Sunday, September 28, 2014

Strike the Rock

Exodus 17: 1-7, OT page 64 From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on 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. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Sermon Last Thursday below the fold our Daily Herald ran an article by Kevin Hardy of the Chattanooga Times Free Press titled, “Poll: Religion’s influence waning, but religion in politics growing.” It’s hard to say that the article was good – the reporting was good, but the news it reported isn’t very good at all. Hardy reported the results from a new poll released Monday by the Pew Research Center, which found that 72 percent of the public think religion is losing influence in American life. For any of you who are reading about churches closing their doors or of denominations like ours whose total membership numbers have been declining since the 1950’s, this is old news that I’m almost used to hearing. If you go to any place where pastors gather to talk the conversation is almost always the same – numbers are down and our influence is waning, which makes the interesting part of this article Hardy’s claim that “more than ever, Americans say religion is losing its influence in society, though the public’s appetite for religion in politics is only growing.” Now that is a major change, as I know that a pastor who preached politics from the pulpit would never have been tolerated in the church I grew up in. Generally Presbyterians like to keep religion and politics separate, but society is changing: while church attendance isn’t required, being able to talk about faith is, especially when it comes to running for major political office. I’m not sure that this change is very good for our country or our church, because the form of Christianity that is used to get votes can hardly be called Christianity at all for when politicians talk religion far too often they have no idea what they’re talking about. Let me give you my favorite example: Miriam A. Ferguson was the first female governor of Texas. She served the state for three terms, stood firm against the KKK, but is often credited with a quote allegedly spoken in reference to bilingualism in Texas schools: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.” Just a couple years ago President Obama had urged the passage of a provision in his jobs bill by saying, “I trust in God, but God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work.” A reporter later asked his press secretary Jay Carney if the President crossed the line by bringing God into the jobs debate and Carney responded: “I believe that the phrase from the Bible is, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.' ” However, the “Lord helps those who help themselves” is actually attributed to Benjamin Franklin. But the more important religious misunderstanding that some politicians suffer from is believing that following the example of Jesus will help get you elected – it won’t - it will get you crucified – and following the example of Moses leads to nearly the same place. If democracy had been the political system of the Israelites, Moses’ campaign never would have stood a chance. As soon as the polls came in Aaron would have advised him to change course. I can imagine his cabinet suggesting that he get back to his roots – start using some of those slogans that worked so well back in Egypt: “let my people go!” they wanted to hear him say. But catchy slogans run out of steam when the results slow down. Even though they were free – now they were thirsty. “The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink,” and in the absence of immediate results they complained about him, they questioned his judgment, and they asked if he had taken them out of Egypt to kill them, their children and their livestock with thirst. None of that has the makings of a great political legacy – but every bit of this second scripture lesson has the makings of real leadership, a subject that too many of our politicians in Washington seem less and less in touch with every day. The reality is that approval ratings often have little to do with leadership – if public approval is what you use to guide you than good luck getting anywhere. That’s why Moses is different. Even when the tide of discontent swept over the people, rather than join them in their frustration Moses stays rooted in the truth. Isn’t that what the world needs? More people like Moses who remember something that everyone else has such a tendency to forget – more people like Moses who hold onto a memory of a faithful, liberating God, even when thirst, frustration, and doubt could take everything away. He remembered the only source of living water, even when doing so didn’t make any rational sense. We live in this world where so often all we hear is that things are getting worse – that everything is being taken away. The schools are bad, the jobs are few, and freedom isn’t free. We must protect our jobs, our children, and our health care. The church needs to make some radical changes to appeal to a new generation or we’re sure to loose even more members. The people are thirsty and they want to know when someone is going to do something about it. But Moses wasn’t thinking about the dryness of his throat or his popularity that was slipping away. He was remembering the liberating power of the God who freed him from Egyptian oppression. He was remembering the promise of the God he knew would provide. Now I don’t know how to fix any problem that the church or our society faces today, but I have been thirsty and knowing some very thirsty people, knowing that we are all thirsty people thirsting for something, I want to remind you that water will come again. It is every Christian’s duty to testify in