Thursday, September 29, 2011

In the Meantime: The Mountain's Getting Closer...

This week we are going slightly off lectionary in our Exodus journey to include a passage that is not part of the lectionary readings: Exodus 18:13-27, which you can read here. Our epistle and gospel readings will be from the lectionary--Philippians 2:1-13 (a passage, in my opinion, that you can never read enough!) and Matthew 21:23-32, which can be found here.

When God commissioned Moses from the burning bush, God made Moses a promise: "This shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you," God said to Moses: "When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain" (Exodus 3:12). God made it clear even before Moses' mission to be God's agent of liberation began that their voyage out of Egypt and towards the land of promise would include a return to this place where Moses first met God, where God made God's self known as the hearer of the oppressed and the great I AM. It has been a long road back to the mountain, but by Exodus 17 and 18, Sinai--the mountain of God's presence, of God's promise--is just beginning to take shape in front of them. Something big is on the horizon, literally and metaphorically.

Like any long trip, however, the last few minutes can seem neverending, making you feel like that destination cannot come quickly enough and, in fact, may not get here at all. At the beginning of Exodus 17, there is another water shortage, and quarreling breaks out among the people yet again and leads Moses to cry out in exasperation--if Moses were an overwrought mother, it is at this point that I could hear him yell something like, "Don't you MAKE me pull this car over and separate you all!"

The water need is addressed yet again by a God who apparently handles roadtrips with exceptional patience and grace. As soon as they've all been refreshed, though, comes a bigger problem: the Israelites face their first attack, by the Amalekites. Here we get a glimpse of the future as Joshua--who will take over leadership of the people when Moses no longer can lead--steps into his first starring role. Yet Moses remains integral to the battle--amazingly, it is only as long as he holds up his staff--the staff that parted the waters and brought water from the rock--that the Israelites find themselves ahead in the battle. When his arms grow tired and begin to sag, others hold up his arms for him, keeping his arms "steady until the sun set" (I love this image from Exodus 17:12).

And so, many challenges must be overcome before the people can set up camp at the base of the mountain and come to that much anticipated place of worshipful encounter with God. Yet, in the beginning of Exodus 18 we find that before they can climb the mountain the Israelites have one more thing to accomplish: reunion and reconciliation with some of their estranged family, the Midianites. Moses now sees his father-in-law Jethro, wife, and two children for the first time since he returned to Egypt, and these branches of the family tree of God's people are reunited in worship and fellowship and peace. God's family, at least symbolically, is coming to the foot of Mt. Sinai more whole than they have been since Cain turned on Abel, Ishmael was cast out, and Jacob deceived Esau. In this reunion, the way is opened for Jethro to be an unlikely but important voice in shaping Israel's future (which we will talk about in our text this Sunday).

Fighting and reconciliation--these are the movements through which God's people move as the mountain grows closer in their sight. Will these experiences of anger, violence, and then restoration make the children of Israel ready to hear God's words from that hill and learn what it is they truly left Egypt for?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

In the Meantime: Songs and Springs

Our lectionary readings for this week are Exodus 16:1-15, Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45, and Matthew 20:1-16. You can read them here. Our blog discussion this week, however, will focus on what happened "in the meantime" between last week's passage of the parting of the Red Sea and this week's passage of the gift of manna to the hungry people.

It never occurred to me, before just now, that Exodus 15:1 should be one of my favorite Bible verses. Why, you ask? Because it bears this good news: "Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord." Here, my fellow lovers of rock and jazz, of piano and guitar, of choir anthems and songs of praise, is the first appearance in the Bible of that glorious form of human expression called music. It is here, after God has made God's self known to them in a crazy display of power, after they have made it to the far side of the sea by impossible faith, that we get our first recording of people bursting into song.

Can you imagine the moment? Stuttering Moses, often not able to get a solid sentence out, discovers the richer sounds his voice box can project. A sense of shared community exists for the first time among the Israelites as their voices join together in unison and harmony. The song of praise, which expresses what they'd learned about their God in more depth and layers than any simple words they could have spoken, goes on and on and on; and then, just when it seems to be over, even the women are given a voice: Moses' sister Miriam--the one who once watched her brother floating near his death in the waters and who had now seen the waters close over those who had oppressed and imprisoned them for so long--takes up tambourines and leads her fellow women in an encore of song and dance: "Sing!" she cries. "Sing!" On this day, song became part of the worship of the people of God--a component of worship that I now find it hard to imagine approaching God without.

