly what comes to my mind first: the image of Moses plunging his staff into the Red Sea, dividing the waters for the Israelites to march through as the sound of the Egyptian army grows closer in the distance.  And in fact it’s been the inspiration for countless oppressed groups of people as they, with God’s help, write their own stories of liberation.  Martin Luther King Jr. liked to allude to Exodus a lot.

Exodus is also the story of something else.  It’s the story of a new relationship.  It’s the story of God and God’s people getting to know each other.

Back in Genesis, God made Godself known to one particular family.  God started with Abraham, who God promised would become a great nation, as numerous in the stars in the sky.  Then there was Abraham’s son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob.  But by the time we come to Jacob’s son, Joseph, we already get the sense that that personal connection is fading.  God is at work in the Joseph story, but largely behind the scenes.  And by the time we get to Exodus, it’s not clear how much of a relationship exists at all.  After all, when God enters the story a little later on, the people have lots of questions.

If Genesis is the story of God becoming the God of one particular family, Exodus is the story of God becoming the God of a people.

At the beginning of any new relationship, there’s a kind of awkward period of getting to know each other.  This is the case whether we’re talking a romantic relationship, a friendship, maybe even a professional relationship.  The beginning is full of questions.  Is it too soon to call?  Will they think this joke is funny, or am I going to sound super awkward?  Eventually the questions get a little deeper.  Will they still like me if they know my failings?  Are they only in it for the good times, or will they stick around when the going gets tough?  And on the flip side, is this someone I want in my life for the long haul?  These are the questions we find both God and the Israelites asking as they move through the sea and then the desert together – or at least, questions like them.

Exodus is a story of God and God’s people: testing the waters, learning what it means to be in relationship with each other.  God, for God’s part, needs to figure out if these are really the people God is going to achieve God’s mission in the world with.  And the Israelites, for their part, need to figure out what it means to be God’s people in the world.

And since that’s what we’re here for too, we’re going to spend the next seven or so weeks traveling with the Israelites on their journey – out of slavery, into the wilderness, to the base of Mt. Sinai and all the bumps and bruises along the way, as they figure it all out.

I don’t know about you, but I find the beginning of Exodus, the part we just heard, almost chilling in its timelessness.  Because, like all good stories of liberation, this is a story that begins in fear.

It is NOT the fear of an oppressed people for their oppressors.  Not at first: that comes later. It’s the other way around.  The story of Exodus begins with the Egyptian’s fear of the Israelites.

We’re told that in the generations since Joseph, the Israelites have been “fruitful,” “prolific,” and “strong.”  The land, it says, “was filled with them.”

Perhaps you can imagine how the Egyptians might have begun to feel about them, because they are a minority group gaining presence and power in someone else’s land, and we know how that goes, right?  They’re a drain on the system, the Egyptians might have said.  They’re taking our jobs.  We’re going to lose our culture, others might have said.  Still others: They’re all rapists and drug dealers.  Pharaoh makes it explicit: if we go to war, they will fight against us.

Sound familiar?

On some level it’s hard to say where the fear started: was it organic, swelling up from the bottom up?  Did ordinary people see this growing minority as a threat and demand some sort of action from their leader?  Or was the fear drummed up by Pharaoh, an intentional tactic to consolidate power?  Because nothing makes people fall in line like creating an enemy.

Some of you are probably nodding along right now, drawing some parallels, and of course I’ve alluded to them too.  The kind of fear this story begins with is the kind of fear that leads us to build walls, and set up camps, and carry guns, and call the police on people doing nothing more than existing in a public space.  It’s the fear, even, that makes us do little things like cross to the other side of the street when we see someone coming who looks a certain way. And you might be saying, yes, it’s terrible, how other people let themselves be manipulated by fearmongering politicians, it’s terrible how afraid ignorant people are of people who aren’t just like them.

But this isn’t a sermon about other people. And Pharaoh isn’t just one particular leader, but all the powers that hold sway over us.  This is about fear and the way that so often divides us from one another.

It may seem strange to go there on World Communion Sunday, which is a day to celebrate our diversity, united as the worldwide Body of Christ.  The thing is that while we can and should celebrate the beautiful things that make us different and connect us to each other, sometimes it’s easy to paper over the things we’d rather not talk about.  In the news this week, you may have heard or read about the conviction of Amber Guyger, the white police officer who walked into the wrong apartment, saw a black man eating ice cream on what she mistakenly thought was her sofa, and shot and killed him.  The man’s name was Botham Jean, and what made the news even more than Guyger’s conviction or her relatively light sentence of 10 years in prison was the scene of Botham Jean’s brother Brandt publicly forgiving Guyger and the two of them embracing.  In the day or so after this happened I saw lots of people sharing this image, calling it a powerful example of the radical forgiveness that Christ calls us to.  But then some other people said Yes, but.  When we make this a feel-good story of one individual forgiving another, it’s easy ignore the bigger issues at play, like a seeming epidemic of police violence against black people and the lack of accountability they seem to face.  And this, too, is a story about fear: the fear that made Guyger shoot in the first place, and the fear incidents like this create for those who worry they could be next.

