The Whole Story

A sermon about the time Joshua called all the folks from ALL over Canaan together in a Sacred Place and teased, and cajoled and invited them to remember who they are…

 “i imagine that yes is the only living thing.”
~e.e. cummings

Prologue: Since receiving the Ten Words from God the Israelites have traveled the Wilderness for forty long years… generations have passed, Moses has died and Joshua takes leadership… they have passed through the Jordon and are making a life in Canaan – “the promise land” and today Joshua calls the people together at Shechem – We first hear of this sacred place Shechem (in Canaan) in the book of Genesis when God first promises this very land to Abram… Abram builds an altar in this very place and worships God… before continuing his own journey.

The book of Joshua records their passage into Canaan in it’s early chapters and the 12 tribes of Israel have spread out across the land… Joshua calls the Israelites from all over Canaan to gather once again at Shechem to renew their commitment to God.

 

Covenant at Shechem

Covenant at Shechem

Joshua 24:1-15

1 Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. 2 And Joshua said to all the people,

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. 3 Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; 4 and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt.

5 Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. 6 When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. 7 When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. 8 Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you.

9 Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, 10 but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand. 11 When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. 12 I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. 13 I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” 

14Then Joshua said, “Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve the Lord in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Have any of you heard a mama turn to her sassy child… young or old and say, “listen up… I carried you in my womb for nine whole months, and I wasn’t just sick in the morning, but noon and night… my feet swelled up and by skin stretched to hold you and my belly grew and grew until I was as big as a house…  and then I gave birth to you… 18 hours of backbreaking labor to push you into this world.”

Or, if you were adopted like me it might go more like, “we waited and waited and waited for you, we thought we would never ever have children, and then we met you, and fell in love with you and we chose you and brought you home and made your ours.” And then she goes on…

“All these years I’ve fed you and clothed you, I’ve run you around and I’ve learned new math and had to remember old math to help you with your homework, I’ve taken care of you when you were sick, staying up all night – even the time you puked all over me, I stayed right there by your side. I’ve dried your tears and held your hand when you’re afraid… I’ve loved you and I’ve never, never asked for anything in return…”

And it’s not just Mama’s who do it, is it? We all do it. We do it to our parents and our children, to our spouses and partners and friends… we do it in community – in families and churches and baseball teams We love to tell and retell our origin stories, origins of life, origins of friendship, origins of relationships, stories of the most, the best, the worst… and we don’t tell them in some neutral or scientific way… we tell them in a way that gives them the MOST meaning and the RICHEST life and IMPORTANT purpose. We shape the stories in ways that describe who we were and who we HOPE to become…

I love this story from Joshua… I love the way his God sounds like my Mama… “After all I’ve done for you,” says this Mama God… “After I’ve chosen you and loved you, after I’ve rescued you and born you out of what enslaves you and after I’ve given you a new life; after I’ve shaped you into a community and fed you and nourished you; after I’ve walked, carried, led and conquered the world for you… now You’re going to worship another God… now you’re going to serve yourself and forget about me?!”

I love how Joshua goads the people… “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living…”

Just like a Mama, “Go on now… do what you want, pay no mind to me… I only gave you life.”

I don’t say this to dismiss Joshua (or our Mama’s); just like those who have shaped our stories, whether our actual mothers or other wise folks who have come before us, whose ancestors told them the story – Joshua is doing the important work of communal historianwhat Joshua is saying is, “Remember who you are… you’ve seen this God at work, you’ve heard these stories, you are these stories…  There’s no better GOD than this… will you choose this God? Will you love and serve this God?”

Joshua is one in a long line of oral historians that have been telling the story of God back to the community since Abram was first called to leave Haran and become a movement people. And each voice has a different tact and different flavor… for different times and places in the unfolding story of the ancient Israelites. And we can see how the people of God’s ideas about God – their theology and their moral philosophies, their ethics and their own relationships evolve through the voices of these historians… I want to spend a little time thinking about the story Joshua is telling and why… and what stories we are telling and why?

Questions to ask about this story and our stories:

It is a good story? And by that I don’t mean happy endings and simplicity…

Does it compel the people? Does it serve them? Is it life-giving? Does it bear essential truths about their identity and God’s identity?

