Sep 29

Strike the Rock

            Two years ago I was in the mountains of Western Maryland for a week of vacation at my family’s stomping grounds just west of Deep Creek, near Oakland. My mom’s family is all from out that way, and we’ve made annual pilgrimages since I was a kid, but it was my first time back in years. A lot was familiar; the eighty-year-old cabins hadn’t changed much. Some things, however, were different. The biggest difference that I remember was stepping out to take in the mountain landscape and seeing, about 10 miles away, gigantic wind mills cluttering the skyline. New construction for cleaner energy. They were huge, and they were ugly.

            Now, I’m a fan of renewable energy, and I’m not going to play the “Not in My Backyard” card. I don’t want those turbines torn down. They’re better than the destruction wrought by the coal industry, which has blown the tops off mountains just to get to hidden deposits of anthracite. Still, I’m saddened that the price of this renewable energy source is damage to the beauty of this special place.

            I couldn’t help thinking about that place and those wind turbines when I read the lesson from Exodus 17. At first I couldn’t figure out why—the lesson is about water, not wind. Eventually I realized what it was: in Exodus 17, the Lord says to Moses, “Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” The Israelites are thirsty. They need water. And God tells Moses to strike—not to ask, not to touch, but to strike the rock with his staff. Even this good thing, this necessary thing for God’s own people, comes at the expense of another part of creation. The rock must be struck.

            The rock must be struck for water so that they people may drink. The ground must be furrowed to plant food so they can eat. The trees must be cleared so that they can build shelter against the elements. It seems that we human beings can have nothing without attacking some other part of creation. In fact, I heard recently that with every major human migration has come an equally significant event of species extinction—whenever a large group of human beings moves from one place to another, we inevitably destroy a species that had been thriving in our new location. Wherever we go, we strike the rock—or whatever else is at hand—for our own needs.

            Friends, this is not how things ought to be. God did not create the world so that human beings could destroy it. In fact, I imagine that if the Israelites had found themselves in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve, instead of in the wilderness, Moses could have walked right up to the rock and said, “Excuse me, rock, but could I trouble you for some water?” and the rock would have gladly bubbled forth streams delicious and refreshing. The world of Moses and the Israelites, however, is not the Garden of Eden. Their world is our world, the world after sin has entered. Moses must strike the rock.

            The reality of human sin is three dimensional. Sure, our sin messed things up pretty badly between us and God—the first dimension. But it also dramatically altered the way we relate to other human beings—the second dimension—and to the rest of creation (the third dimension). We see all three dimensions even in the seven verses out of Exodus 17 we just read. The Israelites, who can’t seem to go forty-eight hours without finding a reason to doubt the Lord, start complaining that they are just dying of thirst. You’ve heard of doubting Thomas, right? Here we have doubting Judah, doubting Manasseh, doubting Benjamin, doubting Israel. It’s as if they’re saying, “There’s no way God could save us now.” Sin, in the form of stupid doubt, has crept in again, rupturing the relationship between Israel and the Lord. The first dimension of sin.

            Israel’s complaining targets Moses, too. Moses, their leader, the one who stood up to Pharaoh, the one by whose arms the sea parted for them and then swallowed up the Egyptians, Moses the great prophet; the Israelites say he’s brought them into the wilderness to die. They’re angry. So angry that Moses tells God he’s afraid the Israelites will stone him to death if something doesn’t change quickly. Relationships among human beings, damaged almost beyond repair. The second dimension of sin.

            Then there is the rock Moses strikes. The third dimension of sin.

            It’s unfortunate that environmentalism has become such a political football. For Christians, the matter should be pretty straightforward: first, we are called to good stewardship of creation; second, because of our sin, we cannot completely avoid damaging other parts of creation in this life. And when we do harm creation, we shouldn’t celebrate it as if God had made us to be tyrants of his creation. At least the Israelites have the sense to name the rock Massah and Meribah, an enduring reminder of Israel’s sin in the wilderness. Lament is also faithful worship.

            There’s one more thing about this story, something that really gets me. Did you notice where the Lord is in this story? Not what God says or does—whereGod is. God doesn’t remain in heaven, distant from all that’s taking place in his creation. The Lord says to Moses, “Go ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb.” God places himself directly in Moses’ path, on the very rock Moses must strike for the people to drink. As he always does, God places himself on the side of his creation, taking on the same burden that fallen creation must bear.

