Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Note: After the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday, October 27th, we started out today’s worship service by reading the ELCA’s 1994 statement repudiating Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings. If you care to read that, you can find the statement at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Declaration_Of_The_ELCA_To_The_Jewish_Community.pdf?_ga=2.34349479.788548289.1540726238-1345016708.1528066462. If this link doesn’t work, please go to http://www.elca.org and search for “Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community.”

Sermon for Reformation Sunday

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

1 Kings 3:3-28

Today we move from a story during the reign of King David to the story of the beginning of the reign of David’s son, Solomon. After the incident with Bathsheba, chaos engulfed David’s family; the consequences of David’s sin were being played out. David’s son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. In revenge, Tamar’s full brother, Absalom, killed their half-brother, Amnon. Then Absalom led a rebellion against his father, David, which succeeded for a time, until Joab put the rebellion down and killed Absalom. David, who had not wanted another son of his killed, mourned for Absalom for a long time. After this, there was relative calm for the rest of David’s reign. But, as David was dying, there was another struggle among his children for who would succeed him. David’s son Adonijah thought that he was next in line and began preparing himself to be king, even though David was still alive. Nathan—yes, the same Nathan who confronted David about his sin with Bathsheba—told Bathsheba herself what was going on. At Nathan’s urging, Bathsheba went to David and said, “David, didn’t you say that my son Solomon was going to be king? Yet here is Adonijah proclaiming himself king.” While David lay on his deathbed, he summoned the priest Zadok and commanded him and Nathan to anoint Solomon as king. Then David died and Solomon did indeed become king and consolidated his power. This brings us to today’s story, at the beginning of Solomon’s reign.

God asks Solomon what gift God should give him. Solomon could have had anything he wanted, and what does he do? He asks for wisdom. That might not be the first thing that we would ask for. This week, the lottery went up to the billions of dollars, and everyone was running out to buy a ticket in the hopes that they might be the winner. And I think that, if God came to one of us and asked what God should give us, money might be our first answer. Money to pay off debts. Money to buy the things that we couldn’t otherwise afford. Money just to get by from day to day. Perhaps some of us might ask for long life. Or for the happiness of our loved ones. But somehow, I don’t think that wisdom would be our first choice. And yet, this is what Solomon asks God to give him. This is not long into Solomon’s reign. He has just finished consolidating power and he has made his country’s first alliance by marrying the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And he must settle down now into the daily, mundane business of governing the people. He is probably a little frightened of the responsibility which has come upon him. And so, after reciting all of the good things that God has done for him, Solomon humbly asks for wisdom to govern God’s people rightly.

Now, any time that the theme of wisdom comes up, I like to tell this story. Some of you have heard it before, and for that, I beg your forgiveness for the repeat. There is a difference between wisdom and knowledge. When I was a senior in college, I managed to catch the flu on the last day before Christmas break. My plans had been to take my last final and then drive home, which at that time was in New Hampshire, a 2 ½ hour drive away. When I woke up sick, I went to the Health Center, where the nurse examined me and said, “Yep, you have the flu,” gave me a couple of Tylenol, and sent me on my way. Somehow I managed to take my final exam, but during the time that I was taking the exam, it started snowing. And not just flurries; a real, honest-to-goodness blizzard. After my exam, I went back to my room and called my dad, who said, “Well, if you’re going to come home, do it now, because it’s only supposed to get worse over the next couple of days.” My car had 4-wheel drive and I knew how to drive in the snow, so I decided to drive home. On my dad’s advice, I took the route that went up by the ski resorts and over to the interstate on the theory that they would have those roads better plowed. Which ended up not being true. During the drive, I had to periodically stop, get out of the car, and scrape snow and ice off of the windshield. And, the Tylenol that I had taken wore off, so that my flu symptoms came back. To this day I don’t know how I managed to make it home, but I did. I had the knowledge that I needed to drive home that day, but wisdom would have said, “Stay where you are until the weather passes and you feel better.”

