By Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm. (View the sermon and worship here).
As we continue our journeys through the narratives of scripture, this week our readings present us with a fascinating pair of “call stories” – incidents in which God’s children are suffering and in need, and God summons leaders to assist with the work of deliverance.
Moses and Peter are, of course, at-least-eventually heroic leaders who play critical roles in the stories of the faith community: their experiences can perhaps speak to us who are called to be leaders in responding to the suffering of God’s children and God’s world today.
Moses’ story is more obviously one of call to leadership. The children of Israel are suffering oppression under the rule of a king who sees them as a threat. Conscripted into forced labor, their conditions are more and more harsh, as we heard in last week’s passage from Exodus.
Moses is hardly a likely candidate for leadership in Israel’s deliverance. Raised apart from his own people and forced into exile after committing a criminal act, in today’s passage we find him occupied with tending his father-in-law’s flocks as he stumbles into an encounter with the voice of the God of his ancestors, that voice summoning him to return to Egypt to confront Pharaoh with demand for the release of the children of Israel.
Many generations later, in the larger context of today’s gospel reading, Israel is still suffering hardship, now under the rule of Rome. Beset by oppressive social and economic conditions, the community again longs for deliverance.
Peter’s very uncomfortable exchange with Jesus in today’s gospel isn’t so obviously a call story. It is, though, as the continuation of the conversation begun in last week’s reading, in which Peter recognizes Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”, and Jesus names Peter as “the rock” on which “I will build my church.”
So here is what Moses and Peter have in common: they are both hearing something that they don’t want to hear, and they both respond with denial.
Moses doesn’t care for the summons to leadership at all, and who can blame him, with an assignment like the one he’s given?
Rather than objecting outright, Moses responds to the voice from the burning bush with a series of objections, questions, and obstacles. We hear the first two in this passage, and the others follow:
I can identify with Moses’ feelings of inadequacy: I’m sure we all feel them sometimes. I’ll never forget the terror with which I faced – but also avoided whenever I could – my first “field education” placement in seminary, in the chaplaincy at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge. I was 23 years old and didn’t have a single clue what to say to people who were sick, or to their worried families. I simply didn’t see myself as having anything to offer.
For Moses, and for many of us facing calls to leadership, the task just feels too hard. Realistic about the difficulties that would be entailed, the opposition and the suffering, Moses didn’t, and we don’t, feel up to the job. How much easier to stick to his ordered (if uninspiring) life as a keeper of sheep, rather than sticking his neck out in what was sure to be a no-win situation.
Peter’s difficulty with the call to leadership is basically the opposite – he apparently doesn’t object to taking the assignment, but he doesn’t like the job description. Peter is not interested in hearing that the one he recognizes as the Messiah, the one whose followers Peter has been called to lead, is prepared to undergo suffering at the hands of his detractors and be killed, before being raised. Peter, apparently, has a different script in mind.
If Moses’ weakness as a leader is his lack of faith in himself, Peter’s is his excessive confidence in his own vision: he has assumptions about how the long-awaited Messiah will redeem the community, and he is not open to having those assumptions challenged, even by the one he claims as Messiah. This is such an easy hole to fall into when we assume the responsibilities of leadership - losing sight of the bigger picture and rigidifying our own position, rather than valuing ideas that challenge us.
I can identify with Peter as I did with Moses. In the middle 1990s I was appointed to a leadership team of “School Deans” responsible for redesigning curriculum of the boarding school where I served. We developed what I still think was a wonderful, visionary, outcome-driven curriculum model, but the process was not inclusive of other faculty voices, and it wasn’t transparent enough. When we finally rolled out our new curriculum model, with great pride, it was met with intense resistance, and almost failed.
I don’t need to remind you of the ways in which God’s children are suffering today, and in need of leadership. Beyond the horrifyingly evident frequency of abusive relationships between law enforcement and black communities in the US, so many of us have had our eyes, our ears and hearts opened to the ways in which our siblings of color continue to suffer the impact discriminatory systems from which those of us who are white benefit.
