Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Sermon: Moses Confronts Pharaoh (The Plagues of Egypt)

FROG Sunday – Fully Rely On God
(Keywords: power, corporations, climate change, fossil fuels, change, church)

Watch the video of the sermon here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=3&v=tI_n8R9o7XE

First reading:  Exodus 7:1-7 (Pharaoh’s heart hardens)
Psalm 10:1-8, 12-14 (prayer for deliverance from oppression)
Second reading: Exodus 8:1-15 (plague of frogs)
Gospel:  John 12:37-43 (their hearts were hardened)


How did they get themselves into this mess?  Frogs everywhere!  In their sinks, in their shoes, in their pots and in their pews!  One frog hopping is a source of delight.  Hundreds of frogs keep you awake all night!

Where did this mess come from?  And what are they going to do about it?  Everyone’s looking to Pharaoh, the great and powerful ruler of Egypt, to wield his divine power and rid the land of these ambitious amphibians. But they’re beginning to suspect that maybe Pharaoh isn’t as powerful as the propaganda says he is.  If he can’t even control a simple thing like frogs, maybe there needs to be a rethinking about who’s really in charge here.

The people might be thinking that, but Pharaoh certainly is not.  Pharaoh relied on himself and his own power.  That power was very real, and it was symbolized by the panoply of gods and goddesses that were believed to control all aspects of Egyptian life.  The goddess of the Nile controlled the river, the lifeblood, of the valley.  Pharaoh controlled the priests who consorted with her.  Thus Pharaoh believed he controlled the water.

The goddess of birth was symbolized as a frog and thus revered in Egypt. Pharaoh controlled the priests who consorted with her.  Thus Pharaoh believed he controlled the fertility of his people.
And on down the line – Pharaoh controlled the crops and harvest.  Pharaoh controlled the livestock.  Pharaoh controlled their health.  Pharaoh controlled their children.  Pharaoh even believed he controlled the light of the sun itself.  And, even more arrogantly, he believed he controlled the forces of life and death.  It did not matter to him how much people suffered under his rule.  What mattered to him was the securing of his own position, wealth and power. 

And you know, it’s not that much different in our time.  We still have people in whom the power of the world’s resources and wealth are concentrated.  Heads of global corporations and government and elite financial centers are the Pharaohs of our time who are answerable to no one, and serve the god of profit, commodifying every aspect of the earth and people’s labor. 

Who am I to go to Pharaoh?  Moses asked last week.  What is one person in the face of these awesome powers?  What difference can I possibly make?  Pharaoh is too big – too big to fail – and I am nothing but a peon. It will make absolutely no difference whether I act or not.

Well, God begs to differ.  Because there’s nothing that irritates God more than someone who thinks he’s god.  People or organizations or corporations or governments who control so much and can act without impunity – this really gets under God’s skin.  So God sends Moses and Aaron to bring a message to Pharaoh: let my people go to worship the true God.  Because you are not god.  You only think you are.  And if you do not humble yourself before the true God, there will be dire consequences for you and all those who support your reign.

Pharaoh, of course responded the way most people in power respond.  He hardened his heart.  Kavad-lev, in Hebrew.  It means he made is heart impermeable with his own riches and glory.  He made himself dense with his own sense of omnipotence.  His heart became insensitive.  He could not feel.
 
So God has to bring down every one of his illusions of power in order to break through to his heart.  He systematically sends plagues that reveal the impotence of Pharaoh’s gods, and thus himself.  The river is turned to blood until Pharaoh promises to let the people go.  But then he goes back on his word when Moses returns the water to its previous state of cleanness. Frogs fill his palace and the homes of all his people, and then lay dying and stinking in the hot sun.  Thus demonstrating that Pharaoh really has no power over birth.  And on down the line – flies, gnats, boils on the skin, locusts, severe weather events that destroy crops.  Strange diseases that kill livestock.  All the gods are shown to be illusions. And Pharaoh is given multiple chances to humble himself and recognize that his place is to serve his people, to serve God’s creation, not to dominate them and use them for his own profit.

