Sunday, October 28, 2012

Our Dwelling Place: Sermon on 1 Kings 5, 8

Scripture can be found here...

Again, in our project to read across the story of scripture, we have skimmed over lots and lots of material to arrive at today’s passage. Two weeks ago, we learned the story behind the birth of the prophet Samuel, who anointed the first two kings of God’s people, Saul and David. And today we are hearing a story of David’s son, Solomon, the third king to take the throne, and the one, at last, to build a temple for God.

It feels odd to skate past David in this way. For those of us who have been spending the past several months with him in Bible Study, he is an endlessly fascinating, and, yes, flawed character. But he is also clearly a man after God’s own heart, a towering figure, and an important link in the chain that, for Christians, eventually leads us to Jesus. But for now we are looking at the big picture of God’s people so far, and that, I would describe this way:

God creates the world and all that is in it.

God creates people and invites them into a special relationship, a covenant.

God’s covenant promises that the people will have a home, and that they will be fruitful, and that they will be blessed, so that they might be a blessing.

God’s people find themselves enslaved. But God remembers the covenant and provides release and rescue.

God’s people wander and stray and test the boundaries of that covenant. Think of toddlers, who engage in something developmental psychologists call “rapprochement.” They know that you, the parent, are home base, you are the safe place to be. But you’re at the playground, for instance, and they wander away, further and further, testing the limits of your bond, until you think maybe you’ll lose them, or some other terrible thing will happen. And then they come back. Because, you’re the safe place, home base, the place they know they are meant to be. God’s people wander and stray and test those boundaries in more or less the same way.

And then God’s people grow up some more, and want some things that they think will make them really happy. Let’s stay with the parenting analogy. Let’s say they want a car! And you, the parent, say, “Well, sure, you want a car, to get around in, but here’s what cars are good for: spending money. There are car payments, and there’s gas, and there’s insurance, and that’s a huge responsibility that might actually feel like a burden.” But they want a car, and they save up, and they get a car, and then they learn firsthand what that grown up responsibility really means.

Except, in the story of God’s people, what they want is a king. And God, the parent, says, “Well, I am your king, but apparently you want a human king. Well, here’s what human kings are good for: forced labor, taxes, harems, armies, war.”[i]

And the stories of the kings of Israel and Judah demonstrate the truth of that statement, again and again.

In the passage we skipped last week, David is finally, securely on the throne, and ensconced in his palace in Jerusalem. And it occurs to him to build God a house—that is, a temple. But God instead, informs David, “I will build you a house”—that is, a dynasty.  And the project of building a physical “house for God” is left for Solomon, David’s son.

This is where we pick up today. In the first part of our passage, Solomon is conversation with a foreign king about this impending project, the building of the temple. Then we skip to chapter 8, but in the intervening verses, we learn in detail the materials and d├ęcor of the temple. It is a grand project, and the process of building it takes seven years. Finally, we come to the celebration: Solomon assembles all the people of Israel, the leaders and the commoners, the laborers and the rulers. Solomon dedicates the temple with a prayer.

I don’t know about you, but I’m waiting with bated breath to hear what Solomon will pray. By this time in the story, I’m a little nervous to hear what he’s going to say. The temple is sounding suspiciously like a royal vanity project—there are tens of thousands of forced laborers, and the prayer begins rather inauspiciously, with Solomon sounding an awful lot like he is looking for a quid pro quo—“Keep me on the throne, God,” he says, in so many words, “and my descendants after me.”

Thankfully, the wisdom for which Solomon is legendary begins to make itself known.

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even… the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” [1 Kings 5:27]. Solomon acknowledges that even the most gorgeous of human efforts cannot “hold” God; God cannot be put in a box—even a beautiful one that takes seven years to construct. “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive” [1 Kings 5:30]. Solomon’s prayer boils down to this very simple, and very heartfelt plea: Hear our prayers.

Hear our prayers. And not only our prayers, the prayers of your special people, your covenant people—but the prayers of all. Aliens. Strangers. Travelers and wanderers. Anyone who ventures into this place to pray, or even, who “prays towards” this place. O God, hear our prayers.

God creates people and invites us into a special relationship, a covenant.