Solomon asks for wisdom, not knowledge. And when God grants him that wisdom, God says that the other things that Solomon has not asked for—riches and honor all his life—will be his as well. And God also promises Solomon that if he keeps all of God’s commandments and statutes, then God will lengthen his life as well. And after this dream, Solomon demonstrates his wisdom in this strange story of the two women fighting over the baby, determining that the woman who wants the baby to live, even if the other woman gets the baby, is truly the baby’s mother. Our system of justice would ask for all kinds of evidence, including genetic evidence, eyewitness evidence, and the like. But would we take into account who loves the baby more? Because, here’s the thing: what if the woman who begged for the baby’s life was not the genetic mother of the child? Wisdom says that whoever wants what is best for the child is truly the mother, regardless of what genetics may tell us.

In his commentary on this passage, noted Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “On the one hand one may choose worldly wisdom . . . worldly might, and worldly wealth. On the other hand one may choose steadfast love, justice, and righteousness, the characteristic marks of Yahweh and the things Yahweh most delights in. The first choice is a decision to serve self at the expense of everyone else. The alternative choice is to serve the well-being of the community and to enhance it through fidelity and just dealings” (51). Today is Reformation Sunday, when we commemorate the day that Martin Luther began the Reformation by nailing 95 Theses for debate on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. If you have read those 95 Theses, they will seem very obscure to us today, because we struggle to understand the system of indulgences that Luther wanted to debate. But at its core, those 95 Theses showed a concern for the steadfast love, justice, and righteousness of God. The people of that time and place were being taught that they could buy their way out of purgatory rather than trusting that Jesus Christ had already done everything for them, and that their sins were forgiven. What Luther began on that day was to call the church back to a trust in God, rather than in human institutions. This is one example of what the wisdom of God looks like.

The wisdom of God keeps calling us back to trust in God for that steadfast love, justice, and righteousness and not in human institutions. Last Thursday, I went to a continuing education event called the bishop’s convocation. Our guest speaker was Bishop Craig Satterlee, from the North/West Lower Michigan Synod. And he had some good things to say about how we are to be about the mission of God in this time and this place. One of the things that he said was this: People are not looking for a church. People are looking for an encounter with Jesus that will change their lives. And so, he said, when you are speaking to people outside the church, you should not be speaking about your church: that is, how friendly the people are and what kinds of activities you do. Rather, you should be speaking about Jesus: how has Jesus changed your life? What does Jesus mean to you?

So, this week you all have a homework assignment. Are you ready? In your prayers and in your devotions, I want you to think about how Jesus has changed your life in specific and concrete ways. Not just, “Oh, I’m a much nicer person because of Jesus,” or “My life is so much easier because of Jesus.” That’s too general. People want to know the specifics. Like, for example, part of my story: I went to college with the goal of becoming a translator. Towards the end of my college career, I discovered that I would have to go on to graduate school to do that, and I was tired of school. So, I graduated and took a job as a reservations agent for a tour operator. But after a while, even though I had some good perks at that job, the customer service aspect of it got to be too much. I started expecting the worst out of people. And that wasn’t who I was. One day when I went to church, the president of the congregation came up to me and said, “I got this list of mission opportunities from St. Louis, and I thought you might be interested.” Long story short, I went to Taiwan as a volunteer missionary for 2 ½ years. And Jesus changed my life. By introducing me to new people who did not know Jesus, I got to think about my faith and why I believed in Jesus. And I began to love Jesus again, and I began to love people again. Your story does not need to be quite that dramatic. But I believe that if you reflect back on your life, you can find times when Jesus came and changed it from what it used to be. So find those times, and be ready to share them with others.

St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians: “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1:25). God’s wisdom prompted King Solomon to judge between two women by saying that the one who loved the baby more was the baby’s mother. God’s wisdom meant sending God’s Son to this world to die on the cross for us. God’s wisdom transformed the church when a German monk nailed a piece of paper to a church door. And God’s wisdom says that Jesus isn’t just showing up in our church buildings on Sunday mornings, but also that Jesus shows up in some of the most unexpected places in our lives. When we ask for God’s wisdom to guide us as we make decisions, not only in our individual lives but in our life together as a congregation, we don’t always know what we’re going to get. God’s wisdom doesn’t always look like what we think it should look like. But if something shows us the steadfast love, justice, and righteousness of God, then we can trust that God’s wisdom is there, even if it looks like foolishness to us. Amen.

