The Other Side of the Door: A Sermon for Sunday November 8, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday November 8, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” (1) Five of these women are foolish, five wise. Five had extra oil, five didn’t.

This is not a news story depicting actual events, it’s a fictional story told by Jesus in order to teach us something, or perhaps to teach us many things. Oftentimes, when people read a story like this, they treat it like an allegory or a code that needs to be cracked. The bridegroom isn’t really a bridegroom, the oil isn’t really oil. They both point to something else and the point of the story is to crack the code.

But if that is true, then it’s rather mean of Jesus to make us do all that extra work just to figure out what’s going on.  If all that we need to do to understand the story is  crack the code and then swap out the terms –  the oil is clearly our good deeds, or our faith or maybe it’s a specific set of right beliefs - if that’s all we need to do, then why not just report the facts?

And let’s just say for a moment that it is a code,  our own biases often get in the way of reading the code correctly. We listen to the story, determine who the hero is, and then decide that that is either who we already are, or who we want to become.  Clearly, everyone who is listening to this sermon is a wise bridesmaid right?

I don’t think the reason Jesus told stories is because he’s mean or because he wants us to jump through unnecessary hoops in order to get his message. I also don’t think he’s an elitist who only wants people who are smart enough to crack the code to know what he is talking about.  I think Jesus told stories because he knew that stories can expand our imaginations and that we would learn more from stories than from news reports especially if we chose to engage with stories as stories, not as codes to be cracked.

So the kingdom of heaven is not ten women waiting for a bridegroom, but there is something about that scenario that is like the kingdom of heaven.

Today I am going to pick three images from the story to explore : the bridegroom, the door, and the oil. Not to try and crack a code, but to see what we can discover by playing with these images.

So first let’s quickly recap the story.

Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like ten bridesmaids who take lamps and go to meet the bridegroom. Five are foolish, five are wise.   The foolish women bring lamps, but no extra oil, the wise bring flasks of oil.

The bridegroom is late. The women fall asleep waiting for him.  Finally they hear a shout, “The bridegroom is coming.”  They all wake up and light their lamps.  The so called foolish women realize that their lamps will soon run out of oil and ask the so called wise women to share.  The so called wise women refuse and tell them to go buy more oil instead.  In doing so, they miss the bridegroom’s arrival and when they return they find the door is locked and they miss out on the party.

So first, I want to point out that while it may be true that some of these women are wise and some are foolish, none of this would have happened if the bridegroom had just showed up on time.

This whole mess is his fault, and it bothers me that throughout history we’ve focused on calling out women in this story for their foolishness instead of calling out the bridegroom for his poor time management.

He shows up late and instead of apologizing, he whisks everyone who is present into the party and then shuts the door on anyone other than himself who has the nerve to show up late.

It doesn’t strike me as an overly compassionate or self-aware move – the man who is late punishing others for being late.

And it’s especially unsettling if this story is a code and in that code, the bridegroom is Jesus.

Is that really what this parable is meant to teach us about Jesus? That Jesus is like a bridegroom who punishes people because he is late?

I don’t think so.

But before I try to do some damage control on his image here, let’s talk a bit about being made to wait.

Advent is just a few weeks away and in Advent we’ll get four weeks dedicated to thinking about waiting – the beauty of waiting, the benefit of waiting, the challenges of waiting.  All of those ideas will get plenty of airtime.

However, not everything is improved by waiting.

Wine improves with age, French fries do not.

Lots of things are better right away: being told you did a good job, medical diagnosis and treatment plans, vaccines, vote counts.

It’s true that in some of those scenarios you don’t want people to rush and do a poor job – you want a vaccine that’s been tested and proven to be effective – but once that vaccine exists you don’t want the scientist to say, now let’s just let it age on the shelf for a few years, you want them to roll it out right away.

You want every vote to be counted, but you also want them to be counted as quickly as possible.

You want your doctor to carefully review the details of your medical history, but you also want to start feeling better right away.

You want to eat your French fries as soon as possible because they are just better than way.

Waiting doesn’t always make things better.  Sometimes it’s just better if the food, or the medical results or the bridegroom shows up on time.

But here is something else we should be honest about, the concept of “on time,” is a pretty subjective one.

The bridegroom in today’s story is late, but we have no idea why. Is he actually a thoughtless jerk or was the delay beyond his control?   It seems to me that delays are predicable at weddings, they are to be expected.

Who gets to decide when the bridegroom is supposed to arrive? Things always take longer than you think they will at weddings and none of the bridesmaids guess correctly either. They all think the groom will arrive sooner than he does.  They all fall asleep.

So perhaps, everything would have gone a lot more smoothly if the bridesmaids didn’t assume that they could predict when the bridegroom would arrive. And maybe that’s something we all need to learn too – don’t expect the election results on November 3rd, don’t try to predict when the pandemic will end or when a vaccine will be available, and whatever you do, don’t try to read the Bible like a code you can crack so that you can circle a date and write “Jesus returns” in that square.

Nothing is gained in trying to predict the future in this way, but perhaps, there is a lot to be gained in resisting that temptation, in admitting we have no idea when any of those things are going to happen and learning to live within that tension.

When the pandemic began I predicted that it would be over by spring. Why did I do that? This is literally my first pandemic. I’m not a pandemic expert. I don’t know anything about pandemics. But I still decided I could make an accurate prediction about this pandemic’s timeline. I planned accordingly agreeing to do things and working at a pace that was only sustainable if my timeline was correct.

I was wrong. My assumptions had consequences that could have been avoided by not making assumptions.

This is the kind of mistake Jesus is warning us of in this story. Don’t think you can predict the future. Don’t assume you know when the bridegroom is going to arrive. It’s going to take longer than you think it will.  Remember the warning at the end of the story, “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (13)

You know neither the day nor the hour and it’s not helpful to keep pretending that we do.

I want to thank Sharon Cadigan for this next image which I have found really helpful this week.

In our story, the bridesmaids are waiting to be let into a party.  They are waiting on one side of a closed door, longing to be on the other side of that door.

What, are you waiting for? What are you longing for? What is currently on the other side of a shut door that you cannot open right now?

Perhaps it’s being in this space sharing bread and wine and singing at the top of your lungs, maybe it’s inviting people over to your own home and sharing a meal, maybe it’s hugging your parents, or your grandchildren. Maybe it’s being in a crowded movie theater or hopping on a plane.

Right now, there are so many good things that we can’t access because that door is locked up tight and we can’t open it. Many of us willingly placed those things, those people, on the other side of the door because we understand it is the right thing to do when we’re experiencing a global pandemic.  But when we did, we didn’t realize how long that door was going to remain closed, we didn’t realize how hard it would be to wait.

In our story,  the bridegroom does eventually show up and open the door. The people who are still there waiting get in, the people who left do not – at least not within the timeframe of our story.

The women who are left outside of the party are not punished for sleeping, everyone falls asleep in this story.  They are not punished for running out of oil. That’s never mentioned. They miss the party because they leave.

This waiting, this longing to be on the other side of the door is so incredibly, painfully hard, but don’t give up, don’t leave, because you don’t want to miss this party.

Now what about the oil?  What is it meant to represent? It doesn’t have to be just one thing. Today let’s say that it represents the things you need in order to stay at the door.  Do you have enough? Do you have extra? Are you running low and need more?

I can’t answer that question for you, and the last thing I ever want to do is turn a sermon into a lecture, but I would encourage you to think carefully about how much oil you have.

I, for one, keep having a difficult time judging how much oil I even need – the amount has changed since the pandemic begin. Things that used to be easy and took only a little bit of oil, now take a lot.  I need more than I used to and that change has been really hard to adjust to.

It’s been good to have people in my life that I can go to and say, “I’m running low, can you please help me?”

If you have enough oil. I’d encourage you to take a moment to express gratitude that that is the case.   If you’re running low, I hope that when you ask for help you encounter a much more generous response than the women in today’s story.  I hope you have people in your life that when you say “I’m running low, can you please help,” that the answer will be “yes.” I hope we can be those kinds of people for each other.

And if you have more than you need, share. As with so many stories in the Bible, and in our world, there was enough oil for everyone in this story if only those who had too much, who had more than they needed, had chosen to share it instead of hoarding it.

May we all seek to be people who look out for each other, who share what we have, and who can support each other as we continue to wait for the bridegroom to arrive and the door to the party to open.

And that’s not a party I want any of us to miss.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


The Place Where God Just Was: A Sermon for October 18, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 18, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week we talked about the people of Israel’s decision to create and worship a golden calf. Today, we see some of the consequences of their choice.

After the events we covered last week, Moses descended the mountain, saw the people’s ill advised behaviour for himself and he reacts in anger, destroying the tablets containing the covenant. The NRSV translation says that, “As soon as he came near the camp, and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they have made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. (32: 19-20)

And if you think that sounds bad, it gets worse. But I’ll let you read the rest of chapter 32 on your own.

God’s relationship with the people changes after this incident with the golden calf. In particular, the way God is present to the Israelites changes. God doesn’t abandon them, but gone are the days filled with stories of people walking with God in the garden of Eden, sitting down to eat with God and wrestling with God in a form they can see and touch. It is going to take some getting used to.

God commands the people to leave Sinai and continue their journey to the land they have been promised but on this next stretch of the journey God also says, “I will not go up among you.” (33:1-5)

God will not destroy the people, as they threatened in last week’s story, and God will not abandon them either, but God will not be with the people in the same way that they have been with them before.

If you’ve ever done something that deeply disappointed someone you love you probably can imagine how Moses and the Israelites are feeling right now. Guilty perhaps. Ashamed. But also shaky, tentative, unsure of what to do next. Fearful that they may have lost something, someone, who is very important to them. Their foolish choices have damaged the most important relationship they have, will the Israelites ever be able to repair that damage?

