Sermon #3 in Series: Changing the Contract

Preached at Watchung Avenue Presbyterian Church on May 26, 2013 on Exodus 14 & 20 as part of a series on journey and transformation that is personal and lived out corporately in the life of our congregations.

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In his sermon “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” Canadian minister Barry Robinson writes these words:

There comes a time for all of us when we must find out whether we have what it takes.  That moment when we break free of the oppressive circumstances that have held us captive for so long and stand before an uncertain futu
re.  When matching the enemy blow for blow is not an option.  When no one can see a way for us to the other side.  When we must simply reach down within ourselves and find that source of fearlessness, dignity and integrity.  The place that literally in-spires us to be more than we know.

Have you ever had a moment like that, when the time came for you to d

raw your line in the sand?  When in the many times quoted words of the famous church reformer from his trial, Martin Luther, you say something like he did: “Here I stand, I can go no further”?

Have you ever had a moment like that?

Imagine Moses for a moment, standing at the edge of the Red

Exodus 20

Sea.  Over 600 Egyptian chariots chasing him down, wanting to capture, and probably kill him and the Israelite people?  Can you imagine Moses, as God reassures him in this moment, but as the Israelite people who he is trying to save quiz and question him?  The sea behind him, the surging Egyptian army is coming towards him.

Do you think you could have been like him—stand there with all your might, trust the things that God is saying to you, not waver, and do as you are commanded?  Can you imagine Moses’ thoughts, “Here I stand God, I can go no further!?”  Do you think you could have been like Moses, walking carefully through the parted sea—rushing waves stretching high above on either side of you, trusting that as you walked through the water—that it would not come down and swallow you, but instead you would make it safety to the other side?

It is a dramatic and life-changing scene of trusting God; and for the Israelite people, trusting the leader who God had offered them in their time of great need.

As the scene unfolds, these are the questions that get asked of Moses:

…Did you bring us here to die because there were not graves for us in Egypt?

…Why have you taken us away from Egypt?

…Didn’t we say we wanted you to leave us alone, and leave us in Egypt?

…We would have been better off as slaves in Egypt then dying alone here in the wilderness!

The Israelites, in their questions to Moses, their protests, invoke the name of Egypt every time.  “Take us back to the place of safety,” they say.  “Take us back to the place we know, even though we suffer there.”  “Our fears of the unknown are so big that we cannot possibly imagine a bright new tomorrow.”  “Who do you really think you are anyway, Moses?”

They directly challenge his leadership.  Even though they are craving a change in their lives, an end to slavery—they are too full of fear to make the change on their own.  Moses pushes them and finally they reach the freedom they wanted, but couldn’t figure out how to get to.  The Promised Land.

What fears are trapping you today?  A body worn out by illness?  Family crises demanding your attention but allowing you no time for yourself?  Grief, or sadness?  Addiction of one sort or another?  Perhaps a way of life, a way of being, an outlook on the world?  Work that no longer makes you happy, but instead wears you out day after day?  A relationship?

We are all trapped by something.  We all have something that is holding us back, keeping us from being able to move forward in all the ways we want to.  Some of the things that trap us we cannot change, but we can choose to relate to them in a different way.  Other things that trap us are within our power to change.  In all instances—these are difficult changes in life to make.  And like the Israelite people so long ago, staying with the thing that traps us is usually easier than making a change.  So we stay there, usually until something dramatic begins to move us in a different direction.   And like the Israelite people so long ago, we cannot fully get out or away from of the things in life that have trapped or enslaved us without God’s help.

Just like we can each relate in our lives to the Israelite people, every one of us can also be like Moses.  We can lead our families, our communities, and our congregations out of all the things that enslave us, hold us captive and keep us far away from God’s grace.  We can move not just ourselves, but others towards the Promised Land.  Each one of us has the ability to be leaders, disciples—those to teach others around us about what being transformed by not just God’s message of love and salvation—but living it out can look like.  We all have both sides to us—the Israelite side and the Moses side.  We all have those capabilities and those deficits.  And we all have that ability to change and take big risks.

The second half of today’s lesson is in Exodus 20, the Ten Commandments.  One of the first things that God does for the Israelite people when they get to the Promised Land is let them know that they have been made new and that because of this they will have a new way to live and conduct their lives.  Taken together, the Ten Commandments are not what we usually think of them as being: prescriptive rules—but are instead as Walter Brueggemann asserts; commandments that release us from anxiety.