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Sermon for Pentecost 22

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

2 Samuel 11 & 12

Today we make a huge jump from last week, where Joshua addresses the Israelites after they have conquered the Promised Land, to an episode in the life of King David. To get from there to here, the Israelites have gone through an awful lot of history. After Joshua died, the Israelites were ruled for many years by a series of judges. Incidentally, this time period is when the story of Ruth, that we looked at over the summer, took place. Towards the end of this period, a prophet named Samuel arose, and Samuel led the people during his lifetime. But towards the end of Samuel’s life, the people looked at Samuel’s sons and determined that his sons would not be good leaders like Samuel was, and they demanded a king like all the nations around them had. God spoke through Samuel, expressing displeasure with this idea, because God alone should be the people’s king. But, the people kept insisting, and after warning them that a king would do nothing but take the people’s possessions and children for himself, Samuel anointed a man named Saul to be king over the people. Saul wasn’t too bad of a king at first, but after explicitly disobeying a command of the Lord, he fell out of God’s favor. God then sent Samuel to anoint David as king, but David did not fully come into power until after Saul was killed in battle. David then consolidated his power and ruled Israel, and the stories tell us that God loved David very much and blessed him with success.

And so we arrive at today’s story. This is a hard story for us to hear for two reasons. First, here is the king, the man that God has greatly loved and favored, making a colossal mistake that will spell trouble for the rest of the time that he reigns over Israel. And second, it involves a woman who becomes the victim of David’s lust and who doesn’t have many lines to say in this story. She reminds us of all that is going on in our society today with the #MeToo movement, and yet, because the men in this story are more active, and we hear their words and their motivations, Bathsheba’s feelings and motivations remain shrouded in mystery, and we are left to guess how the story would be told from her point of view. But, here are a few things that we can say.

The first thing is this: If you were to do a Google search for pictures of the David and Bathsheba story, you would have a very difficult time finding any that would be less than an “R” rating. I know this because, a couple of years ago when I preached on this text, I had to help my then-secretary find an image for the bulletin cover. Artists over the years have imagined Bathsheba as a temptress, bathing in an area of her courtyard where she knew the king would see her. Many modern authors who have retold this story in prose have portrayed Bathsheba in the same way. But according to Scripture, she was following ritual purity laws and bathing herself after she had been ritually impure. She had no way of knowing that the king would be walking the rooftop of the palace that afternoon. In fact, the first line of the story says that it was spring, the time when kings go out to battle, and yet King David stayed home when his general and his troops were out doing his dirty work. Bathsheba could have been under the impression that the king was out on the battlefield with her husband, Uriah. So I believe that when she went out to bathe that afternoon, she was simply doing what she was supposed to do and had no intention of tempting anyone, much less the king.

Second, here is an idea that I first spoke of several weeks ago when we were talking about Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: there is a power differential going on here. In the case of Joseph, Potiphar’s wife held all of the power while Joseph, although he was in the higher ranks of the slaves of the household, was still a slave. In the case of today’s story, David is the king. He has all of the power in this story, while Bathsheba has none. When there is such a power differential, there is really no such thing as consent. Scripture does not record what the conversation was between David and Bathsheba. We don’t know if Bathsheba protested or if she went along with what David wanted. But, just like Joseph those several weeks ago, Bathsheba does not have a choice. If she says no, she risks the king’s wrath, not only against her, but against her husband. If she says yes, she runs a risk, too, and that risk is actually what happens: she becomes pregnant, and her lawful husband is away at the battlefield doing the king’s bidding. So when Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant, she does not know what’s going to happen. Will David protect her? Will David deny that he was the father? Will she be stoned as an adulteress? We can only imagine how frightened Bathsheba must have been.