In today’s reading, Moses once again approaches God to advocate for the people. Basically, he says, “Hey God, you’ve told me to lead this people to the land you’ve promised which is fine, but we can’t do this alone. We need you to be with us just as you have been so far. These are not my people, they’re yours, you can’t leave us.”

In the translation we read tonight, God’s response is, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (13). Numerous biblical scholars I consulted this week agree that this is a poor translation – there is no “with you” in the original Hebrew, it’s been added. A more accurate translation is simply, “My presence will go and I will give you rest.”

That’s pretty vague, where exactly will God’s presence go? Away? In front of the people? With the people as the NRSV assumes? It’s not clear and Moses wants a clear answer, so he continues to argue with God saying, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (16)

Moses pleads with God to provide a tangible sign to the people of Israel and to the people they will encounter on this journey. A tangible sign that the Israelites are God’s people, that God is with them.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on Moses’ first encounter with God. In that first story, when God appeared in a burning bush, Moses wasn’t even sure who God is. Now he seems to be reminding God of God’s identity. “Hey God, these are your people, you chose us, don’t abandon us now.”

Being argumentative is a core part of Moses’ identity. When Moses first encounters God in the burning bush and God tells him to go free the Israelites Moses doesn’t say, “Sure, whatever you want God.” Moses argues with God, certain that someone else, anyone else, could do a much better job.

Moses regularly argues with God but the nature of their arguments change as their relationship deepens over time. Last week, God offered Moses an out – he would no longer have to lead the Israelites and could become a powerful patriarch – but Moses refuses. That’s a big change for a man who once begged God to give him an out.

Now, rather than begging God to give the job of leader to someone else, Moses acts the way I want my own leaders to act: Moses advocates for the people, demanding God treat them well and give them what they need.

I wonder if this is part of what fuels Moses’s anger when he sees for himself how the people are behaving around the golden calf. Does he perhaps think, “These are the people I was defending before God? What was I thinking?”

But if Moses did think that, it was a thought that didn’t last, because in today’s story he continues to advocate for his people; demanding that God remain with them.

That’s tremendous growth, and I think God notices, but I wonder if Moses does? Last week I said that God was baiting Moses into an argument and I suspect God was delighted to see Moses acting like a true leader by defending the people. Was Moses equally delighted at just how far he’d come since he tried to refuse this job? It’s anyone’s guess, the text doesn’t tell us.

It’s very likely that you also have grown over time in ways you haven’t noticed. It can be a very good practice to look back and see just how far you’ve come.

Moses boldly argues with God, and God agrees to do what Moses asks. God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.” (17)

And maybe Moses should have stopped there, at least long enough to say thank you, but he doesn’t, he keeps pushing saying, “Show me your glory, I pray.” (18)

And God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… but, [] you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (19)

Which is confusing because up until this point that does not seem to be true. People have seen God before. Is this a new thing? Part of the changing relationship between God and the people? A consequence of the choice to worship a golden calf?

Adam and Eve saw God and lived. Hagar, who I preached about earlier in this Old Testament series, saw God and lived. After she first encounters God in the wilderness, the encounter where she also gives God the name, “The God who sees,” Hagar says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive…?” (Genesis16:13) Yes, Hagar, yes you have.

But now, God says Moses can see God, but not God’s face. I wonder if part of what God is saying is, “Moses, you can argue with me, you can make requests of me, but you cannot control me. You are not God, I am.”

God says, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

Since March a group of us have been praying together everyday day at 5pm on FB live. You’re all welcome to join us whether you can come every day or from time to time. Additionally, the videos stay on our FB page so you can pray “with” us even if you can’t make it at 5pm.

As part of those prayers, we read the readings for the upcoming Sunday. This week I told people I was working hard to get all my giggles out before Sunday so I could preach about God’s backside with a straight face. One family who was participating gave me permission to share this story:

One of our youngest prayers asked their Mom what was so funny about God’s backside? Does God have a funny butt? After some conversation they concluded that God’s backside was probably pretty cute actually.

Kids are awesome.

But is that really what this passage is about? Is this really a story where God says, you can’t see my face but you can see my butt?

Maybe, God does say you’re not going to see my face, you can see my back afterall. And I think that God doesn’t have any of the same sort of shame about bodies and bodily functions that so many of us do – God is more like a kid in that way - so maybe this is really a story where God chooses to show their backside to Moses.

But I also read a really interesting interpretation this week by Rick Morley that I hadn’t thought of before.

Morley explains that “Our English texts usually say that Moses could “see [God’s] back,” but that’s an inaccurate translation. Moses caught no sight of the “body” of God. He saw the place where God just was.”

Think about how the scene is described. God says to Moses, “I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take my hand away, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

So God places Moses safely in the cleft of the rock, covers Moses with their hand, passes by Moses, and then removes their hand.

So the first thing Moses would see when God removes their hand is indeed the place where God just was.

Morley argues that this is not only more textually accurate, but it also makes more sense to him because it matches with how he experiences God’s presence. He rarely notices it in the moment but, Morley explains:

“I’ve used the practice of a nightly examen for quite some time now. Examen is a prayer, usually prayed at the end of a day, where you intentionally recall your own failures, but also God’s little gifts of grace through the day. Sometimes I forget to pray it. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of it.

But, never have I prayed the examen and not seen God’s Hand, God’s Presence, or the place where God just was in my day.

Here’s the thing, though: if I don’t take the time to look, I almost always miss it. Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

That’s true for me as well. Although I have had moments in my life where I have felt God’s presence so strongly it almost took my breath away, those moments have been rare. Most of the time, if you ask me to identify where God is in the moment, I won’t be able to answer. But when I look back, I can often see where God has been present. In the peace I felt about a tough decision, in the kind words from a friend at just the right moment, in an unexpected offer of help.

Knowing that God has been present in the past helps me to trust that God is with me in the present moment, even when I can’t see it, or feel it.

This might be a good week for you to take some time to reflect on your life and, like Moses, see where you have grown. It may also be a great week to “Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

And may those memories help you and comfort on the days when life if hard and God seems absent.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 


On Idols and Altars: A Sermon for Sunday October 11, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday October 11, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.


 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Today’s gospel reading is… rough. I’m not going to preach on it but it doesn’t seem right to just read those words in our service and then ignore them. When the sermon text goes up on the website tomorrow it’ll include a link to a helpful commentary on the passage that points out that it is neither necessary, nor helpful, to assume that anytime a gospel story includes a king, that that king is God.[1]Sometimes an earthly king is just an earthly king.

For our second reading, the lectionary still has us working our way through Exodus.  If you’re ever tried to read the Bible like an ordinary book from start to finish, we’ve reached the section where it’s very common to give up because the text shifts from stories to a seemingly endless list of instructions.

In this section of Exodus, God not only establishes the 10 Commandments, they also establish a detailed covenant with the people of Israel.  Unlike the 10 Commandments, if this entire covenant were to be memorialized as a statue in Kildonan Park, it might take up the entire park. It’s very long, and very detailed.

One of the longest lists of instructions focusses on how to build the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, where God will meet with the people. The tent itself and each item that it will contain is described in exquisite detail. If you are a creator or an artist, this section speaks to how highly God values beauty and artistic expression.

This covenant was established between God, Moses, and a collection of leaders of the Israelite people on Mount Sinai and after that process is completed, Moses goes even higher up the mountain to be alone with God, and the other leaders descend the mountain to be with the people.

Moses stays on the mountain with God for 40 days and 40 nights. (Exodus 24:18). Sometimes numbers in the Bible are literal, and sometimes they are figurative and we don’t always know which is which. The number 40 can mean 40 literal days or it can be used to signify a very long time.

Moses is alone with God for a very long time, what are the people doing during that time?

Tonight’s reading begins, “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain…”

In Everett Fox’s translation, he notes that the Hebrew verb translated here as “delayed” has the connotation of “causing shame or embarrassment.” He translates the open sentence this way:

“Now when the people saw that Moshe – that Moses – was shamefully-late in coming down from for the mountain, the people assembled against Aharon and said to him: Arise, make us a god who will god before us, for this Moshe, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him!” (32:1)

I feel sorry for Aaron. Moses, the person who really should be in charge is shamefully late, the people are angry and now they have “assembled against” him and are making demands. This is not a position any leader wants to be in.

What is Aaron supposed to do?  He could tell the people they need to be patient and wait for Moses, or he could remind them that it’s a bad idea to make an idol instead of following the one true God. Those would actually be wise choices to make as a leader, but they’re not popular ones.   They are likely to make the people even more anxious and angry and you know that anger is going to be directed at you. So do you do the thing you believe is right, or the thing that will make you popular with the people?

Dr. Michael Osterholm is an American epidemiologist whose work I follow, he has a weekly podcast and has been advising the Lutheran Church in America on how to respond to the pandemic. He pointed out recently that we are beginning to see a shift from pandemic fatigue to pandemic anger.   First people were tired of the pandemic, and now they are increasingly angry at all the ways the pandemic is negatively affecting their lives.  It’s hard to get angry at something as abstract as a pandemic so instead people are directing their anger at their leaders,  at grocery store clerks, at family members.

This seems to be what is happening with the Israelites. They had a sense of how long they thought Moses should remain on the mountain and at first they were willing to wait, but now they are angry, and they are looking for a quick fix.

The quick fix, in this case, is to build their own god out of gold. And Aaron does what the people want him to do.  He tells them to take all of their gold rings and earrings – which both men and women were wearing at the time -  so that he can melt them down and create a golden calf. (32: 2-4)

I was wondering why they chose to use their jewelry in this process and I suspect it’s because all of the other gold that they had plundered when they left Egypt has already been used in the creation of the tent of meeting.