We should celebrate diversity like we should celebrate forgiveness, but let’s not paper over the bigger issues; let’s not paper over the fear that surrounds us in the news and invades our own lives.

The next step is predictable: Pharoah moves from fear to action.  He must find a way to keep this dangerous minority in check.  Let’s put them to work, Pharaoh says.  After all, it’s hard to find the energy to rise up and fight Egypt with their enemies when you’re exhausted and your day to day survival is on the line.  And yet it seems that’s not enough to quell the people’s fears, or maybe Pharaoh needs to drum up some more fear in order to secure the support of his own people.  And so we move from forced labor to genocide: he summons the Hebrew midwives and instructs them to kill all the baby boys born to the Israelites.  Where he thinks his labor force is going to come from with all the Hebrew boys dead, I don’t know, but the things we do for political reasons don’t always make logical sense.

But here is where the story turns to hope.

Pharaoh and his people fear the Israelites.  And the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, have every reason to fear Pharaoh right back.  That’s what happens: fear begets fear.  Who knows what will happen if they don’t do exactly what Pharaoh says.  He is Pharaoh, after all.  And yet the story doesn’t tell us that they feared Pharaoh.  What does the story say?  That they feared God.

Not, of course, that they feared God in the exact same way they might have feared Pharoah, or in the way Pharaoh and the Egyptians feared the Israelites.  “Fear” in this sense doesn’t mean to be afraid of, not exactly.  More, it means that at the end of the day you know who you’re accountable to.  And at the end of the day Shiphrah and Puah knew they were accountable to God.  They might not have had known God well, at that point in the story.  But they knew God well enough for that.

Their conversation with Pharaoh is almost comedic.  This most powerful man in the ancient world, when he calls them to account for their disobedience, doesn’t issue an accusation.  He says “Why didn’t you do what I said?”  And they answer, “You see, Pharaoh, it’s not our fault.  The Hebrew women are so vigorous!  They give birth before we can even get there.”  Perhaps they’re playing on a stereotype that Pharaoh already holds.  We have stereotypes like this, sometimes, that certain groups of people are stronger or hardier or feel less pain than others.  They’re “positive,” stereotypes, sometimes, that let us deny our own racism when we believe and repeat them.  But here, Shiphrah and Puah are turning that around on Pharaoh.  And they get away with it.

Pharaoh is a powerful man.  But sometimes when you stand up to powerful people you discover they’re not ultimately so powerful after all.

And the thing is that when Shiphrah and Puah stand up to Pharaoh – when they refuse to fear him more than they fear God – they break the cycle of fear.

Now, I don’t mean that just all was well from there on out.  We’re still at the beginning of the story – and things will get worse before they get better.  When Pharaoh sees he can’t count on the midwives, he enlists all the Egyptian people to throw any Hebrew boys they see into the Nile.  He still says to let the girls live.  Presumably they can be dealt with some other way; they can eventually bear Egyptian babies for Egyptian men.

And yet this is the first action in the story that will open the door for something new.  Because when one person breaks the cycle of fear, it’s easier for the next person to do it too, and the next and the next.  The midwives’ “no” to Pharaoh opens the door for Moses, not thrown into the Nile but placed there in a basket to be rescued. And that opens the door for God to work miracles, to invite a downtrodden people to follow across a desert and a sea, to stand up and not be afraid anymore.

Sometimes I think our temptation, even when we see this fear at work around us in ways both overt and insidious, even when we know it is wrong, is to complain.  We rail about it on social media and we rail about it to our friends and we rail about it to our family – maybe we even preach about it.  And we think that’s enough to make us good people and put us on the right side of history, as long as we hold the right views.  And really what God is waiting for us to do is to stand up and break that cycle of fear.

It’s the same thing Jesus commands when he tells us to walk the extra mile when someone forces us to walk one, to turn the other cheek when someone hits us on one: not simply to bow to the command of someone more powerful than you, but to subvert their power by refusing to be afraid.

In the Exodus story, and in Jesus’ examples, it’s members of the oppressed or marginalized group who do this fear-breaking, but it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t always be. Later in this first chapter of Exodus it is Pharaoh’s daughter herself who does the same thing from her place of privilege.  She’s the one who finds baby Moses in that basket in the Nile.  She rescues him even though her father has commanded his people to do the opposite.  Somehow, she must have refused to believe everything she’d hear about the Israelites – that they were lazy, dangerous, good for nothing.  Was she afraid, blatantly disobeying her father the king?  Did she, who didn’t know the God of the Israelites at all, fear God more than Pharaoh, too?