the desert of life to the God who makes water come from rocks. To remind the hopeless of a God who makes a way out of no way. To remind the family pulled apart by too much pressure and too much to do, that the Lord is in their midst and love will see them through. To remind a world that rushes to violence of the power of peace. To remind each other of goodness in a world that seems so cruel – for we all need to be reminded of a present God when we ask, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Moses stood before a rock in what everyone believed was barren land, and as foolish as it must have seemed, he struck that rock with his staff in the sight of the elders of Israel, and water streamed forth. Now this is leadership – believing when everyone else has given up – staying faithful to the promise despite the tide of public opinion – holding tight to hope and enduring the complaints of those around you because some things are worth holding onto, and there are some destinations that only those who persevere stand any chance of reaching. You must strike the rock – even when it doesn’t make any sense – even when everyone else has already given up. You must strike the rock because in our world hope is in short supply but the water of salvation is still there even if you can’t see it. Strike the rock, and make it to the Promised Land. Amen.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Exodus 16: 2-15, OT page 62-63 The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days.” So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your complaining against the Lord. For what are we, that you complain against us?” And Moses said, “When the Lord gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the Lord has heard the complaining that you utter against him – what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the Lord.” Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, “I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. Sermon “When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?”” This phrase is a difficult one to translate from Hebrew, especially if you grew up going to Sunday School and think of this story as the story of how the Lord provided manna from heaven, because the word “manna” in Hebrew simply means “what is it.” They didn’t have a name for it and so they named the flakey substance that preserved their lives and filled their bellies in the wilderness “what is it” because they didn’t know what else to call it. And we don’t always know what to call it either. There’s a story about Bill Sutter’s sister. When she got word of her brother’s sudden death, she immediately went to the airport. She could have waited to fly with her husband and children but decided she had to be in Columbia as soon as possible even though that meant going through metal detectors and luggage inspections all by herself with no one to share her grief. She boarded a plane barely holding her emotions in, she was just about to fall apart but didn’t want to break down surrounded by complete strangers so she kept a stiff lip and suffered in silence all alone. Somehow or another she revealed to the woman next to her that she was flying to Columbia, TN for her brothers funeral – and that’s when our own Nicole Stallcup’s mouth fell open, amazed by who sat down next to her. Of all the planes, of all the passengers, of all the seats – Bill’s sister sat down next to Nicole Stallcup, member of this church and friend of Bill’s family, and so his sister had a shoulder to cry on during one of the hardest flights a person ever has to take. Now what do you call that? A gift, a gift from God, but surely a shoulder to cry on is not what she would have wished for had she just one wish. “What is it” they asked, for they did not know what it was. Now the Lord had delivered them from the hand of Pharaoh, led them by the hand out of Egypt, and then when the chariots and chariot drivers charged to their heels the Lord divided the sea and they walked through on dry land. But when they were hungry they wanted something familiar and they longed to go back to what they knew. So they called it “manna” or “what is it” because it preserved their life and satisfied their physical hunger but when it came down to preserving their faith and satisfying their need to see God at work in their lives, still they had trouble connecting the dots because the Lord responded to their cry but not by giving them what they asked for exactly. Which reminds me of our friend John Hill who once gave a homeless man who was missing several teeth an apple. Rather than saying thank you he looked that apple over and asked John, “Now what am I supposed to do with this?” And every chance she got my grandmother gave me a red dress shirt from Hamrick’s, but there were years of Christmases when I’d take her wrapped present out from under the tree to shake it and wonder what it could be. Every year it was the same thing and after a while it was hard to be thankful because how many red shirts does one person really need? We don’t know what to call that. You sit by your aging mother who recognizes you some days and other days she doesn’t and you wish for something else besides this situation that you’ve been given – so hard it is to be grateful for this time that you have left. That’s how they were with the manna, not knowing what to call it, caught up in wishing for something else, or bogged down by the memory of the fleshpots of Egypt. Our eyes cannot see the blessings always, and it’s not ingratitude so much as it is confusion. We really don’t know what to call it. But Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” Oh what do I call it? For years I called it just another red shirt – but today I call each one a reminder of my grandmother’s love. Now that she’s gone each shirt is the assurance that she is with me still. Tom DuBois was having his car cleaned the day of his mother’s funeral. Not doing well himself Tom asked the woman vacuuming his car how she was. “This is the day that the Lord has made,” she said, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it. We do not always get what we ask for, but are such gifts as these not manna from heaven. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Tell the Israelites to go forward