When the people saw the golden calf, they declared, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” (32: 4) A feast day is declared and the people, “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.” (6)

The word “revel” has sexual connotations. This was a wild party, not a sedate worship service.

And God is not pleased:

The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;  they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (7-10)

The first thing I want to point out about God’s reaction is that it’s funny.  It’s terrifying, but it’s also funny.

This is a classic trope in comedy.  When the kid or the dog or the coworker is doing a good job, they’re ours.  But when they misbehave, they belong to someone else. My dog has perfect manners. My dog never poops in the house or chews up my slippers, Mike’s does.[2]  “Mike! Come here and see what your dog has done!”

We’ve just gone through pages and pages of stories and covenant building where God claims the people of Israel as their own and now that the people have built a golden calf, suddenly these are Moses’ people.

When Moses responds to God, he will assert that these are not his people, they are God’s people.  Again, comedy gold.

The second thing I want to highlight in God’s response is based on the work of Everett Fox. Fox notes that the language of the original text implies that God is baiting Moses here. God wants Moses to argue with and defend the people. This is also implied by how quickly God seems to change their mind.  This is a test, and Moses passes. (439)

So once again, we see in scripture, that it’s OK to argue with God.  More than that, it’s something God wants us to do.

This test is not simply, will Moses choose to defend the Israelites and argue with God?  That would be tough enough, but God adds a further temptation into the mix.

But before we look at that, let me refresh your memory on the nature of Moses’ relationship with the people of Israel at this time.

It’s not great.

From the time Moses chose to leave his family and the life he had built for himself in Midian to free the people from enslavement and lead them to the promise land, we have seen story after story after story of Moses working hard, doing what he promised to do, only to receive harsh criticism and complaints from the people. There are so many of these stories that biblical scholars have created a category for them, they’re called the complaint narratives.

I’m sure that more than once by this point Moses has thought, “Well if you don’t like my leadership, fine, I quit.”

And here is God offering him an out.  God is going to destroy the people which means Moses won’t have to lead them anymore.  God will give Moses the very thing he has wished for.

But Moses digs deeper than those very real but ultimately surface type feelings that emerge when you feel unappreciated to a deeper place where his love for the people resides and he argues passionately on their behalf.

Which is amazing in and of itself, but I haven’t even mentioned the additional temptation that God has placed before Moses. God says, “Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (10)

Moses will no longer be the leader of a stiff necked people. Moses will be the patriarch of a great nation blessed by God.

That had to be rather tempting.

But instead of taking the bait, Moses defends the people and argues with God, explicitly reminding them of the covenant with Abraham and God changes their mind.

I wonder if Moses, as he is walking down the mountain from this encounter thought, “Wow, I had no idea until God threatened them, how much I actually care for these people. I didn’t know how much I love them until I said it out loud.”

If you read ahead, you’ll see that the people will be punished for creating the golden calf.  It’s a dark and difficult story, but they will not be wiped from the face of the earth, and Moses will continue to lead them.

When I was a kid, I asked my grandmother why we, as Mennonites, didn’t wear gold crosses around our necks like some of my friends from other denominations did.

She explained that if it took a piece of jewelry to identify ourselves as Christians, then we were doing something wrong. Our faith should be obvious from the way we lived our lives.

She may even have pointed to this story to show that it’s wrong to create idols or reminded me that we also kept our worship spaces free of imagery so that we could not fall into sin and could keep our focus solely on God, but I don’t actually remember her saying any of that.

Her explanation made sense and I lived most of my life following that advice.

But now I think it is fascinating that the story of the golden calf comes right after pages and pages of detailed descriptions of God’s blueprints for how to create beautiful things to use in the worship of God at the tent of meeting.

It seems to point to a “middle way” for thinking about the objects we create and use in worship.

Idols? Bad. Don’t make them, don’t worship them.

The use of beauty and beautiful things to help point us to God?  Good.  Do make them, do use them, do delight in the ways they help us connect with the God who created us and all the earth.

This fall we have a group of people who are meeting regularly both to study a book together but also to explore the idea that God is everywhere and can be found everywhere if only we pay attention.  The book is called “An Altar in the World,” by Barbara Brown Taylor.

This week I’ve been thinking about the idea of creating an altar in our homes, and I want to encourage you to think about this too.  I’m going to give you some examples, but this isn’t a one size fits all project. It’s an invitation to think about your own unique space, and your own unique needs.

Although I never thought about it as an altar until this week, in my home I usually sit in the same chair when I pray the daily office. Next to that chair is a table that contains a candle, incense, prayer beads, and my hand held labyrinth.  My Bible and prayer book are also within easy reach.

I can pray anywhere at any time, but there is something about the way I have created this space that helps me enter into those times of focused prayer in a particular way.

Do you have a space like that? How does it impact your prayer?  If you don’t have a space like that, what might it take to create one?  It doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive.   Although I usually pray in the same chair, I also use that chair for other things to. I can’t afford to have a chair that’s only for prayer.

Similarly, at the start of this service, we invite you to light a candle with us.  Do you already, or have you ever thought about preparing the space where you join us for worship on Sundays?   What might change in your experience if you thought about preparing yourself and your space for worship.

What might change if you thought about what you are wearing – and here cozy pjs might just be the perfect choice – or where you are sitting, or what you have nearby – a candle, or a good cup of tea. How might being intentional about these things impact this experience for you?

If these questions create any sense of guilt or obligation in you, please ignore them. Guilt is such a waste of time.  But if they create a sense of curiosity and play, then play! Experiment this week and see what you discover.

And I hope you’ll let me know about it when you do.

In the strong name of the Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4613

[2] Our dog actually is actually perfect, I’m using artistic license to make a point. 8)


It's Enough: A Sermon for Sunday, September 27, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 27, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

After several month of lectionary readings that skipped over large sections of story,  not much has changed for the Israelites since last week’s reading.  They are still travelling in the wilderness, and they are still very concerned about resource scarcity.

At almost any other time in my life I would have had little sympathy, little understanding, for the Israelites’ consistent inability to believe that God is trustworthy, despite all the ways that God continues to show the people just how trustworthy God actually is.

But for the past few years I’ve been doing some intentional work on trying to understand colonialism and racism and I have come to see just how ingrained these kinds of worldviews can be.

I am a nice person, but I am also racist, and I have been deeply formed by colonialism.  It will take me a long time to dismantle those things in my own life.  Last week someone pointed out to me that I had said something ableist, another thing I am trying to learn not to be, and I was a breath away from saying, “I’m sorry I’ve been so blind to that.”

It took me a lifetime to create these habits and I still live in a world that largely reinforces them so they are not going to change overnight. It’s slow work, it's hard work, but it’s work worth doing.

And the Israelites still carry the mindset and the generational trauma from their time in Egypt.  They have left Egypt, but they are not entirely free.

And one of the ways this manifests, is in persistent anxiety about resource scarcity.

Which, again, at any other time in my life I would likely have rolled my eyes at thinking, “God has given you more than you even need, why are you still so worried?”

And then I remember the great toilet paper crisis of March 2020.

Remember that? Doesn’t it seem like a lifetime ago?

As I understand it, our need for toilet paper did not actually increase in March, and the overall amount of toilet paper being produced didn’t change either. But something changed in our world, that change made us anxious, and many, many, many people coped with that change by buying way more toilet paper than they needed which created unnecessary panic and anxiety and a situation where some people had stockpiles of toilet paper, and some people were down to their last roll and couldn’t find any in the stores.

And if you didn’t buy large amounts of toilet paper,  you probably bought some other resource to help ease your own anxiety and give yourself a sense of control over the uncontrollable.

This may tell you all you need to know about me – I didn’t buy toilet paper; I  bought a three months’ supply of coffee and dog food.

Today’s reading is one in a series of stories that theologians sometimes call the complaint narratives. They all follow a similar pattern:  There is a threat to the safety and security of the Israelites – they need food, or water and they complain to Moses about it.  Interestingly, they always complain to Moses, not God. Moses then brings that complaint to God and God saves the people. God liberates the people from slavery, provides quail, and manna, and water.

This happens over and over again.

Before we look at the issue of drinking water from today’s story, I want to point out a detail that I think illustrates just how deeply ingrained the Israelites sense of resource scarcity was.

In today’s story they are concerned about water, but oftentimes they are concerned about food, and specifically meat. More than once they complain to Moses, “If only you had left us alone in Egypt where we had fleshpots – where we had meat.”

It’s a weird complaint because their lives as enslaved people in Egypt were horrible, but also, do you remember what happened when they left Egypt?

Exodus 12 tells us that:

During the night Pharaoh summoned Moses and Aaron and said, “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go” …The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.

The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Sukkoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went up with them, and also large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” (12:21-38)

Large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.

Those animals, they’re meat. They’re food. Unless all these animals have somehow already been used up or died mysteriously, the people have no actual reason to miss the “fleshpots of Egypt.”

Maybe they are saving them for a special occasion. Maybe they are afraid to start eating those animals because it is comforting to see them. Maybe it helps ease their anxiety to say, if we need to, we can always eat those animals.

But whatever is happening, it seems to me that their felt sense of food scarcity and their actual stockpiles of food aren’t lining up.

Now water is a different thing.  Animals can travel with you and are something of a renewable resource.  Water is different. As they travel, the Israelites would need to continually find new sources of not just water, but water that was clean enough to drink. And not just for the people, the animals need it too.

It’s the next level of trust. In theory, the people should have been able to look around as they walked, seen the animals – their food safety net – and been able to remind themselves that they’re OK, they have enough food.  But water? As soon as they find a place with clean drinking water they leave it so, if they keep turning their head to look behind them as they walk, they can see that water, that source of life, slowly getting further and further away, and if they look ahead, they see only dry, dusty wilderness.