What about the stories we tell about ourselves and about God? Are they compelling and life-giving? Do the bear real truth about who we are? About who God is?

What does Joshua include? What does he leave out? Why? What parts do we tell and leave out?

Why is God always on the side of Ancient Israel? Is God ALWAYS on our side in the stories we tell?

What does it mean to tell a story about belonging to God and claiming God in the midst of exile? 

It’s likely Joshua’s version of this story is coming from the dust and ashes of exile… it wasn’t written down in real time but in the midst of fear and doubt… in the midst of losing members of the exiled Israelite community to other rituals and traditions, to other families and cultures… this was a period of deep theological development, discovery and rediscovery – the Israelites faced the very real risk of assimilation after living for a generation in exile… These stories about their history and about God invited them to remember, to reimagine and reevaluate who they are.

Transient, homeless, enslaved, exiled, abandoned and yet chosen, remembered, loved… this is an identity that is rich in the imagination of the Ancient Israelites and has been their lived experience before… this is a story of hope… of promise that the morning does and will come, if only they hold onto God and one another. Imagine hearing these words, from a loving, goading, promising God, in the midst of utter despair.

I love the next part of this story even more than the first – in the second half of chapter 24 the people answer Joshua (Joshua 24-16-28)

16Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods…

19But Joshua said to the people (nudging them along), “You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins…

21And the people said to Joshua, “No, we will serve the Lord!” 

22Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24The people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.” 25So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

26Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of God; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. 27Joshua said to all the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” 28So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.

It’s not just Joshua that chooses God but all the people gathered at Shechem. And ALL of their stories are important, ALL of their voices are important. For those living in exile, this story is an invitation to renewal – to reclaim the God of their ancestors and the God of their future… of their own inheritance.

Story is power.

It can shape us and move us.

Or it can bind us and defeat us.

We have a different story than the Ancient Israelites. We are not exiles. We are not prisoners. But we have a story.

Joshua told the story of the Ancient Israelites as God’s chosen people – a protected people – but that’s not the whole story is it? Remember the time they wanted to turn back to Egypt at the first sight of the Reed Sea? Remember how they first greeted Moses when he came down the mountain with God’s Ten Words? Remember how they failed and forgot and lost? These parts are recorded in other parts of the Bible, and the book of Judges tells a less dramatic, a less violent story of how the people came to live in Canaan.

The first hearers of these words knew the whole story and so do we, but in that moment Joshua told the story they needed to hear most. And what they needed was a word of hope…  even if it was a goading word of hope.

Like that story our mama tells, it’s not a story we tell because it’s historical or factual but because it’s true on a deep and visceral level. She’s telling it to compel us to listen, to behave, to remember who we are.

Joshua charges the whole community to be witnesses to one another’s’ stories – he reminds them that he is not the only storyteller, that the combined voices of the community bear the whole story of who God is.

Telling the whole story as a people of faith in our time is even more complex. There isn’t a monolithic experience of God but there is a central story about a God who hears, rescues, claims and challenges. About a God that coaxes and pushes and goads us into covenantal life, into a believing and loving God in return. What we’re being rescued from might be vastly different here in Norwood Park, than it is in Englewood. What God’s claim on us means is different here in the U.S. than in Palestine. And how God is calling us to respond, to serve, to love might look very different as well. We must listen to the chorus of voices, to their differences, and their commonalities, in order to hear the whole story of God.

How would Joshua goad us if he were here? What would he say to nudge us towards God?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us hope?

What are the stories we need to tell that will give us courage?

What are the stories we need to tell that will call us to action?

What are the stories that you will tell about who you are and the God you claim?

This is our story. And it’s an ongoing, living, moving, breathing, dynamic story about a living, moving, breathing, dynamic God of which our we are only a part… and we’re invited to claim this God as our own and to join our voices to it, to add our lived experiences – and to listen for the experiences of others until the whole story of God gets told. Amen.

(731)

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Wreck This Worship Journal!

