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Sep 13, 2020

Gathering

Gathering

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: September 2020

Category: Community

Today is the day set aside for our ingathering, the beginning of the program year. It is when we gather to celebrate being together, honor what has happened in the past months, and take stock in how we’ve been led and protected in this life. In these times of loss and hardship, we take a moment to celebrate and break bread together (in whatever form we can be together), and give thanks for the presence of God in our midst.
Today's Scripture

Exodus 14:19-31

19The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

26Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.“ 27So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

30Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD. 

Today's Teaching

“Gathering”

Today was to be our “Ingathering,” when celebrate being together with a shared meal after worship.  To think we could take such a simple thing for granted.  Instead, here we are still stuck at home after all these months, now confined to the inside by the smoke.  What we would do to just be together, to sit across from each other without masks on, to break bread and just talk – How are the kids?  I can’t believe so and so is already in college!  How is your sister?  I know she had cancer.  I’ve been praying for her.

I don’t know if we’ve adequately named all we have lost in this time.  We’ve been so busy trying to get by, taking each new curve as it comes that it’s important simply to stop and take stock and what we’ve been through: the end of last school year spent at home; people sent home from work, some permanently; loss of life or health from COVID; the loss of others from other causes, but for whom we could not be present because of COVID; all the little social interactions—touching, hugging; children playing together; the far-reaching economic consequences and all the lives that suffer behind the numbers, all the organizations that cannot function; family vacations; life-events not celebrated – my parents 50th wedding anniversary is this November and it will come and go and we likely won’t.  We haven’t seen them in a year, but at least they have each other. Sherri’s mother has spent this pandemic alone like so many. 

Here we still are, or aren’t, and so I can’t tease Bruce Nelson as I wait to go through the line, or get stumped by one of Jeff Heely’s riddles or maxims, or be brought a smile by Sharon Terrill’s little dog Charlotte, who I always thought was such a visible representation of the Holy Spirit, winding her way between our feet and all around almost without notice, but always there.  And, we even lost Charlotte this year, which is a bit too painful of an image given what I just said and how life can feel a little Godless right now.

When the shelter in place began, many people kicked back and watched more Netflix, but pretty soon that got old and our screens were filled with more painful things:  racially-charged police violence, widespread demonstrations, a growing gap in people’s politics (as if that seemed possible), and all the while the COVID numbers just keep coming. They get better for a while and then we seem to give back any progress we’ve gained.  Marin remains in the purple zone for COVID, while the sky remains profoundly orange zone.  I don’t mean to bring you down.  I simply want to give voice to all of this for two reasons: first so you can acknowledge for yourself and for your community, just how much you’ve endured, to give yourself a little credit and forgiveness for the time or two you’ve lost it.  Any one of these challenges in normal times would have been enough to knock you down, and you’ve weathered them stacked one on top of the other.

The second reason is to make space for us to grieve a little.  We haven’t really done much collective mourning, and mourning an essential part of moving through painful times.  I have some candles here and I’d like to light them in honor of what we’re mourning. 

First, for those lost or affected by the coronavirus...

Second, for our failure to properly respond to this pandemic, for that is its own tragedy…

Third, the racial strife and inequality we still have in our society…

Fourth, for our broken relationship with the earth, and the ways she is crying out to us…

Fifth, for our inability to gather in all the ways we would like, including here at church…

I have a sixth candle I will light, but I want you to name the loss you are mourning.  You can name it in your heart or on your screen in comments’ sections, or wherever and with whomever you share your thoughts.  This is the candle for the unnamed casualty of this time.

Our reading today tells of the ancestors escaping a terrible reality.  God not only delivers them by parting the sea, but then collapses the walls of the water on the army of the oppressor.  I would settle for the deliverance right about now, and we could just call it even.  I don’t need revenge, just safety, which may have been what the story was after.  It just so happens that next week I will begin a sermon series on so-called troubling passages of the Bible I haven’t preached on here, but with this passage from the lectionary we might as well say that series begins now.  Did God really need to crush the Egyptian soldiers?  That’s a question more often asked by powerful people than those who are taken advantage by them, but point still taken.  For me nonviolence is a central part of the Christian faith.  Is this the “angry Old Testament God”?  Remember, that’s literally the oldest heresy in the book, so let’s not go there. 