But, even if they do have those animals with them and even if they could see their next source of water on the horizon, God has been working hard to get them to slowly abandon that scarcity mentality and the urge to feel secure by hoarding supplies because, as you may recall from last week, storing up manna for another day doesn’t really go very well. With the exception of the day before the Sabbath, anytime the Israelites try to store more manna than they need for a single day, they fail. The stored manna becomes filled with worms. It becomes inedible.

Little by little, experience by experience, God is calling the people to trust God’s ability to provide, and not their ability to stockpile.

But it’s going to be a long process.

So in today’s reading, the people make camp in a place where there is no water and we are told, “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 these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” (1-5)

The difficulty of being a leader in a time of great change and anxiety is a whole other sermon, but for today, I’ll just point out that while it is good for us to hold our leaders to account and to offer them constructive feedback, we should also remember that they are human beings experiencing the same stressful world events that we are and we should take particular care with how we voice our concerns.

No one does their best work when they think they could be stoned at any moment. I was thinking about this when Dr Roussin, who looked so tired and defeated, gave his press conference on Friday and some of the comments on the CBC coverage I was watching were just vicious.

Moses is tired, he’s frustrated, he’s feeling defeated and like the people are ready to kill him, but God doesn’t seem to be frustrated at all – not at the people, and not at Moses.

And God has a plan.

Moses is to gather some of the elders and go ahead of the people to the rock of Horeb.  When they get there, Moses is to take his staff, strike the rock, and then drinkable water will come out of the rock. Enough water for all the people.  And Moses does exactly what God tells him to do, and it works. (5-6)

God does not tell Moses to go ahead on his own, he is to take the elders with him, presumably to act as witnesses and to be able to tell the people what they have seen. God also instruct Moses to use his staff to strike the rock – the same staff that Aaron and Moses used to turn the Egyptians drinking water into blood. (Exodus 7)

These are both practical and symbolic actions, designed to help form this group of formerly enslaved people into a people who trust God.

Moses names this place Massah – which means “test” – and Meribah – which means “contention” or “quarrel” – because this was a place where “the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” (7). It’s interesting that he doesn’t name this place “We finally trusted.” And equally interesting that God seems to be OK with these names.

God understands that after generations of being deformed through enslavement, the people need to be re-formed. God understands that this will take time. Once trust has been broken, it takes an incredible amount of work to re-build. You need to show you are trustworthy again and again and again.  God know that part of building trust is being able to test, to push the boundaries and see how the other person responds.  God is not threatened by this process.

God also knows that having reminders and rituals are so very important.  That’s why we gather every week. That why we tell and re-tell stories. That’s why symbols are so very powerful. That why God doesn’t tell Moses to use just any old stick to hit the rock and bring forth water,  God says, use the staff that has been a symbol of my power since the first plague.

We all received some tough news on Friday.  Case are rising, new measures are being put in place and this creates a lot of confusion and uncertainty.

It’s hard. So very hard.

One thing that helps me, is to have tangible reminders of times in my past when I have experienced hardship and God was with me in those hardships.  It helps me to try and lean into trusting God instead of trusting myself.

It stops me from running to the store to buy all the toilet paper and coffee and dog food.

And so I want to encourage you this week to think back on your life. Can you remember times when things were tough and God was present? Can you remember times when you were sure there would not be enough, but God provided?

Be ever so gentle with yourself if those sorts of memories are hard to find.

When they come – write them down, or find something that can remind you of them. Pull out that encouragement card someone wrote you, or the rock from that trip you took, put it somewhere where you can see it.  Re-read the stories.

Re-read these Exodus stories, stories of God’s consistent and faithful and abundant provision for an exhausted and anxious people facing an unknown future. Reading these stories in our present circumstances can remind us of God’s consistent, faithful, and abundant provision.

May these things give you some comfort and the courage to keep going.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


There is No Going Back: A Sermon for September 14, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday September 14, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 


May the words of the mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s reading from Exodus ended with the celebration of the first Passover - if celebration is the right word for a night where the Israelites gathered in their homes and reminded each other of their shared history and God’s provision while all around them Egyptian households were discovering and then grieving dead children.  I imagine the Israelites were terrified the entire time and the wails of the Egyptians provided an eerie soundtrack that was impossible to block out.

And now the Egyptians want the Israelites to leave, to get out as quickly as possible.  They want them to leave so badly that they willingly give the Israelites everything they ask for – silver, gold, clothing. (12:35) In Everett Fox’s translation it says,  “So they did strip Egypt.”

Egypt is stripped of all its wealth, from their first born children, to their gold.  They are more than ready to get rid of the Israelites.

So the Israelites leave, and God is with them.  We’re told:

The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.  (13:21-22)

But then the Egyptians change their minds and they set out after the Israelites. The Egyptian army had horses and chariots and quickly caught up to the Israelites. (14:5-9)

And when the Israelites see Pharaoh and his army approaching, they think of all the miraculous things God has done and they are confident that God will continue to care for them.

No, of course that’s not what happens.  They get scared, they complain, and they look for someone to blame.  I’m guessing at least most of us can relate to that. And keep in mind, this isn’t an ordinary day, they have been travelling day and night since they left Egypt, and none of us are at our best when we’ve experienced trauma and are exhausted.

Moses bears the brunt of their complaining. They blame him, not God saying, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? … it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”

Moses, who was also exhausted and must have been hurt by this onslaught of criticism buries his hurt and sarcastic responses and instead replies, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” (14: 10-14)

As the Egyptians approach, the pillar of cloud the Israelites have been following moves from in front of them to behind them so that it is between the Egyptians and the Israelites. (19-20)

So if the Israelites look one way, they can see the pillar of cloud and behind that, the Egyptian army, and if they look the other way, they see a large body of water.

In the translation we read tonight this body of water is just referred to as “the sea” and you may also have heard is called the Red Sea, but Everett Fox notes that scholars have also suggested it could be translated as “End Sea” or “The Sea at the End of the World.”  Which is lovely and evocative.

The Israelites are at the end of the world as they know it.  And then Moses “stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind at night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” (21-23)

The sea splits in half exposing not just mud, but dry solid ground that they can walk on, and the Israelites cross the sea to the other side.

Seeing God’s power the Egyptians initially decide to retreat, but then they decide to also try to cross the sea and continue their pursuit but the waters close in around them and they all drown.

And then we read, “Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.  Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.” (30-31)

The people saw what God had done, they believed in both God and God’s servant, Moses, and, they celebrated. They sang joyous songs of praise.

This story is troubling, and I can’t interpret my way out of the discomfort I feel about a story where God saves a bunch of people by killing another bunch of people. I have tried, but I can’t bend the text into a story that I’m more comfortable with. But there are a few things that at least help me engage with this story.

First, sometimes things are troubling. I don’t like it, but it’s true, and it’s healthy to acknowledge that.

Second, the stories we read in scripture were written for a purpose. Their purpose is not simply to chronicle facts as accurately as possible. Oftentimes they are more concerned with what is true, than with what is factual. In this case, a key purpose of this story is to remind the people of Israel who they are and who God is.  And God is the all-powerful, liberating God who can free enslaved people, spilt a sea in half, and vanquish anyone who seeks to do them harm.

And while I value human life, and think it is troubling whenever a human life is lost and even more troubling when people celebrate the loss of that life, I also know that as a privileged person, as a person from the dominant culture, I may want to identify with the Israelites, but in reality I’m a lot more like the Egyptians. And as such,  I need to be careful about my inclination to police the Israelites’ behaviour.  In fact, I want to carefully examine that inclination so that I can recognize and check it not just when I am interpreting a scripture passage, but also when I am interpreting the news or my neighbour’s behaviour.

This moment, this the Israelites have just been miraculously and dramatically saved from death moment. This moment of, the Israelites have been freed from centuries of oppression moment. This is not the moment for me to jump in and start telling the Israelites what to do or how to feel.

There are times to step back and be quiet, and this is one of them.

In the Talmud, one of the sacred texts of the Jewish tradition, there is a story that provides helpful commentary on these events.  The Egyptians have been drowned, the Israelites are singings celebratory songs, what is God up to?

We’re told that when the angels see the Egyptians are drowning they also begin to sing joyful songs, but God silences their songs with this rebuke, “How dare you sing for joy when My creatures are dying” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b).  God lets the Israelites sing and does not rebuke them, but God silences the angels. Maybe God understood that the Israelites needed “to give voice to the huge relief of finally being redeemed.”[1] But God does not celebrate, and God does not allow the angels to either.

Here's another part of the story I want us to consider.  This story ends with the Israelites celebrating that they are no longer slaves and that the Egyptian army has been defeated.  They praise God and celebrate their newfound freedom.

However, it won’t be long before they once again begin to grumble and complain. It won’t be long before they will once again say that life was better in Egypt and they wish they could return.

I can only imagine how frustrating this was for Moses.  While it was God who freed the Israelites from slavery, Moses was a key part of that plan. Moses took risks, worked hard and sacrificed a lot in order to help his people.  He left his family and the life he had built in order to return to Egypt and do this work and now the people are complaining and blaming him.

And I imagine in his anger he might have thought, “Really? Really? You would prefer to return to Egypt and be enslaved. Well I’m sorry I left my family and the good life I had created for myself to help you. I’m so sorry that you’re no longer Pharaoh’s property that he can use and abuse however he likes.

And what do you mean, go back? There is no going back. The Egypt we left no longer exists, and in its place is an impoverished people, living through a collective trauma without a leader. The Egypt we remember no longer exists.”

And then possibly, after he’d cooled off a bit, had a nap, acknowledged the hurt those complaints had caused him he might have thought, “They can’t possibly want to return to Egypt. What is really going on here?”

