Exodus 3:1-15; 7-15
We’re in the second week of our eight week series the treasure of the core stories of our faith—looking at “the primal narrative, that most simple, elemental, and nonnegotiable story line that lies at the heart of biblical faith…. It is an affirmation in story form that asserts, ‘This is the most important story we know, and we have come to believe it is decisively about us’” (Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001] 23).
Last week, we talked about the consistency of the calling of God—the persistence of divine initiative in the desire to ultimately convey God’s blessing to all families. We mentioned that an emphasis on someone responding to God’s calling (like the response of Abram and Sarai) might in fact obscure the priority of God’s ever-calling.
Today, in the second of our core stories: God heard the cries of God’s children, we read. And God hears the cries of God’s children, we believe.
We may know a little more about such cries in the aftermath of earthquake and hurricane—even peripherally experiencing what others experience so much more devastatingly. I’ve spoken with a number of you about what it was like to, for the first time, feel the ground shift beneath our feet—to have what we presumed to be solid foundation rock and roll. What would it have been like if that had just been the beginning of a much greater shifting? Many of you suffered without electricity for days after Irene and sustained rain and wind damage. What would it have been like to suffer through much stronger winds and substantially heavier rains? More cries for God to hear? But that’s not what our story is about today.
God heard the cries of God’s children, we read. And God hears the cries of God’s children, we believe. And I do absolutely believe every single individual cry of suffering and pain resounds within the very heart of God. I believe that the cry of every person—I believe that the cry of every animal—I believe the cry of creation itself resounds in the heart of God, but that’s not what our story is about.
Our story is not about those suffering in the aftermath of earthquake or hurricane or flood. Our story is not about those suffering through any kind of natural disaster, is it? It’s more specific than that. God heard the cries of God’s children, we read, suffering at the hand of Pharaoh. God heard the cries of God’s children enslaved to others of God’s children. God heard the cries of those oppressed by others—suffering because some found it to their advantage to take advantage of others. God heard the cries of those suffering because others in their experience of feeling threatened, resorted to violence—because some with power do not constrain the use of that power against others—because some disregard the dignity and basic rights of others. In this second of our core stories, God heard the cries of God’s children not within the pain and suffering of living in the natural world as it is, but within the pain and suffering of living in the world as we make it—as we have made it.
So God heard the cries of God’s children, and God did what? In response to these cries, what were God’s mighty acts of power? God spoke a new reality into being? God said, let there be justice and there was, and God saw that it was good. And it was morning and evening, a new day dawning, a new creation? No. God smote Pharaoh? No. God vanished the Hebrew people from Egypt and reappeared them in the promised land? No. In the world as it was—with circumstances as they were, God called out for one who would hear God calling—who would hear and who would respond—who would follow in the will and way of God.
Which was (the will and way of God—what do you think?) still to bless all families? Hebrew and Egyptian? In the affirmation that oppression works against blessing for both those oppressed and those oppressing. In a story not just about freeing the Hebrews enslaved by the Egyptians, but also about freeing the Egyptians enslaved by injustice.
For purposes of identification, God says to Moses, “I am the God of those you know who know me—the God of your ancestors. I am that I am and that I will be. And if you don’t know who I am—if you haven’t heard—if the stories haven’t been passed down, then you will come to know me, and you will come to know me as shalom, as grace, as truth, as justice, as love. And in the world as it is—not as I made it but as you have—with circumstances as they are, I am calling you to be as I am. I’m calling you to remake the world you have remade in your image back into my image. I’m calling you to remake yourselves in my image so you can remake the world in my image.”
God is always calling—always calling for some to lead God’s children out of whatever bondage and oppression darkens their days. “If you claim me—claim to walk in my way, then you are to be as I am,” states God—unequivocally. God is always calling us to speak up and to speak out whenever and wherever God’s children do not receive food to eat and water to drink, adequate shelter, whenever and wherever God’s children cannot live healthy, fulfilled lives because of the choices and actions of others. We hear God calling, “Set them free. For their sake and for yours. For the sake of all the families on earth. Set them free. For until they are free, you can’t be.”
Now there are parts of this story I don’t get and don’t know what to do with. God hardening Pharaoh’s heart. Don’t get that. Don’t know what to do with that. The plagues. Don’t get them. Don’t know what to do with them. But I’m not going to therefore suggest today that they didn’t happen! Surprise! (I’m older now, you know! Wiser.)
