Monday, November 27, 2017

11-26-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of Now Way: Serving”

11-26-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of Now Way: Serving”

   The events of today’s reading occur decades after last week’s about the Ten Commandments. At the end of the Book of Deuteronomy Moses dies and the mantle of leadership passes to Joshua. It was Joshua, not Moses, who led the people of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land God had given. So in our reading today, Joshua, now an old man, is approaching death. 
And just as Moses, at the end of Deuteronomy, left final instructions with Joshua about what the people were to do - reminding them of the journey they had made with God to that point - so we now find Joshua, at the end of the book that bears his name, doing the same thing.

   He reminds Israel of the promise, given first to Abram as he was called from beyond the Euphrates, then passed on through his once unimaginable (even inconceivable) heirs, that God would bless them to be a blessing to others, and that God would give them this land that, 
by Joshua’s time, they finally possess. 

   There’s only one problem…or ten of them. Those pesky commandments keep getting in the way. Especially those first couple about having no other gods or no images of gods. The people of Israel keep messing up on those two in particular - the others as well, but those two are the ones that are particularly worrisome to Joshua. So at the conclusion of today’s passage, Joshua, frustrated by their ongoing failure, says to them, 

“Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

   What a Hallmark moment, right? Other translations phrase it more poetically, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord,” which presents much nicer for the pillows, wallhangings, and cross-stitch patterns on which we usually see this line emblazoned. But unlike other little snatches of scripture that, when taken out of their larger contexts sometimes don’t always hold up as well, this one can stand on it’s own. We can be certain of what this statement means, what it commits the proclaimer to, even without reading the rest of the book. 
Joshua proclaims loudly and clearly, “We will follow the Lord!”
   But listen to this. Here’s how this reading, which almost always ends with this well known phrase, continues - what Paul Harvey would have called the rest of the story:
   Then the people answered, “God forbid that we ever leave the Lord to serve other gods! The Lord is our God. He is the one who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. 
He has done these mighty signs in our sight. He has protected us the whole way we’ve gone and in all the nations through which we’ve passed. The Lord has driven out all the nations before us, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

   Well Joshua is skeptical to say the least. These people haven’t shown that they could successfully follow God to the end of the block, first under Moses’ and then Joshua’s leadership. So when I read this next piece, in my mind, I heard it as though spoken by Tom Hanks with that “there’s no crying in baseball’ voice from A League of Their Own:

“You can’t serve the Lord, because [God] is a holy God…a jealous God. [God] won’t forgive your rebellion and your sins. If you leave the Lord and serve foreign gods, then [God] will turn around and do you harm and finish you off, in spite of having done you good in the past.”

   But the people persist - they’re sure they can do this. 
  “No! The Lord is the one we will serve.”
   So Joshua said to them, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen to serve the Lord.”
They said, “We are witnesses!”
   So Joshua says, “…put aside the foreign gods that are among you. Focus your hearts on the Lord, the God of Israel.”
The people said to Joshua, “We will serve the Lord our God and will obey him.”
   So Joshua writes a covenant for the people in the instruction scroll that Moses had passed on. 
Then, the passage says, 
he took a large stone and put it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, “This stone will serve as a witness against us, because it has heard all the Lord’s words that he spoke to us. It will serve as a witness against you in case you aren’t true to your God.”  Then Joshua sent the people away to each one’s legacy.”

   So Joshua calls the people out. Fine, he suggests, you can SAY you’re going to follow the Lord, but everything you say and do can and will be held against you in a court of law… as it were. And if you read on into the next book, Judges, you find that yes indeedy doody, as Joshua suspected, the people couldn’t do it - they turned to their “other gods,” their little hand crafted gods, their carved stone gods, their fired ceramic gods, and if they’d had them their blow mold plastic gods as well. The people of Israel fell like snowflakes. They fell like a house of cards. They dropped like rocks. They collapsed like all the male politicians, journalists, comedians, actors, and celebrities who are dropping all across the spectrum these days amidst various sexual abuse accusations. 

   Oh, those “other gods” are tempting aren’t they? 
And who knew they wielded so much power? 
Certainly they are false gods, there is no other God but the one True God…but these little gods of paganism, chauvinism or whatever isms, still seduce men with power, pleasure, and entitlement and then raise their ugly heads and bite some men right in the…ego. And I say men because it is nearly always men. 
And I have to admit that I cringe when the people I like or support have been caught up in this moment, and I have smiled when the people I don’t like have been ensnared. And honestly, I think this is just beginning - this has a long way to go before it’s over - and that might be a good thing. 
   Jim Wallis, the Evangelical writer and theologian once described racism as America’s original sin. That may be the case. I think the events unfolding, nearly every day before us now though, indicate that this sexist-misogynist-patriarchal power trip mess could be the world’s original sin. And here’s why I say that.