Once the singing fades out, however, the people have to continue to follow God's command to journey. They leave the shores of the sea and travel for three long days--days which take them far from water. Finally, they come upon a spring--woohoo, let's praise God again!!--only, wait--don't praise God. This water has a taste so bitter it could be more deadly to them than dehydration. And so, their songs of praise are quickly supplanted by murmurs and grumbles, their rejoicing canceled out by the fears induced by their harsh new reality. Again, though--surprisingly quickly, actually--God acts on their behalf. God shows Moses how to turn the water sweet, and they drink deeply, soothing their parched throats before venturing on. When they reach their next stop, they discover their momentary panic had been premature: the next stop beyond Marah, Elim, had "twelve springs and seventy palm trees, and they camped there near the water." They have returned, again, to the water brings life, to springs that well up songs of praise within them.

I think this first chapter of Israel's life post-Red Sea is an important one for entering into the next chapter. Take time to read this one, then read on into Exodus 16. Where do you see parallels? Where do you see conflicts? Why, just one chapter later, do these suddenly liberated slaves now cease to sing?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In the Meantime: "Let My People Go!"

Our lectionary passages this week are Exodus 14:10-29 (I altered the lectionary inclusions a little bit), Romans 14:7-12, and Matthew 18:21-35--check them out here.

A LOT happens between the call of Moses (last week's story) and the passage of the children of Israel through the watery walls of the Sea (this week's story). Living into his call from God was no easy task for Moses--I think Moses knew this, explaining why he went to such great lengths to argue with God about God's choice of a leader. Yet once Moses turned aside to look at the bush, he was in for the long haul; and a long haul indeed it would be.

Moses leaves the glow of the bush and enters the throes of despair. His worst fears come true: no one is listening to him. He goes to Pharaoh to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go for three days--just three days!--to the wilderness to worship this God who has appeared to them. Pharaoh's reply is constant: “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.”

Then, Moses goes to tell the people what God has promised--liberty from their hard labor that is becoming increasingly harsh, life as God's protected people in a new land that can be theirs. But even Moses' own people "did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor" (Exodus 6:9). Pharaoh's grip of power is so tight that it seems no one and no thing can loose it--the Israelites are as confident of this as Pharaoh himself appears to be, scoffing in the face of this God.

At this point, however, God becomes determined that all of these doubters--Egyptians and Hebrews alike--have an opportunity to see a different power at work; and so a story unfolds that could cue music for Irving Berlin's great song "Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better" from the musical Annie Get Your Gun-- a spirited duet in which two singers attempt to outdo each other in increasingly complex tasks. This is perhaps an inappropriately light way to look at the very intense drama that unfolds in Exodus 7-12. The plagues have always troubled me--I mean, who would not be troubled by the suffering and death that unfolds in this struggle? But it seems that, in the context of this narrative, their point is clear: to make obvious that God's power is greater than any human power, even the seemingly unshakable power of Pharaoh, the only power the people have ever known. Anything Pharaoh can do, God can overrule--God can do all things better, not just in theory but in visible action. I love how Walter Brueggeman describes the purpose of the plagues narrative:

"The plague cycle makes the point that the processes of human power are not as cut, dried, and foreclosed as the powerful imagine. Another power is loose in the world that finally precludes any system of power that overrides the fragility of human persons and human community. This inscrutable power will not finally tolerate such abuse. At the center of public history is “wonder,” which no ruthless pharaoh can resist or squelch. It is that wonder wrought by God that in the end creates human possibilities for freedom and justice, for well-being and covenant." (The New Interpreters Bible)

This background, I think, is needed to put the crossing of the Red Sea in perspective--another horrible narrative that ends in life for some and death for others. Why carry out the Exodus in this way? Is God just showing off? This story is central to Israelite history...why are we called to wrestle with it again and again? I confess that my moral self still doesn't know what to do with the violence, and I may still not know at the end of Sunday--in fact, I probably won't. It grates on what I feel is right, on the love of God that I believe extends to all people. But maybe, from time to time, we need to be reminded that the great power of God extends to all people as well. Sometimes, if we are going to walk through the sea, we need more than the embrace of love--we need to know a power bigger than we can comprehend is backing us up. Sometimes we need to know God not just intimately, but powerfully; sometimes we need to be reminded how different from us God truly is.

But I am definitely still working on this. What do you think?

Thursday, September 8, 2011

In the Meantime: Hints of Vocation

Our lectionary texts this week (as we continue to run a couple of Sundays behind everyone else--but that's okay!) are Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28. You may read them here.

In the Meantime: Throughout our Exodus series in worship, I plan to use the blog space to fill in the gaps in the Exodus story, highlighting the texts we will not be covering in worship that fall in between the ones we will be spending focused time with. So, today we will cover the ground between Moses' birth and his encounter with a burning bush: the growing-up years found in Exodus 2:10-25.