I’m not sure what’s going on for the Israelites but change, especially abrupt change, is hard. Not knowing what is going to happen next is incredibly hard. It’s easy to look back and re-tell the story of your past when you feel like this; remembering only the good and forgetting all the bad.  It’s easy to feel nostalgic for that re-written version of your past and long to return to it.

The Israelites cried out to God when they were enslaved. They begged for freedom. They believed God’s promise that they would one day live in a land flowing with milk and honey.  They forgot to ask how long it would take to get there.  They forgot to think about what life would be like in the time after enslavement but before they reached their new home.

Today’s story shows us three phases in the Israelites’ journey.  Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side.

Knowing, as we do, that it won’t be long before those joyous songs will become a chorus of complaints, what can we learn from their experience in the hopes that we won’t repeat it in our own lives?

My hunch is that the question that will get each one of us to that answer is this, “What should the Israelites have left behind at the water’s edge?”  And by extension, what do we need to let go of?

This is not a one for one comparison, but I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment.

Enslavement. The crossing of the sea. The celebration on the other side. Disillusionment.

Our lives before March 2020.  Lockdown.  This wilderness wandering time as we wait for a vaccine.  The unknown future.

What do we need to let go of so that, when that time comes, we will be able to celebrate with everything we have without moving swiftly into disillusionment and complaint?

Because I do believe with all my heart that this situation -this pandemic -won’t last forever.  But I also believe, that there is no going back to the way things were.

I’m not certain what I need to leave by the water’s edge. I’m certain that for most of this pandemic I’ve been so busy focusing on trying to survive in the present moment that I haven’t taken the time to stop and reflect on that question. But I need to. I need to sit by the water’s edge and lament, and grieve, and lay some things down before I get back up and begin this next part of the journey.

Because there is no time machine that can take me back to February 2020 or hurtle me forward to a future where COVID doesn’t exist.   And I’m alive right now and I don’t want to miss the gifts that this incredibly hard wilderness time will also surely bring.

When God sends quail -and they will -I want to experience the joy of that unexpected gift. When God sends manna - and they will – I want to feast.

And when I finally arrive in that promised land, that land flowing with milk and honey, I want to know with every fiber of my being that there is absolutely no place I’d rather be.

And I want the same thing for each and every one of you.  So weep, lament, reflect, and leave whatever it is you need to leave at the water’s edge, and then let’s continue to journey forward in this wilderness time together trusting that God is and will be with us each step of the way.

In the strong name of our Triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.thejc.com/judaism/features/why-did-we-sing-when-the-egyptians-drowned-1.54039    Thanks to the folks at Pulpit Fiction for bringing this to my attention.  And I looked a couple of times but couldn’t find an author to credit for this article.


The Body of Christ Has Always Been Virtual

Author’s notes: This is the third installment in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Four years ago, I met Deanna A. Thompson at a writing workshop.  Consider this reference to her excellent book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World to be a footnote to this entire piece.

 

 

“Christ has no body but yours….”  Attributed to St Teresa of Avila

 

“The Body of Christ is happening virtually whether or not the church acknowledges it.”  From a conversation between Deanna and an unnamed seminary professor.

 

“The church has not been unwilling to make do with less than fully-embodied theological exchange in the past. Why should we be less brave now?”  Jason Byassee[1]

 

Deanna Thompson was skeptical of technology and proud of it. She didn’t have a cell phone, her kids didn’t have cell phones and she was proud of it.

But then she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.

Her brother offered to create an online social network through CaringBridge so that even when they could not be physically present with her, her friends and family could continue to connect with and care for her.

Through that experience, Deanna experienced a conversation and shifted from being a digital skeptic to an evangelist.   She describes this shift in her book The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World.   In addition to being an evangelist for Christ’ Virtual Body, Deanna is also a theologian and so her book is both a memoir and a theological exploration.  It is well worth reading.

One of the ideas that struck me from Deanna’s book is her explanation that the church has always been virtual.  After Jesus’ ascension, his followers became his representatives here on earth.  We became Christ’s body. People are supposed to see Christ in us.

While face to face interactions and Agape meals were surely hallmarks of those early Christian communities, Jesus was not present in bodily form and in most cases, neither were the earliest church leaders.

People didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to appear on the scene in person in order to begin.  And they didn’t need to wait for Peter or Paul to be present with them in person in order to learn from those leaders and grow in their faith.   They received letters.  Paul’s primary ministry was a virtual one.

If you look at the Bible, the last section is filled with these letters. Not all of them written by Paul, but all of them written by people who were not physically present to the people they were writing to.  We also know that the letters we have retained in the Bible represent only a small percentage of the letters that were likely being written at the time. (We don’t, for example, have the letters that communities wrote to Paul, only his responses.)

The same is true of later church leaders. We don’t interact with them face to face, we don’t have records of their spoken interactions, we have their letters, we have their written prayers. We have their virtual communication with the body of Christ.

My role as a priest can trace its origins back to this virtual body.  As the church began to institutionalize and grow the Bishop couldn’t be everywhere at once so he (and it was always a he at that time) was present with communities virtually through representatives who came on his behalf bringing bread and wine the bishop had blessed previously.   When I preside at worship, I still do so as a representative of my bishop.

Throughout my life I have had strong connections to the universal church and Christ’s virtual body.  My faith is strengthened by people I will never meet in person, many of whom died long before I was born, but who wrote of their experiences with Christ in ways I find compelling.

When I left home for university I knew that my church family back home prayed for me regularly. Those prayers and the cards and letters I received meant a great deal to me.

When I was ordained, friends I know mainly from online interactions participated in the livestream of my ordination and gifted me with a beautiful green stole.  I think of them every time I put in on and feel their love and support.

And while I miss worshipping in person with people and want to be able to do so again, I am increasingly being convicted by just how much of my privilege is reflected in that longing. For most of my life attending in person worship has always been my choice. I have never experienced any real barriers to attendance. But now, on a regular basis, truths are being made visible that had previously been invisible to me. They were always true, I just didn't notice them. My experience is not everyone’s experience.  In person worship has never been accessible to everyone. For some people it’s geography, or the weather, or disability, or race, or age, or gender, or sexuality or a combination of factors.

Last week I received a note from someone who told me that they have never felt more connected to God and to the church than they have since worship shifted to being online.  It was not the first, and likely not the last note I will receive expressing that sentiment.

My hope for the future is for a church where we consistently seek to connect people to God and remove barriers that prevent people from doing so.  I hope for a church where worship will be offered both in person and online, and where both will be seen as good and valuable.  I hope for a church were our worship will strengthen our sense of connection with the person sitting next to us, the person commenting in the chat section, and the saints that have gone before us. I hope for a church where we will increasingly recognize that we are all part of Christ’s body.

This week I received a letter in the mail from a dear friend I haven’t seen in several years. My name and address were written on the envelope by a shaky hand.  This senior gentleman is both monk and a priest who has been a supporter of my ministry since we first met.  I ran my hand over the writing on the envelope and kissed it before I opened it. It contained a prayer and a blessing for me as I navigate priestly ministry during these difficult times.  And while I long to see him in person and hold his hand, I do not believe that his blessing is any less powerful because it arrived in the form of a letter.

He asked me if we were having “alive” services and when I write him back I will tell him, “We most certainly are! They’re all online and they are lively. Here’s the link, join us for worship anytime. And thanks for sharing the link to your services, it has been a gift to be able to participate in them.”

The body of Christ is a virtual body. Thanks be to God.

 

[1] https://faithandleadership.com/jason-byassee-virtual-theological-education


Turn To The Side: A Sermon for Sunday August 30, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 30, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last Sunday Moses was a baby in a basket and in tonight’s lectionary reading he is married and living in Midian. So, once again, we have some catching up to do.

Baby Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. His sister Miriam sees the rescue, thinks quickly and convinces Pharaoh’s daughter to hire Moses’ biological mother Jochabed to care for him. This raises all sorts of questions about identity and Moses’ childhood that the text does not answer for us.

Does Moses know he is adopted? When does he find out? Does he know Jochabed is his biological mother? Does she teach him anything about Israelite culture or does she keep his heritage a secret in order to protect him?

We simply don’t know. What we do know is that by the time Moses is a young man he is living as an Egyptian - he has not been enslaved and people identify him as an Egyptian based on his appearance. He looks like and lives and walks like an Egyptian. At some point he has learned that he is not an Egyptian, his is an Israelite, and he has come to care for his people.

His care causes him to act rashly. He sees an Egyptian man strike an Israelite man and Moses looks around, thinks the three of them are alone, and then he kills the Egyptian and tries to hide his crime by burying the body. (2:12)

But the murder does not remain a secret and Moses flees for his life to the land of Midian. (15). In Midian he meets his wife, Zipporah, and settles down there.

This is how we come to find him at the beginning of today’s reading, tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro. (3:1)

Then we are told that:

“After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (2:23-24)

And this is where tonight’s reading picks up the story.

Moses is out looking after he father in law’s sheep, and he leads the flock “beyond the wilderness” to “Horeb, the mountain of God.” (3:1)

While he is at Horeb, an “angel of the Lord” appears to Moses in a “flame of fire out of a bush.” The bush, we are told, was “blazing,” this was not a small spark or tiny fire. And miraculously, the bush was burning, but it was not burning up. (2)

When Moses sees this burning bush, he says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” (3)

“I must turn aside.” I hadn’t noticed this detail until this week. The bush is not directly in front of him, he has to turn to the side to look at it. He has to stop, and take notice.

I’ve always just assumed that this burning bush was so big and so unusual and so right up in his face that he had no choice but to take notice, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. He has to turn to the side to notice it.