God’s covenant promises that God’s people will have a home, and that we will be fruitful, and that we will be blessed, in order to be a blessing. For many of us, to have a home, and to be fruitful, and to have and be a blessing, means that we are members of a faith community.

Approximately 221 years ago, a group of people with roots in the Dutch Reformed tradition began to worship together along the banks of the Susquehanna River, not a quarter of a mile from here. They worshipped in a log building, where the people lifted their voices and hoped that God would hear their prayers. Today, the spiritual descendants of those same people worship here, at Union Presbyterian Church. Today, we too are part of God’s covenant, and together, we too lift our voices.

Hear our prayers. When we speak, we do so in the fervent hope that God will listen. We want God to hear our prayers. We want to be in relationship with God. It is tempting to call this building God’s house, and—full disclosure!—part of my task, my intention today, is to stir in you the desire to support the work we do together here through your financial gifts in the coming year. We want to hold onto God, to put God in a recognizable location, much like the people of Solomon’s day housed the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. But we can’t hold God. We can only let God hold us.

To be a member of a church, a place like Union Presbyterian Church, is to recognize that God is holding us. God is our dwelling place, the safe place, home base, the place we know we are meant to be. We are a part of God’s covenant. We too are called into a relationship with God that promises us that God will be our home, and that we will bear fruit in all kinds of ways we have not yet begun to imagine, and that we will be blessed for the purpose of blessing others, blessed so that blessing will flow through us and into God’s world.

Today I am asking you to recognize that you have been blessed by pledging to be a blessing.

Today I am asking you to let some part of that blessing come to Union Presbyterian Church… so that we, as a body, together, can continue to be a blessing, serving God and God’s people, wherever they may be. And all thanks be to God. Amen

[i] Rolf Jacobson, Podcast: “Narrative Lectionary 051, Solomon,” October 21, 2012.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

God, Standing in the Doorway: Sermon on 1 and 2 Samuel

Scripture can be read here...

We have a Bible Study most Monday nights, 5:00 every Monday except the second Monday of the month, when we have a different Bible Study, affectionately known around here as LOPW, “Loosely Organized” Presbyterian Women. It’s a study which people feel free to drop in and out of, depending upon the busyness and chaos of life, but we dependably have anywhere between six and twelve folks, sometimes more. Over the past four and a half years, this Most Mondays Bible Study has read through, word by word, at least eight books of the bible, by my count, plus several “thematic” studies, such as last spring’s investigation of New Testament resurrection stories. This summer we had some heavy going, for a while, with the book of Judges. It’s a bloody tome, but one that, this year, yielded a really wonderful insight. It is this: how women are presented in scripture is often a bellwether for how the people of God are doing. In fact, women often function as the canaries in the coal mine of the story of God’s people: when things are going well for women, it means that God’s people are living faithfully into the covenant between God and humanity. When things are not going well… it is a sign of just the opposite. Unfaithfulness abounds.

Following the episode of the golden calf, we have fully three more books of the bible—Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—detailing both the wilderness sojourn of God’s people, Israel, and their final arrival at Canaan, the Land of Promise. Moses never enters the Land of Promise—in fact, no one from that original generation who left Egypt does, and that seems to be by God’s design. In the course of the forty years of the wilderness wanderings, God’s people have been tried and tested, and cleansed and purged of the kind of recalcitrance and general whining we see among the people immediately after their escape. They are ready to enter Canaan a new and rejuvenated people.

The book of Joshua tells the story of the conquest of Canaan. It is a military history, largely, and it contains accounts of battles and clever deceptions, and, always, the power of God being the source of any victory. At the end of Joshua, one has the impression that the land has been won, that’s that, and all will be well.

Then we have the book of Judges, which, many scholars believe, tells the very same story as Joshua… only in much grimmer and more disturbing detail, and with much more ambiguous outcomes. By the time Judges begins, Israel is a loose confederation of twelve tribes, mostly named after the sons of Jacob. They have leaders called judges whose work involves arbitrating and deciding disputes, as contemporary judges do, but also military leadership and prophetic insight. Judges are all anointed by God as leaders.

