Sermon, September 17

You can read today’s Scripture lessons here.

This is an important – though difficult – Gospel text!

The parables – these stories Jesus liked to tell – use ordinary, real-world events to invite people to reflect on the way things are – and the way things could be. 

This is one of the parables about the way things are – about human nature. 

The core moment in this parable feels very emotionally real to me: The main character has been let off the hook! He should be relieved, overjoyed, ready to be generous. But in fact, he’s still awash with fear, shame, and an overwhelming sense of scarcity, from this terrifying encounter with the king. 

I like to remind us that the powerful people in Jesus’ parables are not always meant to represent God. 

We shouldn’t recognize God in this king and his cruel actions.

But we may recognize ourselves in the way anxiety and insecurity can make us behave harshly towards others. 

Jesus’ point is: God isn’t like that king – and we shouldn’t be like the enslaved man in the parable. We receive grace; we should extend grace to others. 

Which ties in very nicely with the passage from Romans – one of my favorites, and an important text! The apostle Paul – this tremendously important voice in the early shaping of Christian community and practice – here he insists here that we don’t all have to live out our faith in the exact same way. 

It picks up on what I said last week about how we often have to differentiate between harm and disagreement. Other people doing or liking different things is not an insult to us; it’s just part of being in community and living in society.

A lot of damage can come from misdiagnosing disagreement or even conflict as harm, and vice versa. Treating real harm as mere disagreement can silence those harmed and pressure them to tolerate abuse. 

Treating mere disagreement as harm can rapidly escalate a conflict and create unnecessary division and stress. 

Paul knows all this. That’s why he’s so insistent here: Don’t judge one another for the practices by which you honor God. There are many ways to worship and serve. 

A diversity of practices and pieties within one religion would have been very normal in first-century Judaism, in the context of the first Christians. Maybe the new Christian communities felt like there should be more uniformity in their way of being. 

But Paul – with surprising sociological insight for the first century – says, That’s not a healthy or sustainable way to build communities or institutions. 

This is one of the things that makes historic Christianity not a cult!

A cult is rigid about imposing uniform practice and penalizing those who don’t conform. Paul says: We’re not going to do that. 

These are both important passages! But I’m going to preach on Exodus. We’ve been hearing bits of the story of Moses and God’s people in bondage in Egypt for several weeks now. Here we reach a culminating moment – and the most familiar part of the story: the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea. 

Three years ago I heard Ellen Davis speak about this story. Davis is one of the greatest Old Testament scholars of our time; I was lucky enough to take her Old Testament classes in seminary. 

One of her strong convictions as a scholar is that the land – Creation – is a vital partner in God’s relationship, God’s covenants, with humanity. That this shows up in lots and lots of ways in the Old Testament, and that it very much continues to be true for us as Christians today. 

Back in 2020 Ellen was speaking at a gathering for preachers. She told us: You have something distinctive to say to your people about climate change.

And she used the Exodus story as an example to show us how. 

First, she shared her principles for Biblical storytelling – for how to share these sacred stories of our faith ancestors. 

She said: “First, I must tell the story with transparency, opening a window into our moment in history.

Second, I must tell the story in faith, looking for God’s work, specifically God’s work of creation and preservation, and how humans honor that work, or don’t.

Third, I must tell the Scriptural story in hope, in a way that opens out towards the future.

And finally, I must tell the story in love, looking for how God’s love and human love are at work together.”

Transparency – faith – hope – and love. 

You don’t have to remember all that – but I will circle back to it! 

So, let’s look at the Exodus story through those lenses. Exodus means, Going out. There’s a longer story arc here – from Moses’ birth under oppression and genocide, to this moment, and beyond. And then there’s this specific story, the core going-out moment. The saving miracle of divine liberation. 

Davis says: This is a story about power. 

The real power of God, and Pharaoh’s refusal to acknowledge that power. Pharaoh’s reliance on, commitment to, human power. 

Pharaoh – the king of Egypt – is a perfectly-drawn character, a tyrant straight out of central casting. Power-crazed, cruel, heedless of harm to his own people. 

And he is on a collision course with God’s intentions for the world. 