   We know from our previous study that the entire Bible largely reflects the patriarchal culture in which it was written. And by patriarchy we mean a society organized according to the idea of the supremacy of men, of rule by male descent, or where power and control are predominantly held by males.  For example, historically many traditions in the church at large, owing to that patriarchal slant, ascribe blame for the presence of Sin in the world to the woman Eve, when even a cursory reading of that text reveals that the man Adam was right there next to her being seduced by the same temptation and said nothing. That, along with various passages of scripture that we have talked about here before, that seem to limit or diminish the role of women, have created an atmosphere and a skewed point of view in what is primarily but not exclusively the Evangelical branches of the larger church, that have led to women being held in a diminished role or value, of servitude, and at the extremes even of sexual and other forms of slavery, and of being considered property of lesser value than cattle, which has only fed into this cancer of male-power, male-dominance that has persisted for centuries. In some Evangelical traditions those beliefs persist and are reinforced even today, and reflect a centuries-long church supported patriarchy that we see playing out in the news. 
When Jesus came along he very dramatically rejected patriarchy and many patriarchal and otherwise marginalizing practices, and it got him killed. 
Within two to three centuries after his crucifixion, the elevated roles women had gained in what would become the church of his followers that developed immediately afterwards, were quashed and patriarchy was again the norm. As it has been ever since. 

   So Joshua’s question to the people of Israel - which gods will you follow - is as much a question for the church today as it was then. Which gods will we follow? As we said last week with the Ten Commandments, we all have “other gods” that we kneel down to in one way or another. Whether that god is one of the isms - racism, sexism, nationalism, militarism, consumerism, materialism, or another - or whether that god is a social, economic, or political philosophy, we all have  “other gods” that tempt us, that nag at us to be worshiped, 
to be sacrificed to, that seek to come between us and the One True God. 
   Now Joshua’s response to the people - that if they pledge their allegiance to God and then turn back to these “other gods” that God will harm them - I find problematic, not because I don’t like it or because I’m “soft on sin,” but because I don’t believe that it reflects the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 
That may very well be how Joshua thought about God, but on the other side of the Christ experience I think we have a different, more grace-filled understanding of who and how God is. But if we understand Joshua’s warning to mean that there will be natural consequences to these decisions we make and that because of our free will God will not prevent those chickens from coming home to roost, then I would certainly agree with that. You see, when we say we are going to follow God by following Jesus, that we’re a Christian, we’ve set a bar, a standard. As followers of Jesus Christ - which we all profess to be - the bar that we’ve set, the standard we’ve created, not only precludes following these other gods but also commits us to following the standard Christ set for us of what is right and what is wrong. Jesus Christ, in his life and in his teachings, drew a line - a line tempered by grace, I agree - but a line nonetheless, of what it means to be one of his followers, a disciple. When we are baptized into the faith, whether as an infant or as an adult, a commitment is made to begin a journey toward that ideal of being a follower of Jesus. When a profession of faith is made on our own, we commit to that ideal. It is an understanding of what is right, of what is wrong, of how we are to be in relationship with God and with one another. And even more, as part of our profession of faith, in all Christian traditions, we vow to not only renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world, but also to accept the power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, in whatever forms they present themselves. 

   Unfortunately, much of the world, and with it many Christians, seem to have lost track of that ideal. When the sins of celebrities or others who lay no claim to a faith are exposed I’m saddened but not overly surprised. But when an Alabama Senatorial candidate who made a name for himself by advocating for the public display of the same Ten Commandments he now makes a mockery of is revealed to have abused, assaulted, and molested women and girls - 
and then is defended and excused by self-proclaimed followers of Christ, despite the overwhelming evidence against him, I’m appalled. 

   You see, that whole “as for me and my house, we will follow the Lord” thing is not just a kitschy slogan to hang on a wall and dust off in time for family at Thanksgiving. It’s a pledge of allegiance to God, and Joshua warns we best not say it if we don’t mean it, or if we don’t intend to at least try to follow it. Who we follow, who we serve, how we relate to God and to one another isn’t something to be considered lightly. Yes, we’re all going to fail in some ways; 
I fall short in some way every day, but God knew we would, and that’s why God surrounds us in grace. But we can’t sit back, assume that we have the right - as men or women - to hurt or oppress someone else, to exercise our power to whatever degree we have it, for our own pleasure, our own satisfaction, or our own gain, or at the expense of others,and then try to claim to be a follower of Christ.

     Theologian Robert Cornwall writes of this passage, 
“What Joshua is doing here is asking for the undivided loyalty of the people to God. In this conversation, the issue is whether they will serve Yahweh, or the other gods served by their neighbors and their ancestors. 
But what about us? Do we have divided loyalties? Is our faith compromised by loyalties to nation or culture? Does our faith define our politics, or does our politics define our faith?”