Here’s where the ‘canary in the coal mine’ theory comes in. At the beginning of Judges, we meet a woman who is a judge: Deborah. However, as the story of each judge is told, the unfaithfulness of the people, and their willingness to follow after other gods is revealed. Time and again they find themselves in hot water, attacked by Canaanite tribes, and in danger of losing the land. Then another judge is anointed, and for a time, they do better, but each episode results in a downward spiral of disobedience and unfaithfulness worse than the last. By the end of the book of Judges, we read stories of a judge, Jephthah, because of his own faithlessness, ends up offering his own daughter as a human sacrifice. And the last prolonged story in Judges takes us into the genre of the horror film, and women are the victims. The status of the people’s faithfulness to God is reflected by how well or abominably women are treated.

But there is hope for God’s people, because after Judges comes the book of Ruth, whose heroine is a Moabite woman who, despite coming from another ethnic and religious background, serves the God of Israel and is faithful to her Israelite mother-in-law. At the end of her story we learn that she will be great grandmother to King David.

At last, we turn to Hannah. This story, at the very beginning of 1 Samuel, is probably intended to alert us to what an extraordinary person Samuel will be: that is almost always the purpose of stories of women who are said to be unable to bear children in scripture. This story will give us a clue that Samuel’s work will be crucial: the work of creating a godly monarchy from that loose and unruly confederation of tribes. All that is true. But the piece of this passage that calls to me today isn’t about the astounding accomplishments of the great prophet, who, after all, barely makes an appearance. Instead, I believe that it is in the domestic details of this woman’s life, and how she plays her part in the story of God’s people, that most of us will be able to encounter this sacred story and see in it some reflection of our own. The story of Hannah steers us into dark and pain-filled waters. It invites us to wonder together, how do we cope when the world we inhabit seeks to define us, at times, against our will? How do we live with our experiences of disappointment and emptiness? Where do we perceive God’s action in all this?

When we meet Hannah, her symptom is her identity. She “has no children,” in contrast with her husband’s other wife Peninnah, who has children in abundance. It’s hard to overstate the catastrophe, the sheer scandal that infertility is understood to be in biblical literature. Fertility is always seen as a product of divine favor, and infertility, predictably, of divine judgment. Hannah is suffering as a result of her status: her rival taunts her, she weeps. Hannah has the love of her husband, but she is too miserable to eat the double portion of food he gives her. But the story has a happy ending. After petitioning God in the temple, and having an intriguing conversation with the priest Eli, Hannah conceives and gives birth to her son Samuel. Symptom removed.

This seems to be a fairly straightforward tale: emptiness/ prayer/ fullness. Problem/ prayer/ solution. But let’s not skip too merrily to the ending. Thanksgiving for this longed-for son will come soon enough.  There has to be a caveat here: We get into serious trouble when we ask specific passages of scripture to function as blanket statements to be applied to every situation. To look to this story as an exhaustive treatment of issues around fertility risks robbing the story of its power for people whose outcomes are different from Hannah’s, opposite, even. To say, simply, “Pray and God will give you what you ask for,” risks making this text irrelevant to the many, many people who have had other experiences.

So, remembering that this story of a woman is probably intended to serve the story of her exceptional son, and remembering, too, that the beauty of scripture is that these stories so often take us into unexpected realms… Let’s talk about, not outcomes, but processes. Let’s talk about prayer.

For me the turning point of Hannah’s story begins the moment Hannah gets up from the dinner table and heads to the temple to pray. I believe this for two reasons. For one thing, Hannah is being real. She is bitter. She is bargaining. She appears to require sobering up,  her emotional state is so out of control. She is baring all before God and man, and her appearance in the temple is a clear demonstration that she is through with trying to go it alone. She reaches out, she reaches up, and she is heard.

Presbyterian writer (and quite possibly the funniest woman in the world) Anne Lamott says this about prayer:

[Prayer is] about being in a gentle but structured relationship with a higher power and one’s own self and the truth, and getting the work done. You close your eyes, breathe, and say, “hi.” The reason ‘help’ is such a great prayer is that God is the gift of desperation. When you’re in despair, you’re teachable.[i]

Hannah is in despair. She has nothing to lose. And so she prays.