            Imagine. Moses is in the middle of the wilderness with a weary people, a people parched and impatient. They have risen up against him, demanding something to drink. Moses doesn’t have a drop more of water than anyone else—they are in a desert, after all. He turns to the Lord, afraid and frustrated. God responds to Moses and to his people’s bitter complaints with a generous offer of water. All Moses has to do is walk over to a rock, accompanied by a few of Israel’s other leaders, and hit the rock with his staff.

            So Moses chooses elders, good people who can witness to God’s faithfulness and calm things down. He gathers them together; they walk toward the rock. And there, standing between them and the font they so desperately need, is the Lord. There’s no way around. If Moses wants to save his people, he’ll have to strike the rock. And if he strikes the rock, he’ll have to strike the Lord first. So Moses walks up to the rock, looks his God in the face, raises his staff, and strikes the rock of his salvation. Water—just water this time, though one day it will be water and blood—water gushes forth, streams in the desert run as never before, fountains pour out from the rock for the sake of the people of God. And that rock was Christ.
Sep 22

The Sabbath Economy

            It’s a bit surprising, isn’t it? The people of Israel, God’s chosen people, have been out of Egypt for less than two months. Already they’re complaining. Already they’ve forgotten the agony and hardships of life under Pharaoh. Instead of celebrating God’s deliverance, they’re dreaming of life back in Egypt—as if the supposedly plentiful bread they ate by the fleshpots somehow balanced the back-breaking labor they endured.

            But that’s not the surprising part, not really. If we’re honest, the Israelites’ response is familiar. Abuse and oppression have a profound psychological effect on victims, twisting their thoughts so that they have trouble seeing the difference between freedom and slavery. We’ve seen the Israelites’ story on the front pages of newspapers as the scandal of a certain Ravens football player parades his wife’s own distorted view of reality for all to see.

            No, the surprising part of this story is not that the Israelites’ years of torment has affected their collective psyche. The surprising part is that the Lord gives the Israelites exactly what they ask for. The people ask for bread, and God gives them bread. God never even chides the Israelites for their forgetfulness. The Israelites complain, and God gives them what they want. Why?

            You might say that God is demonstrating his mercy or that God is showing divine patience with his people. True enough, I’m sure, but I think something else, something more specific, something even, perhaps, more profound is happening in Exodus 16. God seizes the opportunity Israel’s complaining presents to establish for Israel a new and fundamental social reality: a new economy. Now, if you look up the word “economy” in a dictionary, you’re likely to find something along the lines of “the wealth and resources of a country or region” or “careful management of available resources.” But it’s probably more helpful—and more Biblical—to think of “economy” as the organization and regulation of the daily affairs of a community.

            For decades, Israel’s life had been organized and regulated by the Egyptian economy. Egypt’s economy was a labor economy, really a slave labor economy. Laborers, against their will, were expected to contribute their work to whatever projects Egypt’s Pharaoh deemed necessary or important. In exchange for this work, Egypt gave the laborers an amount of food that might have been enough to live on.  So you can see that, although there are some real differences, the ancient Egyptian economy and the modern global economy have a lot in common. The single most important characteristic of a labor economy can be captured in one word: more. Everyone is trying to get more, all the time. More work out of the laborers. More efficient work. More produced. More stored up for pleasure, for bragging rights, or for rainy days. Even the laborers find themselves desiring more: more rest, more food, more ways to escape.

            One of God’s first acts in the wilderness is to cut short the Egyptian labor economy of more. God does this through a miraculous gift: manna. Each morning, when the Israelites wake up, they discover under the dew a layer of manna, a food with amazing properties, a bread that could be baked or boiled. Nourishment for the long journey. And the manna of the morning was complimented in the evening by quail, meat to further sustain the Israelites. The manna, and the quail, are so much more than a divine version of some international relief operation for refugees. In giving the Israelites the manna, God institutes a new economy. Not a labor economy. A Sabbath economy.