We are watching what appears to be the accelerating pace of climate change and environmental destruction, as competition for economic gain and decision-making that serves short-sighted goals of human convenience exploit, poison and squander the riches of the planet on which we live.
And lest we miss it, let’s also note the pattern in which both persons and nature have been viewed as expendable, available to be used for the benefit of those who hold power.
In the Moses and Peter call stories, both are thinking and reacting based on experiences of the past – knowing the way things have always worked, fearful of failure, rejection, and death, both are frightened of risk.
For them, and certainly for us, God is pointing toward a new future that is different from anything they can imagine, and that is scarey.
The lessons in these and other “call stories” in biblical tradition offer us the same truths:
Moses and Peter both accomplished more than they could have dreamed in the initial moments we see in today’s texts. They both experienced loss, heartache, conflict along the way, but with God’s help, both served in God’s work of healing the world.
May we meet our own challenges with faith. May we be willing to step forward, to conquer our fears and open our vision. May we remember that we are never alone.
By Heather Blais (View the sermon and worship here).
In Exodus, we witness how a shifting political landscape leads to the oppression of the Israelites. As we listen to the story:
Yet I can’t help but wonder whether we are wrong to self-identify with the Israelites. What if our forebears have mistakenly woven this biblical narrative into our own American history? You know the stories as well as I do. Many of the settlers that first reached these shores did so as they fled religious or ethnic persecution. Things began to go awry when white settlers started to harvest the bounty of this land solely for themselves, and brutally oppressed the Indigenous people who were here before us. We then furthered our ambitions by supporting the kidnaping, abuse, rape, and enslavement of black and brown bodies on the shores of another continent so we might further our own economic advancements. This land, made for you and me, was built on the backs of black and brown bodies which many of our forebears oppressed, enslaved, and killed.
This is why I can’t help but wonder if maybe, white America, has much more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites. Sure, we’re not the king, implementing cruel and unjust public policies. We’re more like middle management. We may not be out there advocating for the creation and implementation of these policies; we may even recognize the pure insanity of them. Yet we mostly just tolerate the status quo, continuing to benefit from our position, and assume leadership must have their reasons for implementing such a policy. Or maybe we’re too afraid of the cost if we speak up. Or, as is often the case when one group of people oppresses another, we buy into the fearful propaganda that leadership sells us.
I get this is not a joyful interpretation of the Exodus narrative. You probably don’t want to hear it, because who wants to reconcile with the idea that we’ve been fed distorted versions of the truth and helped prop up a system of injustice for generations. I get it, and yet the power of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God demands that we hear this text differently this time around. In fact, this particular interpretation is not even new. It’s pretty old, just not widely proclaimed. In the fight to abolish slavery, and then later to end Jim Crow laws, social justice advocates from Harriett Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. have compared the black experience in America to that of the Israelites’ in Egypt. At this moment in history it is the Black Lives Matter movement crying out against white supremacy and oppression, like the Israelites before them, “Let my people go”.
We can play it safe, like generations of people who have gone before us, or we can follow the example of the midwives in the Exodus narrative. These women were stuck in an impossible situation. The midwives' calling in life and their financial livelihood was all based on delivering babies. It is privileged and messy work. More importantly, it is sacred. The spirit of God can be felt hovering in the room as an infant leaves the safety of their mother’s womb and meets the harsh new surroundings of the outside world.These women were asked to do the unspeakable by the new king of Egypt.
Pharaoh felt as though the Israelites, these foreigners, were ever increasing in number and posed a threat to Egyptian rule and power. As a result, he changed public policy, creating new rules which brutalized and enslaved the Israelites. When these new policies did not adequately subdue the foreigners, the king instructed the midwives to kill every male Israelite infant. And yet, these women were wise enough to know there was still one more powerful than even this new king.
