Saturday, October 7, 2017

“Back to Basics” - October 8, 2017



Exodus 20:1-17


            Every so often you meet the ranting and raving, angry kind of atheist who gets in your face and is determined to ridicule anything that has the remotest connection to religious belief.  This is the guy who blames every act of terrorism not only on a specific religion but even on religion in general.  This is the crusader who goes after institutions because someone within one of them has done something that the group itself would decry as wrong.  This is somebody who doesn’t see the difference between the UMW holding a bake sale to raise money to house a mother and child fleeing abuse from Creflo Dollar demanding support because he needs a new plane. 

            I’m not going into any of that today.

          More often, though, you do meet someone with honest questions and realistic observations who finds herself or himself wondering whether there is any kind of solid basis for making hard decisions, when people that they admire and trust often come down on different sides of the same question.  They aren’t trying to rip anything down.  They’re trying to make sure that they do a good job building something up, so they inspect the foundations.

            Good for them!

            One of those people is Bart Campolo, who is the son of Tony Campolo, who preached here one Sunday last year.  They have a book out called Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son, where they go back and forth on such matters in a respectful and loving way that (I believe) we can all learn from.  In this book, Bart Campolo writes,

“I am always mystified when Christians ask me how I can trust any moral code not grounded on the fixed and absolute moral authority of God.  That’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make:  Nobody decides to trust a moral code because it is objectively justifiable or divinely inspired.  In fact, nobody decides to trust a moral code at all.  We don’t choose our understandings of right and wrong and where they come from.  We absorb these things as children, and only rationalize them for ourselves and one another long after the fact.”[1]
Apart from changing the word “rationalize” to the word “understand”, if he asked me about this, I would agree with him. 

            But before I would say that everything is relative, I would refer back to a text as basic as the Ten Commandments and point out how they begin.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” [Exodus 20:2]
The Ten Commandments do not stand alone as Ten Useful Life Hacks or Ten Ways to Improve the World.  The Ten Commandments come to us as part of the history of God’s intervention in human life prior to the giving of this or any other portion of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  They are part and parcel of our experience of God’s care, not just to us as individuals who are told, “Do this and don’t do that,” but to a people who hear them as, “Because I care for you, here is how we can all live together.” 

Bart Campolo has a sense of this when he says that

“moral development is just one part of that much larger process sociologists like my father call socialization, whereby we human beings learn to understand and interpret ourselves and our lives not only from our families and our neighbors but also from the cultural norms and values that surround and define us.  Religion is an important part of any given culture, of course, but so is every other human construction, like language, trade, agriculture, marriage, medicine, technology, colonialism, and warfare.”[2]
Where what I would call a biblical approach to that departs from his is in the way that he puts all influences on an equal footing, when religion does indeed make a claim – not that the other influences are not there and not to be considered – but that the claims of a God who frees his people from all other claims and allows them to see them clearly, those claims are stronger and to be honored above all others.

            In the full story of the Exodus, it was the needs of Egyptian agriculture that meant storage had to be built for grain, and so the Pharaoh was justified in forcing the Hebrews into slavery as construction workers.  It was the fears of the Egyptians that a greater number of Hebrews would somehow taint their culture that led them to go along with genocide as a means of population control.  When the Ten Commandments decree,

“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work.  But the seventh is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work,” [Exodus 20:8-10]
they speak to people whose labor and whose bodies had been terribly abused by slavery and all that goes along with it in all its forms.  When they say,

“You shall not murder,” [Exodus 20:13]

they are spoken to people whose children had been ordered to be destroyed at birth”.
 
            Just because someone doesn’t consciously recognize or formally honor the gods of the Egyptians, or of the Canaanites whose lands the Hebrews would later claim for themselves, or of the Persians and Greeks and Romans who would later conquer that land and its inhabitants in turn, doesn’t mean that they don’t need to hear the commandment that taught the Hebrews to beware any god that demands tribute before offering blessing:

“You shall have no other gods beside me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” [Exodus 20:3-5]
Obedience to God may often mean disobedience to earthly authorities, and I don’t just mean governments.  Even direction as simple as

                        “You shall not covet” [Exodus 20:17]

if taken seriously would put the advertising industry out of business.

