Moses knew that once his people lost sight of God, the image of themselves would get bigger and bigger. He tells us, “Don’t exalt yourself and forget the Lord, your God.”
It’s so easy to forget that the gifts we have — money, success, family — are all gifts from God. And as we begin to separate our gifts from God, we begin to think that our blessings are due 100 percent to our hard work. We begin to congratulate ourselves. And that self-congratulations eventually becomes conviction. And that conviction eventually becomes ideology. And that ideology eventually becomes oppression. Those gifts we have taken, but not been acknowledged as from God, take us from the edge of the promised land back then into the middle of the national tragedy we are in now.
People in power have taken the gift given to them and used it to oppress others. If they acknowledged those gifts came from God, they would use their power for good — to help the poor, to stand for the oppressed. if we recognize our gifts come from God, we will use those gifts to help the oppressed, to right wrongs, to spread love.
The worship of God should rattle the rafters of the church and change this world.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Aug. 24, 2014
Exodus 3: 1-15
Choir performance of the Old Testament Reading:
Today we are celebrating Sunday School promotions and giving our third graders Bibles. These are two of the most important things we do. We do them because we want our children to become acquainted with their faith family, with their spiritual ancestors, those men and women of ancient times who are remembered for their faithful and not so faithful behavior, who are remembered for their questions and for their refusals as much as for their affirmations and agreements; who teach us something in their defeats as well as in their victories. We believe that in learning about these stories, we not only learn something about the ancient past, we also learn something about God and about ourselves, and about how we are to live as people of God.
Knowing these stories connects us to something larger than ourselves; larger than our clan; larger than our country. These stories connect us to THE STORY (in capital letters) which is God’s story. When we don’t know God’s story or who we are in that story, then we lose an essential part of our identity and our purpose. That’s why we give bibles to our children and encourage them to come to Sunday School; that’s why our teachers week after week prepare lessons for our children, that’s why I preach, that’s why the choir sings, that’s why we all come to church — so that the story won’t be forgotten, so that we won’t be diminished by our ignorance.
Last week we remembered the story of baby Moses who had escaped death at the moment of birth. Only seven days in our lifetime have passed since we shared that story. But in today’s story, approximately 40 years have passed since Moses was drawn out of the waters of the Nile by the Egyptian princess and into a new life. A lot has happened in these 40 years. In that time Moses went from being a child of privilege in Egypt to being a shepherd out in Midian, an isolated place far away from just about everything and everyone, and there in peaceful anonymity he tended his father-in-laws flocks of sheep. He probably thought that the most exciting, challenging, and dangerous times of his life were by then.
He had grown up enjoying the best the ancient world had to offer, a life of luxury and security; he had it all. But one day he’d gone out to see what was happening to his ancestral people, those who had been enslaved for several hundreds of years in Egypt, and whose fate he had escaped by his adoption into the royal family. And what he saw horrified him; he couldn’t look away. He saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. And somehow in that action, it became clear to Moses that although he lived in the palace, he was kin to the slaves. So when he thought no one was watching, he killed the taskmaster and buried his body in the sand.
Well of course, somebody was watching; that’s always the way it is, then as well as now. So Moses hit the road before the news got back to the palace and the Pharaoh’s men could figure out what had happened. He ended up in Midian, where he settled down, married, and became a shepherd. It wasn’t the life of the palace, but it was a safe and secure life in its own way. He had a new identity; nobody asked any questions about his past, and he was content to live away from the spotlight of Egypt.
Until that day. It had started like any other; he’d gotten up, fed and watered the sheep and headed out into the wilderness to let the sheep graze near Mt. Horeb. That name Horeb is a clue that today is going to be a special day because Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai—that mountain where God lives and where Moses years later received the Ten Commandments for his people.
Here Moses is at Horeb, a particularly holy place, and he sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flame. Moses makes a decision to get a closer look at this miracle. Encounters with the holy are scary things; a lot can happen, your life can be changed. The natural tendency would be to run away, frightened what God might do. But for the moment, Moses’ curiosity overcame his fear, and caused him to draw closer to this holy spot.
And when he does, God speaks to him – calls him by name, in fact. “Moses,” God says. “Take off your shoes; you are standing on holy ground.” And then without further ado, God gets down to business. God has observed the misery of the Hebrew slaves, has heard their cry, and knows their suffering, and, has decided to do something about it. God has come down to deliver them, and to bring them out of slavery to a good land where they can live free and prosper. Moses might have thought, “Well, it’s about time. This situation has been going on for over 400 years.” Perhaps he was glad to hear that God had decided to intervene so decisively in the lives of God’s oppressed people.