The Exodus text tells us: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” These brilliant and marvelous women feared God. These midwives could not in good conscience do what was asked of them. Nevertheless, she persisted.
These women have been modeling and inspiring resistance for thousands of years. They knew deep in their bones that our God is a God of liberation. The question these midwives offer us is how will we rise up to be the midwives of our time? Resistance will look different for each of us. Though, like the midwives, it will always need to begin with a self-examination that we continue to revisit.
Maybe you are re-learning American history through the eyes of the oppressed.
Maybe you are watching webinars on how to be anti-racist.
Maybe you go to demonstrations and walks.
Maybe you have a BLM sign on your lawn.
Maybe you are intentional about shopping at black owned businesses.
Maybe you call your political representatives so often you have them on speed dial.
Maybe you are praying, every day, for racial reconciliation and healing.
There is no one way to resist. The midwives did what they could to stand up for those shoved to the margins, just as our loving, liberating, and life giving God asks of us.
What I am suggesting may be uncomfortable for some. Yet there is no pearl without the grit rubbing at our rough edges. I invite each of us to sit in a holy discomfort and wrestle with how we will be the midwives of our time. Amen.
By David Sund
View the worship and sermon here.
As I was reading the tenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the little congregation in Rome, I was particularly struck by verses six and following. Listen to the New English Version of verses 6 and 7 “’Who can go up to heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down), or ‘Who can go down to the abyss?’ (to bring Christ up from the dead).
Most commentators will tell us that Paul is borrowing language from Deuteronomy 30. He is referencing Moses’ farewell sermon to make a point about Who initiates and maintains any relationship between God and humans. The apostle hints that any misunderstanding about this leads to absurdity and needless exhaustion.
With that point in mind, I have a few questions for you. Who does what in your household? Is there a division of labor? Or does someone have to do it all? If the latter is true, and that someone is YOU, my condolences! Even in a household of one, there is no way for an individual to cover all the bases. What if the circuit breakers keep blowing, or the basement is full of sewage…it’s time to call for outside help! Or to maintain relationships and get all the chores done, what happens if you have to go way beyond your four walls or property lines? Are we willing to scale strange, dizzying heights or explore subterranean caverns? Going to extremes to resolve a relationship or accomplish an overwhelming task…now that brings to my mind the idea of a Quest.
How do you feel about quests and adventures? Would you have been first in line to sign up for the space program, as an astronaut? Or would you have volunteered to join Jacque Cousteau in his yellow submarine? Maybe you’re like Bilbo Baggins and your quest begins with a bit of manipulation on someone else’s part, and comes with regrets over forgotten snacks and handkerchiefs. Or possibly (like me) you get more than enough adventure just by reading the Lord of the Rings, or Don Quixote, or National Geographic.
Speaking of literature, when I think of reaching for the stars or plumbing the depths, I remember my boyhood fascination with Greek mythology.
In Greek mythology, this…super dude, Prometheus goes to great heights, defies the Greek gods by stealing their fire and gives it to humanity. For Prometheus’ theft, Zeus, king of the gods, sentenced him to eternal torment. I won’t go into the gory details. But eventually the hero needs a hero and Hercules comes to his rescue. In western culture, Prometheus has become a symbol of human striving for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching and the danger of unintended consequences. He symbolizes the lone genius whose efforts to improve human existence can easily result in tragedy.
Another Greek myth, related to exploring the deepest depths, tells the story of Hecate, a goddess who witnesses the abduction of Persephone, and torch in hand helps Persephone’s Mom attempt to rescue her gal-pal from the underworld (with only partial success).
What is there about humans and our fascination with quests and adventures? And how does that influence our understanding of our relationship with God? One devotional writer put it this way: “If only God would allow us to scale the heights or plumb the depths, to do some great thing, to make some vast sacrifice, we should be satisfied…and his help… would not be resented. But it is intolerable to our proud hearts to be told that our own efforts are useless.”