I will just say though, it has never been my experience that I could throw down a stick and have it turn into a snake. And nor would I expect God to do that for me. I haven’t ever been able to turn water to blood and call down frogs and gnats, flies, disease, boils, thunder and hail, locusts, darkness (though with the way Congress has been acting, I sure have wanted to!). And nor would I expect God to do any of that for me. And not only can’t I call down the death of children, I don’t want to—can’t imagine wanting to, and furthermore can’t believe God does either. There are parts of this story I don’t get and don’t know what to do with—but notice they’re the parts that have no bearing on my living. They’re the parts that are not part of my experience. Maybe parts of my daydreams, but not a part of my days.
The core of the core story though, I believe, is about the cries of those suffering at the hands of others and the call of God within such circumstances to stand up for justice. I do get that. And if I don’t know what to do with that, well, it’s because I’ve chosen not to.
Jim Cumbie and I were talking a while back about the G.K. Chesterton quote: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” A quote that could bear repeating in worship every week.
The core of this core story of our God is not a story we can’t believe. It’s not a story about things we can’t do.
At Preacher’s Camp, Audra had a conversation with Christy Somerville. Christy told me about it later. Audra said, “I think the Bible is make believe.” Christy paused, wondering whether to pursue this. “Really, why?” “Because one teacher tells me Jesus was the Son of Mary and Joseph, and another tells me he was the Son of God. I think the Bible is make believe.” Christy, brave and wise woman that she is, asked, “Make believe like Walt Disney?” There was a thoughtful pause, “A little less than that.”
When we talk about the core stories of our holy texts, we’re not talking the kind of make believe that is a world without pain. A world with no devastation. No destruction. No suffering. It’s not a world with no injustice. A little less than that. When we talk about the core stories of our holy texts, we’re talking about people deciding they don’t have to contribute to the suffering—choosing not to destroy—not to inflict pain—not to be a part of injustice.
Those four hippies collectively (and individually, actually) known as Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released their classic live double album 4 Way Street in 1971 and optimistically sang, “We can change the world. We can rearrange the world” (“Chicago,” Graham Nash on 4 Way Street, Atlantic Records, 1971). It’s belaboring the obvious, but they weren’t suggesting they could rearrange the tectonic plates whose shifting causes earthquakes—that they could change the ow pressure areas and the water vapor that spawn hurricanes. But they went on to sing, “[The world] is dying if you believe in justice—dying if you believe in freedom” (Nash).
Did Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young hear God’s call? I don’t know. I do know the elect (God’s people—God’s children—those in the way of God) are on the way not of privilege but of purpose. The elect are those who do what God wants us all to do.
The story of God is not about what we can’t do, but about what we can do. It’s not make believe but in this world of ours as it is—with circumstances what they are, it’s what we make ourselves believe—in justice—in shalom—in spite of the circumstances—in love—in God.
So how do you stand up for justice? How do you work to create shalom? As one in the way of God, you need to answer that. As individuals, as families, as part of your own network of friends and colleagues. We need to answer that as well. As a community of faith. How do we stand up for justice? How do we work to create shalom?
And we do. We do. In the stories we tell and teach. In the community we sustain. In the priorities we claim. Can we do more? Can we do better? Well, yeah! Part of our ongoing conversation on the service ministry, the formations ministry, the worship ministry, the church council, the staff, is very specifically how to engage more of us more deeply in the core stories of Scripture—how to help each other listen more carefully to the ever-calling God, and how to nurture walking in the way of God more faithfully.
God heard the cries of God’s children, we read. And God hears the cries of God’s children, we believe. And God did what? And God does what? Calls upon us. Trusts us. To work toward a time when justice will roll down like waters. When shalom will flood the deepest parts of our being and the far corners of the earth. When love and grace will undo what is not in the image of God and reform all that was created in God’s image into that image. When the being of God is our being in the world and all families will find blessing.
I asked this past week whom people thought of when they thought of justice. Not all were Christian. Ghandi and Aung San Suu Kyi were high on the list (Ghandi with strong Hindu influences, and Aung San Suu Kyi, a Buddhist).
Some were politicians (imagine that! once upon a time): John Adams, a patriot who nonetheless believed in the systems of justice so much that he defended the English soldiers who fired into the crowd in the Boston Massacre. Jimmy Carter. Nelson Mandela.
Some were Christians: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa. Some were Baptists! Martin Luther King, Jr., Walter Rauschenbusch.
Some were folk singers: Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. As I have said to you before, some of the best responses I heard to 9-11—some of what I would call the most Christian responses to 9-11 came from musicians not known as Christian.
And then on that list, there were names some of us recognize—people some of us know, personally—church members—some of our youth: Judy Haughee Bartlett, Jack VandenHengel, Ken Lyle, Alan Neely, Ken Sehested, Meg Van Deusen, Greg Cochran, Justine Heritage.
Would someone put your name on the list?