This is a little bit of how I imagine this story from Bathsheba’s point of view. Now, let’s take a look at it from the point of view of the storyteller, who is focused on David. The first thing that we see David doing wrong comes in a very subtle jab from the storyteller: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him . . . But David remained at Jerusalem.” The storyteller doesn’t tell us why. If this is the time when kings go out to battle, why did David remain at home and send his army out without him? That just looks bad on the face of it. As for the rest of David’s part, when I teach people this story, I like to ask how many commandments David violated in this episode. The first one is coveting: when David saw Bathsheba and when he found out who she was and whose wife she was, he coveted her: that is, he wanted someone who was not his to have. Then, when he commanded her to be brought to him, he broke the commandment against stealing. Then, he committed adultery with her. Then, he tried to deceive Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, which technically is not part of the Ten Commandments, although you could make a case for it coming under the “You shall not bear false witness,” commandment. Then, when David was unable to deceive Uriah, he ordered him back to the front and had him murdered. I count at least five of the Ten Commandments that David violated in one story. All so that he could have one woman for one night and then cover up this bad behavior.

Abuse of power. We are seeing this in the news media now as women are coming forward and telling their stories. Stories of men harassing them and the stories of why they didn’t report it when it first happened. Stories where they were not believed when they did report it, and how they were further harassed because people thought they were deliberately trying to bring their abuser down. We also are seeing this abuse of power as we are hearing the stories about the priests in the Roman Catholic Church who sexually abused children and who got away with it because no one believed it of them and/or because those higher up moved them from parish to parish to cover up their evil behavior. Having power in and of itself is not evil. People who are in positions of power can use their power to bring about great good in society. But, sinfulness is always there, lurking inside each one of us. And sometimes that temptation to use our power to satisfy our own selfish and evil desires gets the better of us, and we fall into sin.

But when that happens, we dare not think that we can cover it up for too long, because it eventually comes to light. God knew about David’s sin, and God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David with it. What always gets me about Nathan’s conversation with David, besides the sheer brilliance of using a story to get David to condemn himself, is that, while David did great damage to both Bathsheba, Uriah, and himself, David forgot the hurt that he caused his Lord. God’s speech, through the prophet Nathan’s lips, sounds like God is wounded by what David has done: God lists all the things that God has done for David, and, God says, if that hadn’t been enough, God would have given David even more. All that God wanted from David in return was for David to follow the laws that God had laid down, and David couldn’t even do that. But yet, even with this great sin, when David admits what he has done, God offers forgiveness. It doesn’t mean that there won’t still be earthly consequences. Because David has done this, this abuse of power gets played out among his children and David can’t do anything to stop it. But the Lord did forgive David’s sin, and even brought good out of it. David and Bathsheba had a son named Solomon, who grew up to become the wisest king Israel had known. And, if we look in the first chapter of Matthew, we see both David and Bathsheba listed as earthly ancestors of Jesus.

With the abuse of power that is coming to light in so many situations in our society today, it is hard to see forgiveness. And perhaps we have to live in that tension yet for a while, that tension between our faith which says that God forgives sins and our desire for justice, our desire for those who abused their power to suffer the consequences, in some cases long overdue, for their sins. For those who have been abused, it is not healthy to forgive their abuser right away, because they need to heal from their trauma, and healing often means expressing anger, hurt, betrayal, and a whole host of other emotions. And I have to believe that God understands that. Forgiveness should never be forced. Just as forgiveness is a free gift of God, when we forgive one another, it should also be a free gift from us and not forced.

But the good news is this: God forgives us our sins, whatever they are. God stands ready to forgive us when we confess our sins. And even though God is hurt by the things that we do, God continues to reach out to us and love us, calling us to return to God’s welcoming arms. Do you have any sins that are weighing on your heart? Then hear now God’s call: God loves you and invites you to return to that relationship with God by confessing what is on your heart and hearing God’s complete forgiveness of your sins. All of us have experienced this in our lives and know the comfort that comes from hearing of God’s love for us. So let us continue to extend that loving invitation to all of our neighbors, inviting them to hear of God’s love for all of us. Amen.

 

Sermon for Pentecost 21 Narrative

Narrative Lectionary Year 1

Joshua 24:1-26

Today we jump from the story of God parting the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites could pass through on dry ground to this speech by Joshua. And thanks go to Joshua, because in this speech he summarizes what has happened in between the Red Sea crossing and the present moment, so I don’t have to. But I do want to fill in some of the background information that Joshua leaves out, so that we’re all clear on what’s happening in this speech.