Bart Campolo, like a lot of other people, people very much like you and me, mistakes loyalty for blind obedience when he says,

“For me to blindly follow a divine commandment seems like a way to shirk the hard work of deliberation and evade responsibility for the intentions and consequences of my actions.”[3]
It’s hardly that.  Following often requires exactly that type of deliberation.  Just ask anyone who wrestles with issues about capital punishment or when and if their conscience allows them to go to war. 

            Taking the Commandments within the whole scope of the story of God’s dealings with his people points to God’s initiative that frees his people from all kinds of slavery and, as Christians, we include in that the freedom from sin and its aftermath that God brought about when Jesus died and rose from death.  What some see, divorced from the story of God’s grace (to use the theological term), is just a bunch of rules to be followed or else.  What we see is the best ways to respond to a loving God by reflecting his grace to others.  The last chapter of the Campolos’ book, the only one that they wrote together as father and son, Christian and humanist, contains things that they agree on and notes that

“we human beings have always needed and used stories to make sense of the world and find our place in it.  If you want to touch somebody’s heart and mind in a way that actually changes their life, you have to tell stories.”[4]
It may seem that there aren’t too many stories about the Ten Commandments but here is one of them.

“As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” ’ He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  [Mark 10:17-22]
What God did that man really follow, and why?  And how about the rest of us?



[1] Bart Campolo, “Godless Goodness” in Why I Left, Why I Stayed (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 108.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 109.
[4] Ibid., 153-154.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

“Test and Quarreling" - October 1, 2017



Exodus 17:1-7


            Place names often have stories behind them.  Around here many towns trace their names to colonial taverns – like Blue Bell or King of Prussia – or landholders – like Pottstown or Downingtown or Coatesville.  Paoli was named for a general who tried to kick the French out of his native island of Corsica in 1768.  Wayne was named for Mad Anthony Wayne who fought the British in the Battle of the Brandywine and the Battle of Paoli.  The source of many names is conjectural, like 84, PA.  Some people say it’s from a mile marker on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and some people say it was from the year that a post office was built there.

            Massah and Meribah is a place mentioned in Exodus, the story of whose naming is provided – and no wonder, because if you translate those words into English, you find out it was named “Test and Quarrel”

“because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” [Exodus 17:7]

An earlier incident in the Israelites’ wanderings sort of set this one up.  That was what we heard about last week, when they were hungry and complained to Moses, who complained to God, who sent them (on a regular basis) quail in the evening and every morning a sort of bread they called manna.  This time, though, they weren’t hungry.  They were thirsty.  They came to a place named Rephidim (which means “beds” or “places of rest”, so it could be interpreted appropriately enough as “campsites”)

“…but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’” [Exodus 17:1b-4] 

Word for word, it’s pretty much parallel to what happened with the bread and quail.

            Like the other incident, too, God provided what was needed. 

“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’” [Exodus 17:5-6]

What makes this incident different, however, isn’t the people’s faith but their attitude.  They sound almost entitled.  ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” [Exodus 17:7]

God’s mercy is such that he gave them what they needed, but along with it came a new place name as a reminder and an implicit warning.  When you start ordering God around, even if you are telling God to do what he wants to do, “Resting Places” turn into “Test and Quarreling”.  You may find your physical needs provided for, but your inner peace displaced.

            You don’t have to be a great theologian or sage to see what happens.  P.J. O’Rourke, a comedian, criticizes rock bands that turn angst about the state of the world into commercial success.  In his words,

“Any religious person – whether he worships at a pile of gazelle bones or in the Cathedral of St. Paul – will tell you egotism is the source of sin.  The lust for power that destroys the benighted Ethiope has the same fountainhead as the lust for fame that propels the lousy pop band.  ‘Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.’  Let alone everyone that saith sha la la la la and doobie doobie doo.”[1]

Honestly, we all fall into that at some point.  I’ve seen a picture on the internet multiple times of a sign outside a cafĂ© someplace that says something like,

“Coffee                       $2.50
Coffee, please             $1.50
May I have a medium
coffee, please?
Thank you.                  $0.75”

            Perhaps God isn’t so unlike us on that score.  Maybe in our prayer life, as in any other part of life, things might not go differently but would go better if we would simply maintain a proper level of the most basic respect.  Don’t toss his name around idly or turn it into a curse word.  Say, “please” and “thank you”.  Don’t assume you always know what he has in mind or that he has no idea what he’s doing if you aren’t consulted. 

