Monday, September 19, 2005

crossing over (exodus 14)

A mother takes her son to the beach, for the first time. It is so vast, the ocean is, as far as the eye can see. The son takes it all in---“what is going through that young mind?” They walk in the sand, taking a step at a time---the young boy just learning to walk. They move closer to water’s edge, and then closer, and then closer. The expression on the boy’s face changes, from awe and amazement to apprehension and fear. They walk, a little more slowly now. The mother looks into the face of her young son. “Step in, put your feet in!”, she says. He resists. The sand, under his feet, feels just fine. Step in”, she says. Step in the water!”

Israel has left Egypt, they are being led by Moses, guided by the signs, cloud and fire, and they are being pursued by Pharoah’s army. They were in “great fear” (verse 10). They’ve reached the water’s edge. Something is about to happen. It is a scary time. They are on the way to freedom, Pharoah had let them go, the plagues had been too much, but then Pharoah changes his mind, his heart is hardened, and his armies were in pursuit of God’s people.

All of this is not lost on the children of Israel. They look back and see the danger. They fear for their life. They complain. Did you bring us out here in the wilderness to die?”, they ask their leader. Didn’t we tell you this would happen. Why could you not just have left well enough alone!”

Have you ever taken a risk, followed an idea that seemed great at the time, and it turns out badly, and you look back and think, you know, it really was okay, I had it good, why did I mess it up? Moses reassures them, like a parent: Do not be afraid, stand firm, and you will see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish today”(verse 13).

And so it was decision time for Israel: Trust or run. Choose the predictability of slavery, or the risk of freedom.

Well, they’ve followed Moses this far, and they can’t go back. And so they choose the risk of freedom. Maybe we know what that is like. And yet, once we have committed ourselves, we do wonder: did I make the right decision? There is a grace note here. God gives them a sign, cloud and fire, and they are separated from their enemies, just in the moment. An angel keeps watch over them (verse 19). They are moving away from Pharoah, and toward….the waters. They take one step at a time.

The mother holds the hand and says, to her little boy: step in…I am here with you”. And of course, the Israelites remembered those words, given by God to Moses, at the beginning of this adventure: I will be with you. One of the most beautiful pieces of prophecy comes in the Book of Isaiah. They could have been written for Moses, or for Israel, or for the people who survived Katrina, or for you and me:

Do not fear; for I have redeemed you
I have called you by name, you are mine
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you
And through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you (43. 1-2)

Sometimes we need to hear those words, don’t we? And sometimes we need to say them to someone else: You are not alone. I will be with you.

They have come to the waters. Moses stretches out his hand. And the wind, the breath, the spirit of the Lord divides the waters and they become dry land. There is an old Rabbinical take on the story which goes like this: Moses tried to part the waters, and the waters refused. The sea said to Moses, “you mean I’m supposed to divide in two just because you want me to? I am more important than you are. After all, I was created on the third day of creation, and you didn’t come along until the sixth”. So then Moses complains to God about the sea’s refusal. Then God places his hand on Moses hand and the waters parted.

Now the people have a decision. Do they go back? Do they stay where they are? Do they move forward? Do they choose the old life or the new life?

There is, in this passage of scripture, a word for all of us. Some of us may be at a time in our lives when we are at the point of decision. Do I take this risk? Do I make this move? Do I trust this person? Do I give my life to God? Do I step into the waters?

It is a time that can include some measure of fear and complaining. What if I make a mistake? What if others abandon me? What if I am betrayed? What if this religion thing is just an illusion? What if I drown in the waters?

The risk and the fear are real. And yet we are never going to make it to the promised land without confronting risk and fear.

I will let you in on a little preacher secret, if you promise not to tell anyone, okay? Putting together a sermon takes some time, to read the scripture, to let it sink in, to figure out how it might relate to those of us sitting here, centuries later, to be faithful to what it really means and yet also aware that it must become a living word in the present.

There are some weeks when other agendas come up, when the time set aside to work on sermons flows toward other things, and when that happens at first I am resentful or a little anxious---“I’ve got to complete this task”, but then I realize, if I listen and watch and am open to the Spirit, that those agendas might very well need to be the sermon.

This has been one of those weeks. And so I have wondered: what does this passage mean for a people who have lived through the hurricane, and for a church that is seeking to be faithful to those most affected, and to a country, that was described, by one noted historian in the past, as a “nation with the soul of a church”.

What does this mean for the people who survived: I decided to go over one afternoon to the coliseum. In most of our waking moments our eyeballs have been glued to the television screen as we have seen these individuals pulled into helicopters, listened to politicians posturing in ways that I don't need to elaborate on, watched ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Our church has adopted three families this weekend. Through your dedication, that vision of hospitality is coming together, and you have responded. You always do. Thank you! The fire of Providence has already been ignited, this weekend.