Vaughn Roberts, the rector of St. Ebbes, in Oxford, England, likes to use this phrase “Grace is received, not achieved.” “Grace is received, not achieved.” Preaching on Romans 10, he tells a parable of a great art competition, in which all the artists have worked so hard. Only to have the prize awarded to some random spectator who just walked in off the street to see the exhibit. Roberts’ point being that in the first century, folks who took religion so seriously and worked so very hard to follow all of the commandments resented Paul for saying that any bloke could come in off the street and be a beneficiary of Grace! No jumping through hoops, no gene testing to prove pedigree, no resumes or diplomas were needed to ‘win the prize!’ Achievement based religion usually has two results…despair over the impossible, Herculean task; or pride over one’s presumed accomplishments.
Now this truth SHOULD be delightful! I should breathe a sigh of joyful relief to forget about charting family trees, inventing applause meters or collecting ethnic or ethical badges for my ‘spirituality sash.’ BUT: there is a part of me that is like those kindergartners I used to teach, who, every so often would reject all offers of help, stomp a foot or two and insist “I can DO it MYSELF.” The thing is, if current events teach us anything, it’s that I can’t ‘do it myself!’ I can’t cure a pandemic, put Beirut back together again, fix systemic injustices or undo natural disasters. Trying to create and implement my own plan to fix ‘life the universe and everything,’ on my own and by myself is absurd and would be exhausting. And maybe I’m impugning God’s character in the process. With my theologies and behaviors am I casting God in the light of the Greek deities who were capricious, self-absorbed, unwilling to bless, miserly with gifts, and who required a fair amount of groveling prior to any unreliable intervention? In my religious activity am I saying that I need to blast off with the intent to drag Christ off his throne, or re-engineer the Channel tunnel to exhume Christ’s body, and resuscitate the corpse before he’ll be bothered to involve himself in my concerns and passions or (more accurately) invite me into his?
When I try to do God’s job (because I don’t trust Him to do it), no wonder I feel spent, frustrated and resentful! Instead, this chapter of Romans reminds me of who has done what. It reminds me of the passionate interest of God; the accessibility of truth; the beauty of a trusting dependence; the breadth of divine inclusion; the universality of bottomless blessing.
Now, just because we aren’t expected to do or be what only God can do or be, DOESN’T mean we aren’t expected to do or be anything at all. If God is present, accessible, relatable and involved, then a relationship with Him can only flourish if we respond in kind. Today’s text ends with words of commissioning. In a broken, flawed world, we are to be savory, luminous, compassionate, inclusive, expressive followers of Jesus. That pandemic? That explosion? Those systemic injustices? Those natural disasters? They are real, and need real attention and action. But I can never be seduced into thinking that my attention and action will make me more worthy in God’s eyes. And I can’t invent or affect change all by myself. But WE can pray persistently. WE can listen attentively. WE can speak boldly. WE can partner in costly intervention. And so, by living Spirit empowered lives, may we become welcome messengers conveying beautiful news. AMEN.
By Sheila Heffernon & Bill Hattendorf
We were inspired last week by Kathryn Aubry-McAvoy’s reflection. Through the historic words of Julian of Norwich, she reminded us that “All will be well.” We found solace in her words, which in turn, gave us some hope. It seems fitting to follow her reflection with one about just that, Hope.
In an opinion piece in the New York Times this week, Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof titled his essay, “We Interrupt this Gloom to offer . . . (wait for it). . Hope. The subtitle is “Yes, America is suffering needlessly. That may save us.” His opening paragraph is: “Just one in six Americans in a poll last month was “proud” of the state of the country, and about two out of three were actually “fearful” about it. So let me introduce a new thought: “hope.” Yes, our nation is a mess, but overlapping catastrophes have also created conditions that may finally let us extricate ourselves from the mire. The grim awareness of national failures — on the coronavirus, racism, health care and jobs — may be a necessary prelude to fixing our country.”