I wonder how many other burning bushes he passed by before this one caught his attention. I wonder how often we rush right by burning bushes in our own lives because we’re too busy to stop and turn to the side.

In a few weeks, we’ll be offering an online book group. There is still time to sign up, you can email me for more information. We’ll be using Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World, a book in which she discusses a myriad of ordinary ways that people can connect with God in their everyday life. It’ll be more than a discussion group however, we’ll be discussing the book via Zoom and then meeting up in smaller socially distanced groups to practice what we’re learning about. In the second chapter, The Practice of Paying Attention, BBT, as she is known to her friends, writes about this event in Moses’ life:

“The bush required Moses to take a time-out, at least if he wanted to do more than glance at it. He could have done that. He could have seen the flash of red out of the corner of his eye, said, “Oh, how pretty,” and kept right on driving the sheep. He did not know that it was an angel in the bush, after all. Only the story¬teller knew that. Moses could have decided that he would come back tomorrow to see if the bush was still burning, when he had a little more time, only then he would not have been Moses. He would just have been a guy who got away with murder, without ever discovering what else his life might have been about.

-BBT continues -What made him Moses was his willingness to turn aside. Wherever else he was supposed to be going and whatever else he was supposed to be doing, he decided it could wait a minute. He parked the sheep and left the narrow path in order to take a closer look at a marvelous sight. When he did, the storyteller says, God noticed. God dismissed the angel and took over the bush. “When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”

Moses chooses to pay attention and this gets God’s attention.

There is this interesting thing that we’ve seen happen numerous times over the past few months – a figure will appear that is described as an angel or a messenger and then later, our human character will identify this figure as God. Different things are happening in different stories but in this one, I like the idea that we begin with an angel who appears as a burning bush and then, when Moses chooses to stop, God tags the angel out and talks to Moses directly. Perhaps the angel exits exhausted thinking, “Finally! I thought he’d never stop and listen.”

However it happened, God is now in this bush calling out to Moses and telling him to “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (5)

Moses is now in the presence of the god of his ancestors, his Israelite ancestors, and he hides his face in fear. (6)

In the DreamWorks movie about Moses’ life, Prince of Egypt, they choose to say that Moses did not know about his Israelite heritage until shortly before he kills the Egyptian. As such, he knows little about his people’s way of life, about their beliefs and practices or about their god.

In the film – which I highly recommend - Moses asks the burning bush, “Who are you?” He really doesn’t know the answer and when God replies he is the god of Moses’ ancestors, Moses’ face registers shock, delight, and excitement. He doesn’t know this god, but he wants to.

God says to Moses, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings and have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (7-8)

I imagine Moses took this in as good news, very good news even. The next part of God’s plan, however, sounded like very bad news.

“I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (10)

You can almost hear the record scratch at this point. Liberating the Israelites? Good. Expecting Moses to lead the way? Not good. Not good at all.

Moses argues with God. The lectionary actually cuts off our reading halfway through the argument – it’s a long one.

Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” and “But suppose they don’t believe me or listen to me?” and “I’m horrible at making speeches.”

Basically Moses is saying something like, “God we just met and I’m confident you’ve pick the wrong guy,” and God being way more patient than God needs to be, listens and responds to each one of Moses concerns saying essentially, “I picked you, you are the right person.”

Moses challenges God five times and each time God is not deterred.

I’m not sure about you, but this is some highly relatable content for me in two main ways. First, I argue with God all the time. All the time. I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. Sometimes I even think I win.

And second, I can identify with Moses’ conviction that he is the wrong person for the job. God must have made a mistake; God really should choose someone else.

I identify with Moses’ question, “Who am I?” His, “Why me?” His, “Surely there is someone else who would be better for this job!”

As part of this exchange, Moses says, “If the people ask me your name, what should I tell them?” In the version we read tonight, God’s reply is translated as “I am who I am.” (13-14)
In his commentary on this passage, Everett Fox makes a number of interesting observations.

For example, have you ever wondered why Moses is fixated on figuring out God’s name? Earlier in this story, when Moses wonders who God is and God says, “I am the god of your ancestors,” that’s enough for Moses. Why does he now need some other name?

Fox observes that “In the context of Egyptian magic, knowing the true name of a person or a god meant that one could coerce him, or at the very least understand his true essence. [Moses] foresees that the slaves will want to be able to call on this power that has promised to deliver them.” (270)

Moses doesn’t yet understand how this god, the god of his ancestors’’ works. He is drawing on what he was taught about gods in his Egyptian home. He is looking for a magic word, a magic name, to help him better understand who he’s dealing with. Or possibly he is looking for a magic word that will help him gain some control in the situation, some sense of safety.

But he doesn’t get what he wants. “I am who I am” is a pretty strange name.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, Fox suggests that a better translation of God’s name (ehyeh asher ehyeh) than “I am who I am” would be “I will be there.” God’s name therefore reassures Moses, can later be used to reassure the Israelites, and by extension each one of us, that God is with us.

Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, God promises “I will be there.”

Listen to how this sounds in Fox’s translation, a translation where he is working to make the English sound as close to the Hebrew as he can. As part of that work, the name Moses becomes Moshe.

This is God’s response when Moses, Moshe, asks what God’s name is:

God said to Moshe:
EHYEH ASHER EHYEH/ I will be-there howsoever I will be-there.
And he said:
Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel:
EHYEH/I-Will-Be-There sends me to you.

As the story continues and Moses offers up additional arguments, God counters with his name “I will be there.”

For example, when Moses says he’s a poor public speaker, in Fox’s translation, God replies:

“I myself will be-there with your mouth and with [your brother’s mouth]and will instruct you as to what you shall do.”

God is saying, “You are never alone.” I am the God, who by my very nature will always “be there.”

Slavery is evil. The Israelites suffered greatly and spent generations wondering if God was ever going to come save them.

We should be careful not to equate our current situation with theirs – it’s not a one to one comparison. At the same time, I imagine many of us can relate to the sense of despair that comes when we are suffering and God seems absent.

The world seems so heavy and dark right now, and not just because of the weather. It can be easy to wonder if God will ever hear our cries of pain and despair.

I can’t fully explain why I believe this, but I do. Wherever you are and whatever you are facing. God is there. Even when God feels absent, God is there. I don’t know why God feels absent sometimes, it’s on my list of things to ask her when we finally get to sit down for coffee.

I do know that sometimes, God feels absent because we’re too busy to notice God’s presence. We walk right by the burning bush. We don’t stop and turn to the side and encounter God in a tangible way.

This week, if you think you see a burning bush. I hope you’ll stop. I hope you turn to the side. And I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you do.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Women of Valour: A Sermon for Sunday August 24, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 23, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

 

 

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We’ve now moved from Genesis to Exodus. From a book that tells the origin story of the people of Israel, to a book that tells the story of how they sought freedom from slavery.  Exodus. Exit. Us.

A lot of time has passed since Abraham and Sarah scratched their heads at how God could create a great nation without providing them with even a single child.

Now their descendants are so numerous that the king of Egypt views them as a threat.  Enough time has passed that this new Pharaoh could not reasonably be expected to know Joseph personally, but he does seem to be willfully ignoring his own history.

We don’t know why he views the Israelites as a threat. Is it simply because there are so many of them? It is because they are different and he fears difference?

Whatever the reason, Pharaoh convinces his people that the Israelites are dangerous, that they cannot be trusted, that they are a threat to the safety of the Egyptian people.

He says, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” (8-10)

Are they really more powerful? If so, how do the Egyptians manage to enslave them? Pharaoh doesn’t offer any proof to back up his statements. This seems like the case of a corrupt leader cultivating a fear of immigrants,  a fear of the other, in order to secure his own wealth and power.  This seems like fake news.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

The Egyptians do what Pharaoh wants and enslave the Israelites and, we are told, “They were ruthless in all the tasks they imposed on them.” (14). The Israelites suffered, but their numbers also continued to increase. (12)

Pharaoh continues to view the Israelites as a threat and he decides that the solution to this threat is to control their numbers by murdering all newborn Israelite boys.  Girls - less valuable, less of a threat - will be allowed to live.

But Pharaoh miscalculates, because the greatest threats to his plan are two women, Shiprah and Puah.

Pharaoh orders them to continue to assist the Hebrew women when they give birth, but to kill every boy who is born. The adult women remain valuable, the boy babies, aren’t.

Shiprah and Puah are described as Hebrew midwives in our English translation of the original text, but it’s not actually clear if they were Hebrew women who were also midwives, or perhaps Egyptian women or women of some other unnamed ethnic group who focused their midwifery practice on helping Hebrew women.  Are they insiders helping their own people or allies? We don’t know, we just know they are fiercely committed to saving lives.

Shiprah and Puah do not directly challenge Pharaoh’s orders, to do so would likely have resulted in their deaths, but they also do not obey him. They let the boys live.

Why? Because they feared God. (17)

Not fear in the sense of the terror.  Fear in the sense of awe and respect that led them to act courageously because they wanted to align their actions with God’s will.

This is a story of genocide. It is really difficult material but I wish I had the time to write a novel or make a movie out of this story because I have a lot of questions, and it would be fun to be able to explore them in a creative medium.  Yes, that is in fact my idea of fun.

I don’t know of any novels or movies that explore this story in depth, but if you want to read a great book that asks and answers a lot of these sorts of questions, you should check out Womanist Midrash, which was written by Dr. Wil Gafney. You may recall I also referenced Dr Gafney’s work in last week’s sermon.

So back to my questions.