Sometimes when I see the devastation brought on by the changing climate, I wonder if a similar process is happening.  Invasive species, alternating floods and droughts, severe weather events, decimated crops, strange diseases in our fish and livestock and our own bodies.  Are there messages in this plagues that we are not heeding?  Are we in the United States hardening our hearts to the suffering of those most vulnerable just so we can enjoy the lifestyle of a rich Pharaoh?  Are we worshiping gods that are illusions?  Are we being given opportunities to humble ourselves and recognize that our place is to serve each other and to serve God’s creation, not to dominate them and use them for our own profit?

Sometimes it can even happen in a congregation – this hardening of hearts.  Sometimes things happen in a church that reveal who we really are, what kind of heart is beating within us.  When things are going well, we can get complacent, and just assume that everything is going to continue without any challenges or changes.  But when those challenges do come, we are given the same options as Pharaoh.  Soften your heart and give yourself over to God.  Or harden your heart and withhold yourself from God. 

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Pharaoh.  Maybe it wasn’t just blind stubbornness that encased his heart against God.  Maybe it was good old fashioned fear.  Release the Israelites, you’ll lose your energy source.  That’s a scary prospect. But maybe there were other ways they could have powered their economy. 

Let the Israelites go and worship God, and you’ll lose your sovereignty.  Who wants to lose that?  But maybe there are better ways to relate to people other than trying to dominate them. 

Let yourself see the suffering of people and you’ll be overcome by guilt and grief.  And those are feelings no one wants to experience.  But maybe this is the way we can truly come to learn who God is, and to experience the gift of divine compassion.

And maybe the hardening of hearts we see today is also driven by good old fashioned fear.  Release fossil fuels and we’ll lose our energy source.  That’s a scary prospect.  Or maybe there are other healthier ways we can power our economy.

Let the needs of poorer nations guide our policies, and we’ll lose our sovereignty.  Who wants to lose that?  Or maybe there are better ways to related to our neighbors, other than trying to dominate them.

Allow ourselves to see the suffering of people and we’ll be overcome by guilt and grief.  And that can be paralyzing.  So we tell ourselves – better to hold onto what we’ve worked so hard for.  Better to tighten the grip on our own power.  Better to harden our hearts and dig in our heels with what has always worked before.

But here’s the thing: the world is changing and has already changed.  We live in a different time on a different planet.  The old one has already passed away, and trying to grasp it only leaves you with clenched fists and a clenched heart.  God is already doing a new thing.  God’s already made a decision that injustice can no longer rule.  The enslavement of earth and human beings is no longer the way we can fuel our economy.  What worked before isn’t working now, and really it never worked that well to begin with.  Because look what a mess it’s gotten us into.

The same thing can happen in the church.  The church is changing and has already changed.  We live in a different time in a different congregation.  The old one has passed away, and trying to grasp it will only leave you with clenched fists and hearts.  God is already doing a new thing.  God has already made a decision that the foundation on which we are built is not working.  It is sinking beneath our feet.  It needs to be repaired.  Not just the physical joists, but the spiritual and financial undergirding of our congregation.  Something unhealthy has taken hold within the structure of our congregation and needs to be exposed to the light, cleaned up and rebuilt.  It may look okay on the surface.  But the cracks are showing, the floor is separating, and there is work to be done. 

So the question for us is, will we harden our hearts and clench our fists?  Or will we fully rely on God?  Will we soften our hearts, open our hands, and give ourselves over to the task of supporting the ministry of the church?  Will we let go of our excuses and rationalizing and our self-serving reasons for digging in our heels?

It wouldn’t have been so bad if Pharaoh’s decisions only affected himself.  But what he failed or refused to realize is that his stubbornness was going to drag everyone else around him down with him.  And that is the real tragedy, isn’t it?  When the ones in charge, the ones with power, the ones with influence, the ones with resources make the decisions not to care, not to act, not to respond to God’s command, it is ultimately the children who suffer.  We will see it happen in Egypt when the children suffer from the plagues because the adults refused to respond to God’s call. 