If we all did better at that, there might be more places named Providence.



Moses Striking the Rock by Luca Giordano
(from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of the 
Metropolitan Museum of Art)





[1] P.J. O’Rourke, “Fiddling While Africa Burns” in Give War a Chance (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1992), 101.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

“Leftovers Go Rancid” - September 24, 2017



Exodus 16:2-21


            The United States has a history of odd people wandering around from one end to the other.  Some of them are legendary, like Johnny Appleseed.  Some of them turned their wanderings into literature, like Jack Kerouac writing On the Road.  Our music is full of songs by people like Woody Guthrie:

“I roamed and rambled, and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice kept sounding,
‘This land was made for you and me.’ …”

Some of those roamers and ramblers have traveled because they felt they had a message to spread, and one of those was a woman who called herself Peace Pilgrim.  She set out in 1953 because she was concerned about what would happen if nuclear weapons were allowed to proliferate, thinking that she would simply talk to people everywhere she went and try to awaken their consciences on that issue.  Before her death in 1981, she had been in all fifty states and crossed the continent seven times on foot.  She traveled light, by necessity.  After her death, one of her friends wrote:

“She walked ‘as a prayer’ and as a chance to inspire others to work and pray for peace.  She wore navy blue shirt and slacks, and a short tunic with pockets all around the bottom in which she carried her only worldly possessions: a comb, a folding toothbrush, a ballpoint pen, copies of her message and her current correspondence.”[1]
Of herself, she said:

“To the world I may seem very poor, walking penniless and wearing or carrying in my pockets my only material possessions, but I am really very rich in blessings which no amount of money could buy – health and happiness and inner peace.
The simplified life is a sanctified life. …[2]
            It seems to me that Peace Pilgrim had a very specific vocation, a very individual calling that is not a common one.  In fact, people who live a simple life of the kind that really is sanctified by God are often set free to do that because of the support of others who do not share that same calling.  Henry David Thoreau built his cabin out on the shores of Walden Pond and became famous for writing about it.  “Simplify, simplify, simplify!” he wrote.  Of course, other records show that during the time he was living in simplicity, he spent a lot of evenings having dinner at the house of his friends Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

            The Israelites would learn a lot during their years roaming and rambling in the desert, and one of those things was how to depend on God that way, coming to know that God would provide for them, that God’s provision is of the sort that rises to the need, but at the same time is there to carry forward God’s plans, not necessarily our own.

            That part of their story begins just after they had crossed the Red Sea, no small exercise in faith itself.  They found themselves in the desert without adequate supplies. 

“The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have .brought us out into this wilderness to kill the whole assembly with hunger.’” [Exodus 16:2-3]
It’s an old story: everything was so good in the old country.  It takes a lot of forms.  An army officer I knew used to say that someone’s best posting was always the last one or the next one.  In this case, in their hunger (which was real, and a valid concern) the people could only remember having enough food and forgot that they were fed because they were slaves.  They had bread and meat because someone was protecting an investment.  Maybe they ate enough, but how much does that mean when it is beaten out of you an hour later?

            You could say that God’s investment in them was greater than the pharaoh’s, though.  The Lord did not bring them into the wilderness to kill them off or to let them starve.  He would provide food, and in so doing, he told them,

“You shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” [Exodus 16:6]
Quail flew over each evening and landed on their camp, and they had meat.  As for bread,

“In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as flaky as frost on the ground.  When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’  For they did not know what it was.  Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.’” [Exodus 16:13-15]
As it turned out, there was always enough for everyone – just enough, never too little and never too much.  Every morning there was a day’s supply.  Moses warned people about that part, telling them not to bother hoarding any of it, because whatever they kept into the next morning went wormy. [Exodus 16:20]  This continued for the next forty years, until the next generation of people arrived safely in the Promised Land.

            More than a thousand years later one of their descendants would teach his friends about prayer and told them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”  It is a deep and lasting part of our faith stretching back and back and back to recognize that God gives us what we need when we need it, morning by morning, day by day.  It is part of who we are to entrust the future, including its needs, to him.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t save or plan.  That would be to go to the opposite extreme, like the servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents who takes what he is given and just buries it for safekeeping and finds himself in trouble when the owner returns and asks how his investments have done.  What is not used, and used wisely, goes bad.

