By Rev. Heather Blais View the worship and sermon here.
In Diana Butler Bass’ latest book, Grateful, she suggests that “Politics is about the way we structure life together.”*
Every year we are asked to vote for the candidates who we believe are prepared to carry out the public policy that will best serve our common life together. Yet in the lead up to election day, politics can feel more like a vicious battle, than a civic opportunity to elect candidates that embrace the guidelines we want to live by. Yet the scriptures have something to offer us about politics, particularly today’s lesson from Exodus.
Thousands of years ago, God navigated the Israelites out of bondage and into a transitory season in the wilderness that would last a very long time. God gave the Israelites the ten commandments, which are often interpreted as rules that must be followed at all costs.
Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, in his book Truth & Hope, challenges us to look at this event somewhat differently.**
It helps if we remember what life God had just liberated the Israelites from in Egypt. Brueggemann observes,
“Israel arrives at Sinai with the scars, scabs, and echoes of Egypt still in its body. The Israelites could still hear the primal command of Pharaoh to ‘make more bricks’, to give [their lives] over to the imperial enterprise of gratification and self sufficiency. And when the Israelites arrived at Sinai, the first thing they said to Moses was, ‘Whatever the commands of Sinai, we will obey them’. We will take them as alternative to Pharaoh’s brick quota.”**
The Israelites were weary and vulnerable, yet they also knew that our liberating God was offering them a new way of life.
If the ten commandments are truly guidelines for how we structure our common life together, both then and now, how might we interpret them? Here are a few thoughts, and I invite you to join me in wrestling with these ideas in your own time of reflection this week.
The first commandment is about putting God first.
The Israelites have just been liberated from a toxic relationship with a Pharaoh-God who kept them tirelessly working to ‘make more bricks’. This Pharaoh-God did not care about the quality of the Israelites' life, or even the greater good of the Egyptian community. Pharaoh-God cared about Pharaoh-God. Yet this liberating God, YHWH, cared about the people who mattered the least in Egyptian society. This God seemed to value the ones society shoved furthest to the margins and took the most advantage of. Which makes this a guideline not about God’s ego, but about worshiping the God who cared the most about all types of people--no matter their race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. This God was all-in with the Israelites, and God asked the Israelites to go all-in in return. The same is asked of us today.
The second commandment is about not worshiping other Gods. We tend to elevate ordinary people, or people with extraordinary egos, to God-like status. We also tend to turn our individual ambitions and desires into golden calves that we worship above all else. This was true for the Israelites, and it is true for us today. Whenever we long more for the latest iPhone or that our church has more virtual butts in the pews, we are distracting ourselves with gods of our own making, instead of the dream God has for our world.
The third commandment is about respecting God’s name.
Brueggemann suggests that this commandment is, “...not a prohibition against bad language. It is a warning that the name and presence of YHWH cannot be preempted to serve as a legitimating support for pet projects-not war, not stewardship, not church programs-because the Holy God stands apart from and over against our best enterprises.”**
In other words, it is not about stopping children from saying “Oh my God” but rather stopping ourselves from using God’s name to get what we want. God’s dream is God’s dream, not yours or mine. Our job is to set aside our own temptations to use God’s name towards our own ends.
The fourth commandment is about keeping a day to rest and pray.
This particular guideline was in such stark contrast from Pharaoh's endless command to ‘make more bricks’. YHWH asked the Israelites to intentionally carve out time to rest, pray, and be. Brueggemann suggests that it, “...is a curb on defining life in terms of productivity...The public act of Sabbath is a declaration to our children that the rat race of getting ahead is not the story of our life. [We] must regularly and visibly disengage from the brick quota of the consumer economy to give evidence that life consists in being and not in getting or having or eating.”**
We are incredibly resistant to keeping sabbath. We so fear what thoughts and feelings might be revealed if we slow down to pray, rest, and be that we stay endlessly busy, consuming as much time and resources as possible to get us closer to the American dream--both for ourselves and our churches--, while at the same time furthering us from God’s dream.
What might happen in our own individual or communal lives if we actually all practiced sabbath?
What healing would we experience?
Who might we be able to forgive?
What peace and calm might we know when we lay in bed at night?
This guideline might be the most terrifying, and it is the one that might actually do the most to save us.
The next six commandments are all about how we engage in relationships as a community:
Listen to your parents
Do not hurt anyone
Couples are to love each other
Do not take anything without asking
Tell the truth
Be thankful for what you have
For the Israelites, their season in the wilderness was the first time in generations that they have been allowed the time and space to cultivate healthy relationships within marriages, parents and children, neighbors, and the wider community. Up until their liberation, their entire life was spent on Pharaoh-God’s command to ‘make more bricks’. Now, they would need to learn what it means to be in a relationship, to live together in community, through all the joys and the challenges. We know firsthand, this can be difficult and painful. And more importantly, it can be humbling, beautiful, and powerful. The Israelites had just been liberated from a punitive culture that saw the worst in each of them, and now God was inviting them to see the best in one another, while also giving them guidelines on how to set up appropriate boundaries with one another.
So what if the ten commandments were guidelines to inform our public policy?
How might it change our perspective?
Particularly when we consider the life the Israelites knew under Pharaoh, and the new way of being God was inviting them into?
Which of these guidelines makes us the most uncomfortable?
What might it look like for us to wrestle with that discomfort? Amen.
*Butler Bass, Diana, Grateful: The Subversive Practice of Giving Thanks, p.161, Harper One, 2018.