The other reason I believe this is a turning point for Hannah is that her action puts her in contact with the priest Eli. Eli is someone whose life has been spent right where he is at this moment—waiting on the Lord, quite literally, in the doorway. Doorways are tremendously potent symbols in the bible. A doorway is what is known as “liminal space,” a place of being between, neither in one place nor the other. Eli is at his post in this in-between space, which is precisely the place where one waits for God. In this waiting place we experience openness—openness to God, openness to others, openness to a new plan, a new state of being. Hannah too is in liminal space. She is neither here nor there, neither maiden nor mother nor crone. Hannah’s Twilight Zone intersects with Eli’s. A new view is offered. A new possibility is made clear.

For me the grace in this story comes at the point of contact—contact with God and contact with another human being. Is the story of Hannah simply a story of divine intervention? On one level, sure—it is one of many biblical stories in which the hand of God is nakedly at work in the birth of an exceptional person. But I don’t think it’s in the realm of the miraculous that we connect with Hannah’s story. Instead, I think we connect through our own experiences: experiences of pain or disappointment or frustrated hope; experiences of reaching out to God in prayer and to those around us in sharing our burdens; experiences of God showing us a way where formerly there was no way; experiences of God staying present with us, in all our bitter ranting, when, in the final analysis, there is no way. Are these miracles? I am not sure. Is reaching out a miracle? Is openness a miracle? Is standing in a doorway, expecting God to show up, a miracle? Is giving thanks—for the hoped-for, expected, the dreaded and everything in between—a miracle?

We stand in the doorway, waiting for God, and God always shows up. God shows up offering more than the desired answer. God offers faithful, abiding presence, in the midst of our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disappointments, even in our liminal spaces, when we are not quite lost, and not quite found. If Hannah is a bellwether for the people of God, if she tells us how things are going, the outlook is good, but not because Hannah gets what she longs for. The outlook is good because of God is with her, and with us, in struggle, and in joy, and in everything between. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Anne Lamott, Author of Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers, in an interview with Publisher’s Weekly. Help, Thanks, Wow will be published in November, 2012.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lessons in Human Frailty: A Sermon on Genesis 32:1-14

The scripture can be found here...

Couldn't find out where this image originated. Looks old though.

I did a little crowd-sourcing this week, by which I mean, I asked other people for help. “Let’s make a list,” I said. “Golden calves we have known and loved. Go!” And these are the things offered by the good people of Facebook.

“Our own preferred political candidates.” “Keeping up with the Joneses.” “Our children.” “The Protestant work ethic.” “Our obsession with the Kardashians, the idolatry of the superficial.” “Celebrities.”

“Vanity.” “Wanting to look or be perfect.” “Thinking we have to be like Martha Stewart.” “Being considered really good at my job.”

“My phone.” “Text messaging.” “My sewing machine.”

“A certain number on the scale.” “Acceptance.” “Money.” “My 401K or 403 B, retirement accounts.”  “Shoes.” “The latest glossy promise of a magazine! Lose 20 lbs by Memorial Day! Unclutter your home! 15 pages of Chocolate Decadence!” “Books!” “Fabric.”

“The church building, complete with the Advent wreath someone's Great Aunt Millie gave!” “The Church building as you say goodbye.”

“A particular church program; a set of hymns, music or liturgy; other people's opinions.”

If you hadn’t heard my introduction, I’m guessing it might not be the easiest thing to tie all these disparate things together. But what my friends were saying was this: These are the things that get in the way. They get in the way of our being the people we want to be in our lives.

In our passage from Exodus this morning, we hear a story that, in many ways, is about almost getting it right. The people, whom God rescued from slavery in last week’s passage, have been wandering in the wilderness for some time now, about four months, and they have endured… well, life in the wilderness without a dependable supply of food and water, for one thing. Division in the ranks. Grumbling.

But they have also been the recipients of a covenant, which is to say, an agreement, every bit as mysterious and awe-inspiring as the one given to Abraham and Sarah way back near the beginning of the story.

In chapter 19, after the crisis of food has been managed by the sending of bread from heaven, and the crisis of water has been dealt with by bringing forth of water from a rock, God says the following to Moses:

“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 covenant, you 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 and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3b-6).

And the people, gathered together and offered this arrangement, say, Yes! “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And then Moses brings the people to Mount Sinai, in the midst of a pretty spectacular display of thunder and lightning and thick smoke, and Moses receives the covenant from God.