The Burning Bush encounter of Moses with God is one of the most well-known accounts in scripture (thank you, Charlton Heston); what is lesser known, however, is what led Moses to be out in the far corner of the wilderness in the first place.

Moses, you see, was a pretty mixed-up guy: born a lowly Hebrew, rescued by a princess, initially raised by his own people but then sent to live in an Egyptian palace. As a young adult, Moses has feet in a couple of worlds but a true home nowhere...a fact that is confounded his worlds collide in a violent way. Seeing an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew, he is filled with rage at the injustice and secretly kills the Egyptian when he believes no one is looking. Yet when he tries to interact with the Hebrews after this, they call him out on his crime rather than embracing him--what he had done was not as hidden as he had believed. His adopted grandfather, Pharaoh, remembered Moses was really a Hebrew and not an Egyptian and prepared to kill Moses for his crime; so Moses fled, as fast as he could, to the desert land of Midian. There he marries and has a child, settling down for a life in oblivion as a stranger in a foreign land, hoping no one finds out he's there.

While Moses is trying to hide, however, God is seeking to reveal. The end of Exodus 2 brings out God as a major player in the story of Exodus for the first time: God hears the cries of the Israelites just as Moses had, and God determines that it's time to act. God takes notice of the people God had promised to love and preserve--their suffering will be hidden no more.

In the intersection of the story of Moses' violent retribution and God's hearing of the people's cries, what we get a full-blown picture of in Exodus 3 begins to take shape in fits and starts: Moses' vocation. In his book Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC, Frederich Buechner beautifully defined this idea of a vocation, or one's particular calling from God:

“The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

I don't know that fighting the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians was Moses' "deep gladness", but in these intervening verses it is shown to be a deep passion that bubbles up over his Egyptian upbringing to remind him of who he deeply is. God's hearing of the Israelites' cries reveals a deep hunger: for liberation from bondage, for freedom from oppression. As God calls to Moses from the bush, God will call Moses to the intersection of these things: his burning desire for justice, and his people's loud cries for help. Here, in his young adult years of growing up, Moses is beginning to discover his calling; and though he tries to flee from it, to live a life unnoticed, it pursues him even to the far reaches of the desert, and he finds he cannot evade its pursuit but, rather, must turn aside to look.

That turning is what we will spend time with on Sunday...I look forward to the encounter we will share together, and the ways it may call us to consider our own deep passions and the world's deep hunger, and the ways these things intersect.

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Journey Not to be Missed

Thanks to Hurricane Irene, our lectionary texts this week are the same as last week--we are still waiting to get started on our Exodus journey! Take a look back at last week's post for some introductory reflections on Exodus and to find the link to these great texts.

So this week, I want to use the blog space to tell you all about a way of reading the biblical story through the lens of Exodus that has changed how I approach the Bible--a way that you will be invited to walk along this fall as well. When in seminary, a professor introduced me to a book written and illustrated by Lutheran pastor Dan Erlander: Manna and Mercy: A Brief History of God's Unfolding Plan to Mend the Entire Universe. In 100 beautiful pages, Erlander moves us through the course of the entire biblical narrative, from the beginning of creation in Genesis to the new creation in Revelation, and traces the course of the human relationship with God as set in the gift of Manna to the Israelites in the desert (a story we'll encounter in worship this September) and continued in the birth, life, and death of Jesus and the living church Christ established (that would be us!).

Here's what I love about Erlander's account: it is simple enough that if you feel "biblically illiterate" and want a non-threatening way to get a feel for the course of this whole great story we live our lives by, Manna and Mercy is for you. It is deep enough that if you have read the Bible cover to cover hundreds of times and studied it in school and still want to read old stories with fresh eyes, Manna and Mercy is for you. And if you are anywhere in between these ends, swimming around wishing you had a way to encounter scripture that could help you figure out how what God has been doing through history weaves together and redirects our paths as God's people, then guess what...Manna and Mercy is for you.

SO, I hope you'll join us on Sunday nights at 6:30 starting next Sunday, September 11, when we'll look at the first biblical stories of God constituting a particular people to reflect God's character here on earth:

Then, on September 18, we will sweep through the story of the rest of the Old Testament: the story of how God's people fell out of covenant with God, and God's great plan to restore them:

On September 25, Jesus comes into the picture, and we see how he fits in with God's redemptive vision that God has been working towards all along:

Finally, on October 2 we will look at the ministry of the church--God's people on earth today--and God's vision for a heaven and earth made new, with all things brought together in Christ.

Come join us these four Sunday nights at 6:30 as we move through history together and let it shape our future as the people of God!