            I am sure that I am not the only person here who has ever opened up the refrigerator and said, “What’s that smell?”  If that has never happened to you, let me tell you what happens next.  You pretend that you didn’t notice anything, take out what you were looking for, and close the door.  Then a few hours later you go back and there’s that smell again, a little bit stronger, and you start taking out containers and looking into them.  You ask yourself, “What is this?” and thinking, “I meant to have that for lunch last Tuesday.”  You see something else and realize it’s about a month old.  And then there are the containers you decide not to open at all.

            To keep some things awhile is prudent, when you know they will be needed and used.  To keep some things too long is mistaken, if you don’t use them when they are needed.  To keep some too long is toxic, when they become an end in themselves.  In all of it, the point is to ask what God wants, and then to do it – and God finds ways to let us know.  The Bible is full of accounts of how that happens.  Just ask Paul or Jonah or Esther or pretty much any of the prophets.

The book of Deuteronomy pictures Moses’ successor, Joshua, addressing the people at the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert.  Soon they will ether the Promised Land and the manna will no longer be on the ground every morning, because they will be able once more to plant and to harvest on their own.  New lessons will need to be learned and shared.  At that key moment he takes time to summarize what they have learned and how the soul of the nation has deepened through their experiences.  He sees both their hunger and their fullness as God’s work, and tells them,

“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” [Deuteronomy 8:3]
            With that reliance on God, I invite you to join with me in a prayer written by Rubem Alves, found in The Hymnal at #639 that speaks both of God’s simple blessings and of our need for guidance in using them.

O God, just as the disciples heard Christ’s words of promise and began to eat the bread and drink the wine in the suffering of a long remembrance and in the joy of a hope, grant that we may hear your words, spoken in each thing of everyday affairs:
Coffee, on our table in the morning;
the simple gesture of opening a door to go out, free;
the shouts of children in the parks;
a familiar song, sung by an unfamiliar face;
a friendly tree that has not yet been cut down.
May simple things speak to us of your mercy, and tell us that life can be good. 
And may theses sacramental gifts make us remember those who do not receive them:
who have their lives cut every day, in the bread absent from the table; in the door of the hospital, the prison, the welfare home that does not open;
in sad children, feet without shoes, eyes without hope;
in war hymns that glorify death;
in deserts where once there was life.
Christ was also sacrificed; and may we learn that we participate in the saving sacrifice of Christ when we participate in the suffering of his little ones. 
Amen.



[1] Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words (Somerset, CA: Friends of Peace Pilgrim, 2003) xiii.
[2] Ibid., 57-58.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

“Close Calls” - September 10, 2017



Exodus 12:1-14


            As I write this, Hurricane Irma is bearing down on the Virgin Islands with winds clocking in around 185 miles per hour, and I cannot help thinking about the day – September 19, 1989, to be precise – that Hurricane Hugo followed the same path with even stronger winds.  I was there.


Image result for hurricane hugo st croix pictures


            I was living on the first floor of a two-story, concrete building, so I took some security in that all through the afternoon.  It was clear that the electricity would be going out, but that hadn’t happened yet, so I had the radio on, more for company than for news.  Whoever did the programming had a grim sense of humor, playing songs like “Riders on the Storm”, “Windy”, and “Dust in the Wind” before it went off the air.  It grew darker and darker and then trees started flying around, so I moved to the other side of the building, away from the direct wind.  After a few hours there, the direction changed slightly and, since there was no room without a window, I moved again to one that was set back behind a porch, so that there was less chance of debris smashing into the room.  For one small (and I mean small) degree of safety, I holed up underneath a desk with cushions in front of me to stop any flying glass if the windows blew out.

            That was my big fear.  I tried not to picture it too much, but I was afraid of an injury more than anything else.  If the house collapsed, it would collapse, and that would be it.  In a situation like that you learn a lot, and one thing I learned was that I really do have faith that my soul is in God’s hands and that I trust him for eternity.  Death does not scare me.  Jesus has already been through it and come out on the other side, and has promised to see us all through.  I found out that you cannot take that away from me.  It isn’t something theoretical.  It’s real. 

