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.

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