Archive for September, 2020

God Listens.

There is so much pain these days, and so many tears need tending to. People need to be heard.

The Burning Bush, by one of the Morton Church children

A Sermon on Exodus 2:23-3:12 (With allusions to Mark 10:46-52)

Moses had no plans to go back to Egypt.  He had left the pain behind.  He had left the whole situation behind.  A fat lot of good it had done when he reacted impetuously to the brutality he saw all those years ago.  It had forced him to flee for his life to Midian.  Now he was well into middle age with a good family, a good job, a good life.

But God never left the suffering and the suffering people behind.  God heard every cry for help and pitied every groan.  God saw everything, knew everything.  And God remembered God’s covenant with all the ancestors of the people.

We do not know how many generations the Israelites endured trauma upon trauma.  Genesis 15 says the oppression lasted 400 years.  Year succeeded year with no relief in sight, and it impacted people’s psyches, shaped their outlook, shaped the lives of their children and grandchildren.  I am sure their cries echoed those that are collected in the Bible in the Book of Psalms, cries like: Are you listening, God?  Have you forsaken us?  How long must we bear this pain?  Is there no one to help us?  When it feels like those cries have not been heard, not been heeded, the pain is multiplied.

But God was listening, and when a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt, God saw an opportunity to take action.  However, God needed at least one human partner to help.  With his life story, and with his passion for justice, even though it had gone dormant, Moses was just the person God wanted to work in, with and through.

One ordinary workday, God caught Moses’ attention out in the field.  And when Moses came nearer to see what was going on with that bush, God spoke to him.  “I am the God of your ancestors,” God announced.  Then God poured out what was in God’s heart.  “I have seen how miserable my people are,” God said.  “I have heard their cries, and I know how much they are hurting.  I know what slavery is doing to them.  So I have come down here to do something about it, to get them out of there and take them to a fertile place where they will be safe and free.”  Then God repeated, “I have heard their cries!  I have seen what the Egyptians are doing to them!”

Moses’ heart must have stirred with the memory of what he himself had seen.  It certainly was about time God did something!  “And so,” God was saying, “I am sending you to speak to Pharaoh and bring my people out of Egypt.”

“Oh, no,” Moses groaned inwardly.  “Who am I to do that?” Moses exclaimed to God.  And thus began a long argument between Moses and God.  Moses steadfastly maintained he was not the person for the job—no way!—until he finally said flat out, “Lord, please send somebody else!”

There were a lot of reasons why Moses was reluctant to say yes to God’s call.  One objection he raised was his difficulty in speaking clearly.  But God had an answer to that objection and all the rest.

I’m thinking one reason was that if Moses says yes to God’s call, that means Moses will have to see and hear and know what God sees and hears and knows, and I can’t blame him for not wanting to get close to all that anguish and hurt again.  It is not fun to witness people’s distress.  It is distressing to hear people cry.  It can leave you crying, too.  How perfectly understandable if Moses wanted to shield himself from such things.  It’s uncomfortable.  And sometimes people’s cries strike others as a nuisance, even offensive, as Bartimaeus’ loud cries annoyed the people around him.  They wanted him to hush and not interrupt their time with Jesus.

How tempting it is to try to say something to make the hurt stop, like telling an anguished person all the reasons why the situation isn’t all that bad, or that they are overreacting, or explaining that a tragedy is God’s will.  The unspoken message is, “Be quiet.  Move on.” The suffering person is left feeling unheard.

Being unheard, not being taken seriously, especially if it happens again and again, adds to the trauma and leaves lasting effects.  I’ve shared this experience with you before, and thank you for bearing with me as I relate it again.  Surgery is traumatic in general, but it holds special distress for children.  I have vivid memories of surgery and hospitalizations.  When I was nine years old, I went in the hospital for surgery, one of the less invasive ones.  It was the Monday after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.  That night I didn’t sleep well at all.  I was so nervous I had to get up and go to the bathroom every fifteen minutes.  The next morning I had to wait a long time because the surgery was towards the middle of the day.  Then they took me down to the surgery suite too early and left me waiting all alone on a stretcher out in the hall for what felt like a very long time.  Finally I just couldn’t stand it any more.  I was grieving the whole situation and dreading the sickness I knew was coming on the other side of the operation.  I lost it, and I started crying.  In the operating room, a man in a mask, a doctor I guess, said to me, “If you don’t stop crying, I’m going to slap you.” 