Our Sunday lectionary skips the dramatic escalation of the conflict between God’s power and Pharaoh’s: the ten plagues. 

Through Moses, God sends a series of hardships on the land of Egypt, with the stated purpose of convincing Pharaoh that he should release the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt because their God is stronger than him or his gods. 

And Pharaoh’s people suffer: water turns to blood; frogs invade their homes; dirt turns into lice; gnats swarm everywhere; animals get sick and people develop terrible sores; hail crushes homes and crops, and then locusts devour whatever is left; darkness falls over the entire land for three days.

Again and again, Pharaoh seems to relent – says to Moses, Fine, take your people, go! But then he changes his mind. Why release all these useful slaves? Why admit the supremacy of a greater power? 

And then, finally and terribly, God sends the Angel of Death to kill the firstborn child of every family in Egypt. 

Davis invites us to reflect on how the Bible uses the deaths of children. It is meant to be a shock, an atrocity, as it should be. 

It is meant to jolt us to change of heart, to acting in new ways, as it does for Pharaoh. 

How many children died this week in the floods in Libya, due to the heavy rainfall from Tropical Storm Daniel? 

Do the Pharaohs of our age, those holding the greatest earthly power – presidents, judges, CEOs – show any sign of change of heart in response to those deaths – and all the others directly due to extreme weather systems caused by global anthropogenic climate change? 

The experience of suffering plague after plague after plague, yet still, those in power won’t change, won’t yield – we’re living through that, right now. I fear we’ll continue to live through it in the coming years. 

We may rightly judge the powerful of our age by the degree to which they pursue policies that support the health and flourishing of children – all our children, worldwide. 

And, yes, also the health and flourishing of our ecosystems. We must refuse to be pushed to choose between human and planetary wellbeing, between loving babies or trees. 

Davis said, “You have to love both, in ways that are personal, visionary, active, and political.”

So. Pharaoh’s collision course with God culminates here: the Hebrews huddled in terror on the shore of the Red Sea, and Pharaoh’s army approaching, a noisy terror of hooves and chariot wheels and spear points blinding in the sun. Because Pharaoh has – once more – changed his mind. 

But God makes a way where there is no way. The sea opens. The people pass through. And when their enemies follow – undaunted, still, by this amazing manifestation of the power protecting their former slaves – the waters crash down, kill and destroy. 

“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.”

Davis said: 

“At the Red Sea, the Israelites move from natural fear – of violence, of death, of loss, of Pharaoh – to fear of the GOD who saves them with awesome power. Fear of God is nothing other than knowing where the real power in the Universe resides, and acting on that knowledge. It’s the opposite of arrogance, of recklessness, moral blindness, of Pharaonic insanity. THIS is the pivotal moment: When Israel ceases to be dominated by natural fear – fear of the tyrant who seems to hold all the cards – to fear of God.”

This brings us back to the first of Davis’ principles of Biblical storytelling: transparency. 

I think of this less like a window and more like an actual transparency, an overlay that lets you align two layers of images to see something new. 

What do we see when we overlay the Exodus story on climate change – or vice versa? 

The trials of climate change are not the plagues of Egypt; they are not sent by God to persuade our leaders to change of heart. 

Rather they are the manifestations of many complex systems becoming increasingly chaotic and destructive, in ways that scientists have warned about for decades now. 

If enough of our leaders, and enough of us, had listened and acted: We could have prevented them. 

If enough of our leaders, and enough of us, listen and act now: We can still mitigate them. 

We may not consciously fear of the pharaohs of our time. But we do live in bondage to them in so many ways, obvious and subtle. 

And we do, I think, live in fear of what it would be like to walk away from the world defined by the current regime of power, as manifest in politics, economics, material production, culture, and so on.

That’s very much part of this Scripture story as well. We’ll see that next week as the Hebrews, free in the wilderness, complain bitterly about being dragged away from the familiar comforts of their enslavement in a life that offered their children no future. 

Here’s one glimpse of what our bondage looks like: 

Many of the products we consume travel to America on huge cargo ships. If global shipping were a country, it would be the sixth-largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. 