Exodus 14: 5-31, OT pages 60-61 When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, “What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?” So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh King of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pihahiroth, in front of Baalzephon. As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” But Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers.” The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.” Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed the Lord and his servant Moses. Sermon There are times of hesitation in life. Times when you know where are supposed to go, you know what you are supposed to do and what direction to move in, the only problem is that your feet stay rooted to the ground. You can see it at any swimming lesson if the teacher will let you come and watch. She probably won’t let you come and watch however, because no swimming teacher wants there to be a witness to her near criminal act of pushing three year old girls in their sweet little bathing suits into the pool. She has to do this however, because the three year old who has never been in the water will stand there all day just looking at it in terror, not moving a muscle. When I was a little older than that my mother drove me to my first basketball practice. Being the mother of three she needed to move quickly to pick up one of my siblings, so she walked me into the rec-center on the north side of town, then she pointed out my coach standing on the other side of basketball court, and she told me to walk over there and introduce myself, then she hustled back to the car and left me standing there. I was still standing there in that exact spot when she came back to pick me up, because there are times of hesitation in life when you know where you are supposed to go but your feet stay rooted to the ground. The Israelites were led out of Egypt by the hand of Moses, but then, as Pharaoh and his army of chariots and chariot drivers advances, they cry out to God, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt, that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the Lord told the Israelites to go forward but they were afraid to move. The Psalmist recounts this event: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.” A flock of what, the psalm doesn’t say, but what is clear enough is that there are moments, even for faithful people, when the direction is made clear but the first step towards freedom is nearly impossible to take. There are times when we are not like firefighters rushing into the stairwell of the Twin Towers, brave and without hesitation despite the dust and bodies falling from the sky, the warning creak of beams soon to give way, there are times when we are more like a flock of sheep, so fearful of what we don’t know that we cannot move one step forward, so uncertain of what to do that we do nothing. Even still, “tell the Israelites to go forward,” the Lord said to Moses, because the life demands it. But our vision – so rarely is it ever clear. My mind is so trained to a litany of anxiety and worry, grief and sorrow. The Egyptians are there on my heel and they have my attention so completely. Some will say that we go forward as sheep to be slaughtered. But the Apostle Paul sees more clearly – and so he said that those who go forward are more than conquerors through him who loved us. The Lord provided a way and commanded the people forward – so forward you must go even if it means passing through a sea of tears. “Do not be afraid, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today.” Amen.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Day of Remembrance

Exodus 12: 1-14, OT page 58 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat of it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat of it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival of the Lord throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance. Sermon The one who chooses which story will be told has a lot of power, so I can understand why our daughters argue when it’s time to read stories before bed – whose book will get read first is serious business, just as which stories get told around the dinner table matter and which ones don’t – some stories are told over and over again while others are never mentioned. There’s no telling how many times my grandmother told me about her years in nursing school, studying late eating ice chips to stay awake on the bathroom floor because 9:00 was lights-out, but the lights in the bathroom stayed on all night long, so you could study in there. There’s also a grandfather I never knew, but I heard stories about him. He’d stop the car if he saw a snake in the road, carry it home and leave it in the bathtub until he could find a safe place to keep it or until somebody else stepped into the bathtub and found it first. How often I heard about his reptile collection, and how rarely I heard about his alcoholism, because we pick which stories to tell. That’s just the way it is. We pick and choose the stories that we tell because the stories that get told shape the way we see the past, and the way we see the past shapes the way we see ourselves. That’s why history matters. Just