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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Standing In the Mud

At Friendship Presbyterian Church where I am the pastor we are starting our second year on the Narrative Lectionary offered by the good people at workingpreacher.

flood waters

com. Eachweek I’m hoping to post notes, a bit of liturgy and, after it’s preached, my sermon (if it’s of the manuscript variety). This Sunday we kick off the fall season by going back to the beginning, to the genesis of our story…

We will hear two portions of the epic and ancient flood story (Genesis 6:16-22 & 9:8-15), it is a story about life and loss, about preservation and destruction, about a wild God and God’s wild creation. So come, come and stand in the mud with us and wrestle with this promise: “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. 11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” 

How do we stand in the mud and live, hope, and believe this promise?

In the midst of beheadings and war zones, in the face of fear and hatred and with the ugliness of racism, and xenophobia on display all around how do we participate in this covenant? How do we recognize our own part the world’s destruction and human despair? Wouldn’t it be easier to blame the divine? Wouldn’t it be easier to hide our heads in the sand, than to put our hands in the muck and mud and plant seeds of a new creation?

 What is our part to play in making God’s promise a reality? 

For starters… We Tell The Truth About Ourselves                                                       (At Friendship this is how we describe our time of Confession.)

Fear rises like the floodwaters of ancient days,

We turn inward,

absorbed in our own pain,

groaning in our suffering,

groping in our anger,

the darkness of despair threatens to wash over us.

If we look outward the world seems to be going under with the tide,

The complexity of power goes unacknowledged,

it is brandished and misused,

We struggle to love well,

to resist deceit, hatred and violence.

Rising, rising waters of hopelessness threaten to engulf us.

 Make good on your promise O God; do not let these floodwaters consume us.

And this will be our Blessing:

You are made in God’s image,

you are beautiful creatures of wisdom and promise,

you are forgiven

and you are chosen.

But God’s promise isn’t for you alone; it is for all of creation.

Carry this blessing with you,

let this promise inspire hope in you,

and all whom you encounter,

make it a symbol of freedom,

flying in the face of indignity, pain and injustice,

make it a call to action, for justice and peace,

until all of creation can breathe the deep breath of God’s promise.

 

If you would like to use my words please feel free, 
but give me a shout out! 
Something akin to © Shawna Bowman 
at shawnabowman.com is perfect :)

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Use Your Words, September 13.2012

James 3: 5-9
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!
And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue-a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

The author of James is not kidding around, after making several metaphors of how the human tongue sets the course and manages our behaviors he compares the tongue in these verses to a fire. And not just a small campfire, no he’s talking about a wild and uncontrollable forest fire, an all consuming hellish fire…

James does a great job living into the negative aspect of this metaphor. As many of us have experienced, whether it has been our own tongue that has gotten us in trouble or another’s that has been used against us, the fallout of such an experience does seem to spread like a wildfire burning out of control doesn’t it?

On the other hand, we know that fire can be the light in the darkness that guides us home. That a well tended fire can sustain and nurture us, it can produce heat for food and warmth on a cold night. A fire burning brightly on the tip of a candle wick can symbolize an attitude of prayer, peacefulness, even celebration.

James is warning his people of the danger of words that are cast about with the intention of hurting another, of putting someone in their place. He warns of the danger of using words to paint an image of ourselves that is unrealistic or deceptive. He warns us to be careful as people of faith not to say words about who we are and about God that we aren’t willing to live into. He speaks not as an outsider but as insider, one who has experienced first hand both the blessing of words spoken in genuine love and the pain brought forth by words used carelessly or destructively.

I remember when my children were small and first learning to speak. Speaking words was an effort, it took time, thoughtfulness and intention. When they would get frustrated they would resort instead to crying or yelling and we would say to them, “use your words.” We wanted them to use their words to describe what they needed, what they were thinking and how they were feeling.

We learn at a very young age that words are the secret to communication, words give us a way to express ourselves, to tell our stories and to speak up for ourselves. We live in a world of almost constant communication, words are being emailed, posted, blogged, texted, spoken, sung, written, yelled, whispered and spelled out, back and forth between us, constantly filling up all the spaces between us.

What are the quality of the words you exchange in the length of a day? How often are you exchanging information, telling your story, asking for help and offering to help another? How often do the words you speak to others mirror the words you speak to God in prayer?

James invites us to be intentional with our tongues. To match our words about God and to God with the words we send into the universe all day every day.

May your words be a warm fire that sustains another,
May the words of your family, friends and community nurture you,
May you refrain from using words that will destroy another,
May you listen as often as you speak and
May your words be a blessing to those who have long been silenced,
May your words encourage them to speak up and tell their own story,
And may all our words together honor God forever.
AMEN

Peace, Shawna

Musical Mediation
Man On Fire 
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros 
(PS: I love this video :) )

(Yesterday the image wasn’t working in my reflection post, I’d love for you to see it because I drew it for just that occasion, you can find it if you click here!)

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