Second in series: The Book of Exodus
(Please forgive the poor audio quality this week!)
LIBERATION: GOD’S REPUTATION
In my experience, there are two big, existential questions for modern people that make it difficult to believe in and live as though there is a good, reliable God of the universe.
I’m only going to bring up one right now, so your curiosity about the other is just going to have to consume you to the point that you pull me aside on your own and say: VINCE, I’ve got to know, what’s the other one?!
This is all a cheap ploy for me to get to have more deep, fascinating conversations with you wonderful people here… And haha! It’s worked; I see the consuming curiosity in all of you
Anyway, the one I’ll bring up today is:
How can there be a good God when the world so often feels out of control and ruled by terrible forces?
Now more than ever before, in a globalized world, connected at lightning-fast speed by the Internet, we are so aware of the startling inequalities, appalling corruption, cruel prejudice, brutal violence (whether physical or psychological) all around us
And, in many cases, reckoning these realities with a faith in God feels especially difficult because the negative controlling forces don’t just feel “out there”, they feel “right here”
Maybe you yourself have experienced prejudice or violence (as a white person and a man, I don’t want to even pretend that I could understand how close that hits to home for some of you)
Or, something I do have some experience with, maybe you feel your life is controlled by the grind of the culture you were born into -- workaholic, stay cool and relevant at all costs, keep-up-with-the-neighbors, don’t lose your spot in line
Well, along these lines, we’ve just begun a series of talks on the book of Exodus, from the Bible.
Exodus has a powerful, consistent message that: God’s character is good and reliable
AND YET all the while it resonates with the messiness of actual life and the actual world that can make it hard for people like us to truly believe and live as though God is reliable...
That’s part of the reason it (and really the whole Bible) such a winning work of writing… because it’s never trite… it’s very real… it treats its readers like adults
As we looked at last week (check out the podcast!), perhaps Exodus’ greatest message is: God takes it as his responsibility to show us he is reliable
To "make a name for himself" that we would know him by
The passage from Exodus we are going to read today would in time become synonymous with "God’s name" in the rest of the Hebrew scriptures
When we read God’s “name”, we might think God’s “reputation”
As we’ll see, that seems to one of God’s primary concerns: the manner in which his Name is known —
The religious word is his “glory”
God’s fame, his well-known-ness, his brand recognition
That he is truly, powerfully and reliably good
So let me turn our attention to Exodus chapters 7 to 14,
The liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery
Moses, with help from his brother Aaron, confront the Egyptian Pharaoh, the most powerful man in their world, saying:
The God of the universe is telling you to release the Hebrew people from slavery
Pharaoh refuses however, drunk on the power and the God-complex status his life to that point had afforded him (literally a God-complex, he believed he was a god)
It's a famous story that follows... with some deeply unsettling parts, especially from our modern perspective
Ten plagues afflict Egypt, and they are pretty awful... especially the last, in which every firstborn animal and Egyptian boy is struck dead
Then, in the climax of the story, the Hebrew people miraculously cross the Red Sea on dry land, while the pursuing Egyptians are swallowed up by it
This is a good spot to pause for a second
Beyond the obviously attractive qualities of the overarching story of God liberating an oppressed people, one question I and many people I know want to ask is: BUT how can we today stomach the awful details that make up that story?
Like the last plague? - Even if the Egyptians were horrible, should the punishment be taken out on innocent children? Is that really the kind of story we want to carry through the ages?
I’ll throw out something quickly that’s helped me grapple with this
A thinker named Jonathan Haidt developed what is known as Moral Foundations Theory
It identifies 6 foundations of morality
Care: the opposite of harm.
Fairness: the opposite of cheating.
Liberty: the opposite of tyranny.
Loyalty: the opposite of betrayal.
Authority: the opposite of subversion.
Purity: the opposite of degradation.
All cultures will have a value on all 6 in some way or another, but differences are explained by how each culture orders these 6 foundations - first through sixth
Those differences come out in moral dilemmas, when two or more of the foundations are reasonably in play, and you have to choose one over others
Depending on how your culture orders the six, that’s what you’re likely to choose
For the average 21st century Chicagoan, “Care / Do no harm” would be number one (or two or three) on our moral hierarchy
We have a hard time justifying anything over “do no harm”
On the other hand, for Ancient Near East cultures like the Hebrews, it would probably have been “Purity” or “Loyalty” at number one… with “Care / Do no harm” far down on the list
So it’s extremely tempting for us, thousands upon thousands of years removed, to judge them and their formative narratives as morally bankrupt
BUT, Haidt’s theory would tell us, they’re not morally bankrupt, they just have a different moral hierarchy than us
This helps me because, if I try to think about morality on their terms, I am less distracted and can see that the details of this story are all saying something significant:
That God is bigger and more powerful than any of the things in life that might exert control over us, that might oppress us
He is bigger than the Hebrews’ oppressors, the Pharaoh and the Egyptians
Many theologians who have studied Exodus have pointed to the fact that each of the ten plagues… the blood, the frogs, the locusts, etc. have a corresponding Egyptian god… as though this is the God of the Bible announcing: I am the true God!