Moses, the man who God chose to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, died before entering the Promised Land. Joshua, son of Nun, was Moses’ apprentice, and he was the man who took over leading the Israelites after Moses died. At the beginning of the book of Joshua, we see God giving Joshua encouragement as he takes on this awesome responsibility of leading the Israelites by saying, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” And, reading through the book of Joshua, we see that Joshua did live up to this, and led the Israelites through battle after battle as they entered the land that God had promised them. Today’s speech by Joshua comes as he reaches the end of his life, and he wants to do what he can to make sure that his people, the Israelites, remain true to the covenant that the LORD has made with them.

So, what do you do when you’re trying to get people to agree to remain faithful to someone, whether it’s God or another human being? Well, one tried and true method is to list all the things that that person, or in this case, God, has done for you. And this is what Joshua does. He lists all of the great and awesome wonders that God has done for the Israelites, not just from the time they were in Egypt, but from the time of their ancestor Abraham. God chose Abraham and brought him from the area of Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan, and took him from idol worship to worshiping God alone. God gave Abraham descendants. When Abraham’s descendants, Jacob and his family, went down to Egypt, God sent Moses to rescue them from slavery, and God sent plagues to harass Pharaoh and his people until they let the Israelites go. When Egypt pursued the Israelites, God protected the Israelites from the Egyptians and saw them safely through, destroying their enemies so that they would not come after them again. God was with the Israelites through the wilderness, protecting them and feeding them. God turned the curses of Balaam into blessings over the Israelites. God gave the Israelites victory over Jericho. God gave them the land. After everything that God has done for you, why wouldn’t you, Israelites, want to be faithful and keep the covenant with God?

And, the Israelites do recognize all that God has done for them. And when Joshua tells them to choose this day who they will serve, they answer, “[W]e also will serve the LORD, for he is our God.” And then, after this rousing speech and wonderful answer, Joshua surprises them by saying, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” He tells them what will happen to them if they fail. But they insist and respond, “No, we will serve the LORD!” And Joshua says, “Ok, then, you know what you’re getting into. So put away any foreign gods that are among you, and serve the LORD wholeheartedly.” And so the Israelites, with Joshua at their head, renew their commitment to serve the Lord their God.

So, I will admit to you that I struggled with this text this week, and the reason is because of the command that Joshua gives, and that we have probably seen on plaques and in embroidery in Christian homes: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.” And the reason that I struggle with this text is because of the word “choose”. Martin Luther says in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith.” In other words, I do not choose to follow Jesus by my own will. After all, in this day and age, with the church in the condition that it’s in across the country, who in her right mind would actually choose to be a pastor? Who in her right mind would choose to follow Jesus? Because this is what choosing to follow Jesus looks like:

Choosing to serve God means turning my back on my own selfish nature and my own wants and putting other people over myself. Choosing to serve God means doing the hard work of learning how people different from myself experience the world, and trying to put myself in their shoes. Choosing to serve God means being in a right relationship both with God and with all of God’s creation. Choosing to serve God means being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, which means recognizing things like, for example, God doesn’t care so much about the church building and the way we’ve always done church. Rather, God cares more about how we serve other people, how we tell other people the good news of Jesus Christ, and how we are going about in the world, recognizing Jesus in the hungry, the poor, the stranger, the sick person, and the prisoner. That’s some scary stuff, people. Who in their right mind would actually choose to serve God? On my own, I would never choose this way of life.

And so, I identify a lot more with Joshua when he says to the people, “You cannot serve the LORD, for he is a holy God.” On my own, I could never do it. Most days as I go through life, I feel my sinfulness. I feel it when I miss the mark, when I miss an opportunity to do good. The guilt of my sin can be overwhelming when I realize that I’ve made a mistake and that I am unable to fix it. There are days when I, like the prophet Elijah, stand before God and say, “I have done the best I can to do what you have asked me to do, and it’s not making any difference. I’m done, and I don’t know what to do next.” I recognize that, without the help and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, I could never go on following God.