   And I think that’s an important question - does our faith define our politics, or does our politics define our faith? For years now, in Washington and in political capitals around the nation and around the world, the question of what is right and what is wrong has been subverted by what is politically expedient. 
That is, what helps “my people” - be they Democrats or Republicans - obtain or maintain political power. The Governor of Alabama, a woman, said the other day that the accusations against Roy Moore are deeply disturbing and that the accusers seem credible, but that she would still vote for him because they need to keep that Senate seat in Republican hands. The President’s response suggests that he believes it would be better to have an accused child molester in the Senate than a Democrat. 
   And this is not new - it didn’t start with Roy Moore, or Bill Clinton, or John Kennedy - it goes back to the very beginning of our country, even to the beginning of time. People have always sought to exert power and influence at every level of society for their own benefit, rightness or wrongness be damned. It happens all through scripture from Genesis to Revelation. 
It happened in the early church and it happens in the church today. It happens in every nation, on every continent, all around the globe. Why? 
Because we choose to serve other gods. We choose to allow these “other gods” to have greater influence in our lives and in our decision-making than the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And we do it because it’s easier, because the bar is set lower. So what are we to do?

   Theologian and writer Bob Ekblad asks in his comments on this passage: “What are some of the belief systems, attachments, and allegiances that compromise our full allegiance to God and the divine realm? Have we too readily believed our ancestors’ stories that attribute success to hard work, human intelligence, capital, ethnic, or national superiority?” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 478]. What are the ideologies that draw us away from our allegiance to God? What are the enticements of this world that lead us away from God’s vision for creation? I have written a book on the Lord’s Prayer, in which I argue that the Lord’s Prayer is our pledge of ultimate allegiance to God and God’s realm. How seriously do we take that prayer? Is it something we say by rote, or do we mean it?”

   So, I think the first step is for us to decide who it is that we will follow? We need to take the time to truly consider individually and collectively, in our homes, in our families, in our workplaces, in our church, what are those ideologies or enticements that draw us away from who and what God calls us to be and to do. And I think we need to seriously consider, in light of all that is going on with the sexual abuse scandal and in other ways, does our faith shape our politics or does our politics shape our faith? 

   As Bob Cornwall writes, 
   “Joshua wants to make sure that the people of Israel have thought deeply about their own allegiances. He reminds them that they have not always been consistent. They have been enticed by other gods. They have been susceptible to powers other than God. So now, as Joshua sees the end of his term as leader drawing near, he wants to make sure the people are committed to God and to God’s covenant…It is time once again to reaffirm that promise, which is now embodied in Israel. Joshua has made his commitment. In stewardship terms, he’s turned in his pledge card. The question is, will the rest of the people do the same?”
   "And the people of Israel wholeheartedly say, [Yes! We will serve God!] “And Joshua asks are you sure? Are you willing to pay the price? [Membership has its privileges, but failure has its costs - not just individually but for the society at large.] Joshua makes it clear that allegiance to God and God’s realm must be more than lip service. It requires our full attention, our full embodied attention. That’s difficult for us. Our allegiances do get split. It’s easier to go along with the culture. It’s easier to embrace nation than God’s realm because nation is so much more tangible. Yet, here is the call of God. Whom will you serve?”

   In Advent, which begins our new liturgical year next Sunday, we anticipate the coming of Christ and the new covenant that he brings. But on this Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday, the final Sunday of the current liturgical year, we celebrate Christ’s presence, his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, his resurrection, and his eternal reign - all of it - TODAY! 

   We worship a God revealed to us in Jesus Christ who, when it seems like all is lost, when it seems like evil has the upper hand, always, ALWAYS, provides a way out, a way through, a way out of no way. When the floodwaters of life and all that we face appear on the verge of overwhelming us, God saves us. 
When the future as we see it laid out before us seems hopeless, God blesses us. When danger, toil, and snares threaten to engulf us, God protects us. 
When we feel lost and don’t know how to proceed, God delivers us. And when we wonder who we are, why we are, and how we are to be, God consecrates us as beloved children of God and provides us with a way out of no way. And after all that God has done for us, after all that God has promised us, it falls to us to make a decision, to answer the question, who will we serve? Of all the temptations that face us, of all the “other gods” who seek to seduce us into their web, who will we follow? 

   Following Jesus Christ offers us a way to know and be known by God that will shape and reshape the world more closely to the dream that God had for us when we were created. Making the wrong choice, following the wrong gods is dragging down people and societies all around the world, with more on the news every night. Being a follower of Jesus Christ doesn’t provide us an easy life, but it does provide us a life filled with hope. And it provides us with the strength to face down the “other gods” who would entice us into living by a lower standard that hurts and demeans other people, and in turn hurts and demeans the world. 
The difference between right and wrong that Christ helps us struggle with is not a question of political expediency - it’s a moral question. It’s an ethical question. 
And it’s a question we answer each and every day, many times a day, in whether we live like Christ, and love like Christ, or whether we live as the world lives. The Christ who reigns forever offers us strength, that we might not allow the world’s lesser gods to entice us into a lesser standard than the love God as shown through Jesus Christ.  Amen.