More than that though, God is bigger than the natural world!
He is bigger than the Nile River and the Red Sea!
The message to the oppressed Hebrews is: whatever force you might feel that is outside of your control but determining your outcomes, keeping you stuck, destroying your resolve, pinning you down, stealing your hope…
God wants to liberate you!
Oppressive forces may have their day in the sun
And we will struggle, as all humans do, to hold on to hope
But they will not win the day
Let me read from Exodus chapter 14; you can follow along in your program if you like...
10 As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. 11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”
13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”...
21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the Lord looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He jammed the wheels of their chariots so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The Lord is fighting for them against Egypt.”...
30 That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians.
This would become THE most dear and important story to the Hebrew people...
They believed their survival hinged on this story being passed down
This story is God's Good Name (his reputation)… his glory (what he is well-known for).
There's so much wisdom in that:
Because, especially for a minority people, the struggles are not going to end.
New oppressive controlling forces will come our way again soon enough
(and sure enough for the Jewish people throughout history they no doubt have… you can trace it all the way to not a century ago with Nazi oppression of Jews in Europe).
So what will we do?
Cynically bow down to the cruel unfairness of life?... Give up?
You can see the Hebrews so quickly feel tempted by that when in a pinch, right? “Did you take us out here to die, Moses? Slavery is better than dying in the desert!”
OR will we live with hope?
Dr. King, I think, spoke to the message of the Exodus when he said:
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice:"
This is how we know God’s reliability: because, throughout history, God continues to make his case: while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice
Terrible kings rise, yes... But just as surely, they fall
Cruelty foments and wreaks havoc, yes... But just as surely, the perpetrators are brought to justice
Prejudice grows and distorts reality, yes... But inevitably that is exposed
Time and again, the arc of the universe, of history, looks to be tracking hopelessly toward corruption, violence, intolerance, oppression of the poor, obscurity of truth...
And then... The arc is bent... Toward justice, toward liberation of the oppressed. Toward hope.
The Exodus story says: there is a God doing the bending!
The existence of a story like this somewhere in the shaping of our lives — or the lack of existence of a story like this in our lives — THAT is a deciding factor as to whether or not we become a hopeful person!
I want hope. I don't want to roll over and die, succumbing to cynicism.
I need a story like the Exodus to shape and form who I am.
Those of us who can find ourselves shaped that way will find ourselves deeply consoled by hope, EVEN if we do not ourselves see all the liberation we hope for…
Hope is not a cheap snack, just meant to keep our hunger at bay while we wait for the real meal… hope is the best of meals… it is nourishment our souls need
The Exodus Story was one of many pieces of the Jewish lineage that found a deeper and more universal fulfillment than ever before in the life of Jesus.
Jesus blessed the poor when all the rest of life favored those of status and wealth
The oppressed took heart when he was around
And the oppressors took heed
But, in addition, when Jesus talked about the kind of world and life in which the oppressed are free, and oppressors are brought to justice (like the Exodus), he called it the Kingdom of God, or the rule of God
And he famously said this Kingdom of God is “within each of us”
The liberation that God does goes beyond the social realm
It goes to the individual human heart
In what ways are we oppressed internally?
Perhaps the physical slavery the Ancient Hebrews experienced was one thing, but the slavery they were experiencing internally, from a spiritual perspective, was yet another!
As the story of the Exodus goes on, following the Hebrews into their wanderings in the desert, we will see that indeed there is more to liberation than just societal liberation
Oppression can be a defeating voice that has bombarded us so much that it becomes our own mindset
Good will never come to me
I will never be good enough
I do not belong because of who I am… maybe because of the color of my skin, or because of my gender or sexual orientation
Oppression can be a life-stealing addiction
To alcohol or to pornography or an eating disorder
Oppression can be the way our lives become consumed by the wounds we’ve experienced
At the hands of parents or bosses or family members or religious authorities or people we thought once to be friends
In whatever of these things we are experiencing, the Exodus liberation encourages us:
These things will have their day in the sun
But they will not rule us forever.
God is bending your story toward liberation. That’s what he does. That is his "good name", his reputation, his glory.
As we do every week, we are going to have a chance in a moment to pray together and name some of these things.