Now, the covenant consists of the Ten Commandments, followed by God’s commentary, and interpretation, and instructions on worship and creating an appropriate worship space. And then an invitation from God to Moses for what comes as close to a face-to-face meeting as you could get with God at that point. In Exodus 24, Moses disappears into the cloud on Mount Sinai, to receive more instructions in a more intimate setting. He disappears for forty days and forty nights.

It’s this last part that ends up being the cause of a lot of anxiety. Now, in addition to the other hardships of wilderness wandering, the people have to cope with life without their designated leader. Our passage finds them as they have decided how to cope with this situation. They gather around Moses’ brother, Aaron, and make their demand:

Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1b).

A translation issue comes up in this sentence. There are several different words used for “God” and “Lord” in the Old Testament. One of them is elohim. Interestingly, elohim is a plural word, and sometimes it is translated “gods,” and sometimes “God,” based on contextual clues. So, the people might very well have been saying, “Make God for us,” in other words, “Make this invisible God visible to us!” And here is what I mean by coming so close, and yet missing the mark. They almost have it right. God has been giving instructions for creating a worship space, and that will include taking an offering. A far-flung colleague in ministry put it this way: “They took their offerings to the Lord and instead of building a house for God, they worshipped the offerings themselves.”

So close.

And if you look at our 2012 list of Golden Calves, in a lot of ways, I think you will see that the things that get in the way of our being the people we want to be are a lot like that. Things that seem designed to serve the purpose of connecting—to God, to one another, even to ourselves—they become barriers to that exact longed-for connection. On our list you will see things like cell phones and texting that are supposed to keep us connected to those we love—only they end up becoming distractions that actually alienate us from one another. You will see things that are about taking care of one another—like retirement funds and college funds, even sewing machines—but which end up stealing energy and focus from our real relationships instead of enhancing them. You will see things that are about taking care of our precious, God-given bodies—miracles of creation!—but which, instead, end up making us so full of self-criticism and contempt that we become alienated from ourselves. You will even see things (many of them, shared by other pastors, in other churches) that seem to be all about our worship of God—our beautiful church buildings and the hymns we love and the programs we treasure—which, in the cruelest twist of all, become, not pathways to God, but ends in themselves, to be preserved at all costs, even the cost of division and despair.

We come so close. And we miss the mark. We forget. But, thanks be to God, we have opportunities to remember again.

The Lord’s Supper is one of those opportunities. Each time we gather around this communion table, we remember, together. We remind one another. We remind ourselves. That the Lord our God hates slavery, whether in ancient Egypt or modern day USA. That God, our great, ever-creating God, continues to create us to be free—yes, even free from our cell phones and online addictions—and to live within the blessedness of covenant community, with real (not virtual) people.  That God, in Jesus, came to be with us—that celebrations and festivities around a table are good, provided we don’t forget who is the Founder of the feast.

So today, I ask us to look at our own particular Golden Calves, those attachments, that get in the way of real relationship, real worship, real communion with God and with one another. I ask us to wonder together how we can let go of the things that distract and divide, and embrace, instead, one another. I ask us to pray together for the honesty of heart to know how best to serve together the one who seeks to serve us at this table. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Friday, October 5, 2012

It's the Friday Five: Artsy Friday!

It's art, art, art in my life today, because I'm on the organizing committee for an all-women's art show that opens tonight! This means life has been about hanging paintings, arranging sculptures and assemblages, and doing everything we can to make sure we show off the women's work to its best advantage.

Something that has struck me in particular this year is the idea of art as a venue to give voice to the voiceless. But that's certainly not its only function. We have angry art, as political protest. We have joyful art, art that conveys the sheer buzz of being alive. We have spiritual art, reveling in the sacredness of the body or the earth. And just about every year, we have some form or another of "biblical" art, representing or commenting on something in scripture. (Above, the Levite's concubine from Judges, also known as Big Woman, by Elisabeth Lain Schell).

If you like, you can play the Friday Five, reflect with me upon art and the role it plays in your life.

1. Do you have a favorite piece of art in your home? Was it made by you or someone you love? Was it a gift or something you decided to purchase?