But the good news is this: With apologies to Joshua and the inspiration of Holy Scripture, Joshua was wrong when he said that God would not forgive the people’s transgressions or sins. He seems to have forgotten the times when, after the people had gone astray in the wilderness and God would become angry with them, Moses would plead with God, and God would relent and forgive. Joshua seems to be unaware of the time when God showed Godself to Moses and said, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” To give Joshua the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he was simply trying to impress upon the Israelites the seriousness of the covenant with God that they were agreeing to follow. But even after this, throughout the rest of the story of the Israelites, we see many instances of God’s mercy, love, and forgiveness. And after many generations, someone who bore the name Yeshua, which is the Aramaic form of Joshua and whose name would be translated into Greek as Jesus, would give himself to death on a cross for us, to show us how much God loves us and to show God’s forgiveness of us.

So, back to this whole idea of choosing. I think that Martin Luther would say that perhaps we do choose to follow God, but on those days when we succeed, it’s not really us that’s doing the choosing, but the Holy Spirit within us who does the choosing. And I think that, moving forward, we need to reflect on all of the wonderful things that God, through Jesus Christ, has done for us, starting with dying on the cross for us, rising from the dead for us, and forgiving us our sins. Such wonderful gifts God gives us to show God’s love for us! Who wouldn’t want to serve this loving God? But serving this God is not going to be easy. It will mean listening for the Holy Spirit and following where we do not want to go. It will mean having to change the way we always do things and stepping out in faith to become a new model of church in the world. It will mean recognizing the face of Jesus in people that we would never think to find Jesus in. It will mean putting ourselves in those people’s shoes and learning to see the world the way they do, and then finding ways to share God’s love with them.

So choose this day who you will serve, the God of mercy and love who will ask you to follow where you don’t want to go, or some other god. If you choose God, know that it is the Holy Spirit within you that is choosing, and know that the Holy Spirit will be with you when you fail. But as for me and as for this congregation, we will serve the Lord. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 20 Narrative

Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

In our journey through the Bible this fall, we last left our story in Genesis as Joseph ended up in prison after Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of attacking her. But at the end of the story, we saw God already beginning to raise Joseph up again. Joseph would eventually become Pharaoh’s right-hand man who would successfully guide the country of Egypt through a famine. Joseph’s family came down to Egypt for food, because Canaan was also afflicted by the famine, and they were reunited with Joseph and he and his brothers were reconciled. Many years passed, and Joseph’s family grew and became known as Hebrews. The story of the book of Exodus then opens with this line, “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” This new Pharaoh was afraid of how numerous the Hebrew people had become, and he was afraid that they would rise up against him. So, his solution was to enslave them. The people of Israel were in slavery in Egypt for many years until God raised up a new leader to free them from slavery and take them back to the land of Canaan, the land that God had sworn to give to Abraham, and whose promise had been inherited by Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob’s children. The story of Exodus has been immortalized in movies from The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, to the animated film The Prince of Egypt that came out in 1998. So those of you raised in the church know how the story goes: God calls Moses; Moses goes down to Egypt and says, “Let my people go!”; Pharaoh refuses; God brings ten plagues. Who can name the ten plagues? (Water turned to blood; frogs; gnats; flies; livestock struck down; boils; thunder and hail; locusts; darkness; and finally, the death of the Egyptian firstborn) And it was this last plague, the death of Egypt’s firstborn children, that finally convinced Pharaoh to admit defeat and to let the people go.

So, today we see the Israelites have, in fact, escaped Egypt and are camped by the sea, waiting for Moses to continue leading them into their new life. Suddenly, the Israelites look back the way they came, and there is Pharaoh and the armies of Egypt coming in pursuit. Pharaoh changed his mind one more time when he figured out that he let all of his free slave labor go, and perhaps he also wanted revenge for all of the plagues that he and his people endured. And naturally, the Israelites are frightened—I would be, too, if I saw a horde of horses and chariots coming to run me down. And the Israelites complain to Moses, and they say how much better it would have been for them to die as slaves in Egypt rather than be killed by Pharaoh’s armies. And Moses tells them not to be afraid, for “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”