I’ve seen that happen in congregations where the adults refuse to care.  They refuse to participate in learning programs with the younger members.  They refuse to model generosity.  They stop attending worship.  They stubbornly refuse to try new things.  They appear to support the ministry of the church, but then they complain in secret and scheme behind closed doors, and their words and actions form like mold beneath the foundation of the church.  They harden their hearts.  And they may believe they have every right and reason to do so.  But who ends up losing out in the end?  The children.

But our children have not given up on us.  They will sing for us.  


They will beckon us to come color with them, and listen to Bible stories with them, and play silly games with them, and learn with them.  They will trust that we will take care of what needs to be done to make sure the foundation beneath their feet is cleaned up and restored. 


And the children of earth have not given up on us.  They look to us to leave them a world they can live in with clean water and air and animals with enough room to live and grow and thrive.  They are trusting us to take care of what needs to be done to make sure the foundation of our economy and energy and health and education systems and food systems are cleaned up and restored.  They are fully relying on God.  Let’s show them how wonderful and loving and generous and compassionate and powerful our God really is.  Amen.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Moses at the Burning Bush

The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
United in Christ Lutheran Church, Lewisburg, PA

Video of the sermon can be viewed here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbXAx0atGBc&feature=youtu.be


First reading:  Exodus 2:11-15a, 23-25 (Moses killing an Egyptian and fleeing to Midian)
Psalm 18:1-6 (God delivered me from my enemies)
Second reading: Exodus 3:1-12; 4:10-17 (Moses encountering the burning bush)
Gospel:  Matthew 4:13-17 (the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light)

Note:  The week prior to the sermon, the congregation was invited to write down their weakness on a leaf that we then attached to the burning bush. We displayed the "burning bush" in chancel during the service.

The baby in the basket has now become a man.  Raised in Pharaoh’s household, he certainly enjoyed every privilege of being a princess’s son – a comfortable life of royalty and power, wanting for nothing, access to every privilege he could desire.  But he was always uncomfortable with this comfortable life.  Because he always knew these Egyptians were not his people.  And that the ones to whom he truly belonged - the Hebrews - were slaving away while he enjoyed this very comfortable life. 

Certainly, he must have been grateful to the Egyptian princess who rescued him and brought her to the palace to live in safety and luxury.  He had grown strong and healthy on the excellent food of the palace . . . cultivated, harvested, transported, cooked and served to him by Israelite slaves.  He would have worn the finest of clothes and slept on the smoothest of bedsheets made from Egyptian cotton . . . picked, combed, spun and woven for him by Israelite slaves.  He would have enjoyed the grandest of homes . . . built, cleaned and served by Israelite slaves.  Are you seeing a pattern here?

Perhaps it is no wonder that Moses suffered from a speech impediment.  Tutored by the best Egyptian teachers, the boy would have received the best education available.  He would have learned the meaning of cuneiform, the Egyptian writing made up of symbols and pictographs.  But when it came to speaking Egyptian – the words caught in his throat.  This was not his language. 

The language of his people was Hebrew.  Perhaps he remembered the words his mother spoke to him as a toddler, before she weaned him and gave him over to Pharaoh’s daughter completely.  She would have taught him to praise God using those words:  Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad.  Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.

This was his mother-tongue.  But the language of his palace-mother never felt right in his mind or his mouth.  The prayers to all those different Egyptian gods and goddesses never fit well for him. So when he spoke, the words came out wrong.  It was as if they were wrestling with his Hebrew words, making him stutter when he tried to speak.   

He likely endured a great deal of teasing from the Egyptian boys.  Everyone knew he looked different.  His eyes were not as dark.  His skin was lighter than the other boys.  His nose was not like theirs.  His hair was different.  And his speech made him sound stupid.  Only because he was the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter did they hold back their mockery.  But when she was not around, he was at their mercy.  “Stupid Hebrew.”  “Where’s your daddy, sandy-skin?”  “Don’t you belong down there with the other slaves hauling up bricks?”  “He talks like he’s got a brick for a tongue.”  “Brick-tongue, brick-tongue, Moses has a brick tongue!”