It took me a long time to heal from the damage that did to me.  I never told anybody about it until I was an adult.  I was in my twenties before I told my mother.  I thought it was my fault, that something was wrong with me because I could not stop my tears, that my tenderheartedness was a weakness.  

I don’t think that any more.

My next major operation was at age 12.  That time I didn’t cry.  But I got sick at my stomach before I even went to the operating room.

If that is my small experience, what about people who have been through so much worse?  What about the Israelites who couldn’t stop crying then?  What about people now who cannot stop their tears?  People grieving huge losses.  People afraid for themselves and others.  People for whom fresh news of justice denied or justice delayed rubs more salt into wounds that go way back, memories of thousands of episodes of justice denied or justice delayed, of many, many small cuts, cutting remarks, cutting looks. People who have been told time and again just get over it already, just be quiet.  Disappointed people, angry at the way their lives have turned out, angry that they haven’t been taken seriously.

What about the Israelites, and all God’s children with tears they cannot stop?  God never leaves suffering people behind.  God is listening.  God hears every cry.  God heard my cries that day, and many more since.  God hears your cries.  And God is enlisting partners to do something about it.  

The other day I read a quote from a theologian named Paul Tillich.  He said, “The first duty of love is to listen.”  Amen and amen.  Being still and quiet enough to hear people out is a form of love.  It is a way to humble oneself and take up the cross, to see with God’s eyes and to listen with God’s ears.

God says: I see, I hear, I know the pain, and I have come to do something about it, to take people to freedom and safety.  And so I am sending you to crying children, to struggling children everywhere, to people whose bodies and souls ache, to the anxious and frightened, to those whose wellbeing is precarious for any number of reasons, all of whom need to be listened to well.  Help me get them to a place of freedom and safety!

God said, “I’m sending you, Moses.  Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go.”  So Moses went to his father-in-law Jethro and said, “I have to go back to Egypt.”



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A Conspiracy of Life

Sermon on Exodus 1:1-2:10 and Matthew 16:21-26

Life from Flickr via Wylio
© 2017 Mike Maguire, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Pharaoh was a demagogue. A demagogue is a leader who rallies support from people by appealing to their prejudices and to their emotions, especially fear. Demagogues pit people against one another. He told the Egyptian people, “Look, there’s getting to be more of those Hebrews, those Israelites, than there are of us, and they’re getting to be more powerful than we are. We’ve got to do something, or else they will take us over. We’re not safe. If we keep getting more of them, they are going to team up with our enemies and fight against us.”

Pharaoh stirred up enough fear and hate to get enough of the Egyptian population to cooperate with him in turning Egypt into one big forced labor camp. Enslaving the Israelites was aimed at accomplishing two things: keeping their population down, and exploiting their bodies for labor in manufacturing, construction, field work and more. The Egyptians were ruthless in their treatment of the slaves.

This plan worked in that the Israelites did provide the labor that pumped up the Egyptian economy. However, it failed to curb the Israelite population. The more Israelites there were, the more the Egyptians feared and hated them, and the worse they treated them.
So Pharaoh came up with a plan of selective extermination. He ordered the Hebrew midwives to kill every Hebrew newborn boy. I am sure Pharaoh thought the midwives were the perfect people to implement this evil policy. They could easily snap a newborn’s neck, or prevent him from ever drawing the first breath. They could even tell the mothers that their little boys were stillborn.

The midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, had a choice. They could have done what so many others in so many other holocausts have done down through the ages: obeyed and then absolved themselves of responsibility this way: “We were just following Pharaoh’s orders.”
But they didn’t. There was something more important to Shiphrah and Puah than protecting their own lives or sucking up to the dictator. They had a reverence for God and a reverence for life. Their calling was to usher life in, not snuff it out. So they conspired against Pharaoh and his evil plan. They conspired against death and for life.

When Pharaoh called them back in to demand why they had let the children live, with perfectly straight faces they told a story. It’s clear in the Hebrew text of Exodus 1 that Pharaoh told his people that the Israelites were multiplying like animals. So the midwives said to him, “Well, your majesty, the Hebrew women aren’t like the Egyptian women. They give birth on their own like animals before we can get to them.” It reminds me of the web of lies that certain members of the German medical community concocted to spirit vulnerable people away when Hitler ordered them to kill the weak, the elderly in particular, and people with disabilities.

So Pharaoh sought out other people who would participate in the genocide. Like Nazis ordering people to turn in Jews, gay people, gypsies, and other so-called undesirables, Pharaoh ordered ALL Egyptians to be part of the killing machine: drown every newborn Hebrew boy in the Nile. Scripture doesn’t tell us how many did or didn’t cooperate. I suspect that a few cooperated, ingratiating themselves to Pharaoh, and that many, many people looked the other way, pretending they didn’t know what was happening. We know for sure that a few courageously resisted Pharaoh’s orders, and one of them was Pharaoh’s own daughter.

Pharaoh’s daughter knew what she was doing when she conspired with Moses’ sister and his mother to save him. Moses’ life was saved, and down the road this courageous action would lead to new life for many. What delicious irony that Moses, who would one day lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, grew up right under Pharaoh’s nose.

People’s lives were saved because all these women conspired for life. They truly were midwives of new life, unleashing the power of life by putting their own lives on the line. They took the path Jesus took many centuries later when he put his own life on the line. He did it because it meant life for everyone else. Jesus did not run away when some of the religious leaders wanted him to stop what he was doing, to stop associating with and being so gracious to the wrong people, to stop throwing forgiveness around so freely, to stop interpreting the scriptures in new ways. Jesus kept right on doing what meant healing and life for others, even though it led to the cross. Jesus defied the powers of evil by facing them squarely, even accepting death, because this way led to life for many. Jesus called his followers to follow his example, putting our lives on the line. That is why he said, “If you want to follow me, you must take up your cross.” Some things are more important than protecting and saving ourselves.

Conspiring for life, we can join Shiphrah and Puah and say no to what demeans and destroys others. We can say no to demagogues and bullies. Conspiring for life, we can seek creative ways to guard and defend others, like Moses’ mother and sister. Conspiring for life, we can say yes, responding to the need God has put right in front of us, like Pharaoh’s daughter pulling that baby out of the water, never mind what her daddy might think or say or do.

I heard an interesting quote this week from an author named Sonya Renee Taylor. It’s a reflection on people’s desire to go back to normal, meaning back to the way things were before COVID-19 hit. She says, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.” (https://www.instagram.com/p/B-fc3ejAlvd/?hl=en)

To put that another way, we are being given an opportunity to conspire on the side of life, to midwife new life and new ways into being. Why would we want to go back to a “normal” where some people are considered expendable, as in it’s no big deal if the old and the weak get COVID because they’re going to die anyway? Why would we want to go back to a “normal” where in practice some people’s lives do matter less than others? Why would we want to go back to, or stay in a place where selfishness and greed are celebrated and those who have the most stuff are the most admired? Where injustice and justice delayed is acceptable? Where it is acceptable for millions to simply subsist or even do without adequate food, shelter, medical care or dental care? Why would we want to consider that “normal?”

What would it look like to conspire on the side of something better, to work towards a new normal that is more in line with the kingdom of God that we long for, that we pray for every single time we pray Jesus’ prayer, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?

Jesus invites us to commit ourselves to being midwives who conspire on the side of life, of love, of hope. Follow me, he says. And that means taking up the cross. AMEN.

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