11-19-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of No Way: Consecrating”

11-19-17 Sermon Notes “A Way Out of No Way: Consecrating”
(Sorry, no audio recording available here this week, but you can find it on our Facebook page)

   How many of you, when you sleep, dream on a regular basis?
Do you usually remember your dreams, or do they quickly go away when you wake? I’ve been fighting that cold I told you about last Sunday all week, and I’ve been taking NyQuil at night to help me sleep. 
And I’ve noticed that when I take cold medicine I dream more frequently, and also, that my dreams get really strange, you know, even kind of bizarre sometimes. 
   It is said by some researchers that our dreams are, in part, our subconscious mind working out issues we encountered during the day. Others suggest that they might include as well our mind dealing with our fears, our anxieties, and our desires. 
In our technology saturated world, it was no surprise when I encountered an article years ago comparing the dream-creating work that our brains do at night to a computer hard drive organizing and reorganizing bits of data, scanning and categorizing files, and repairing bits of damaged or corrupted memory. 
I don’t know, I just know that NyQuil makes my dreams all just a bit more vivid, just a bit stranger.
   There have been times when I’ve secretly wished that I would dream when I went to sleep. 
I’ve hoped to dream of my parents at times, especially on those important dates, their birthdays or the dates on which they died. While I can still remember their faces, their voices have faded from my memory after all these years - I can no longer hear them in my heads; 
I can’t remember the timbre or pitches of their voices when they talked, when they laughed. 
So, there have been times that I’ve wished that I would dream of them so that I could remember those things. 
I know some of you, when I’ve visited and talked with you after the loss of a loved one, have shared with me that you just wish you would dream of them, so that you could see them again. Dreams can be a very powerful part of our lives.
   Sometimes, though, when we speak of dreams we don’t mean what goes on in our minds during REM sleep. Rather, we mean things we aspire to or hope for. 
We might dream of our wedding day, or of a big promotion, or of hitting the lottery. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously shared a dream in a sermon in which he said he dreamed of a day when people would be judged, not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. 
I don’t know whether he actually dreamed that while sleeping, or if he was simply stating a desire, an aspiration. Either way, it’s an image, a desire that I would think we could all cling to, hope for.

   Joseph, the son of Jacob, was a dreamer. 
We heard his story a couple of weeks ago. 
He both dreamed and interpreted dreams, which sometimes got him into trouble but at other times saved his life and the lives of others. Before Joseph, though, I have to believe that Abram and Sarai, prior to the angel coming to them the first time, dreamed of having a family of their own, only to see their hope fade as they grew older and remained childless. Later, their dreams changed after that divine visitor appeared, rekindling the spark of that desire. 
We hear and read about dreams all through scripture, in both testaments, that shape or are integral to the story that we’re being told. Sometimes those dreams seem to come straight from God, other times they seem just like so much Nyquil-induced hodge-podge. 

   After four hundred years in slavery, but likely earlier than that, the Israelite people dreamed of freedom from Egypt. But when God heard their cries and sent Moses and they were confronted with the reality of what freedom entailed, the dream suddenly seemed more like a nightmare. In our reading this week, though, having been delivered through the sea to freedom, and while wandering in the desert, they have yet another experience with God. Following a column of smoke and fire in which God is present, guiding them through the wilderness, God leads them to a mountain. 
And God calls Moses to come up the mountain to stand before God on behalf of the people. And God tells Moses: 
“Speak to the House of Jacob, tell the People of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. If you will listen obediently to what I say and keep my covenant, out of all peoples you’ll be my special treasure. The whole Earth is mine to choose from, but you’re special: a kingdom of priests, a holy nation.’

   And we recognize some dream-like qualities here, right? God didn’t literally bring them out on eagle’s wings - God is speaking metaphorically here, and creates a vision. But God says that they are “a special treasure to God, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests.” A kingdom of priests? 
On a scale ranging from nightmare to sweet dreams that would have to be nightmare, right? 
In all of my dreams of what I wanted to be growing up, from policeman to astronaut to gangster and everything in between, I assure you priest (or pastor) never came up! Yet, here I am. 