First,  the text has established that the Israelite people are already so numerous that Pharaoh believes they are a threat and that sense of threat increases as the Israelite population continues to grow. It’s unlikely that Shiprah and Puah are the only midwives who help Israelite women give birth, they’d need help. In Womanist Midrash, Dr Gafney describes Shiprah and Puah as the heads of their midwifery guild.[1] Perhaps there is a whole host of women working to subvert Pharaoh’s plans under Shiprah and Puah’s capable leadership. This resistance requires more than simply helping baby boys be born.  It’s not enough to simply be preoccupied with ensuring a baby is born if you haven’t thought about how you are going to care for it after it’s born

So what are they doing with all the male babies? How are they hiding the fact that boys continue to be born?

Are they, perhaps, disguising at least some of the newborn boys as girls?  Are they just pretending that there is something in the water and while lots of babies continue to be born they’re all girls?

It’s fun to think about.

I suspect they employed a whole host of methods, but there are two that we are told about.

First, it’s important to note that in order for Shiprah and Puah to lead a resistance against the Pharaoh, they need the support and buy in of the Israelite people. Everyone has a role to play if they are going to be successful. Imagine them, perhaps, presenting a newborn boy baby to his mother and saying with a wink, “It’s a girl!” And the mother looking at her son, nodding in agreement and saying, “It sure is!”

Moses’s mother Jochebed was an active participant in the resistance. Risking her own life and that of the rest of her family, she hid her infant son for three months -how she managed to hide him we don’t know, but she did.  Eventually, she knew she couldn’t hide him any longer and so she puts him in a waterproof basket and places him in the river. (2:1-3)

What a horrifying choice for a mother to make. If my child stays with me, he will surely die. If I stick him in a basket on the river, he might die, but maybe, just maybe, something miraculous will happen to him.

And a miracle does happen. Pharaoh’s daughter rescues Moses, adopts him, and is in fact the person who gives him his name. Moses means “I drew him out of the water.” (2:10). Presumably his own mother had given him an appropriate Israelite name in those first three months, but that name has been lost and Moses’ Israelite heritage erased, at least for now.

In this part of the story we add two more women to the resistance, Moses’ sister Miriam and Pharaoh’s daughter. Miriam carefully watches her brother float down the river and then bravely negotiates with Pharaoh’s daughter to arrange for own mother to care for the child. Pharaoh’s daughter seems to be aware of the resistance and defies her own brother by adopting this Israelite baby.

Clearly, not every Israelite boy who was born during this time could be floated down the river and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. What happened to the other baby boys?

Maybe some of the mothers managed to hide their sons as daughters, maybe some other baby boys were adopted by wealthy Egyptians, but not all of them. Some baby boys were being raised as boys by their families.  And Pharaoh notices.

So Pharaoh summons the midwives and asks them why they disobeyed his orders.

Shiprah and Puah use Pharaoh’s own racist attitudes against him claiming that it’s not their fault that some baby boys remain alive because, “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (19)

Cameron B.R. Howard notes that, the Hebrew word translated as “vigorous” shares the same root as the word “life.”  So the language is playfully reminding the reader that “the Hebrew women are full of life. Their identity resists death.”[2]

It’s true that these women are full of life and actively resisting death, but Shiprah and Puah are also lying to Pharaoh. Israelite women aren’t just popping out babies with a startling speed.

They’re lying. Which is interesting, because even though we all know Christians lie, if you’ve spent even a small amount of time in the church you know that we’re not supposed to lie.  So why are we still telling this story in our churches?

We don’t have time for a deep dive into the history of Christian ethics this evening, but Shiprah and Puah show us that sometimes it’s OK to lie.  People have faced this ethical dilemma throughout history,  but one specific example occurred in World War 2.  Yes, it is wrong to lie, but it is more important to protect human life.

So, if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic and a Nazis official bangs on your door and asks if you are hiding Jewish people in your attic, you lie. You say, “No,” with a clean conscience.

Shiprah and Puah are not punished by God for lying. And, even more intriguingly, they are not punished by Pharaoh for disobeying his orders. These are two fiercely brave and powerful women.

The text says, “God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, [God] gave them families.” (20-22)

It’s an interesting way to word this blessing. God gave them families. God did not give them husbands. God did not give them to men as wives as if they were property either. That’s not the blessing. Dr. Gafney notes, “there is no mention of men in their lives, even if they are married; they, not their husbands or other men, will be the heads of their households.”[3] This is a story of matriarchs.

That is a blessing made explicit by the text but there is an additional blessing implicit in this text.

We know their names.

We can say their names. We can remember these heroic women by name.

Shiprah, which means “beauty.”

Puah, which likely means “girl.”

In her book The Year of Biblical Womanhood Rachel Held Evans wrote about the echet chayil, the woman of valour found in Proverbs 31. Since the release of the book, this phrase has become a rallying cry used mostly by women to encourage other women.  “Echet chayil!”  we’ll cry or type into the comments on a social media post. Well done, woman of valour!

Shiprah and Puah. The other unnamed midwives. Jochabed. Miriam. Pharoah’s daughter. Echet chayil. Women of valour.

We are living through times when we are reminded on a daily basis that our choices impact the lives of those around us. Every day we make choices that help, or hurt, other people.  In the systems we participate in that support racism, misogyny, and classism.  In smaller individual choices like buying local or social distancing or wearing masks not to protect us, but to protect others.

May we choose well, may we make choices that, as our baptism vows say, “respect the dignity of every human being.”

May we be inspired by the fearless examples of Shiprah, Puah, Jochabed, Miriam, and every mother in this story who risked her life to save a child’s life.

Echet chayil. Women of valor.

In the strong name of the triune God who creates, redeems, and sustains. Amen.

 

[1] P. 89

[2] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2169

[3] Pg. 91


I have a confession to make...

Author's notes: This is the second in an occasional series.  You can find the first one, where I reflect on what the movie Dirty Dancing taught me about returning to in person worship, by clicking here.

Cathie Caimano, who I reference in this article, provides amazing resources for the church and I highly recommend you get to know her and her work. Click here to learn more about Cathie.

 

I have a confession to make: I get nervous when people say the word “obviously.”

Usually whatever they say next is not obvious. At least not to me.

I’ve been hearing that word a lot lately. Oftentimes it’s in a discussion about online church or virtual worship.
“Obviously,” they’ll say, “online worship is inferior to in person worship.” Or perhaps they’ll take it even further and say, “online anything is always inferior to being in person.”

Before we go any further, can we all admit that we’re currently engaged in a very privileged conversation.? My ability to write and distribute this and your ability to read and engage with it is a function of our privilege. Let’s have the conversation but let’s also try to check our privilege whenever we can.

There have always been people who have not been able to consistently access in person worship. Prior to COVID when online worship options increased exponentially, that meant they either never had a corporate experience of worship, or that experience was online. What are we saying about those people and their experiences when we say that online is inferior?

I’ve also had some horrible in person interactions in my life, and some amazing virtual ones. I don’t think one way of interacting is better than the other, they’re just different.

COVID is forcing me to think about these things in new ways. Now there is a team sharing the work, but for months I led online services seven days a week. I never imagined a world where that was possible. Where I would sing into my computer. I did not want to be a televangelist when I grew up.

But I’m also so grateful for the connections and the deepening commitment to a regular prayer practice that online worship is creating for me and the community who gather every day. I’m learning to see the beauty and the power of building community virtually.

I need better language to explain my experiences. To help me understand what God is up to and to help me explain it to others as well and I’m writing this series of occasional posts to help me do just that. (You can find the first one on what Dirty Dancing taught me about in person worship by clicking here.)

I’m not writing to convince anyone who doesn’t want to engage in online worship that they have to, but if you fit in this category I do hope you’ll at least be willing to drop the “obviously.”

For today, let’s think a bit about the language we use. I use the term “virtual” but I don’t like it because the notion of inferiority is baked into the term. Virtual already sounds less than which doesn’t accurately describe many people’s experiences in the virtual world, including my own. Virtual bread is not real bread. But virtual community is real community.

Cathie Caimano helped shape my thinking when she pointed out to me that “online” is also an incredibly broad term. Saying you like or don’t like being “online” is the same as saying you like or don’t like being outside. It encompasses a whole lot of things. If you don’t like being outside, or online, what exactly do you mean? Which parts are you talking about?

Do you dislike sitting by a lake or walking in the rain or waiting for the bus? Do you actually dislike every single thing about being outside?

Similarly, being online could include emailing someone, talking to your grandkids on Facetime, watching a movie using a streaming service. Do you actually hate every single thing about being online?

For most people, the pandemic has increased our online engagement whether we like it or not. Church, work, and even doctor’s appointments now occur online instead of in person. The latest news from medical experts tells us that we can expect this to be our normal for at least the next couple of years.

The next couple of years.

This is hard, it’s so very hard and I never want to pretend that it’s not. But I also believe that it’s going to be harder for people who refuse to engage online.

Can we explore this new normal with curiosity? Can we be honest about what we miss about being able to gather in person whenever we want to while simultaneously asking, what are the gifts of being online?

Here’s one. In the time before, I knew someone who would often call me in crisis asking if I could meet with them that day. Because we both assumed the only way we could meet effectively was in person, in order to say yes to his request, I needed to have 3-4 hours available. Meeting meant I needed to drive to the opposite side of town, pay for parking etc. So more often than not I said no. I rarely have an open block of 3-4 hours in a day.

Now, thanks to Zoom, I usually say yes because I usually can free up forty-five minutes to an hour in my day. So this person’s access to pastoral care has increased dramatically as has my overall sense that I am doing a good job and not letting him down. Oh, and my carbon footprint and work expenses have also decreased dramatically.

It’s likely that if you are reading this you have the privilege to ask the questions, “What do I like or dislike about being online?” Not everyone does. For some people this pandemic means sheltering in place, alone with no way of connecting with others. As we think critically about the virtual world, we should always remember that we are in a place of immense privilege. Now more than ever access to the internet should be a basic human right.

