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.