I have a couple responses in addition to what I’ve just said about power.  First, let us not be stuck in our literal minds.  As Paul says, when I was a child…I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child” (1 Cor. 13:11).  We grow up in everything else; we need to do so in our faith and our reading of the sacred texts.  There’s no historical evidence the Exodus ever happened, and lest you think I’m disparaging our Jewish friends, I first learned that from the rabbis.  They know this story is about deeper truths.  It’s an archetypal story about oppression and liberation and what the liberated choose to do with the power and freedom they are given, particularly when they are in a position to be in power over others.  This story asks us to consider how we have been spared, and what we have done with both our freedoms and our power.

Second, it we are to move beyond literalism, we should ask what Egypt represents and what Israel represents in the story.  The word Egypt, as I have said here before, is “the narrow place.” Israel means struggle.  You may remember, is what Jacob’s name is change to after his divine night of wrestling, in which God says you shall be called Israel, “for you have striven with God with humans, and have prevailed” (Ge. 32:28).  Linguistically, it’s God who is the subject of the verb, so it is God who struggles or fights.  Some scholars connect the word to the verb meaning “fair” or “just,” so we have a God who fights for justice, who struggles for justice.[1] 

We then have a portrait of two peoples, two value systems, two ways of life.  One is the narrow way, literally “pressed in,” constraining justice for its enslaved people in this mythic story.[2]  While it may have had geographic roots, Egypt is a narrow place metaphorically, with no room given for its subjects, a narrow way of thinking that has to use power over others to control and exploit them, and a limited few entrusted with that power.  It confuses itself, its power, and its leaders with God.

The other is of a people who, with God’s help, pushes out on the walls that press in to facilitate liberation, freedom, expansiveness, and empowerment of those whose agency has been robbed of them.  They wrestle or struggle, or embrace a God who struggles for justice.  They are given a “land,” which is now less problematic once we free ourselves of the literalistic notion that the people of Israel actually invaded Canaan.  They are given the challenge and the requisite wisdom to build a society that protects and cares for its people, and acts justly with its neighbors.  That’s what the law is intended to do, not confine but protect the people, particularly the weak, which is why corruption is so corrosive to a society.

The portrait presents us with the questions of which kind people we want to be, what kind of society do we want to be, what kind of power to we want to exert, and how will we move through the world.  The story is a statement of conviction that God is on the side of those who have been pressed in, exploited and abused, coerced and robbed of freedom.  It’s also a reminder of who you are, who we are when we remember.  We are those who have felt confinement and been liberated and hopefully set on a path to practice our freedom responsibly.

Notice some time how many times the Scriptures, the Psalms for example, bring us back to the “memory” of the Exodus, the recollection of being set free from the narrow way in order to live into a reality of faith, justice, and wellbeing.  “Remember,” they say over and over again, just like Jesus said at the last, “Remember.”  We remember the suffering, how we were spared, and how we vow we will live differently in our freedom.

That brings us back to the mourning, naming what we have lost, because you don’t start the walk toward freedom until you know how you’ve been pressed in on.  You are likely to stay stuck if you believe everything is fine when it’s not.  So, we name our sadness of not being together today as our way of being together today, and as our way of moving forward together.  In doing so, we set ourselves on a path to our eventual freedom, where we walk together through the wilderness, where we build ways of being together that are good and just, and the fire that burns is not like the underbrush, but the burning bush and the tongues of flame at Pentecost--It does not consume.  It is the light of all life, and it is waiting to lead us if we would but recognize it.  Amen.

Quotes, Questions & Prompts for Reflection, Discussion, and Prayer

“We are still to be a neighbor to one another, and what better way to remember that than to gather over homemade pies for breakfast?” - Vermont Woman

1. Are there times you can point to and identify God’s leading for you or for a group/the world?
2. How do you recognize God’s leading? How do you distinguish it from other voices and motives?
3. What about periods of God’s seeming absence?
4. Why does practicing a faith in community matter?
5. Where do we see God’s leading right now? Where do we need it?

 


[1] https://www.haaretz.com/.premium-why-is-israel-called-israel-1.5353207

[2] https://www.ancient-hebrew.org/names/Egypt.htm