            Sabbath is not just the day of rest found in the Ten Commandments. Sabbath is how God intended the world to function, right from the very beginning. The crowning moment of creation is not the making of human beings in God’s image—important as that is. But humanity’s creation on the sixth day awaits the fulfillment of creation on the seventh day, the day when Scripture tells God himself rests. “On the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen 2:2-3). This holy and blessed day, the seventh day, the Sabbath, is woven into the very fabric of creation.

            In giving the Israelites manna, God says to his people, “I expect you to live according to my Sabbath economy.” Consider six aspects of the Sabbath economy in Exodus 16:

·         One: There is manna for everyone.

·         Two: People collect manna based on their need. Need a lot? Take a lot. Need a little? Take a little.

·         Three: There is manna for each day. The Israelites only collect their daily bread.

·         Four: Collecting more manna than you need doesn’t do you any good. The stuff goes bad—real bad, like, worms bad—overnight.

·         Five: There is a major exception to number four. On the sixth day, the day before the Sabbath, you can collect extra, and it won’t go bad.

·         Six: There is no manna to collect on the Sabbath.

If “more” is what characterizes the Egyptian (and, really, every) labor economy, “enough” is the word that captures God’s Sabbath economy. There is enough manna for everyone, no matter how great or small the need. There is enough manna to take a Sabbath away from collecting it. There is enough—not too much, not more than is needed, just enough.

            And the Sabbath day itself—it’s not a day of solemn, intense reflection. It’s a day of joy, of celebration. On the Sabbath day, the Israelites are called to enjoy the “enough” God provides for them, to feast “enough” on the holy day, knowing that there will be enough the next day, too,.

            The manna God provides the Israelites is a short-term solution, intended only for their days in the wilderness. The Sabbath economy God intends to last. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy God establishes law after law that reinforces the Sabbath economy: the year of jubilee, the prohibition of certain kinds of work on the Sabbath, the care for widows and orphans, and the insistence on leaving behind a portion of fields for gleaning by the poor. The economy of the people of God is always to be a Sabbath economy. The Sabbath economy continues in the New Testament; look at the sharing in the early church in Acts 2. We even catch a glimpse of the Sabbath economy in Jesus’ parable from this morning’s gospel lesson: each laborer, even the one who works only one hour, receives enough from the master.

            If “more” is characteristic of every labor economy, “more” has become the cardinal virtue in our own present economy. We are bombarded with more ways to pursue more: More doing. More saving. More buying. More eating and drinking. Buying in bulk so we get more for our dollar. Doing more for ourselves. Putting away more for retirement. Giving more money to the government. Keeping more money for our own pocketbooks. More, more, more, more, more. We have more “more” than just about anybody could want. Yet when it comes time to give alms to the poor, to take care of the needy in our community and our world, to pay our tithe to our Lord, inevitably we hear, “There is not enough for that.” Ironically, the economy of “more” is also the economy of “never enough.”

            Friends, we are about to celebrate Holy Communion. Holy Communion is our weekly reminder of God’s Sabbath economy. Everyone who comes to this table receives what she or he needs—nothing less, nothing more. Once we see that there is enough from God here, we are free to discover that God expects us to keep his Sabbath economy—and that God has given our church enough to meet our community’s needs. Are we really going to keep living as if there was something more?
Aug 11

Brother Joseph

Starting today, and for most of the next fourteen weeks or so, our sermons here at Centre are going to be based on the Old Testament lesson. We are going to pay careful attention to God’s covenant love with Israel, starting this morning with Joseph and continuing through the birth of Moses and the Exodus to the entry into the Promised Land under Joshua. Along with the story of the life of Jesus Christ, this long story is the core story of our Christian faith.

            Now, when I say, “The Old Testament,” what do I mean? Well, the Bible, our Scripture, is divided into two unequal parts. The second part is the New Testament, which has the gospels, Acts, and letters of the early church. The first and longer part is the Old Testament—sometimes called the First Testament, the First or Old Covenant, or even the Hebrew Bible—because most of it (though not all) was written originally in ancient Hebrew. We share the books of the Old Testament with Judaism. The Old Testament is in four parts: the Five Books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy; the histories, Joshua through Nehemiah; the literature, Esther through Song of Songs; and the prophets, Isaiah through Malachi. The sermons over the next few months will take us from the end of Genesis into Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua.