This must have gone on for years, the taunting and teasing.  He wanted so badly to speak up for himself and to speak out against the ill-treatment of the slaves, to stand up for them.  But his brick-tongue crushed any words that might have arisen for him to speak. 

But then there came that day when he left the palace.  He needed to see for himself what their world was like – the world of the Hebrews.  That day in the brick yard – that’s when he saw their true suffering.   When he came upon the Egyptian task master brutalizing one of the Hebrews, Moses snapped.  He could no longer contain his rage against the injustice he had witnessed all his life.  He picked up one of those hated bricks and slammed it into the skull of the man with the whip, killing him instantly. 

You would have thought his kinsman would have been grateful.  But no - his fellows Hebrews had no respect for the palace-pampered prince.  In their eyes Moses did not belong with them, either.  He may have looked like a Hebrew.  But his clothes, his posture, his rich-smelling cologne all gave him the bearing of an Egyptian, the oppressor.  Word spread of what Moses had done, the murder he committed.  Now he was hated by Hebrews and hunted by Egyptians.  He had to escape. 
He needed a new life.  A different life.  He needed to go someplace where no one knew him.  Where no one would care whether he was Hebrew or Egyptian.  Where no one would know whether he was a prince or a slave.  He just needed a fresh start.

And he found it.  Far to the south, down to the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, he found a mountain-dwelling people who took him in.  And he found a woman who accepted him for who he was – brick tongue and all.  And Zipporah’s father Jethro became like a father to Moses.  It is likely that Jethro, being the wise, observant priest that he was, knew that there was something special about Moses, even when the young man couldn’t see that in himself.  All Moses knew about himself were his weaknesses – his speech impediment and his past crime.  He was ashamed of both, so he kept mostly to himself living among the Midianites.  All he wanted was to leave everything behind and live a quiet life tending sheep alone, wandering on the mountains. 

Jethro knew this, and gave his son-in-law the space he needed.  But he knew that Moses’ life was meant for something more.  And so one morning as they sat eating the meal served by Zipporah, Jethro said, “Today I would like you to set off for the mountain of Horeb and pasture the flock there.”  Being a priest, Jethro knew that if anyone had a chance of encountering the Divine, going to Horeb would be the most logical place to go.  It was the mountain of God.  Moses didn’t know that.  But Jethro did.  And so that’s where he sent Moses, hoping that his son-in-law would have an encounter with the Divine to guide him back onto the right path. 

 And that is where Moses found God.  Or rather, where God found him.  He had been found in the water of the Nile as a baby; now he was found by the fire on the mountain as a man. And he was a man consumed by shame, grief and loneliness. 

Perhaps it was deliberate, then, that God would choose a burning bush to make God’s self known to Moses.  A bush that burns but is not consumed.  Who is this God that can create such a thing?  It is the God who speaks to Moses in his own language.  Not Egyptian, but Hebrew.  ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’  Those names, like a faint childhood memory.  Moses recalled his mother speaking to him about those men, about where he comes from, about the people who are his kin.  And now here this God who is speaking to him from the fire, telling him that he is to free his kin from the Egyptians, and that a land of freedom is prepared for them.

You would think Moses would have been excited by this news of liberation.  But no.  How does he respond?  Like a kid with a brick tongue and a checkered past.  “Who am I?  Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

Ah, but you see, it’s not just about who Moses is.  God’s response is:  “I will be with you.”  It’s not just about who you are, it’s about who I am, says God, and what I will do, and the promise I make to you right here on this mountain.  You are like this bush – you may have any number of faults and sins in your past.  But I will not let them consume you.  In fact, I will use them to bring light to the people. 

Where is your leaf on the burning bush?  