But the process of dying is something else, and that has a side to it that is frightening and difficult and sometimes painful.  There is no shame in owning up to that, at least as I see it.  I know of no one who hears words like “surgery” or “chemotherapy” or “amputate” who just shrugs and says, “Sounds good to me!”  Yes, they may be resigned to something as inevitable or necessary.  They may even accept the truth that gets pushed away for most of us for most of our lives: one day our living turns into our dying, which may be slow or fast.  But the prospect is one that no one likes, because we have a sense (a true one) that God’s will for us has always been life and the dying part comes about because something has gone terribly wrong along the line.  So Dylan Thomas could write to his father:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Thus it is that I picture the Hebrews prepared to flee Egypt, huddled together indoors in houses marked with the blood of the lamb that they had killed and cooked and eaten that day to give them strength for their exodus, on the one hand secure in the faith that the God who had already brought plague after plague upon the Egyptians would surely bring about their freedom; and on the other hand filled with fear at this one terrible act of destruction that was going on unseen outside their walls and doors.  They came to call it the Passover because death passed over them while visiting every other house in the land.  You do not go through a night like that without being changed, and the Hebrews were commanded never to forget it.

“This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.  You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” [Exodus 12:14]

            Ray was the son of Austrian immigrants who came to Pennsylvania in the 1920’s.  At the start of World War II he went into the army and because he had spoken German at home he became the translator for a combat unit.  They were sent to North Africa, where they fought their way east and then turned up into Sicily.  Many died along the way.  They moved on through Sicily into Italy and fought their way north, with more and more dying around him.  The unit moved all the way up into Hungary, which was where one day Ray sat down in a forest where it was just starting to snow and leaned against a tree trunk with the sudden realization that he was the only soldier in his unit who was still alive and free.  That stayed with him.  When he returned home, he was talking after church with George, who had come through the Battle of the Bulge, and Richard, who had told the Yankees he could not take a place as their catcher because he was needed by the other Yankees, and a handful of others.  They did not know quite how to express how grateful they were to be alive, but they wanted to share it somehow.  Then someone came up with the idea that they would cook breakfast for the church and for anybody else who wanted to come on Thanksgiving morning.  They did it up big.  And when some of them died, their places were taken by their sons and, occasionally, their daughters.  Next some grandchildren stepped in.  It’s still going on every November.

Never forget.  Never forget how precious and how fragile life is.  Never forget how generous is its giver and how careful he is to preserve what he has given.  Never forget how he would – and did – give his own life for yours, and give you a whole new life in freedom to replace the old one in slavery.  As Paul would later write,

“Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.  Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” [I Corinthians 5:7-8]

Never forget.  Remember and celebrate, and learn from all the close calls to be transformed, because God is good and his mercy endures forever.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

“God Calls to a Fugitive” - September 3, 2017



Exodus 3:1-15


            This morning I’m starting a sermon series based on the Old Testament readings assigned for the next several weeks, following the life of Moses through the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy.  Obviously, a lot will be left out.  We will, however, look at some of the highlights, things that would come up if Moses were being interviewed by Terry Gross or writing his autobiography.  Moses was not exactly the founder of the nation.  In some ways, for that you have to look back centuries earlier, to Abraham and Sarah, nomads with whom God established a deep and lasting relationship meant to continue throughout history, or to Joshua, Moses’ successor who would lead the tribes of Israel into the land where they would settle and become established.  But Moses was the one who led them out of their dire situation in Egypt where they were slaves facing genocide.  Moses was the one who delivered God’s laws to them to preserve the unique relationship he had offered to Abraham and to create the just society that would later be proclaimed over and over again by the prophets and which, as Christians, we declare was secured by Jesus not only for them but also for all people – even the descendants of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 

            Moses’ story begins before the incident of the burning bush.  It begins with the Pharaoh’s fears that the Hebrews were becoming too numerous and that they would come to outnumber the native Egyptians (does that sound familiar?) and ordering genocide against them.  Male Hebrew babies were to be killed at birth.  The book of Exodus tells us that this was foiled by midwives who refused to go along with the plan, and by mothers who found ways to protect their babies.  One of those was Moses’ mother, who put him into a waterproof basket and floated it in the general direction of the Pharaoh’s daughter when she was bathing in the Nile.  This girl picked Moses up and took him home, begging her father to let her keep him, like a stray dog.  That was how he came to be raised in the palace, and how he later came to be in a place where he saw an Egyptian soldier mistreating another Hebrew, so that Moses rose up and killed him, and then fled into the Sinai desert to escape punishment.