There were approximately 300 or so residents from New Orleans living in the Charlotte Coliseum on Thursday. The Charlotte Hornets, an NBA team, once played there. Then the owner moved them to New Orleans. It is a bizarre world.

A new arena is being built, uptown, for the Bobcats. You know about that too, if you have lived here for awhile. And so the coliseum is somewhat vacant, and serves now this purpose, to provide shelter and safety for evacuees. I felt led to drive over there. When I say I felt led, there was a sense that I should do this, and the sense did not go away. I arrived at the coliseum and was met in the parking lot by a gatekeeper. I told him I was a clergy, and pointed to my hospital badge, which of course had nothing to do with the coliseum or their work, but it all seemed official, and the guy seemed satisfied and waved me through.

My thoughts as I parked were simple ones: "first do not harm". These people have been through so much. I had heard that pastors were needed there, but wasn't sure where I had heard this. In a normal week I would have stayed at the office. I was so far behind on this week's sermon that it was no longer funny. But then it is not a normal week.

I walked into the entrance, they scanned me, and again waved me through. Once inside, there were simply masses of people. Some were waiting in an intake area. Others were meeting with medical folks in public health. I walked farther in. There was a section for cots. I walked farther: there was a children's play area, with a couple of clowns performing, one of them in the spanish language. There was food all around, a clothing center, school representatives. At times it was difficult to distinguish those helping from those being helped. It was, on the surface, one community brought together by a tragic set of circumstances.

I walked a little farther in and saw a sign for a chapel. I followed it. I entered, and there was a woman and two men. They were african-american ministers, and they were very friendly. I introduced myself. "You can join us", they said. And so I did. A stream of folks came in, to pray. Individuals, couples, a woman with a young child, some very devout, others bewildered, some in tears. We would form a circle, each time, and one of us we pray. Then we would hug them, if they wished (most wanted this). Some would reflect on where they had been, on what the future might be, on what God was saying to them through all of this.

These are God’s children, all of them. They are in the same life’s journey that you and I have undertaken. They would love to reach the promised land, and somehow they have passed through the waters, but they don’t know what is ahead. And yet I had the sense that God was with them, just as he promised, and that he had not led them this far to turn away from them. They had survived the storm. Why?”, one young man asked me.

I am grateful that somehow, for some reason, God led me to that chapel. There I saw the human face of Katrina, and touched the hands of those that are being lifted up to God for hope and out to us for help.

What does all of this mean for the church of Jesus Christ? That is easier to understand, because the Bible leaves no room for mystery here: There are over 2000 verses in the book that deal with poverty. Jesus speaks with a clear voice:

give a cup of cold water, in my name.
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.
Love your neighbor as yourself,

he taught us.

Who is my neighbor? Well then he told a parable, the Good Samaritan, in Luke 10. This weekend, you have been the church of the Good Samaritan.

What does all of this mean for a nation with the soul of a church? I am more troubled about our nation than I have ever been. I have no special revelation about partisan politics, and no desire to persuade you in any political direction, but I know enough about the Bible to know that we will be judged on how we have reached out to the poor. The poverty level in our nation is rising, like a flood. Many came to America thinking it was the promised land, but for many it is Egypt, and our nation is Pharoah.

That afternoon another man looked me in the eye and said, “God is giving us a wake up call. It’s not just about buying stuff, and busting other people and getting what you want”. If it is a wake up call, it is an echo, of a people, our ancestors, centuries ago, who cried out in bondage, and in his mercy God said

“I have heard the cries of my people,
and I have come down to deliver them”.

What is ahead of us? For some of those folks at the coliseum, it is a place to live, maybe in Charlotte, or with family somewhere, and then who knows. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. They have lived this scripture.

For the church, it is a wonderful time to be the body of Christ in the world, to answer the question “who is my neighbor” by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

For our nation, it is a time to repent, and to recognize that if this is not the promised land for all of us, it will not be the promised land for any of us.

Someone is holding our hand, saying “step into the waters”, the waters of a great flood, the waters of suffering, the waters of baptism. We can’t go back. We can’t stay where we are. We have to move forward, and take it a step at a time, a day at a time. Next Sunday we will talk about what it means to live one day at a time. Today on 9/11/05, the good news is that God is with us. As someone has written:

“When we walk to the edge of all the light we have known
and we take a step into the darkness of the unknown
we must believe that one of two things will happen:
there will be something solid to stand on, or we will be taught to fly”.

[S. Martin Edges]

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