I know where my leaf is.  I know the thing that I am not proud of, the aspect of myself that is my weakness, what I would rather run away from.  I know what part of myself and my past threatens to consume me.  But I also know what happens when God enters into that burning bush.  Moses’ encounter with God on that mountain tells me two things.  First, God has the power to keep me from being consumed by my past and by my faults and weaknesses.  And second, God can use our weaknesses to provide light to others. 

Where is your leaf on this bush?  


What is the shame or crime or mistake or weakness you have that when God gives you a mission, gives you your marching orders, offers you an opportunity to bring light and hope and warmth to another, what is it that causes you to echo Moses’ words:  “O my Lord, please send someone else.  I’m not the man or woman for the job.”

Yes, you are, answers the Lord, the fire shooting up into the sky.  And you’re not going to have to do this by yourself.  I’m sending your brother Aaron.  He will help you.  Do you hear that?  Not everyone back home has rejected you.  Aaron has been hearing about you from his sister from the time he was a child.  You’ve never met him, but he’s been watching you from afar.  And when you came to the brickyard that day, he was there.  He noticed, he saw, he was inspired by your courage and your righteous indignation.  Finally, finally, someone is willing to stand up for us, to be our advocate.  You tried to run away, but he followed you.  He came to find you.  Together you will lead your people out of slavery and into freedom.

I don’t know how God is speaking to you today.  Probably not a burning bush.  Or maybe it is.  I don’t know what your faults and past and weaknesses are.  Probably not a speech impediment or the crime of taking a life.  Or maybe it is.  But I do know this.  Wherever you are right now, God has a job for you to do, and God is not finished with you yet.  You are not alone.  Your Jethro is guiding you.  Listen to him or her.  And even now, someone has noticed you, is coming to find you, and wants to work with you to change things, to make things better, to bring light and warmth and hope into this world.  Your Aaron is on the way. 


It’s not just about who you are, but who God is.  And God is.  God is. 

Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sermon: Baby Moses in the Basket

#syrianrefugeecrisis #blacklivesmatter #slavery #oppression

First reading:  Exodus 1:1-14 (Oppression of the Israelites in Egypt)
Psalm 69:1-3, 13-18 (Rescue me from the waters)
Second reading:  Exodus 2:1-10 (Baby Moses in the basket)
Gospel:  2:13-23 (The Holy Family’s escape to Egypt)

Click here to watch the video of this sermon:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0wyMIzZXAo&feature=youtu.be

Last year, as many of you may remember, we read through the first book of the Bible, Genesis, and did a preaching series highlighting the major stories, characters, and themes of this foundational book.  Some of us got to see the last story of that book on the stage of Sight and Sound theatre when we went to see the production of Joseph.  As you’ll recall, Joseph was made second-in-command of the entire nation of Egypt in order to prepare it for the coming famine.  When Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking food, he eventually reconciled with them and brought his entire tribe to settle in the land of Goshen and, apparently, live happily ever after, cue the fanfare and close the curtain, right?

Wrong.  Now we’re onto Exodus where it’s 400 years after Joseph’s rule, and the Egyptians no longer remember or care what this Hebrew Joseph did for their nation.  All they know is that his progeny have so outnumbered them, they believe they must keep them enslaved so as to avoid their nation being overthrown.  In a story that has, unfortunately played out too many times throughout history, an entire people find themselves oppressed, enslaved, used and abused by the more powerful nation.  It has happened several times to the Jewish people throughout history.  It happened to Africans brought to this country.  It happened to Africans in South Africa.  It happened to Native Americans in this nation. 

This story of the Exodus gives the template for life being as bad as it can be when you live without freedom.  You are not free to worship God.  You are not free to make your own decisions, or enjoy the fruit of your labors.  Your body is not your own.  Your life is not your own.  We’ll see later how the Ten Commandments are very much in response to the Israelites not having freedom. 

But right now, we’re standing at the water’s edge next to a mother who is desperate to save her infant son. 