            Over the centuries Christians have struggled with the Old Testament. For the writers of the New Testament, the Old Testament is“the Bible.” Jesus quotes it, Paul refers to it, and when 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God,” it means the Old Testament. But it didn’t take long for problems to crop up. Some people thought they saw a difference between the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ. They wanted to get rid of the Old Testament altogether. Others thought that God was done with Israel and that the Old Testament was only meaningful in reference to Christ. Many Christians today have gone their whole lives without reading the Old Testament.

            We Methodists, joining with Christians of various stripes from across the globe and across time, believe that God is the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Moses and Miriam, David and Bathsheba—and the God of Jesus Christ. In fact, one of our Articles of Religion (the standards of United Methodist doctrine) says that “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ… Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises… [and] no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.”

            Now, please forgive the language, which is more King James than Facebook. What this article means is this. When we read the Old Testament, we need to read it on its own terms. That means, first, that we listen to the stories, psalms, and prophecies for what they have to say on their own. If we have trouble with them, we keep reading, searching for God’s presence in these passages. Then, we can listen to the stories for Christ’s silhouette and for what God is saying to us today. You see, Israel—the people of God in the Old Testament, not the modern nation-state created by the vestiges of Western colonialism—is whom God loves. God never gives up his love for his people Israel. Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign of God’s love for Israel, not the end of it.

            Let’s turn our attention to this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Here we are introduced to the story of Joseph. Joseph is one of the sons of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. Jacob is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham. Confused yet?

            Genesis tells us that Jacob favored Joseph more than his other children. In the ancient near East, this would have been a scandal; the oldest child was the one who was to be given preference. But already in Genesis there has been a pattern of turning this on its head: God prefers the younger Abel’s gift to that of the older Cain; God chooses the younger Isaac instead of the older Ishmael; Jacob cheats his older brother Esau out of their father’s blessing; and now, Jacob loves his young son Joseph more than all his other children.

            The Bible does not praise Jacob for giving Joseph preferential treatment. In fact, Jacob’s love for his young son gets Joseph into trouble. Joseph’s brothers are jealous and plot against him. Of course, Joseph’s dreams don’t help, either. We skipped over that part today, but Joseph’s dreams are all about how his brothers will serve and bow before him. Not the kind of thing that might cool down a simmering sibling rivalry. Joseph’s brothers decide to kill him. They band together and grab their unsuspecting little brother, tear off the beautiful coat Jacob gave him, and throw him into a pit. Only the intervention of Reuben, the eldest brother, prevents the others from murdering their own flesh and blood. Instead they sell him to caravanning Ishmaelites—distant cousins—and Joseph becomes the first Israelite slave in Egypt.

            It’s a depressing tale, all the more so because it is so familiar and so—common. After all, for the first hundred years the U.S. depended on slave labor for its economic success. At first slavers traded in Africans—distant cousins. When the Middle Passage finally closed, however, slaves were still bought and sold—the children of other slaves. Because a master owned the body of his women slaves, often the slaves he bought and sold were his own children, or, when the elder master had passed, were the stepbrothers and stepsisters of the new master. Every slave bought and sold was a Joseph, a brother or a sister done wrong by another brother or sister. Sadly, slavery did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation. The sins of our slaveholding forefathers have been visited on generation after generation. And new forms of slavery, legal and illegal, continue to grip our world. We live in a land where the cries of so many Josephs still echo from the pit.

            Joseph is not just the brother of Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, and Asher. He is my brother and yours.

            We read of slavery ancient and modern, new and old, and we ask, “Where is God in this?” We hear of brothers throwing brothers into pits, of loved ones turning on each other over petty grievances, and the world asks us, “Where is now your God?” The text in Genesis 37 is silent; God’s name is not mentioned in this story. But we know the answer. Where is God? God is in the pit.

            Joseph was stripped of his blessing, his coat and his father’s love, thrown into the pit by his brothers, and sold into slavery in Egypt. Jesus was stripped of his seamless garment, betrayed by his friends, hung on a cross, and thrown into the pit right next to him. And if we would claim Jesus as our Lord, we must never forget that Joseph is our brother. Amen.