And here’s the kicker: Over 40% of the cargo of those big ships is… fossil fuels. We consume fuel getting fuel to consume. 

If the developed world switched entirely to renewable energy, ocean shipping would be cut by almost half.

Imagine the cascade of effects if we were to make that change!

Consider the cascade of effects if we don’t. 

Davis concluded her talk with these words: “The time has come for us to cultivate holy fear as the key to our own sanity and to proving a real future for the children. We must summon the strength to feel healthy fear in this generation.” 

Fear of God is nothing other than knowing where the real power in the Universe resides, and acting on that knowledge.

How would we act if we feared God more than we feared our Pharaohs? If our desire for freedom and flourishing was stronger than our investment, our uncomfortable comfort with the status quo, the way things are? … 

That’s where telling the Exodus story with transparency leads us. What about faith, hope, and love? Where’s the faith in this story and our dwelling with it? 

In the Scriptural story, God intervenes in big, bold, dramatic ways to bring God’s people into freedom. But it takes a while, because of human stubbornness, timidity, and limited imagination.  

Not just Pharaoh’s, but Moses and the Hebrews as well. 

There’s an invitation, here, to strive to face these times, our times, with a belief in God’s saving power. That God can act, even here, even now. Is acting, in spite – always – of human stubbornness, timidity, and limited imagination. 

Not an easy faith to hold, perhaps – but we can try, together. 

Where’s the hope in this story? … 

When we look at the long arc of the Exodus story, we can see that right now we’re at a moment of triumph – singing, dancing, rejoicing in the deaths of oppressors. 

Next week we’ll hear complaining instead of singing. Forty full years of wandering and whining follow the miraculous journey through the Red Sea. 

But there are, eventually, new homes and a new way of living for God’s people. Or – rather – for their children and grandchildren. 

I think we all know at some level that the next few of decades are going to be hard, strange, and costly.

Life as we know it is going to change, a lot. Whether because the changing climate forces it upon us – or because we make big changes, together, to mitigate and adapt – or most likely, some combination of the two. 

Life is already changing – faster in some places than others, but unmistakably. 

Maybe we can find some hope in thinking in terms of a new way of life for this generation’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren – and doing what we can today to journey towards that future. 

Finally: where’s the love in this story? … 

It’s a tough question. I always struggle with the Hebrews’ joy in the death of the Egyptian army and their horses. 

I learned a version of the triumph song in Sunday school as a child: “I will sing unto the Lord for he has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea…” 

I loved it. It was fun to sing!

I have not taught it to my children, or yours. 

Most of them wouldn’t like the dead horses.

Some of them wouldn’t like the dead soldiers.

I understand the Hebrews taking joy in the deaths of their oppressors. That is a real way people feel sometimes. 

Elsewhere, the Bible calls us to love our enemies. 

Here, the Biblical text has no sympathy for these dead. 

They’re not even really people, for the story – they’re just symbols of bondage and genocide. But we might wonder: were the soldiers afraid? Did their leaders order them forward? Did they want to run away? Did they have wives and children at home? 

The Exodus is a profoundly important story for the Hebrews, the Israelites, God’s people. A story of God’s faithfulness and saving love, told and re-told for thousands of years.

It’s clear that the people who first experienced the events this story captures, did not care about the suffering of the Egyptians. 

But that doesn’t mean God didn’t care. 

I wonder how God would tell this story. 

Until we have a chance to ask, we are charged with telling it – and looking for how God’s love and human love are at work together. 

In this chapter of the longer story, we see love at work mostly in this fierce push towards freedom. The way love drives us to want better for each other and our children. 

If we turn back just one chapter, to the passage we heard last week, we see God calling God’s people to prepare for this great journey by sharing a special family meal – the first Passover meal. 

I sure hope everybody made sure that the small households and the folks who live alone were invited to somebody’s table as well. 

I love that God told everybody: Feast together. A special feast of

remembering and preparing. God’s love gathering people around a table to share and strengthen human love. 

There’s something so precious about sharing food and fellowship, song and story and laughter. It grounds us in hard times or facing big changes. 

May the many ways we feast together, here, bind us together and prepare us for the challenges and possibilities of our times. Amen.