The system of Pharaoh was an anxious system.  Build more bricks!  Produce more grain!  Work day and night!  Even the Pharaoh himself in his dreams was anxious about not having enough.  The entire sick and sinful system of Pharaoh was built upon greed and anxiety.

The Ten Commandments are 100% different: they are an anti-anxiety worldview.  An opportunity to honor your family, rather than be disassociated from them by your labor.  An opportunity to care for other people, and treat them with the respect they are due in all areas of life rather than see them as commodities means to an end.   An opportunity to not want things that others have, to not long after them—but to give thanks for the abundance that God has offered to every person.  An opportunity to worship God rather than the demands of Pharaoh.  And an opportunity for Sabbath, rest; not just for yourself—but even for the people and the animals who work for you because all people and even all animals have dignity and worth when we imagine the world from God’s point of view.  The Ten Commandments are not about black-and-white prescriptive faith, but an open, Spirit filled, community-oriented, anti-anxiety faith that gives people and Creation all they need and deserve as beloved parts of the Kingdom of God.

What might trusting the God of the Red Sea or the God of the Ten Commandments in the church of the future look like?

Less anxiety in our system.

We are driven by numbers in the church today.  How many in worship, how many in a program.  Are we making budget? We compare, “There used to be more people here,” or “This isn’t what we did in the past,” or “Let’s not do that, we might upset someone.”  The constant comparisons create anxiety, and the more time we spend in anxiety, the less time we are with God.  We know the truth, that faith is not a commodity.  So why then in the church do we commoditize our experience with God with numbers and with data?  Lessening our bean-counting in church might be a mark of the future church that God is creating for us.  God is not a God of anxiety.  The church of the future is not going to be as interested in the sort of anxiety that we carry in the North American church of today, and it should be noted, that this is a particular cultural anxiety we carry in “mainstream” North America that has seeped into our congregational life.  The church of the past has also been caught up in—and I admit my own complicity in this some days—in theological “rightness,” all signs of anxiety.  Or in our rules and regulations.

Just yesterday, Pope Francis, who I think of as a fascinating and unlikely prophetic new voice in our midst in the larger Church today offered this example in his homily Mass in St. Peter’s square:

Think of the good Christians, with good will, we think about the parish secretary, a secretary of the parish … ‘Good evening, good morning, the two of us – boyfriend and girlfriend – we want to get married’. And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’. They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot … ‘. This, instead of receiving a good welcome- It is a good thing to get married! ‘- But instead they get this response:’ Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right … ‘. And they find a closed door. When this Christian and that Christian has the ability to open a door, thanking God for this fact of a new marriage … We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people.

We are many times controllers of faith, instead of becoming facilitators of the faith of the people.  What a wonderful statement, isn’t it?  Just meditate on that idea for a moment: where in your relationship with God or the church are you treating faith as a relationship or as a commodity?  How can you release that?  Let it go?

Is this the church of the future that God is calling us into, less driven by anxiety—driven by greater and greater openness?  Rather than worrying about where things go, or if the room set-up is just right, letting go—offering space and room for God’s Spirit to move?

In his sermon “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” Canadian minister Barry Robinson concludes with these words:

It is then that a path opens before us in recognition of that which we were prepared to believe, a way out of what seemed an impossible dilemma into that new day that God alone can provide.

God did a new thing thousands of years ago in the Promised Land.  God is still doing a new thing today.  Hear the words of the prophet Isaiah from the Message:

This is what God says,
 the God who builds a road right through the ocean,
    

who carves a path through pounding waves,


The God who summons horses and chariots and armies—
    

they lie down and then can’t get up;
    

they’re snuffed out like so many candles:


“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.


Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
    

It’s bursting out!

Don’t you see it?


There it is!

I’m making a road through the desert,
 rivers in the badlands.


Wild animals will say ‘Thank you!’
   

the coyotes and the buzzard

Because I provided water in the desert,
    

rivers through the sun-baked earth,


Drinking water for the people I chose,
    

the people I made especially for myself,
    

a people custom-made to praise me.

Amen.

Note:  The seed of an idea for the anti-anxiety discussion around the 10 Commandments comes out of Brueggemann’s article “Sabbath as Resistance, Part I” that can be downloaded from the Thoughtful Christian site.  This is a great resource for use in a congregation for conversation around this topic.

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