            Remember that.  Moses began life as a survivor of injustice.  The great lawgiver was once a fugitive from the law.  We’ll come back to that.

            In the desert, Moses made a life for himself.  He met a woman named Zipporah, whom he married, becoming one of her father’s herdsmen, and having a son named Gershom, which means “sojourner”.  It was Moses’ reminder that he had been, in the familiar English wording, “a stranger in a strange land” [Exodus 2:22].

            Again, one of the key things about the story of Moses’ life is that that it included a wide variety of experiences that the people as a whole would pass through over the centuries.  Slavery and attempts to wipe them out; life with power and privilege; loss of prestige and home, with exile and the attempt to establish life again far away, asking “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” [Psalm 137:4] – these were all part of Moses’ personal history as well as the subsequent history of his people.

            So, looking at this one moment at the burning bush, a pivotal moment in human history as a whole, we see a fugitive encountering God and being told he had no business seeking safety in the desert.  We see someone who had escaped a failed effort to establish justice on his own being sent back by God to try again, but this time to do it in God’s name and on God’s orders, and with God’s help.  He tried to get out of it, and gave God perfectly good reasons why he shouldn’t be asked, and the Lord would have none of that.  Today’s reading doesn’t recount the entire discussion, but you can and should read it for yourself.  But it was an argument that Moses lost.

“Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’” [Exodus 3:11-12]

            Centuries later, the prophet Elijah would be on the run from King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, and would flee to this same wilderness where he, too, heard from God, asking,

“‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’  He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’” [I Kings 19:13]

It’s the same message Moses got: “You do not belong here where it is safe.  You belong where there is trouble.  Now go!  And, by the way, you only think that you’re alone.”

            That message, that commission, comes to God’s people over and over again.  Whenever we are at ease, whenever we have gone beyond a short breather, whenever we think that we are in the clear, God says, “Go back!  There are people who need you.”  Whenever we get the idea that the mission is beyond us, God says, “No kidding.  That’s why there will be others, and why I’m sending my own help.”  Put it this way: not even Moses was up to the job of being Moses.  Moses became Moses because he trusted God’s promise, “I will be with you.” [Exodus 3:12] 

            Mind you, that is the same promise that Jesus gave his disciples when he sent them out into the world that had killed him and would kill some of them, too – sent them out to teach his ways of reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, sent them out to change the world for good.  He said,

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28:19]

God’s people are always being sent into hopeless situations and always being sent to helpless people, because that is God’s way.  But if you have known the power of God in your own life, surely you know it is there for others, too.  Remember that.  Moses began life as a survivor of injustice.  The great lawgiver was once a fugitive from the law.   

Through Moses, God gave his people freedom from slavery, and through Jesus he would give his people freedom from slavery to sin and death.  Through sending Jesus’ followers with the news of that freedom, all kinds of hopeless and helpless situations come to good resolution, when they are faced squarely and with faith that God’s will is for people to be free from all that holds them back from becoming the people they are created to be in the first place.  It’s with the testimony of our own lives that we bear witness to this truth.  Remember that.  Moses began life as a survivor of injustice.  The great lawgiver was once a fugitive from the law. 

            Good news:

“The people who sat in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death 
            light has dawned.”  [Isaiah 9:2, Matthew 4:16]

Saturday, August 26, 2017

“Carrying Keys” - August 27, 2017



Matthew 16:13-20

            This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and in those five centuries we have made some progress.  It took 450 years, but the Roman Catholics finally conceded that it makes sense for worship to be conducted in the language of the local people.  And Protestants have conceded – most Protestants, at least – that the faith which God looks for in us is one that becomes visible through the good works that it provokes, so that it is not wrong to say that God looks to us to do the works of love and mercy.  We all recognize that no one is baptized a Catholic or a Protestant, but that we are all baptized as a Christian.  There are still things that separate us, though, and it’s only honest to admit that. 