I want to pause there for a moment; to “keep still” as it were. What is our first response when we find ourselves in a crisis situation? As a church, I think our first response tends to be what the Israelites did: we look back to our past and see how much better it was. It doesn’t matter that perhaps we weren’t living out our faith to our full potential. It was good because we had people! People to do things! Children to fill our Sunday school classrooms! There were always plenty of people we could ask to serve on committees and councils! We had a large choir! Yes, Jesus was there, but often times we were so busy doing things that we had to do to keep the church going that perhaps Jesus wasn’t always our central focus. And now God has brought us out into this wilderness, where we are facing diminished numbers, where it’s always the same people on council, where there are only a few children here and there, and now we find ourselves with people who are aging and dying on one side and an unknown future through uncertain dangers ahead of us. But instead of looking back to our past and remembering how good it seemed, maybe we should be looking ahead and placing our faith and our trust in Jesus to get us through the unknowns in front of us. And in order to do that, the first thing we should be doing is to keep still, and to trust that the LORD is fighting for us. And part of that means to talk to God in prayer and listen for God’s answer: to discern how God might be leading us forward into the unknown.

And this is what happens next in the story. God answers Moses and says, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.” Forward to this sea that looks completely impassable, trusting only in God’s Word that it will be okay. The pillar of cloud that was guiding the Israelites suddenly moved from the front of the group to the back, and came between them and the pursuing Egyptians, so that the Egyptians could not get to them. Moses lifted up his staff, and the LORD then drove the sea back so that dry land appeared and the Israelites crossed through safely. And when the sea came back to its place, the Egyptian army was drowned. When they saw that they had reached the other side and the Egyptians were gone, and that they were truly free, the Israelites sang and praised God. They didn’t know that they still had hardships yet in front of them. In that moment, they were free, and they sang in praise and thanksgiving for that freedom given to them by God.

This is where I see our congregations, St. John’s and Salem, in this moment. We are looking at our past and we are realizing that we can’t do things the way we used to do them, because those ways aren’t working anymore. And yet we, like the Israelites did, are saying to God, “Why didn’t you just leave us alone so we could die in slavery? At least we had everything we needed there and we could have simply lived our lives and died.” Ahead of us is this unknown future, which may look better than what we left behind, but there is this great obstacle in front of us, like the sea was in front of the Israelites, and we don’t know how we’re going to get around it. And like the Israelites, we are frozen in fear, not knowing which way to go, forward or back, and not trusting that the Lord will see us through.

But just as the Lord parted the waters for the Israelites and led them through to their future, so is the Lord going ahead of us and removing the obstacles that are in the way of us moving forward. It doesn’t mean that things will be easy as we pass through the waters. One thing I loved about the animated movie, The Prince of Egypt, is how they drew the parting of the waters. As the Israelites moved through on dry ground, there were walls of water to either side of them, and flashes of lightning lit up those walls so that the people could see sharks and other fearsome creatures swimming around in the sea. I think the first time I saw this movie, I marveled at the technology that was needed to create that image. Now, as I think back on it, what I remember in that depiction is the image of a little girl becoming frightened of what she saw and an older woman coming alongside her to comfort her and to keep walking forward with her. This is what community is about: no matter the events that are surrounding us, we walk forward together, encouraging and comforting one another as we journey through the unknown.

We find ourselves at a crossroads today, just as the Israelites did those many centuries ago. We look back to the past, to the years that we grew up in full churches, and we remember them with nostalgia. But the thing about nostalgia is that what we remember as “good years” weren’t always as good as we think they were. God is asking us, in this moment, to give thanks for the good things of the past, but not to look back to them as a place we would rather be. Instead, God is asking us to trust that God will lead us into the future and to trust that God will be there, and will surround each of us with community to encourage us when the road seems difficult. God is even now setting us free from the chains of the past, and is helping us to move forward into the future, removing the obstacles in front of us, so that we may do God’s work in a new environment, a new society, a new land.

One final note about this story of the parting of the sea so the Israelites could cross through on dry ground. This is one of the images that we Christians use for baptism. In baptism, God has brought us safely through the waters and claimed us as God’s own. What does this mean? We are baptized for this moment. We are claimed and loved as God’s children. God will not abandon us. And so we can sing praises to God for the freedom that God has given us, even when we don’t know what’s coming next. I would like to end this today by having you join me in a prayer from our hymnals that, I hope, will give us the encouragement we need to trust in God. Let us pray.

 

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending,

by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good

courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your

love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.