   In this passage, God consecrates the people of Israel, to be a nation of priests, but what does that mean? 
To consecrate something means to set it apart, to bless it, to make it sacred. Note I said, “set apart,” not set above. Israel wasn’t elevated above the other nations that God had also delivered that we heard about before, they were set apart for a very specific role - to be a nation of priests. When a clergy person is ordained, it’s a form of consecration by the bishop. And contrary to how some think about the role of ordained clergy are not set above the laity within the church. 
All Christians are called into ministry in our baptism, you, me, everyone sitting in this sanctuary and all other sanctuaries like this; we are all called, baptized into ministry, what is called the priesthood of all believers. Clergy, rather than being set above are simply set apart for very defined roles that require specific training and a different type of commitment. In much the same way Israel is set apart for God, to be consecrated, to be made sacred, to be different from other nations.

   How were they to be different? 
Well God had some ideas about that. 
Ten of them to be exact. 
Ten ideas or commandments about how to be a set apart community, consecrated to God. 

And these ten fit neatly into two that Jesus would later call the Great Commandments, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your soul and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. 
   And we can see how the ten fit neatly into those two. 
The first four are about our relationship with God. 
The fifth is kind of a transition piece, and then the final five are about our relationship with one another. 
Love of God, love of neighbor. So let’s look at these ten and consider how in our context, we might understand them. 
   First, no other gods. It seems easy enough, but the 16th century reformer Martin Luther rightly points out that our real gods are whatever motivates us, drives us, inspires us, even owns us. So what are our other gods? Consumerism? Nationalism? Political philosophy? Militarism? Racism? Some other ism?
   No images of God? Well, scripture says we are made in the image of God, and we know that Jesus is the perfect image and revelation of God - so other creature-like images, whether of the Egyptian hieroglyphic variety or the Wall Street golden bull, the Democratic donkey, the Republican elephant, the American Eagle, or you name it, mislead when we put them above, or even on par with the one true God.
   Do not take the Lord’s name in vain? 
You know, I think God is less concerned about someone using God’s name as part of a swear word than with politicians and others, including church folk, who try to attach God’s name to things, ideas, beliefs, policies, political parties, that are not of God. 
Or with those who claim to be persons of great faith, when all evidence of their words and actions point to the contrary.
   Remember the Sabbath? We don’t know how to rest in God anymore. We’re attached to these stupid gadgets with a digital umbilical cord, that if we’re asked or expected to put them down - or heaven forbid turn them off - you’d think we were going to die. 
Sabbath on a Sunday doesn’t always work for people, but the day of the week is less important than the taking of sabbath time. We take Sabbath because God took Sabbath. As creatures made in the image of God these first four commandments model for us what living in God’s image is to look like, and we honor the Sabbath because it is the day God set aside for rest, for reflection, for thanksgiving. Our actions are to correspond with God’s actions, our character with God’s character.
   Then we move to the fifth commandment, which is 
a link or a bridge to the final five. 
The commands that govern the divine-human relationship in the first four are linked to those that govern our human communal relationship - Love of God, love of neighbor. So “honor your father and your mother” reflects not only the literal understanding of these words, but also the parental relationship that often serves as a metaphor for our relationship with God as parent. 
And like the first four, it is stated in a positive formulation, “do this,” rather than in the prohibitory language of the final five. So it’s important to recognize that the laws that govern the divine-human interactions are linked to those that govern human relationships. 
Our morality, our ethics of how we are with one another are grounded in our experience of how we are with God. 
   Don’t kill? Jesus spent a lot of time dealing with this one, explaining that anger is an interior kind of murder. And if there is anything in our culture as commonplace 
as Sabbath-stealing technology, it’s anger. 
In Bexley a few months ago, a Jewish family came home from synagogue to find swastikas painted on their garage door. Last year the family of a gay high school student in Columbus woke one morning to find hate language chalked at the end of their driveway. 
A Muslim high school student was shot and killed while walking home from school on the east side earlier this year. Neo-nazi and white supremacists feel empowered to parade through the streets waving nazi flags, confederate flags, and to shout hate from the highest peaks. 
And many do this while claiming to be Christian! 
Were we to revise/update the ten commandments for today, an easy one would be Thou shalt not kill
If Jesus was right (if?), then a revision would make it Thou shalt not hate! And as followers of Jesus Christ, we do not, we can not, defend hate. Ever. 
   At the same time, we are a society that accepts killing as normal and acceptable. We’re the only country in the world plagued by this overwhelming onslaught of mass shootings, one every day this year. 
But we’re also the only country in the world that allows such easy access to guns. As theologian and pastor Rev. James Howell wrote so eloquently, 
"Thou shalt not kill" wasn't [merely] an individualistic commandment, but God's way of creating a kind of community, a kind of nation where killing wasn't a thing; so what do we as the church, which is part of the nation, need to labor toward so killing [which is so rampant in America] is reduced?”