But you’re here, so it’s more than likely that this week will find you online. Will you join me in a contemplative experience? Throughout the week take some time to reflect on your experiences of being online, with email, with the telephone, with online worship. What was lifegiving? What wasn’t? Jot those noticings down. At the end of the week, look at what you’ve written and see what you notice. Are there any themes? Anything to express gratitude for? Anything you might want to change?

What might we learn if we drop the “obviously” and engage online with curiosity?

I’m not sure, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

This was the second post in an occasional series.  Click here to read the next post.


Tried, Tested, and True: A Sermon for August 17, 2020

The following sermon was preached at saint benedict's table on Sunday August 16, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church's FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week’s episode of Jacob and Sons ended with Joseph being enslaved and taken to Egypt and Jacob sitting in grief because he believes Joseph has been killed by wild animals.

Once again the lectionary jumps over a large portion of the story and tonight’s reading doesn’t make sense without that context so let’s get caught up.

Immediately following last week’s reading we get an entire chapter where Joseph isn’t mentioned, instead we find the story of Tamar. Maybe next year we can do a summer series focusing on the stories of women in Genesis that the lectionary skips – there are quite a few of them – but tonight we’re going to keep our focus on Joseph. I would encourage you to read chapter 38 on your own however. It’s a fascinating story.

Chapter 39 picks up Joseph’s story after his arrival in Egypt. Joseph is enslaved by a man named Potiphar who recognizes Joseph’s leadership gifts and makes Joseph the overseer of his house. He doesn’t free him though; Joseph is still an enslaved person.

Potiphar recognizes Joseph’s leadership skills and his wife recognizes Joseph’s physical beauty. Joseph rebuffs her advances but she persists. Genesis tells us that: And although she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not consent...”

Day after day and then finally, one day she tries again but this time she also grabs hold of Joseph’s clothes. Joseph pulls away from her and winds up running away, possibly naked.

Which would be funny, if it wasn’t so terrifying. This is a story of an assault in the context of a clear power imbalance. The Collegeville Commentary points out that the roles are very clear here. Potiphar’s wife speaks “as a slave owner to a slave in her efforts to seduce him.” (v.7; p. 119). It’s very dangerous for Joseph to refuse to do as he is told.

With Joseph’s clothing as proof, Potiphar’s wife makes up a story, soaked in classism and racism, and accuses Joseph of assaulting her.  This episode echoes an earlier episode from Joseph’s life when his brothers use his coat to deceive their father and claim that Joseph has died.

Joseph winds up in prison where we learn that not only does he dream elaborate dreams, he can interpret them. This skill leads to a meeting with the Pharaoh where he interprets a series of dreams that have confounded all of Pharaoh’s other experts.

One of the things that is interesting about Joseph’s story is how we see God at work.  Unlike Joseph’s ancestors who spoke directly to God, we never see a scene where Joseph and God speak to each other. God is still present and active, but this is a different relationship.  When Joseph is brought to Pharaoh he makes it clear that he does not interpret dreams by his own skill alone. This is a gift that comes from God and Joseph’s interpretations are messages from God. (16). This sets him apart from all the other experts that Pharaoh has consulted previously.

And this should remind us that there is more than one way to connect with God. If you have never heard God speak to you using a literal voice, that doesn’t mean that God hasn’t spoken.

It’s also interesting to note that by trusting Joseph’s interpretation, Pharaoh is choosing to trust Joseph’s god over Egypt’s gods.

Pharaoh says, “Can we find anyone else like [Joseph]—one in whom is the spirit of God?” 39 So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40 You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” … “I am Pharaoh, and without your consent no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”… Thus Joseph gained authority over the land of Egypt.” (41:37-45)

Joseph was 30. He’d been enslaved in Egypt for 13 years by this time.

Pharaoh’s dreams predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. Joseph gets to work storing up food in the time of abundance to be used in the time of scarcity.  As a result, Egypt does not suffer when the years of famine come, but other people in the surrounding area do, including Joseph’s family of origin.

In the seven years of abundance, Egypt was able to store up so much food that not only is there enough to feed their population, they are able to sell the surplus. 10 of Jacob’s brother’s travel to Egypt to buy grain.  Benjamin, the youngest son and Jacob’s new favourite, stays at home with Jacob.  Benjamin and Joseph were Rachel’s only sons. (42:40)

When the brothers arrive in Egypt they meet Joseph but they don’t recognize him. Joseph recognizes them, however, and puts them through a series of tests.

He tests them, and the tests are grueling, but they are tests, meant to help determine what sort of people his brothers have become.  He could just have easily chosen to seek revenge. This part of the story could easily have gone, “And when Joseph saw his brothers starving and in need of food he remembered his own growling belly after they threw him into the pit and he turned them away and forced them to return to their own homes to die.”

But even though he holds the power of life and death over them, Joseph doesn’t leave them to die. But he also doesn’t offer than instant forgiveness and welcome them into his home with open arms.

He accuses his brothers of being spies, imprisons them and then agrees to release them on the condition that they return with Benjamin. Joseph keeps one of his brothers, Simeon, as collateral.  Joseph also orders his enslaved people to hide each brothers’ money in their sack of grain. When the brothers return home and discover the money they are confused and terrified.

When they return to Egypt they bring Benjamin, and twice as much money as the first time – the money they’d found in their sacks and money to purchase new grain. (42:28)

When they return home from this second trip, Joseph again arranges to have their money hidden in their grain sacks but he also has his own cup put in Benjamin’s sack. (44:1-2)

This time, the brothers are caught before they can leave, Benjamin is accused of theft and is sentenced to death. Now the brothers are truly terrified and Judah pleads for Benjamin’s life. (44:18)

The text gives us the sense that from the time the brothers first arrive in Egypt Joseph is watching everything they say and do, every gesture, every facial expression, trying to figure out what kind of people they have become.

Without even knowing they are being tested, the brothers pass each test. These men who chose greed over a human life when they sold Joseph, return the money they find in their grain sacks.

These men who cared so little for their brother Joseph’s life both returned to rescue their brother Simeon and plead passionately for Benjamin’s life.

Judah, the brother who first suggested they sell Joseph into slavery, now begs eloquently for Benjamin’s life offering his own in return.  He begs:

Now therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (43:33-34)

Not only is Judah willing to trade his life for Benjamin’s, he seems genuinely concerned about his father. A concern that was lacking when he chose to sell Joseph and trick Jacob into believing his favourite son had died.

Additionally, although they do not recognize Joseph, they have not forgotten him. In all of their encounters with Joseph they have spoken through an interpreter, they don’t realize that Joseph can actually understand them. This allows Joseph to eavesdrop on their private conversations and this is how he learns that the brothers regret having sold him. Joseph is able to overhear their deep remorse and regret.  (42:21-23)

This is where today’s reading picks up the story.  The lectionary skipped a LOT.

Today’s passage, which is fairly short, is the conclusion to this whole story arc.  Basically, Joseph tells his brothers who he is, forgives them, and they live happily ever after.

The end.

Well not, quite, but you’ll need to read the rest of Genesis yourself to get the rest of Joseph’s story.

There are a few ways I’ve heard this story misused over the years that I want to highlight for us tonight.

First, we can learn a lot from Bible stories, but not every Bible story should be applied to every situation.

For example, this is not a story about a cheap form of forgiveness. If you’ve ever been pressured to forgive someone who abused you and Joseph is used as an example, ask this person if by forgiveness they mean rising to a position of almost unlimited power and then still spending years putting the person who hurt you through a series of tests before deciding they are truly sorry and offering forgiveness.

Because that seems to be the Joseph model of forgiveness.

We should also avoid using this story to try and imply that slavery isn’t really that bad. Or slavery isn’t always that bad.  It is. It is always that bad.

The brilliant Dr. Wil Gaffney writes, “the lesson of forgiveness in this passage is particularly poignant; combined with Joseph's rags-to-riches story, it is something like a fairy tale. Unfortunately, those lessons are entwined with a deeply problematic theological gloss: that the human trafficking in the story was a tool of God to save the lives of Joseph and his family from the impending famine, verses 5-8, justifying the actions of his brothers in selling him into slavery. While that narrative device makes for great theater in the story of Joseph, it paints an unrealistic glaze over the institution of slavery in and beyond the bible.

-Dr Gaffney continues -Joseph's experience of slavery in the narrative was one in a million and does not mitigate against the unjust dehumanizing institution utilized by the Egyptians and other ancient peoples including the Israelites, or American chattel slavery in North and South America and the Caribbean or the contemporary sexual trafficking of women, girls and boys. The claim of verse 8, "it was not you who sent me here but God" should perhaps be understood in this story as Joseph's perception of his circumstances and not as a broader religious sanction of slavery, human trafficking or any other social ill over which an individual triumphs. Joseph does what so many people do, which is try to make sense out of what he has experienced by drawing on his own limited understanding of God.”[1]

God does not speak directly in this story. This is Joseph’s interpretation of events. Throughout scripture we can see that if God needed Joseph to get to Egypt, he didn’t need to rely on Joseph’s brothers. God is more powerful than that. God did not need the brothers to abuse Joseph. That was their choice alone.

So we also can’t use this story to prop up the false belief that “everything happens for a reason.”  Even when Joseph is telling his brothers that God used the situation for good, he still maintains that it was his brothers, not God who sold him into slavery. He still put them through all those tests before he offered forgiveness. (5-8). There is a big difference between saying, “It’s a good thing you sold me to be used as a slave,” and “It’s a good thing we have such a powerful God!”

In the coming weeks we will see stories where slavery is shown to be evil, and where God is shown as a powerful liberator who breaks chains and sets people free.

But those are stories for another time.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[1] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1026