**Brueggemann, Walter, Truth & Hope: Essays for a Perilous Age, p.79, Westminster John Knox Press, 2020.
By Rev. Heather Blais (View the sermon and worship here).
In today’s lesson from Exodus, we witness a frustrated, weary, and hungry congregation. They also seem a tad forgetful. Even though God:
….spared them from the plagues;
….guaranteed their freedom from Egypt;
… parted the Red Sea for their safe journey into the wilderness;
… and provided water to quench three days of thirst;
… the congregation was longing for the old, familiar guarantees of bondage.
Their forgetfulness and complaint is an uncomfortable reminder of just how much we dislike change and transition.
Yet God understands our forgetful nature, and she hears our cries. God responds to the Israelites by providing them with quail and manna. Manna in Hebrew literally means, “What is it?” We are told it is a fine, flaky substance; like frost on the ground. When the congregation sees the manna, they ask Moses, “What is it?” Moses tells them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” For the next forty years, this miraculous substance nourished the hungry congregation.
Within the rabbinic tradition of midrash, it is suggested that the manna could literally taste like whatever someone expected it to taste like. For those who felt distrustful of the new substance, concerned it might taste like eating snails or frog legs...well, they got to taste snails or frog legs. For those who grew sick of the same meal day after day, like a child who is forced to eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch their entire childhood, well, it would taste like the food they were sick of eating. For those who looked at the manna as delicious, and imagined a perfectly ripe tomato, or freshly grown zucchini, or a piece of warm bread...well, they would taste the delicious food they imagined possible.The manna anticipated the perception of each individual. Was the manna poison or punishment, or was it a reflection of God’s grace and abundance?
This story is all about our struggle with perception. Will we view our own time in the wilderness as something to survive and endure? Or can we trust that even in the harshest moments of the wilderness, we will be able to find the good? If we expect the worst, we will surely find it. If we look for the good, we will surely find it.
The same may be said about our perception of the climate crisis. The earth is literally on fire, and we have to decide how we will perceive that news and how our perception will influence our actions.
This week alone, we have been reminded of…The wildfires burning along the west coast, even as the haze from the smoke can be seen on the east coast. Our southern shores prepared to be inundated by yet another hurricane. Global warming shattered part of the ice shelf in Greenland. Meanwhile, those of us in North America and Europe keep up our mantra to consume, consume, consume, and send our plastic waste to the global south where the poorest of the poor can try and sort through to see what few bits might be recyclable, as the rest waits 1,000 years to decompose. And this is a soft news week…
We can hear this news and complain to God,
“What can I possibly do about it?”
It was so much easier before we knew the earth was on fire…Before our faith, science, and climate activists asked us to take responsibility for our actions and embrace our calling as custodians of creation. We can perceive the climate crisis as something that is impossible to fix. We can be overwhelmed into doing nothing. Or we can try to perceive these headlines as an invitation into a journey of change, where we reflect on our behaviors and actions, find ways to shift practices in our own lives, and advocate for policy changes.
We are blessed to live in the Pioneer Valley, where affordable, local, healthy food surrounds us and is available to us year round. We are blessed to have programs that allow those on fixed incomes to more affordably access Community Supported Agriculture or shop at the Farmer’s Market. We have a community farm AND a community garden. We have several stores following cooperative business models, and we have a Compost Cooperative empowering those who were once in jail to find new and meaningful work. There are over 10,000 different ways we could easily shift our practices that would play a small role in helping to address the climate crisis. Pick the practices which make sense to you and your context. And if you are unsure where to begin, talk to a member of our Green Team.
One way that our actions can have a more profound impact, is if we take a bit of our energy and devote it to address public policy changes--whether that be for the climate crisis, racial reconciliation and healing, advocating for those with inadequate food, housing, health insurance and so on. It can sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
The easiest thing I have ever done to effect policy change was to get involved with the Episcopal Public Policy Network. This organization is a “...grassroots network of Episcopalians across the country dedicated to carrying out the Baptismal Covenant call to "strive for justice and peace" through the active ministry of public policy advocacy.” Every three years representatives from across the Episcopal Church gather at our General Convention and make decisions around how our branch of the Jesus Movement will engage in worship, social justice, evangelism, and much more. This is the place where our theology becomes more expansive, and where we dig into the social justice work needed to transform our world from the nightmare it is to so many, into the dream God created it to be. This is where our elected delegates adopt resolutions, such as 2018-A020 where the Episcopal Church voted to divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in clean energy and to do the work of advocating for these kinds of policy changes. Whenever Congress has a law that might relate to this particular resolution, all subscribers of Episcopal Public Policy Network receive an ‘action alert’ email where we can fill our name and email and they will send a communication to our elected officials on our behalf. I cannot change public policy on my own, but as the Church we have a collective voice in influencing public policy together.
The second easiest way I have ever affected policy change was by voting in every single election--no matter how little or small. We just have to show up. And this year, if that doesn’t feel safe, call your Town Clerk and request an absentee ballot be mailed to you. The people we elect to our local select-boards and city councils, let alone Massachusetts representatives or national leaders, make decisions about every aspect of our lives. These are the leaders making decisions that will affect the future of this fragile earth, our island home.
This creation season, I want to invite each of us to examine our perceptions around the climate crisis and our role in implementing change. God has provided us with the manna to engage in this work. How will we perceive the manna that we’ve been given? Amen.
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.
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