We are in a critical time in our country, a time that none of us has ever experienced. The collision of COVID19, the worst economic downturn of any of our lifetimes, the disastrous climate change, and the majority of Americans favoring social justice and racial equality, according to recent polls, have created a critical vortex. It seems that most of the country would like to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom and is ready to work together to begin the difficult climb out. Anger and the desire for change is fueling the collaborative work of many to build some bridges and ladders, in order to climb out of the eye of the hurricane to fix our country.
All will be well, as Julian espoused during the Medieval period. It won’t just happen, though, no matter how hard we pray, unless we hang on to our hope and find the inspiration to do the work. Earlier this week Molly shared with us that tomorrow, in the Episcopal Church, is the Feast day of some very important lesser Saints (imagine that as a title!). They are Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Amelia Bloomer and Eizabeth Cady Stanton. It seems fitting to reach back in time to hear their voices. They remind us that these changes have been desired for hundreds of years.
Amelia Bloomer was a women’s rights and Temperance Advocate, and was the first woman to own and operate a newspaper for women called “The Lily.” Even though she did not create the pantaloons known as bloomers, she was a strong advocate for women to be able to wear them, so they were named after her.
Amelia wrote, “It will not do to say that it is out of a woman’s sphere to assist in making laws, for if that were so, then it should be also out of her sphere to submit to them.” She also wrote, “When you find a burden in belief or apparel, cast it off.” Isabella Baumfree was born into slavery, but she escaped with her infant daughter in 1826.
In 1828 she went to court to recover her son; she became the first black woman to win a case like this against a white man. In 1843 she was convinced that God had called her to go to the country to testify that “hope was in her,” and she renamed herself Sojourner Truth. She was a powerful voice for abolition and women’s rights.
She once said “Let others say what they will of the efficacy of prayer, I believe in it, and I shall pray. Thank God! Yes, I shall always pray.”
Regarding hope, Sojourner said, “We have all been thrown down so that nobody thought we’d ever get up again; but we have been long enough trodden now; we will come up again.
And now I am here.”
Elizabeth Cady Stanton was a suffragist, social activist and an abolitionist. She wrote “The Declaration of Sentiments,” which was presented at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, the first women’s rights convention. Her document and the convention itself helped launch the Women’s Rights and Women’s Suffrage movements in the US.
She said, “We hold these truths: that all men and women are created equal.” About political equality she wrote, “To throw obstacles in the way of a complete education is like putting out the eyes; to deny the rights of property is like cutting off the hands. To refuse political equality is to rob the ostracized of all self respect, of credit in the marketplace, of recompense in the world of work, of a voice in choosing those who make and administer the law, a choice in the jury before whom they are tried, and in the judge who decides their punishment.”
Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then rescued about 70 enslaved people through
the Underground Railroad, went on to serve in the Union Army and became an avid worker
for women’s suffrage. She said, “Don’t ever stop. Keep going. If you want a taste of freedom,
keep going. I had reasoned this out in my mind; there was one of two things I had a right to,
liberty or death; if I could not have one, I could have the other; for no man should take me
Harriet Tubman also said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember,
you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars and to
change the world.”
Harriet reminds us that we are all able to change the world. History has taught us that approaching change with hope will lead us to a stronger and more unified place. Noel Paul Stookey reminded us, in his song, “Our Lives are Connected,” that the past is the present through which the future looks. This is the moment that history will look back on and either praise our ability to formulate the change needed to create a just and equitable future for all humans, or judge us harshly for once again, failing at the task.
How will we define ourselves in this moment? What will we do? Can we live in the hope that Marian Wright Edelman feels? As the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, she has been battling for a more just society for six decades. She recently said, “I’m very optimistic. I think we have a chance of getting something done.”
Can we find hope in the words of John Lewis, a giant in the Civil Rights movement, who worked for equity until his death on Friday? He said: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”
Yes, All will be well, but only if we make it so, through our prayers and our work to a better future, sustaining our perseverance by hope. Amen.
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