   And Howell continued,  
   “I blogged last year… on the futility of, after a shooting, good people saying "our thoughts and prayers are with"... whomever. My blog said it's time to stop the prayers and do something. The commandment, "no other gods," may also figure in this. Political ideology is modernity's idolatry, and the ideology of absolute gun rights has to be the [prime] example of this. [This is] 
perilous territory, but somehow, gently but strongly, this has to be named and exposed. [Paul’s letter to the] Philippians speaks of losing anything, even everything, for the sake of knowing Jesus — so what do we need to lose, to set aside, to be close to the Jesus who is grieved by [Sandy Hook, Charleston, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Orlando, Texas and so many others] but also who is pleading with us to be a very different kind of people?”

   No adultery (in a culture where sex is used as a marketing tool, and where sex as impulse, pleasure and self-fulfillment, not to mention abuse, assault, and harrasment is all over the media)? 
Jesus said if you lust in your heart, you are an adulterer. There’s no condemnation there; just as in that moment in John’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters what John calls “a woman caught in adultery” and tells her accusers, all of whom are men, that the one without sin can cast the first stone. Note, there was no condemnation from the religious folks for the man caught in adultery, only for the woman. Echoes of which we hear today as women, and some men, find the strength to stand up and name those who have assaulted, molested, and harassed sexually - and they are attacked by those who would defend patriarchy. Adultery can be sexual in nature, but throughout scripture it is also used in parallel with idolatry, which ties this one back to the first two commandments as well. Maybe pleasure is our god, or patriarchy.
   No stealing? John Wesley said when we fail to provide overabundant charity to the poor that it’s theft. 
And we’ve also been told that since all that we have is from God, then the excess we store away, the food in our pantries, the clothes in our closets, belong to the hungry and the naked. Theft doesn’t have to be blatant or obvious. Greed is a form of theft as well. Policies that take from the poor in order to give to the rich are as much stealing as is armed robbery.
   No coveting? Coveting is the engine of capitalism! 
If it weren’t for wanting the newest, the latest, the glitziest, our economy would crash and burn. 
Have we made capitalism into a god as well? 
What did the President tell us to do in the immediate aftermath of 9/11? Go spend money, go buy something, go out to dinner, go to a movie. To covet is to worship at the altar of another god.

   So, this passage of scripture has become one of the most contested, politicized, misunderstood and often trivialized texts in scripture. Many Christians, misunderstanding Paul’s writings, take a negative view 
of the law; while other Christians loudly proclaim the commandments wanting them to be posted in public, in court houses, in school houses, but always in judgment of others, and rarely if ever for critical self-reflection. As Christians, why don’t we ever see people clamoring to have the Beatitudes displayed in public?
   But self-reflection is what is called for here, both with this passage and in our society. Because I believe that often, as we do with many passages of scripture, we weaponize these words when they were meant to bring freedom and liberation. When Jesus says ‘those without sin can cast the first stone,’ who among us can rise up?
 When our anger and our hate is murder, when our lust is adultery, when our consumerism, our racism, or our political ideology have become our god, who are we to judge another? And when the loudest and most public proponents of holding others to these standards are the ones who most clearly and publicly have violated them, what are we to say? 

   The path to freedom and liberation offered in this passage was well-understood by Martin Luther, who noticed the immense grace of God in each commandment. Certainly they stand before us as a mirror, revealing our sin — which then is the beginning of grace. There is mercy hidden in each command. 
God, in consecrating Israel, and through Christ us as well, in mercy liberates us from our burdens by declaring “You don’t have to have other gods. You can rest. 
You don’t have to covet. I’ve provided all you need. 
There is enough - even more than enough. 
You don’t have to live this life of hate, and fear, and violence - live instead, in me, as I live in you!”
   Brevard Childs says, “The intent of the commandments is to engender love of God and love of neighbor.” 
And it has been suggested elsewhere that in providing these commandments, God was casting a vision, sharing God’s dream, of what a community, a world centered in God’s love might look like. A world without competing ideologies, a world without damaging relationships, where all that we do and all that we are about was loving God and loving one another, reflecting the image of the God who created us. 

   James Howell shared in a blogpost that a song that he and his daughter danced to at her wedding helped him to rethink the Ten Commandments. “Somewhere over the rainbow…there’s a land that I dreamed of…Dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.” 
I don’t know what you dream of, I’m not always certain about what I dream of, but I think today’s scripture gives us an idea of what it is that fills God’s dreams. 
What would it be like to dream a life of holiness or sacredness or to dream a life of intimacy with God? Maybe in this season of giving thanks for all that God has given us, we can reimagine the Ten Commandments as God’s dream of such a life for us. 
And then as songwriter Richard O’Brien put it, 
“don’t dream it - be it.”