I have a lot of art in my home, but probably my very favorite is a gorgeous print of Ruth and Naomi by Chinese artist He Qi. It is a very treasured gift from a very dear person.

2. What do you think of the the art in your place of worship? Does it enhance the worship experience? Would you add to it, take away from it, or otherwise change it?

The church I serve is both simple and ornate... it treads that very fine line! I think my favorite thing about it might be the nave/ the roof, which is in that very traditional configuration of the bottom of a ship. It never fails to lift my soul when I look up at it.

3. What public art have you loved-- or hated?

One of my very favorite pieces of public art is this bull, repainted from the black (in which he decorated a now closed steakhouse), to this beautiful, fanciful nature lover, Blossom the Black Angus. My good friend achieved the transformation, and I just adore it.

4. What piece of art (famous, infamous, personal, or very, very well known masterpiece) speaks to your soul?

This Annunciation... can't find the name of the artist, though. Help?

5. When is the last time you created something beautiful, just for you?

I keep saying I'll do this, and finally, I've begun (slowly) to work on afghan with the colors that really speak to me, for my bedroom.

How about you? Is art a big part of your life today?

Monday, October 1, 2012

From Slavery to Freedom: Miriam's Story! Exodus 12:1-13, 13:1-8


From time to time the Spirit moves me to create Midrash, ususally in the form of imagining the voice of one of the characters in a story. This week that led me to write this.

Scripture can be found here...

Listen! You can hear the shouts of joy, the laughing, the tambourines shaking in time with the dancing… you can hear the jubilant sounds of the celebration: we are free! We are free! After four hundred years of slavery in Mizrayim, Egypt, the narrow place, we have been born into a new freedom, and a new world, and a new life! And we have been dancing.

But if you listen hard, you can also hear the sounds of weeping. Our freedom came at a cost, and we will never forget that. For you to understand, for us to understand what has happened, we must go back to the beginning.

Our ancestor Joseph brought our people to Egypt—there were only seventy of us then, seventy!—He brought us to Egypt to save us from the famine. He saved our people, brought his family together again, and for a time, we lived in peace and prosperity. And the promise of El Shaddai, God Almighty, to our ancestors Sarah and Abraham were fulfilled: we were fruitful, and we multiplied, and we became numerous and exceedingly strong!

But a new Pharaoh came into power, a Pharaoh who did not know our ancestor Joseph. And in Egypt, the Pharaoh is regarded as a god—he regards himself as a god, with the power of life and death over his land. This so-called ‘god’ feared a strong tribe of immigrants, so he made us his slaves, and set us to work. We built his greatest cities! We built Rameses! We built Pithom! And the work the Pharaoh inflicted on us only made us stronger. And we grew more numerous, not less. And Pharaoh afflicted us with even more work, even more cruel taskmasters. He tried to extinguish us, as if we were vermin crawling over his land, he tried to stamp us out. But we were not vermin. We were people, hard-working people of God, only seeking peace and safety.

Then this so-called ‘god’ Pharaoh decided to do directly what he couldn’t do through slavery: he decided to kill us. He instructed our midwives to kill all the sons born to our women—every male baby, he said, kill it. When it is born, kill it.

But our midwives—their names were Shiphrah and Puah, may their names ever be blessed—they knew the difference between the Pharaoh so-called ‘god’ and the Lord God Almighty. And they did not kill the babies. And when Pharaoh asked why the Hebrew people continued to thrive, they told him “These Hebrew women are so strong—they give birth before we even arrive, and are out in the field again, and their boy babies hidden away safe. We cannot find them.”

Realizing the midwives would not do his murder for him, the Pharaoh told all his people: “Kill them. Throw the Hebrew boys into the Nile.”

And so the Pharaoh-god and his people together became angels of death for the Hebrew people. Untold numbers of our sons were killed. But even greater untold numbers were smuggled to safety. One of those surviving sons of Israel was my brother, Moshe, Moses. And untold numbers of the Egyptians helped us to survive. One of those Egyptians was the Pharaoh’s very own daughter.

My brother, Moses, grew to manhood in the Pharaoh’s own household, a hated vermin Israelite right under his nose. And the first attempt of Moses to stand for justice terrified him. He saved a Hebrew slave from being killed, and in the process killed the man who had been beating the slave. And so Moses ran—far away, into the desert.