Do you?  Do we?

Maybe, in a way, that’s what we do as a church when we open our doors during the week, welcoming anyone who wants to come inside for a bite to eat and a place to sit and rest for a while.  Sure, we could listen to the neighbors who sometimes like to tell us we’re only attracting the wrong kind of people, but if we fear God, we know there is no wrong kind of people.

Maybe that’s what the Lutheran church (ELCA) did this summer when they declared themselves to be a “sanctuary denomination” – that in response to the fear drummed up in our country around immigrants, especially those from Central America, they call on their churches to respond to raids, fight mass detention, and offer radical hospitality to immigrants.  Hospitality is always a good antidote to fear.

Maybe that’s what we do when we’re bold enough to recognize the fear, the stereotypes, the prejudice we’ve internalized against people who are “other,” knowing that by God’s grace we can be not only forgiven, but changed.

The story begins in fear.  And before the story is over, there will be plenty more to fear, for both Israelites and Egyptians.  There will be locusts and hail and darkness, all signs of divine wrath.  There will be the invitation to walk through the middle of a churning sea.  There will be hunger and thirst and the fear of abandonment.

But – because a few people decided to fear God more than Pharaoh, because a few people decided to fear God instead of other people – the story also begins in hope and promise.

The Israelites are slaves.  But they won’t be for long.

They are God’s people, and they’re about to find out what that means.

 

 

 

Sabbath: More Than Our Work

Scripture: Exodus 23:12; Deuteronomy 5:12-15

A few years ago, I went to visit two of my friends in London.  They were unrelated friends – one from high school, one from college – both of whom just happened to be living and working in London at the time: one for a big corporate law firm, the other for a large bank.  In some ways, especially from my outside perspective, they were both living the dream.  They were doing big, important things, for big, important people; living in Europe; making money that made their lifestyles seem fancy and glamorous, at least to me.

They were also both, it turned out, completely miserable.

Their schedules were grueling.  My banker friend routinely got home from work around 2 am, and got up to go again the next morning.  She called her life “unsustainable.”  My lawyer friend described working all the way through her family’s visit for Christmas.  At one point she said to me, “You know, I don’t actually want to die, but sometimes I think that if I just kind of accidentally walked in front of a bus, it would be OK.”

My reaction was, “What??? None of this is OK.”

I was working in Williamsburg at the time, the associate pastor of a large church.  In a lot of ways, my world seemed very distant from theirs.  I was neither working those hours nor making that money.  I was surrounded, in my ministry world, by admonitions to self-care.  But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how that kind of corporate culture and mentality in which they lived has really seeped over into the rest of our world as well, and how it has quietly set expectations even for those of us who never opted in.

Some of you may know that corporate world and culture well, and others of you, like me, might feel pretty far removed from it.  No matter which applies to you: how many of you know people who humble brag about how busy they are?  How many of you know people who feel the need to be constantly available, even on time that should rightly be theirs – who never turn off that work email notification?  How many of you have been those people?  I know that even in my world that seemed so distant from the one I encountered in London, I found myself surrounded by near constant talk from pastors about how many hours they worked, how they were constantly on call, their struggles with taking a day off.  And I found myself lured into that kind of mindset, too – thinking that if I wasn’t working as much as someone else then I must not be as good a pastor, feeling that gnawing need to check my email on my day off on Friday because someone might expect a response, resisting the temptation to inflate the amount of hours I worked in casual conversation to make myself sound and feel more important and necessary.

It’s experiences like that that have made me passionate and sometimes even a little bit soapbox-y about the idea of Sabbath, because the more I realized how this corporate mentality actually had me in its grips, the stronger I felt the need to resist it.

Last week we began this series on the subject of Sabbath and talked about how our practice of it is modeled on the six days of creation, and how according to some interpretations God even takes a day off on an ongoing basis, and how God invites us to live into that divine rhythm of creation and enjoyment by resting one day a week ourselves.

But Sabbath is such a recurrent theme throughout the Bible, and especially throughout those first five books we call the Torah or the Pentateuch, that we can find lots of different understandings of where it comes from and why it’s important.  Modeling our own weekly rhythm on God’s rhythm is one.  Another is much more mundane – and that is simply the realization of rest as a human need.  We literally can’t just work all the time without a break.  God knows that, and God not just allows for that: God demands we respect that fact about ourselves.