Maybe he was looking forward to reading all about it in the headlines of the local Midian newspaper – banner headlines – “Slaves Freed in Egypt!”
God continues, however, with this magnificent plan, concluding by saying “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”Well, that changes everything; what seemed like a grand plan, has now gotten personal – God isn’t just going to do these things out in the world somewhere while Moses sits back and observes at a safe distance. God wants Moses to be the agent for the great escape! God wants Moses to leave home and family, risk his life, go back to the land where he’s a wanted man, rally demoralized slaves to participate in massive civil disobedience, confront the most powerful leader in the world, and not only get away with his own life, but the lives of thousands of others.
It is Moses who will do what God has planned. It is Moses who will run the risks God is ready to take. This heavenly plan will be accomplished by human enterprise. Moses will speak to Pharaoh; Moses will lead the people out of bondage; Moses will act on God’s behalf and in God’s place.
Naturally, Moses has some serious doubts. You heard all of those in the anthem a few minutes ago! He’s a nobody; he lacks authority; nobody will listen to him. He doesn’t even know the name of this holy being that is commanding him to go. What’s he supposed to do when they ask him who sent him. Nobody’s going to trust him; he’s an outsider and a wanted man. And besides, he’s not a good public speaker! Moses seems like a classic introvert. He’s not brash, not talkative, but quiet, a bit timid, not one, who would be prone to organizing great escapes from captivity or and holding forth in front of large crowds or important people.
But when God wants you, God wants you. And there’s no getting out of it, introvert or not. For each objection, God has a word of encouragement. “I will be with you; you will go but not alone”; tell them my name is Yahweh – I am who I am; I will be who I will be. God even pulls a few tricks out of his sleeve to convince Moses of his power, turning Moses’ staff into a snake for example and then back into a rod. And then God dismisses Moses’ final excuse, giving him Aaron, Moses extrovert brother, to go with him as his spokesman. Aaron will speak the words that the quieter Moses has chosen.
A lesson repeated throughout Scripture is that the great God of the universe, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God who made us, prefers to work in relationship with us and through us, rather than always doing things for us. There are times, when scripture records God acting alone in powerful and miraculous ways, and of course, that is always our first choice. Moses was perfectly happy for God to go down to Egypt and rescue the slaves, while he waited back in the safety of Midian. But God more often than not, requests and requires our help in making a miracle happen. And often, God’s plan hangs in the balance while God’s human partner decides whether or not to buy into the plan.
Moses is insecure and anxious; Jeremiah is too young; Isaiah thinks he’s too sinful; Mary is unmarried and a virgin. Her question, “How can this be?” is echoed throughout scripture.
John Claypool, one of my favorite authors, has written that there seem to be two kinds of people in the world, those who want to make the world a better place for everybody, and those who want to make it a better place for themselves and leave the rest as is. Moses was the former; and God could use him. In those years in the desert God was honing Moses for the work ahead. Moses kept his sense of curiosity and wonder and was drawn to the burning bush, but his youthful idealism and hot temper had been moderated through the years by the development of pragmatism and patience. Only after his time in the desert was he ready to return to do the work God called him to do.
I think God calls us today just as surely as he called Moses. I believe that every experience of our lives is something God can use to hone us into the partner God needs to accomplish a task at hand. There will come a time when some part of God’s grand intention for this world will become clearly our human responsibility. And at that God-chosen moment, our curiosity and our compassion will draw us to observe, to take risks, to be creative, to solve problems. It doesn’t mean that we’ll jump at the chance. We may have doubts, we may be able to think of a thousand excuses to put it off, and a hundred people who could do it better. But, for whatever reasons, God has called us to that place and despite our objections, our hesitation, our feelings of inadequacy, God promises that we won’t do it alone, and so we trust, just as Moses did, that God will go with us.
All of these stories from Genesis and Exodus this summer have shown us clearly that God works through unlikely people—not the one’s we’d choose– not the super heroes, not the greatly talented, or incredibly brilliant, and certainly not the morally upright and virtuous who have never failed, or sinned, or fallen short. Lying, cowardly, stubborn, self-centered, that’s ok; God can work with that because God sees more than the flaws, failures, and inadequacies that overwhelm us and hold us back. God sees potential; God sees promise; God sees the best in us that we can be.