Recently the kids at Friendship Presbyterian helped me design a Wreck This Worship Journal. I posted some photos and a few folks have asked for templates so I’m posting it here for you to download. Please keep in mind, this is our first attempt and we kept it simple! We used Microsoft Word to design the pages and online puzzle generators to make Word Searches, Cross Words and Madlibs. I turned Friendship’s Mission Statement into a Madlib and I left it in the Generic Worship Journal linked below so you can see how we did it but  you should replace it with one of your own! We also left plenty of blank pages with simple borders so that their is plenty of room for your own ideas!

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 7.55.06 PM

The pages are 8.5×11 and the journal could be printed and three whole punched or you could print it on 11×17 in booklet form like we did at Friendship. We made book covers out cardboard and duct tape and are stitching our pages in tomorrow! I’m also going to run a bunch of booklets with paper covers so we have them to share with anyone who wants one Sunday mornings!

 

Friendship’s Wreck this Worship Journal!

And here’s a Generic Wreck This Worship Journal That you can download and print or use as template!

Have fun making a Wreck This Worship Journal of your own!!

PS: Presbyterian Pastor, Theresa Cho inspired me to create these and has tons of amazing ideas around integrating kiddos in worship, you should check her blog out!

(2818)

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What’s Your Story?

Beloved community,

gather in and gather around,

incline your hearts and

listen closely for the story of who we are.

Add your own voices to

the story of what God has done.

Claim God for yourself

to worship

to love

to follow

to serve.

This week’s Narrative Lectionary Reading is taken from Joshua 24. In the unfolding story of the people making new lives in the “Promised Land” Joshua takes a moment to remind them who and whose they are. Whenever I read these “recaps” of the Ancient Israelites story I’m struck by two things.

The first is how rich and imaginative the oral tradition was in those ancient days. I long to recapture this practice in our lives and communities. Some might even say I’ve become a bit obsessed with the art, practice and privilege of storytelling. I love the digital age, the opportunity to learn and relate and be challenged in the context of the Global Community.

I love words and text and imagery but I want to balance these things with having a story, a story I’m connected to, that I’m implicated in whispered in my ear. I love the intimacy and the humanity of real-life storytelling. I can forget the person in a facebook feed is real and whole and has as complicated and complex a life as I do. But if you’re sitting across the table or standing in the middle of my circle speaking your truth into the open, you better believe I will see your humanness. Is it just me?

The second piece that strikes me is the piece about privilege. The storyteller (and later story recorders… and later story canonizers) have significant power don’t they? Who tells the story and how they tell it shapes the identity of the community, and the communities place in the world for generations. How do we decide what parts to tell? What to highlight and leave out? How do we paint our friends? How do we paint our enemies? Who’s side is God on in our stories? Do we ever enter communities where we are strangers or outsiders so we can hear the story from another perspective?

When you think about the stories of your lives and your communities how do you tell them? Whose version is ‘canonical’? Who has the privilege of the voice, the pen, the mic?

When I tell the story of my own life I love the version in which I’m a survivor, determined and independent. I love the version in which I am creative and interesting and interested. But there are pieces missing from that version aren’t there? There are moments I’ve failed badly, I’ve broken promises, I’ve been wrong, I’ve been self-centered or self-righteous (this might be my achilles heel), dependent or just plain ordinary (gasp!).

Is our faith community a place we bring our best selves and tell only our best stories? Is it a place we can hear the depths of one another stories without judgement or fixes?

Telling the Truth About Ourselves

We often think the easiest thing,

is to only share the good parts of our lives with one another and with God,

the career successes,

the sweet and easy parts of our relationships

the parenting wins,

that time we kept our cool,

stood up for justice

or had the best, right, funniest answer.

We are sure the world can’t handle our inner ugliness.

We are certain that we are the only ones who have failed,

that our relationships are the only ones to sustain cracks,

that we are the only parent who has let down a child, or a friend, or a stranger in need.

and so we keep the hard parts of ourselves hidden and our ugliness gets uglier.

We can’t imagine that God would embrace our trauma and turmoil,

we are afraid God won’t love our selfish, mean or broken hearts,

we don’t believe that God’s grace is so expansive that we can reveal our true selves

and so we don’t tell the truth about ourselves.

Blessing

But here’s the thing,

You are not alone and

healing happens in the light of day,

reconciliation is grounded in telling the truth,

and love isn’t love if it’s built on conditions.