Sunday, November 12, 2017

11/12/17 - “A Way Out of No Way: Delivering”

11/12/17 - “A Way Out of No Way: Delivering”

   As much as I love movies, am entertained by movies, even find biblical and theological themes and images in movies, movies also do us a disservice in at least one way: we can never “unsee” what we see in a film. 
If we’ve seen “Gone With the Wind,” then our understanding of southern plantations, southern gentlemen, slavery, and the Civil War will always be shaded in one way or another by those images. 
If we’ve seen Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” we may never be able to pull the shower curtain closed and feel totally safe and secure again. And if we’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” then we’ll likely never be able to imagine the scene from our scripture today in any way other than how he presented it sixty-one years ago.
   And that’s okay. It’s not my intent to debunk or challenge that presentation. In part because that’s not the direction of this message, and in part because, as I said, you can never “unsee” it once you’ve seen it. So I’m not going to waste my time with that. Films are for entertainment first and foremost, and that one is entertaining even if it does take artistic license, as films do.
   The book of Exodus picks up the story of the people called Israel about 400 years after the ending of Genesis. And you’ll remember that last week we told the early part of the story of Joseph, and how God protected both God’s chosen people and God’s covenant by being present in and with Joseph, and ultimately with his family. The covenant, to make Israel a great nation and to give them a land promised to them by God, had begun with Abram and Sarai and extended through Isaac and then to Jacob and to his twelve sons, who would become the heads of the twelve tribes of this growing nation. The latter parts of Genesis shared how Joseph was able to save his family and thousands of others from a famine that could have destroyed them and God’s covenant with them. 

   When we pick up the story today, though, Egypt is not the same place it was then. In no more than a generation or two there was no one left who knew Joseph, or how Joseph and Pharaoh had worked together to save their peoples. Institutional memory was gone, and with it went loyalty and relationship. Replacing it was fear, and entitlement, and oppression. 

As the number of Israelites increased - God said they would number like the stars in the sky - Egyptians became fearful of becoming a minority in their own country. In response the Egyptian under Pharaoh forcibly enslaved the Jewish people. You can almost hear the Egyptians crying, “Build that Wall!,” in order to keep the slaves from escaping. As their population continued to grow, even while in captivity, fear on the part of the Egyptians threatened to annihilate an entire generation when Pharaoh ordered the extermination of all the male Jewish children. Faced with the extinction of God’s chosen people, God raised up a new leader, a new prophet, to speak for and act on behalf of God and God’s covenant people.

   So the book of Exodus tells the story of how this people rose up. We learn how Moses was spared from the genocide imposed upon the Jewish people and how he grew to become the chosen leader of the people despite his murderous history. And about this second book of the Hebrew Scriptures, theologian Bob Stallman writes,
“Although the book’s title in Christian Bibles, “Exodus,” means “the way out,” the forward-leaning orientation of Exodus could legitimately lead us to conclude that the book is really about the way in, for it recounts Israel’s entrance to the Mosaic covenant that will frame their existence, not only in the wilderness wanderings around the Sinai Peninsula but also in their settled life in the Promised Land. The book conveys how Israel ought to understand their God, and how this nation should work and worship in their new land. On all counts, Israel must be mindful of how their life under God would be distinct from and better than life for those who followed the gods of Canaan.”

   So as we think about Exodus, the framing story of the people of Israel then and now, we should think of it as a story of deliverance out of slavery as well as into the covenant of God. The Joseph saga from last week showed God working quietly, protecting God’s people in subversive ways through Joseph and others. 
Through the God-given gift of dream interpretation Joseph was able to rise into powerful positions, first in the home of Potiphar and eventually in the home of Pharaoh himself, using human systems and his ingenuity to, as Cameron Howard put it, “provide safety, prosperity, reunification, and reconciliation for Jacob’s family.” 
   So last week’s protection becomes, four centuries later, this week’s deliverance. Exodus 14, with or without the movie special effects, shows God delivering God’s people, although there is nothing quiet about how God works here. As Cameron describes it, 
   “Horses’ hooves pound the dirt, the Israelites cry out in fear, the Egyptians scream in panic, the wind howls, and the waters churn in their great vertical walls. Add to that the pyrotechnics of the pillar of fire and cloud, and Exodus 14 describes a big, chaotic mess.” 

   In fact, if we think back to the beginning of Genesis, the chaos of this scene might remind us of the chaos described before God began the creative process. 
God is creating here, as well, but this time begins with a people and a promise rather than empty-handed. 
The people aren’t seeing that though. What they see, or think they see, is that they’ve been abandoned by God and led into the wilderness by a mad man. 
“Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you took us away to die in the desert?” they demanded. 
“Leave us to work for the Egyptians! Even that would be better than dying out here!” 

   And in the midst of this chaos, as the people are literally running for their lives as the Egyptian army chases them down, what Moses said to them must have struck them as the rantings of a delusional denier: 
“Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. The Lord will fight for you. 
You just keep still.”