God sees right now something in each one of us here that can be used for good. If you’ve already run into a burning bush, or you find one right around the corner next week, you can trust that God will not call you to be something you are not—although you might be led into endeavors and to places that are currently unknown to you, and you may be stretched a bit beyond the limits of your comfort zone. God will only call you to become who you truly are. And in that moment you might at first be tempted to say with Moses, “Not me, Lord” but from deep within you will come the unequivocal and resounding answer, “Yes, you.”
Faithful Subversion Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine Aug. 17, 2014 Exodus 1:8-2:10, Romans 12:1-8
God made two promises to Abraham when he called him away from his home to a life of faithfulness. First, God promised descendants; descendants that would be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand at the shore. And second, God promised land; a home, a permanent place for God’s people to reside. For our age, an age which expects instant everything, it has been slow going this summer as we remembered the beginnings of this family to which we now claim kinship through Christ.
Through four generations – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the family has grown to a whopping seventy and God’s initial promises have begun to be fulfilled in Abraham’s descendants. These seventy, who move into Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, are the beginning of the “great nation” promised to the childless Abraham. And we are told that, once settled safely in Egypt, “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceeding strong.” The remaining promise to be fulfilled is the promise of land, of a home in Canaan. And that is what the book of Exodus chronicles.
In today’s reading, several centuries have passed since Jacob and his clan emigrated to Egypt to escape famine, enough time for Joseph to have been forgotten; enough time for his people to have lost their favored minority status in Egypt because of the life-saving work of Joseph. Now there is a new king in Egypt who has no memory of past blessings, but who possesses great power. He does not recall Joseph or his contribution to Egypt’s salvation, but sees instead a growing minority of people who could potentially threaten his own power. And so to make sure his imperial policies could not be threatened, he scapegoats them, identifies them as the enemy, even though there is no evidence that they have done nothing other than live peacefully among their Egyptian neighbors. He enslaves them, putting them to work in massive public works projects, projects designed to demoralize them and to immortalize him. Great monuments and great storehouses rise in the deserts – symbols both of military and economic power to all perceived enemies foreign and domestic.
In this intitial reference to these people whom he fears, pharaoh calls them “Israelites,” indicating their relationship to Jacob, who was re-named Israel, and so there is some sort of recognition of their ethnicity. However, when he moves to his next oppressive measure, he calls them “Hebrews,” a word which meant any group of “low class folks,” marginalized people with no standing and no land, and who could possibly be disruptive, and who were therefore, feared, excluded and despised.
Despite all his stringent orders to restrict and regulate the lives of these Hebrews, these despised people continued to grow and multiply. The more the Egyptians demeaned them and treated them inhumanely, the more determined they became to maintain their dignity and their identity.
And so pharaoh instituted another plan against them – genocide. It wasn’t enough to keep the Hebrews enslaved; they had to be eliminated as helpless children before they could grow up to become adult threats. All of the Hebrew boys were to be killed at birth. If there were no boys, there would be no Israel. Ironically, Pharaoh saw no threat from the girl babies; yet it is two Hebrew women who are the very ones who begin his undoing.
This all-powerful pharaoh couldn’t accomplish his goal by himself. He needed help. He needed the help of the midwives who attended the births of the Hebrew women. And so he summoned two midwives – Shiphrah and Puah, by name, to an audience with him where he gave them instructions to kill the boy babies as they were being born.
Now when the bible stops to give us the names of women, we need to take notice. Scripture was written in a patriarchal society by men for men; it was meant to be read in a public assembly of men, and so naturally most of its main heroes are male. In fact, of the 1426 proper names mentioned in the bible, only 111 are female names. Shiphrah and Puah are two of those select 111 women. They are right up there with Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Hannah, and Mary to name some of the better known of this small group. And although they don’t get as much attention as their more famous sisters, the role they play in the plan of God is no less important. It could be argued that without Shiphrah and Puah, we wouldn’t be sitting here today! Moses would probably have died at birth. There would have been no liberation, no Passover, no covenant, no gospel.
These midwives whose job was life-giving, who assisted the Hebrew women in the birth of their children, who cut the umbilical cords, washed off the babies, counseled the mothers, and assisted them in the care of their infants, were now being asked to kill the boy babies. And they had a choice to make. On the one hand, they feared, were afraid of pharaoh, who offered them job security and protection in exchange for their loyalty. But on the other hand, they feared, were awed by and respected God, the God of Abraham and Isaac; the God of Sarah and Rachel; the god who had been faithful through the generations and who demanded total loyalty just as pharaoh demanded total loyalty. And so, because they feared God more than they feared pharaoh, they disobeyed pharaoh’s orders.