God’s grace really is so expansive

it will hear and hold and transform

your WHOLE story.

Yes, we are broken,

but we are also beautiful children of God,

so take in this good news:

In all things,

you are seen,

you are loved

and you are forgiven.

Amen.

(618)

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What if this was our starting place?

A Sermon from the time the Ancient Israelites returned to the Holy Mountain where Moses had first heard God. They weren’t disappointed, God was waiting with Ten Words that would shape them for generations…

 “I know there is strength in the differences between us. I know there is comfort, where we overlap.” ~Ani DiFranco

Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.

Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenantyou shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.

Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.

These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”

So Moses came, summoned the elders of the people, and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. (Exodus 19:3-7)

So we’re going to stop here for a moment…

Before we get to the list of what we’ve long called God’s Ten Commandments it’s so important for us to hear where God begins, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself…” God doesn’t say I’ve brought you to my mountain, or I’ve brought you out to wander the wilderness, or here we are, the end of the road, catch you later. God says, “I have drawn you to myself – to the center of my being… I called you and I heard you and I’ve rescued you, I’ve born you and carried you on my wings to freedom” And where is the place of freedom? God says, “I have brought you to myself.” Freedom is being gathered to the very center of God’s being.

 

What if this was our starting place every time we turned to the biblical text? What if this was our starting place at the beginning of each day? What if this was our starting place in every encounter with those we love and those we don’t? What if this was our starting place with every neighbor and stranger and we meet? What if we remembered that in all things, no matter who or where we are, where we’ve been or where we’re going, our story begins at the center of God?

God’s calling, rescuing, loving, drawing us to God’s self is the starting point… it began with Noah standing in the mud and then Abraham and Sarah who laughed and journeyed and believed and with Joseph who trusted God even though his life kept falling apart and now here we are again, and God says this, this is what love looks like.

Then God spoke all these words:

I am the Lord your God,

who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

you shall have no other gods before me.

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.

You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses God’s name.

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Honor your father and your mother,

so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

You shall not murder.

You shall not commit adultery.

You shall not steal.

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

 God says, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, (that is, if you follow these words, make these the spiritual and communal practices of your life), you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine (all of creation, including you, already belongs to me), but YOU shall be for me a priestly kingdom & a holy nation.” (Exodus 20:1-17)

It’s as if God says, listen up folks… this is what it looks like to be a covenant people, this is what real freedom and real love looks like. This is not an edict, it’s a relationship – and if a relationship is to be grounded in freedom and life-giving love it means giving up the desperate, taking, hiding, stealing and killing that kept you alive in Egypt. It looks like believing that there is enough, enough food and water and time and love to share. If you can believe this, if you can really take this in, then you will truly come to know me… if you can live like free people you will know what it is to live a precious and holy life…

And that’s been our life’s work for generations, hasn’t it? Believing there’s enough… enough God, enough to eat and drink, enough time and enough space, enough love – so much so that we could just start giving it away?

These Ten Words that we’ve often translated as commandments are not meant to be arbitrary prohibitions – they’re meant to be words that ground us, and remind us that God’s story is a radically different story than the world’s story… The world told the Ancient Israelites that they were sub-human, unworthy of just pay or safe homes; the world treated them like property to be controlled, discarded and abused… But God said, “You are worthy of my love and protection, you are called and blessed and set apart to be a people who will demonstrate a WHOLE NEW WAY OF LIFE.

This new way of life takes practice… like learning an instrument or an art form or new skill or craft… to be transformed from a student plunking keys to pianist you start at the beginning and work the steps over and over again… like putting in the time on the potters wheel… hours and hours of lumps and messes and crappy pots until you craft something beautiful. What if we read these Ten Words like the 12 step program…another kind of practice. Instead of a checklist it’s a way of life and when you stumble and fall you go back and work the steps, practicing and practicing again and again until they are inscribed on you… until they transform you.

These Ten Words are meant to craft a people, to shape their identity, to resurrect their hope and purpose and worth. For centuries these Words will shape the identity of the Israelite people as they continue their journey, and they will struggle and they will make progress and they will teach and learn these Words again and again, they will forget them and God will remind them – sometimes not so politely. Sometimes they will really, really suck at living these words (just wait a few weeks the Narrative Lectionary is bringing back the drama) and then there will be times they surprise themselves and God with their capacity to love God and their NEIGHBORS.