But El Shaddai, God of the Mountains, the Lord God Almighty, is able to see us and find us wherever we are… God searches out our paths and our ways, our lying down and our rising up and our hiding and our revealing ourselves. And so God flamed and burned before my brother in the wilderness, and the Lord God spoke to my brother:

“…the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  (Exodus 3:7-8a, 9-10)

And my brother, a fugitive living in fear, turned and set his face again for Egypt, and confronted the Pharaoh.

When El Shaddai, the Lord God Almighty, spoke to our ancestors Abraham and Sarah he promised us children, and land, and blessing. This is our God: a God of life! The Pharaoh-god of the Egyptians promised his people no such things. And as our God demonstrated his power—by afflicting the people and land of Egypt with plague after plague—the true character of Pharaoh–god became known. He was a leader who was willing to let the land and the people suffer so that he could stay in power. He was a leader who was unwilling to do what his people needed him to do. He was a leader who used his power for death.

My brother went to the Pharaoh. Over and over again he went to the little Pharaoh-god, and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go.’” And again and again, little Pharaoh-god said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.”

And so the Lord God Almighty showed Pharaoh: with the plague of blood that turned the Nile red and the plague of frogs that turned the streets green with slime; with the plague of lice and the plague of flies; with the plagues of pestilence and boils and hail and locusts and deep, deep, terrifying darkness, the Lord God Almighty showed the Pharaoh who he was, and showed his power. And the Pharaoh, the little Pharaoh-god said no, and then yes, and then no again, until finally, finally, the plague to end all the plagues came upon the land and the people of Egypt.

We obeyed the command of the Lord: on the tenth of the month we took a beautiful year-old lamb, an animal without a single blemish. We kept it until the fourteenth of the month, when my brother, along with every other head of an Israelite household, slaughtered it at twilight, just as the lamps were being kindled in the houses. Each man took the blood from the slaughtered lamb and painted the doorposts and lintels with it, while the rich smell of the roasting meat began to curl throughout the settlement. And then, dressed as though we were ready for travel, we ate the lamb… we ate every bit of it that we could, we ate until we thought we could never bear to taste lamb again, and we ate it with delight and with dread, because we knew what was coming. Word had spread among our people, whispered with wide eyes from woman to woman, and from man to man, and from child to child: the angel of death was coming again, but this time, he was coming for first-born sons of the Egyptians.

The night was tense and silent after our sumptuous feast. We lay on our beds awake, watchful, wondering whether it would all prove to be a dream when we rose in the morning. Just after midnight, the commotion began. Shouting, and then screaming, and then moaning—a dreadful sound, so loud it hurt the ears, and so pain-wracked it pierced the heart. And we, safe in our blood-marked homes, we wept in silence. We wept for the beloved dead of our Egyptian neighbors; and we wept for our own beloved dead, the Hebrew sons of our ancestors, drowned so long ago. And we wept, too, with relief that our days as slaves had come to an end. We knew that this was our last night of slavery and our first morning of freedom.

And even though at last he let us go, the little god Pharaoh still couldn’t bring himself to accept defeat, not even at the hand of El Shaddai. And so he sent his armies in pursuit of us, and brought upon his head the deaths of still thousands more. But we… we were safe on another shore, with another land ahead of us, and God’s promises still in our hearts.

And now we have come to the celebration.  Listen! We have been dancing! You can hear the shouts of joy, the laughing, the tambourines shaking… you can hear the jubilant sounds of celebration: we are free! We are free! After four hundred years of slavery, we have been born into a new freedom, and a new world, and a new life!

And if you listen hard, you can hear the echoes of weeping. Our freedom came at a cost, and we will never forget that. And each year when we remember how our Mighty God, brought us out of Egypt, we will know that our joy is not as sweet as it would have been, in light of that terrible cost. But we know this too: our God promised life and freedom, and our God’s promises are sure. And no false god, no power-hungry leader willing to sacrifice his own people, can hope to match the majesty and real power of the one who is Lord, of day and of night, of heaven and earth, of life and of death. Thanks be to God! Amen.