            One of those points is how to interpret this passage from Matthew.  The scene is set with Jesus’ question to his disciples about who people think he is; and they provide a whole range of answers.  Then comes the direct question:

“‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.’” [Matthew 16:15-18] 
            The Catholic interpretation is that Jesus here identifies Peter (whose name means “Rock”) as the person upon whose labors and authority the institutional Church will be settled.  From that, and from the tradition that Peter was the first bishop of Rome, it is extrapolated that his successors in that office carry forward his work and, with it, extraordinary powers delineated in this same place:

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matthew 16:19] 
So on the papal coat of arms you will see two crossed keys.  One is golden and opens the gates of heaven.  The other is lead and locks them.  That’s why, in cartoons, someone who has just died is shown talking to Peter outside the pearly gates, not to John or Bartholomew or Andrew.

            In the Protestant interpretation, the “rock” upon which the Church is founded is not Peter, but the faith which he is the first to express and to put into words:

“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” [Matthew 16:16]
And thus it would apply not to Peter alone, but to all who confess Jesus as Lord, that they have the gift and the duty to make the way clear for others and along with that the fearful and heavy possibility of making it worse.

            So Luther wrote what he saw, as many have seen:

“I believe that there is forgiveness of sin nowhere else than in this community and that beyond it nothing can help to gain it—no good deeds, no matter how many or how great they might be; and that within this community nothing can invalidate this forgiveness of sin—no matter how gravely and often one may sin; and that such forgiveness continues as long as this one community exists.”[1]
One of the inherent purposes of the body of believers is to be those who together carry the keys of the kingdom, not with arrogance but with humility.

            Even more, that power they represent is one that is impossible for us not to exercise.  Just as someone presented with the good news of Christ either accepts it or sets it aside, leaving no true middle ground of “Well, I sort of trust him,” there is no way for the Church to say, “Well, we won’t get in the way if someone wants to find Christ, but we won’t go out of our way to open the door, either.”  We either invite people or turn them away.

            Let me read you a section of a story by Chinhua Achebe about the arrival of the gospel in West Africa, as told from the perspective of someone who remained part of the traditional, non-Christian clan but who saw what happened in his village and how it was handled by a missionary named Mr. Kiaga.

“… It all began with the question of admitting outcasts.
These outcasts, or osu, seeing that the new religion welcomed twins and such abominations, thought that is was possible that they would also be received.  And so one Sunday two of them went into the church.  There was an immediate stir; but so great was the work the new religion had done among the converts that they did not immediately leave the church when the outcasts came in.  Those who found themselves nearest to them merely moved to another seat.  It was a miracle.  But it only lasted till the end of the service.  The whole church raised a protest and was about to drive these people out, when Mr. Kiaga stopped them and began to explain.
‘Before God,’ he said, ‘there is no slave or free.  We are all children of God and must receive these our brothers.’
‘You do not understand,’ said one of the converts.  ‘What will the heathen say of us when they hear that we receive osu into our midst?  They will laugh.
‘Let them laugh,’ said Mr. Kiaga.  ‘God will laugh at them on the judgment day.  Why do the nations rage and the peoples imagine a vain thing?  He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.  The Lord shall have them in derision.’
‘You do not understand,’ the convert maintained.  ‘You are our teacher, and you can teach us the things of the new faith.  But this is a matter which we know.’  And he told him what an osu was.
He was a person dedicated to a god, a thing set apart – a taboo for ever, and his children after him.  He could neither marry nor be married by the free-born.  He was in fact an outcast, living in a special area of the village, close to the Great Shrine.  Wherever he went he carried with him the mark of his forbidden caste – long, tangled, and dirty hair.  A razor was taboo to him.  An osu could not attend an assembly of the free-born, and they, in turn, could not shelter under his roof.  He could not take any of the four titles of the clan, and when he died he was buried by his kind in the Evil Forest.  How could such a man be a follower of Christ?
‘He needs Christ more than you and I,’ said Mr. Kiaga.
‘Then I shall go back to the clan,’ said the convert.  And he went.”[2]
            Although formal authority does come into play, and formal decisions do open and shut the door in people’s faces, it’s far more often the overall, general aspect of the community that tells people most clearly what we really believe.  When we are truest, our very being calls out that there is a Savior, and that he has given his life to make an eternal difference for all, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  In large and small ways, both consciously and unconsciously, we go through our days like a watchman goes through his night, opening and closing, locking and unlocking doors.  When we are aware of what we are doing, and who we really are, then by God’s grace we may open far more doors than we close.






[1] Martin Luther, Works [43:28]
[2] Chinhua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Anchor Books, 1994) pp. 155-157.