That word neighbor comes up a lot in these Ten Words. Often times when we read this story we hear the word neighbor and we think, oh, the person sitting next to me, that’s my neighbor, or the person living in the next tent over… or just down the block in our case. But what if when God talked of the Ancient Israelites’ neighbors God wasn’t talking about other Israelites? What if God was talking about the strangers they would encounter on their journey? What if God was speaking of the neighboring communities, the people already living in the promise land?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they weren’t about protecting the Ancient Israelites (who God has already rescued and drawn to God’s self) but their neighbors?

What if the most radical part of these Ten Words is that they aren’t for our protection, but our neighbors?

Wouldn’t that be a kicker, if it turned out that this isn’t even about us?

In the history of Christian Doctrine we’ve absorbed these Ten Words as Ten Great Commandments and they run deep in our cultural story like no other people…  in the United States we have held tightly to these Ten Words, insisting they be predominately displayed and we’ve modeled our civic laws and social morality on what we think they mean. These words, once meant to shape the identity of a minority people, to set them apart as a radical community to demonstrate God’s abundance and neighborly love have been used in our time to stand in judgment of those who are different, to reject those who society deems failures. To hold accountable those we believe have fallen short. Have we only used these Words to protect ourselves? What would it look like if they protected our neighbors instead? It’s a radical notion isn’t it? That God’s covenant is bigger than we can imagine?

Today is World Communion Sunday – a day we celebrate the global village of believers – a day we recognize that God’s table is bigger and wider than our table – that God’s love is greater than what we can imagine, even on our very best most loving day… Can we imagine God calling us to extend that love beyond the borders of our comfortable communities, even beyond the borders of our own tradition?

Can we celebrate and deepen our particular identities as well as our place in the global community without degrading or diminishing one another?

If we can hear them anew, God’s Ten Words teach us how. Celebrating and deepening our identities in God is what the first half of the Ten Words is about… Remembering and belonging to God… Loving God above all else… how might a love like that shape us as a people?

And the second half is about how that love will enliven our relationships with everyone else… how to feed and clothe and care for, how to respect and engage and protect the other.

God’s table is big and wide… God’s story is big and wide… and we gather at our communion table to celebrate our story… the story of a Jewish man named Jesus whose whole life was the best demonstration of these Ten Words the world had seen… a man who sat at some of the worst tables, with believers and unbelievers, with sinners and saints, with ordinary folk and messy folk and righteous folk and folks who didn’t know one from the other… and again and again he said there was room for one more. We remember and we celebrate a man who gave his life for love, a man who in the most radical and mysterious way is also God.

And so on this day, we will celebrate at the table where there is always room for one more. One more voice, one more story, one more song and we will eat these Ten Words like bread until they nourish our soul, until we believe every word of them, until they truly set us free. Amen.

(519)

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Returning to what is sacred…

This week the Narrative Lectionary hones in on the story of God’s Ten Words (or Ten Commandments) for the newly forming Israelite people. The story takes us back to the foot of a mountain in search of God. Back to a mountain where Moses has stood before. Back to a mountain Moses has climbed many times before. Back to a place Moses has met God before. Back to the holy ground where God first called him by name, “Moses, Moses.”

The biblical writers use two names for this mountain, some call it Horeb while others call it Sinai and of course, we readers, scholars and storytellers don’t all agree about the whereabouts of this mountain or whether there are one or two, or whether it is a geographical location or a mystical one. But what I love about this story and about this man Moses is how raw and deeply human he is.

How many times have you returned to a holy place hoping to find God again? 

I have. I have walked the holy halls of old schools decades after I sat in their classrooms and I have sat quietly in the empty sanctuary where I was once sung too and baptized even though I am a stranger to the community who worships there now. I have returned to the sites of hard conversations and promises made, listening for the lingering hope and stirring passion that made them sacred. I have walked the same roads and trails hoping to encounter the holy in the beauty and wonder of creation just as I have before. I have revisited the prayers and poems that have consecrated the brokenness and the beauty my life has born. And I return each sunday for worship in a space made holy by it’s gracious people and sacred by God’s willingness to show up and break open our hearts again and again.