   Don’t be afraid! Stand and watch! Keep still! Are you crazy? they must have thought. But then, what to their wondering eyes should appear, but Charlton Heston, saying “no, do not fear.” Sorry, I told you that you can’t unsee it.
   But what comes next, and what Moses tells them next, are both unbelievable. As Cameron describes it,
Given this chaos, Moses’ instructions to the terrified Israelites are all the more remarkable… As they were being chased down by the most technologically equipped fighting force anywhere around, the Israelites were surely inclined toward fight or flight: resist or run, sure, but keep still? What good will that do? 
Their mandate from God here is neither to fight nor flight, but to witness: to observe God’s power and might. God will do all the fighting for them.”
   Thought of another way: this isn’t their fight to fight, this is God’s. This is God acting to deliver God’s people, again, in much the same way that God had acted through Moses in the first thirteen chapters of Exodus to get to the edge of the Red Sea in chapter 14. The people had seen and believed, then forgotten and become fearful. Moses’ challenge to them to stand still and watch as God delivers them is supposed to put to rest any remaining concerns that they might have about the power of God compared to that of Pharaoh.
And what power they saw.
   In verse 10 we’re told that the people of Israel “looked back and saw the Egyptians marching toward them.” But in verses 30 and 31, that immediately follow today’s reading it says, in verse 30, “Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore,” and in verse 31, “Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians.” 
In verse 10 the Israelites feared for their lives, but in verse 30 they “feared the Lord.” As Cameron points out, “When they stood, saw, and kept still, they believed.”
   And he goes on,  “If the Joseph story showed us everyday miracles, the exodus story shows us a once-in-a-lifetime (even once-in-a-millennium)  miracle. In many ways it is the miracle; Exodus 14 just might be the most important chapter in the entire Old Testament. The story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Pharaoh’s army at the Red (or Reed) Sea is the bedrock of the covenant relationship between God and Israel.”

   The story of the Exodus, though, isn’t just the stuff of a good story or even an epic movie. The Exodus is the over-arching or framing story, what is called the meta-narrative, of the entire Hebrew Bible. Later in Exodus, when God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, God says  “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3). 
   The people of Israel have been freed in order to worship and serve God by keeping God’s commandments. And the reminders are found in Leviticus, in the Prophets, the History, the Writings and in the Psalms. The deliverance of the people of God, is THE standard, the non-negotiable, the guide stone in all of the Hebrew Bible as well as the Christian Scriptures as well.

   For followers of God through the way of Christ, the story of the Exodus reminds us of the power God has to defeat oppressors and deliver the oppressed. Exodus images were a powerful reminder of God’s power and promise of deliverance during the Civil Rights battles of the 20th Century; “We Shall Overcome,” the theme song of anti-segregationists, suffragists, and others who called on the name of God in the midst of their battles for basic human and equal rights. It is the core of what is known as “Liberation Theology” that has developed among oppressed peoples around the world.
   Lest we think that God’s work through Christ is the first or the only way God has ever sought to deliver God’s people, we should remember that God has been delivering God’s people throughout history, both recorded and primordial. From the waters of the flood, from famine, from slavery in Egypt, from Exile in Babylon, God’s modus operandi has always been one of deliverance. 
And as we shared a couple of weeks ago, that deliverance was not limited to only the Israelite people. 
God delivers all people.

   The prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, The Lord’s Prayer, includes our plea to God to “deliver us from evil.” The apostle Paul reminds us that in Jesus Christ we are delivered from sin and from death. More than UPS, FedEX, or the Post Office, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Moses, Miriam, and Jesus is in the delivery business. That same prayer also pleads that “God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When we think that our life is so chaotic, that our world is so messed up, that our economy is so one-sided, that our politics is so divisive, that nothing can save us, we find ourselves, like the Israelites, running in fear from the Powers that Be. 
But God invites us to stand firm. 
   In the midst of the Civil War, the bloodiest war in U.S. history, President Abraham Lincoln famously prayed, not that God would be on our side against an army of brothers and sisters who prayed to the same God, but that we might be on God’s side. That is, that we were attempting to align ourselves with God’s will, not that we were trying to co-opt God to our will.
WE are the people of God and there is nothing that 
we cannot do when we are on the side of God. 
We are called to bear witness to the power of God and 
to the desire of God to return the world to wholeness. And the role to which we are called is to be the hands and feet, the workers of God’s miracles in the world. 

    As Bob Stallman so pointedly reminds us, 
   “The book of Exodus opens and closes with Israel at work. At the onset, the Israelites are at work for the Egyptians. By the book’s end, they have finished the work of building the [Lord’s] tabernacle according to the Lord's instructions (Exod. 40:33). 
God did not deliver Israel from work. He set Israel free for work. God released them from oppressive work under the ungodly king of Egypt and led them to a new kind of work under his gracious and holy kingship.”

   As readers and hearers of this sacred story, we are called to join the Israelites in their witness to God’s delivering victory: to stand firm, to see, and to believe, and then to be about the work of bringing to fruition God’s will, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.