Their action is the Bible’s first recorded act of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance for the sake of justice. The midwives disobey the order and then lie to the authorities, breaking the law for the sake of justice and life. When asked why the boy babies continue to thrive, they answer audaciously, boldly, and perhaps with their fingers crossed as well, that the strong, vigorous Hebrew women just give birth too quickly before they can get there, unlike the rather fragile and puny Egyptian women.
The actions of Shiphrah and Puah give three other women the opportunity to act as well. When enlisting the midwives doesn’t work, pharaoh then commands that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile. In this situation, baby Moses is born. His mother hid him for several months, and then put him in the river, not to drown, but within a water-proof basket to float on the river in hope that he might be found and cared for.
He is found by none other than pharaoh’s daughter. She has pity on the crying infant; she recognizes his humanity and need and acts on it. Moses’ sister Miriam, watching from the riverbank, offers to find a nurse for the baby, and so Moses is returned to his mother, but he grows up under the protection of the pharaoh’s daughter even before she officially adopts him and brings him into her home so that he grows up a child of both worlds, and becomes eventually a unique agent for the exodus of God’s people from bondage and lead them to the promised land.
The midwives because they feared God, Moses’ mother because she loved and hoped for her child, and pharaoh’s daughter because she had compassion, were aligned against the forces of death and oppression, and with God’s own life-giving work, proving that no action is too small, no effort is too meager for God to work through.
It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to see this pattern repeating itself through history as rulers at various times have sought to strengthen their political base by identifying a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. One of the ongoing manifestations of our human sinfulness is our tendency to define “ourselves over and against others, and in the process to deny others their essential humanity, their status as children of God.”[i] Today in our country, we scapegoat the “illegals,” the “undeserving” poor, the Muslims, and African-American males – the 21st century equivalent it sometimes seems—especially right now in light of the situation in Ferguson, MO — of the Hebrew boy babies – they too often are seen as a danger that must be destroyed.
And it continues to be what one person has called “acts of faithful subversion”[ii] that change history. I watched State Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson bring about some degree of calm to the Ferguson, MO community as he walked and talked with demonstrators instead of arming himself against them Thursday night. It was a simple act of great courage and he continues to be a force for peace in the midst of chaos.
Rosa Parks is another example from the not too distant past. I doubt she thought she was doing anything particularly significant, when she said “no” to injustice. She, like Shiphrah and Puah, was being faithful, following the leading of her heart, and listening to the call of her conscience. All of these persons, from ancient times to the present, have demonstrated in their actions personal integrity and dignity, and shown a quiet grace and courage when they took their stand, knowing that there could be personal consequences for their actions. But they did it anyway.
God calls for people who fear God more than they fear power, calls for people who are ready to take a stand for life, for justice, for peace, for compassion. Paul says in our reading from Romans today, that we are to “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And we are to celebrate the many gifts of each of us within the body of Christ for ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and showing compassion and cheerfulness. I wonder what might happen if we began each day with the prayer, “God, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” I imagine it would take many shapes and forms as we begin to respond to the needs around us according to our individual gifts and graces within this body. I think it is this prayer that has motivated our Missions Committee to bring various individuals and groups to our attention over the last year.
For a long time we were called as a church to the ministry of Our Daily Bread as our primary focus. Now we are in a new time. The ministry that began here has gone on to another location and prospers because 25 years ago, this congregation was faithful with a few simple sandwiches and a desire to help the hungry and homeless they saw around them. Now as we ask again, “what are you doing in the world today that we can help you with,” we need to remember how small actions can have a big impact. This is true for us as a church and for each of us individually. As we explore the variety of opportunities to be of service, each of us will respond according to our gifts, which gives us an amazing opportunity to be active in many different ways and places. We will need to remind ourselves from time to time that whatever God calls us to, individually or as a church, we will have to be willing to take some risks, learn through trial and error, develop lots of patience, and give up our sense of predictability and control, and our notions of how things “ought to be” in order to embrace the messiness of lives in crisis – whether those crises involve poverty and homelessness as they have in the past, or those crises that are less visible, but no less significant in the lives of those involved – access to education, employment. acceptance, inclusion, and equality.
When we were baptized, we were asked “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” And when we respond to a need we stand with Shiphrah and Puah, and countless of others who chose to honor God and accepted the call to live in faithful subversion of the way things are because we hold fast to the hope of the way things can and will be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “The Butterfly Effect,” workingpreacher.org, August 14, 2011.
[ii] Howard Wallace, “Year A: Pentecost 16,” hwallace.uniitingchurch.org, August 21, 2011.