Our Call To Worship this week at Friendship (see below) honors the way in which we return to what we know is sacred… the holy places in our lives – the geographic and the mystical – in order to rekindle, to listen, to learn and to experience God again and again.

holygroundApproaching God On Holy Ground

We have returned with Moses,

to the foot of the mountain

where we’ve seen you before O God.

Once again we will remove our shoes

and stand on this sacred ground.

We are looking for your word,

your promise,

your protection.

Reveal yourself to us again,

like you did on that ancient day

to the one who dared to answer,

“Here I am”.

Here we are, O God,

Curious

Hopeful

Attentive

Afraid

Listening

Ready

Open

Joyful

Surprised

Hungry

for your presence.

(614)

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Wade In the Water

A sermon from the climatic moment of the Exodus story just after the Israelites have leftEgypt. Pharaoh and his hard heart cannot let them go, pursuing them to the edge of the Reed Sea, even after the plagues, the darkness, the pleading and the dying, even after his promise to let them go… and so we find them here, Pharaoh’s army at their back and God’s turbulent waters lapping at their toes…

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29 (Narrative Lectionary, Year 1)

 For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains,

but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.

~Nelson Mandela

Exodus 14:10-14, 21-29

When I was a teenager, maybe fourteen or fifteen, my small, economically depressed, town in Iowa decided what would really turn things around was a water park. And so they upped the sales tax and built “The Beach (Ottumwa Beach)”… “The Beach” which was, more or less, an enormous parking lot with a baseball style concession stand and two water slides, one that went straight down at a near 90 degree angle to the earth, and another one that looped and turned, going inside the one indoor pool for swim teams and back out again. “The Beach” also had a kiddie area but the thing folks were most excited about was the wave pool… I had no idea what a wave pool was.

 I had spent every summer of my childhood, up to this one, at the public pool just down the street from my house. It was next to my elementary school and across the street from my grandparents’ house. I loved that pool, I loved the cheap snacks and the blue painted walls of the deep end, I loved the diving boards, both the low board and what in my memory was a towering high dive. But most of all, what I loved was the stillness of the water… there was no movement, no surprises, the depth was clear and the only way to get a wave was by making one yourself by bobbing up and down with your whole body until the water began moving at your command. I knew every inch of that pool, I’d learned to float and swim and sink to the bottom, I was never afraid. I was comfortable in that pool…

From the first moment I walk into “The Beach” I am not so comfortable… as an awkward teenage girl one of my favorite things about the public pool was that I could get in… up to my neck… the deep pool here at “The Beach” was reserved for the swim teams and the deepest end of the wave pool was only about four feet… I immediately walked out towards the deepest part and sat down with a friend… the water didn’t seem very wavy to me, and I didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t really beach people in my family… In fact I don’t think my dad’s legs have ever seen the sunshine… we were road trip people, not water people. I had never seen, let alone experienced ocean waves in person.

So we’re sitting there in lukewarm water up to our waists and suddenly a bell rang and some of the kids started yelling with excitement. The wave started small and gentle… just a little bump in the water – I wasn’t impressed. But then it began to swell up over my face so I stood up but I couldn’t find my footing and the wave carried me off towards the back wall – I couldn’t see my friend anymore and I tried to put my feet down but I got a mouthful of water and even though I knew I could touch I started to panic and I went under with the wave, I’d never been in water I couldn’t control.  I had never felt more out of control.

The next thing I know there was another loud ringing and a boy, only a few years older than me, sort of pull-drags me out of the water towards the wading end. He is the lifeguard and saw me go under and hit the alarm, the waves stopped because of me” he said. “I had to jump in and save you” he said. As he leaves me still coughing at the shallowest edge he yells at me, “if I couldn’t swim I should stay out of the pool, that if I came back in I had to wear a life vest…”

I didn’t visit “the Beach” again that summer…

To some degree this was due to embarrassment, sure, but I’ve never trusted water in the same way after that experience. Water is unpredictable – it can be life-giving and nourishing… we swim in water before we are born, our bodies are made up in large part by water, we need it to survive, almost every civilization that has survived and thrived through history has grown up near large, life-giving bodies of water – even the ancient Egyptians in our story this morning, the Nile served as their life-source – water to drink, to raise livestock, to water fields, to move easily between settlements – it was as important of a resource as the slave-trade they had built their economy on.