And, in fact, not just about ourselves, but also anyone we may have power or influence over.  In the part of Exodus we heard this morning, which is part of God’s speech to the people from Mount Sinai, after the Ten Commandments, God says this: “Do you work in six days.  But on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and donkey may rest, and even the child of your female slave and the immigrant may be refreshed” (23:12).  The Bible is often written to relatively privileged people, but that’s what makes it all the more important that those with less privilege are remembered.

In our day and age – and perhaps not only in our day and age – the practice of Sabbath is something that may very well require some privilege.  Not everyone can afford – on a survival level – to take time off, especially when payment comes by the hour.  And the Bible indicts those of us responsible for a culture and economy that demands that.  Rest is a human need – and not just a human need, since God includes the animals too.  Rest is a creaturely need, never meant solely for the privileged few.

Remember that this is a law given to a people who have just escaped from slavery in Egypt.  In Egypt, it was the work of the Israelites to make bricks and build things with those bricks.  When Moses goes to Pharaoh and says “Let my people go,” Pharaoh says, “Why are encouraging the people to slack off? They’re just lazy!”  And he demands that from that point on, they will no longer be given straw for the bricks.  They’ll have to gather their own straw.  But they’ll still have to make just as many bricks as before.

But when the Israelites cross the Red Sea into the wilderness and hear from God at Mount Sinai, they are not slaves anymore.   And for these people who are slaves no more, the observance of Sabbath becomes a way they remember their past and commemorate their freedom: As Deuteronomy 5 reminds them, “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.….Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

Pharaoh might have demanded a life defined by making more and more bricks: but God does not.  And in fact, God explicitly demands the opposite: that life be honored as more than that.

Clearly, my friends in London were far from slaves.  Again, there are also people in all around us, right in our city and community, who are forced to work multiple minimum-wage jobs just to make a living, if they even do that; there are prisoners who pick up our trash and harvest our food and put out our fires for WAY less than minimum wage without much choice whatsoever in the matter.  My friends were well compensated for the toll their jobs took on their lives.  They were also free to leave, which both have since done.

They weren’t slaves.  But the way I saw it, as long as they bought into this culture where work claimed an ultimate hold over their lives, neither were they completely free.  And as long as we also buy into that culture, neither are we.

It’s been a weekend for celebrating freedom, or at least the highest ideals we hold of freedom, and in that vein, I believe that God has given us the gift of Sabbath because God wants us to be free.  Free from a culture that defines our worth based on our billable hours.  Free from a culture that expects us to chained to our phones and check our email on vacation.  Free from the lie that the busier I am, the more important I am.  Free from a life of making more and more bricks.

I’ve heard a lot of justifications for taking a break along the lines of, “You can be more productive in 40 hours a week than you can in 50.”  There is truth to this; there have been studies.[1]  At some point we’re working more for the show than for the results.  And I can absolutely tell you that on weeks when I’m stressed about a million things to do and tempted to cram all those things into all the available time I have, but instead stop and let my mind lie fallow for a day, those things tend to get done more efficiently and effectively.  That’s true.  It’s just not the point.

The point is, Sabbath is more than just a strategy for doing more and better work.

I liked the way one article I came across put it: “The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath.  It is not an interlude, but the climax of living.”[2]

I believe that work is good.  I believe that God has given us work to do.  Maybe it’s the work we get paid for, or maybe our truest and highest calling is separate from the way we put food on the table.  But either way, our work – of contributing to society, providing for our families, volunteering, advocating for justice, caring for children, making food for a sick neighbor, moving the parking sign on a Sunday morning so visitors can see it – all of it is good.  It’s how we use our gifts, it’s how we find purpose, it’s how we play an active role in the Kingdom of God.  But it’s only good when we also know when to stop, to say no, to enjoy what God has already given to us without clamoring for more.  It’s only good when we are free.

Maybe freedom is even the wrong word.  My professor for the class I recently took on Exodus liked to remind us that when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, it wasn’t really freedom they were crossing into.  They were no longer subject to Pharaoh.  Instead, they were subject to YHWH.  But of course, that was a much better deal.

As Christians, we understand our ultimate freedom to be found in Christ.  As Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”  And yet it is in that freedom from sin, freedom from the pressures of the world around us, and freedom from ourselves, that we find our call to serve – God and each other.

Maybe, when we find ourselves sucked into this culture of overwork and business, this is the question we should be asking ourselves: who are we going to serve?

Will it be God, or Pharaoh?  Christ, or corporate culture?

Do we want to spend our lives making more bricks with less straw?  Or do we want to get about God’s business of building the Kingdom of God on earth, together?

 

[1] https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs201/projects/crunchmode/econ-hours-productivity.html

[2] https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/shabbat-as-a-reminder-of-creation/