last Friday the Daily Herald published an article by Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk who were duking it out over history books. According to Mathis conservative scholars want to control the way our national history is told, whitewashing our past, hiding all the warts, choosing to make students feel good about their country rather than just telling the truth. Boychuk takes the opposite stance claiming that liberals have been politicizing American history since the 1960s. He quotes Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Schools, who said that “The idea of America as a nation founded on the pursuit of freedom and equality is presented mainly as a myth ever in need of more repudiation” by too many textbooks, and that history must be retold to inspire pride in her citizens. (Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, “The battle over history books continues,” The Daily Herald, Friday, September 5, 2014, 4A.) There’s controversy and disagreement here because the one who decides which story will be told has a lot of power, and here in Exodus chapter 12 the Lord tells Moses and Aaron which story will be told, how it will be told, and when. Every year, the feast of Passover “shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival of the Lord throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” Every household in the assembled congregation of Israel shall take part, every household shall have a lamb of their own unless they are too small and need to share with their neighbors. “This month shall mark for you the beginning of months,” says the Lord, “it shall be the first month of the year for you,” so that you begin every year by remembering the story that defines who you are. Those who know which story to tell know who they are and who God is, but for those who are in search of the right story, listening always for the story that tells them who they are and who God is, they are like ships without a rudder, blown by the winds of other peoples words without direction or self-understanding. That’s really true in the case of preachers. We all stand at the front of the sanctuary as our congregations shake our hand – “that was a good word preacher,” or “thank you for the sermon” with every kind handshake, but it’s a guarantee that someone will walk down the aisle with a determined look in her eye ready to tell you that they have just heard the worst sermon of their entire life. I tell you that because it’s happened to me, more than once, and for the rest of the afternoon you just wallow around wondering which story got you right. But don’t feel sorry for me because I bet its worse for you. I knew a professor pretty well in college, and every year he’d give his students the chance to evaluate his teaching style, so every year he’d be told that his teaching style was too boring and that his wardrobe was too dated, year after year the most specific comment he’d receive is that he needed to buy some new ties - but I’ll tell you that he was one of the best teachers I ever had. So you see there are all kinds of stories, but which story will you listen to? If you’re on Facebook you’re really in trouble, not because there’s anything wrong with posting pictures and telling people where you’ve gone on vacation, but because there is something wrong with keeping track of how many people like what you’ve put up for the world to see – because no matter how many likes you get Facebook can’t tell you who you are. It’s not that what they say doesn’t matter – some of those people who told me that my sermon was terrible were exactly right – you have to listen and learn and be uplifted and shaped, but you have to remember some stories more than others – you have to understand yourself according to the story that the Lord has told about you. More than once I’ve prayed with the Alzheimer’s patient who doesn’t even know who she is, but who still knows who she is to Christ and so she still prays with me every word of the Lord’s Prayer. And more than once I’ve told you to remember your baptism – and if you were an infant when it happened there’s not really any way for you to remember it – but there is too. “Remember always who you are,” because you were saved from slavery in Egypt whether you remember it or not. You shall eat of that lamb with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, your staff in your hand - you shall eat of it hurriedly to remember that no matter where you are right now, the Lord rushed you out of Egypt and the Lord will move you from where you are to where you’re meant to be. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: so that you will remember that the Lord passed over you – that no plague destroyed you when the Lord struck the land of Egypt – and no matter what you face today there is no plague so great that it can separate you from the Lord’s presence. This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival of the Lord throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance – because no matter how you need to be brushed off or dried out or cleaned up or redeemed or forgiven you are the Lord’s forever. It’s too easy to forget this kind of thing while living in a culture where people are only as good as they look – where success is made known by what kind of car you drive or how big a stone on your ring – it is so important to remember who you are in a world where people use their words to tear you down and make you small – so remember that there are always many stories to choose from but let the story that the Lord tells about you matter most. The one who chooses which story will be told has a lot of power – but you have the power to decide which story you will define you. Listen then to the Word of the Lord. Amen.