The Egyptians have come up with a plan to kill all male babies among the Israelites. Kill the males, and you lessen the chances of rebellion.  It’s the same logic Herod had when he ordered the killing of the male children when Jesus was born.  But neither Mary nor Moses’ mother see a future leader of a rebellion when they look at their infants – they see only their baby boys.  And on that morning by the Nile River, Moses’ mother watches him sleep peacefully, having fed at her breast one last time before placing him gently in that basket.

It’s interesting to note the Hebrew word for basket:  tebah (tay-vah).  It’s the same word that’s used to describe the boat in which Noah and the animals floated back in the book of Genesis.  That’s right.  Moses is in his own little ark.  And just as the future of human and animal kind was kept safe in that vessel so long ago, now the future of this child and the people of Israel are dependent on this little miniature ark to keep them safe.

I can imagine Moses’ mother and sister collecting the grasses and reeds they would use to weave that basket.  The care his mother put in to making sure that the strands were pulled together as tight as possible so as to keep the inside dry.  

The speed of her fingers as they worked feverishly to finish the basket by the morning, just in time for the sun to rise over the banks of the Nile so that she could see the silhouette of Pharaoh’s daughter making her way down the bank for her morning bath.

Last week, we heard the lullaby of the mother singing to her son in Love You Forever.  And I wonder if Moses’ mother sang a similar song to him as she placed him in that basket, the water of the Nile River lapping at the hem of her robe:  I’ll love you forever.  I’ll like you for always.  As long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.

What does it mean to put that which you hold most precious into the care of God’s basket, that tebah, that little ark?  To cast your care into that vessel and set it onto the waters, hoping against hope that what you have placed there will arrive safely? 

I think of African American mothers and fathers whose hearts are always at the water’s edge as their sons and daughters go into the world, worrying that they may be shot dead simply because of the color of their skin. 

I think of parents of gay, lesbian, transsexual or transgender sons and daughters whose hearts are at the water’s edge, worrying that they may be discriminated against, cast out, or endure violence simply because of the person they love.

I think of parents of daughters whose hearts are at the water’s edge as they send their young women to college, worrying that they may be targeted for sexual violence.

I think of the fathers and mothers of children in countries overrun by gangs in places like Honduras or El Salvador, desperate to get their children out of harm’s way, and knowing that torture and death await many of them.


All the family wanted to do was to escape the war in their country.  They, like Moses’ mother, were desperate to survive and did whatever they could to help their children live.  But Aylan, his brother, and his mother did not survive when the boat that was supposed to carry them to freedom capsized.  The image of that little lifeless body is now emblazoned on millions of eyes around the world.  We all stand at the water’s edge.  Will we be like Pharaoh’s daughter and do something – anything – to help a desperate family?  Or will we stand in our palaces, our hearts hardened like Pharaoh himself, impervious to the pain?

At the prayer table downstairs, the card I picked was this one – a mother holding her child, her face drawn down in despair, wanting nothing more for her child than for him or her to be safe, to have a place to live, to be free from violence, to have access to clean water and healthy food, to have freedom to simply live.

Each of you as you came in today was also asked to choose a word or an image on a card that represented for you something that you want to entrust to God in prayer.  Take a look at that card again.  During communion, you will have an opportunity to place that card in the basket as a symbolic gesture of casting your concerns into the care of God. 

We, like Moses’ mother, each stand at the water’s edge, the waters of baptism lapping at our feet, reminding us that while the waters can be unpredictable and do have the potential to be dangerous, they also have the capacity to be cleansing and life-giving. 

Our prayers are so powerful.  They are not magic.  They will not immediately right all the wrongs in the world.  But they are a first step toward aligning our thoughts, and then our actions with the God who weaves herself into the strands of our baskets, holding us, holding our loved ones, holding our prayers in a place of safety.

“You found me,” we’ll be singing in our song.  God will find you, whether you are standing at the water’s edge, or huddled in the basket, or walking down the bank of the river, or standing in a palace built by the labor of slaves.  

God will find you.  And your life will never be the same.

Amen.