At the same time, water rises up and destroys us. Flood, tsunami, torrential rains and hurricanes destroy the earth and entire civilizations. Water moves to the music of deep currents, heavy wind and the earths dancing rotation. Just a few weeks ago we heard the epic story of floodwater so deep and destructive it cleared the earth – except for one family.

And this is where we encounter the ancient Israelites… on the bank, stuck between the terror they know – in Pharaoh’s whip, and the unknown terror ahead – in the unpredictable waters of the Reed Sea.

The Israelites are terrified…“Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” Their hysteria reminds me of the kind of thrashing that happens when you feel as if you’re drowning… it’s a wild and desperate fear.

Can you imagine it?

What must it have felt like, to taste freedom, only to face death? I imagine their choking anger at Moses… and God, and their heaving despair at the thought of capture… of return to slavery. Their fear would have been palpable – their voices rising to be heard over the sound of the chariots at their back and the waves beating the seashore in front of them.

Moses says, do not be afraid. Stand firm… be still… it’s the most counter-intuitive move isn’t it? When you’re drowning? To stop flailing around and put your arms in the water.

There’s a beautiful Jewish Midrash that sometimes accompanies this story when it’s told in synagogue. There is another brave man standing on the seashore. His name is Nachshon and he is from the tribe of Judah… one legend says he is Judah’s great, great, great grandson, another says he is the brother in-law of Aaron. But one midrash telling goes like this, ‘While the people were terrified, immobilized by fear, Moses listens to God and stretches his hand out over the sea, but the sea refuses to part saying, no, I was born on the 3rd day of creation and I will not be moved for these people… why should I rescue them? They too have worshiped idols in Egypt. They have forgotten who they are.

And so Nachshon , from the tribe of Judah, wades into the water, first up to his knees, and then to his waist, and finally the water reaches his nostrils and just as he is about to disappear into the sea, the water rises up on both sides – the breath of God – the ruach of God, blows through pushing the water into moving, swelling, liquid walls and drying the land for the Israelites to walk across.

In this telling someone had to go first… someone has to harness their fears and give into the future and walk out into the troubled water.

Can you think if the liminal moments in your own life in which you’ve had to face your fears? When you’ve had to move forward simply because backwards wasn’t an option? Can you think of a moment you’ve stopped fighting, or worrying, or wrestling and given yourself to the moment?

Have you ever gone still and put yourself in the care of God, completely?

There are as many readings of this story as there are ears to hear it and tongues to tell it. For some, it is a story of liberation – of God seeing, hearing and responding to the desperate cries of the oppressed, it is a story about a God who will not abide the evil of abuse and terror. For others, it is a story about God’s power in the face of human fragility – a reminder that without God we are helpless. And for others it’s another terrifying story of death and destruction with God acting in ways we can’t quite comprehend.

The Israelites will spend the next forty years in the wilderness, sometimes eagerly and sometimes stubbornly finding their way, they will wrestle and push and pull as they come to know, to trust this God claiming to be the God of their ancestors – on each leg of their journey they will offer us a new perspective on who God is and how God works in the world… they will begin to tell stories like Nachshon’s story to fill in the gaps and interpret their own texts.

But for this instance, on the seashore, amidst the terror and the din of the waves, their story stands still for just a moment. They don’t know what their future will hold, they only know the whispered promises of an ancient blessing and they have to act. And so they stop flailing, they put their hands down and grab onto one another, they put one foot in front of the other and they cross the sea on dry land. And nothing was ever the same again.

In our tradition, this is what we say we’re doing at our own baptism… we stand on the seashore in solidarity with the ancient Israelites and we say, “Our story is not our own, these are not our waters to control, we don’t belong to the Pharaohs of the world, we belong to God.” We wade into the waters of our baptism, and we trust God’s life-giving, creation making, chaotic and powerful waters… we trust God to trouble the water in order to transform us and we emerge on the other side – not just alive, not just surviving, but made wholly new. Amen.

 

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