And often when we do that here on Sunday mornings, people can find themselves feeling startlingly peaceful, like life-changing-ly peaceful
As if the power of such internally oppressive forces just dissolved, in an instant
Maybe that’s on offer for you today...
But, before we do that, one more new depth to the Exodus Liberation that Jesus’ “Kingdom of God within us” message reveals is this:
What if we all, each of us, have a bit of oppressor in us?
This is not meant to condemn us!
Unless of course we are at the level of the Pharaoh in the Exodus -- we so consistently and egregiously act in arrogance and cruelty throughout our lives that we’ve passed a point of no return,
A theme throughout Exodus chapters 7 to 14 is God hardening Pharaoh’s heart in that place of arrogance and cruelty he’d chosen, so that God’s fame as liberator could be known all the more
By this time, evidently, Pharaoh had left God no other choice but to turn him into an object lesson for future generations: “the model oppressor”
But for common women and men like you and me, this is not meant to condemn us… This is a message that itself is also meant to be liberating, meant to make us feel free, because it is humbling and human.
We will not always be in the right
We will not always be on the side of morality or truth
We will not always treat others with the respect they deserve
We will not always value other people as God desires for them to be valued
Therefore, let us not be driven mad by a need to prove ourselves always in the right, or always good
We are, sometimes, maybe often, not good, not in the right
But that doesn’t have to be the end of our stories
I wonder if you saw a video that went viral on the Internet this past week, from the most unlikely of sources
CSPAN - that’s right. The most boring of all channels - the one that often is literally just one camera rolling on the congress floor
Against all odds, a short segment from CSPAN went viral because in it something really beautiful happened
Heather McGhee, who is the president of an Advocacy group called Demos that seeks to include more diverse voices in public policy making, was a guest on CSPAN, and she starts taking callers
Here’s my click-bait intro: a man calls in, and you won’t believe what happens next!
The man self-identifies as “I’m a white man and I’m prejudice”... He goes on to say: “I have fears… So how can I change? How can I be a better American?”
And Ms. McGhee, a black woman, is visibly moved, she’s taken aback a bit, she nods encouragingly
She thanks him for his vulnerability and basically says: you’re already off to a great start, just owning and not running from the idea that you are prejudice and have fears
I wonder if this went viral because it has that same intuitive feel of “true and powerful” that Jesus’ words have
“Prejudice” or “oppressor” are not categories that people either fall under or not
Anti-semitism isn’t something that existed in Nazi Germany, and so since I’m not a Nazi, I therefore am not anti-semitic
Prejudice, oppression is in us all
In varying degrees, to be sure, but the capacity for it is in us all
The moment we acknowledge this about ourselves, we find less drive in ourselves to point it out about "those other people over there" (whoever those other people is for you)
It’s amazing. The drive to label or judge others just dissolves once we recognize we’re all in the same boat — all human
That is so freeing!
And THAT is the moment we can join God in his bending of the arc of history, in his never ending mission to liberate people from the oppressive controlling forces of life.
So perhaps an opportunity for some of us this morning is to acknowledge in that way that feels so freeing - “I am prejudice”...
maybe for the first time we’re saying that to ourselves, and that can be really powerful,
or maybe we’ve acknowledged it to ourselves before, and we do it again as a sort of re-commitment to tackle our own implicit bias
If that feels true for you, I’ll give us a chance to do that in prayer, to meet the God who, like Ms. McGhee, is visibly moved and nodding encouragingly when we are vulnerable with him in such a way
And, as one last practical suggestion, if this opens up something for you and you want to talk or process more, you’re stirred by the model of that CSPAN caller “I am prejudice; how can I change?”
We have a number of people in this community who are safe and helpful people to talk through about grappling with our own implicit biases, and what to do next.
So one next step you can take is, later in our service, leave us a note on the back of a connect card that you’d like to talk more --
Only Kyle and I, the pastors here, will see it if you do that, and we will follow up with you about connecting you with someone else in this community who would be safe to talk more with.
Alright, I’m going to pray over us
And after I finish, we’re going to enter into a time of song… something spiritual communities have done for centuries to slow down from the pace of life and encounter God at an emotional level.
You can engage in whatever way feels best to you. Maybe it is singing along (we’ll have the lyrics up on the screen here). Or maybe it is just sitting back and letting the music hit you.
And, as we are doing that, this morning’s prayer team will be in the back. Any of them would love to pray with you if you’re feeling any kind of sense that God might be speaking to you -- whether you’re feeling that right now or at any point while we’re singing together.
Having someone pray with you gives you another set of antennae for sensing what God might be offering to you, and hey, you never know, maybe that’s something life-changing today
The people on our prayer team are trained and safe folks; no one is going to make you feel uncomfortable or give you unasked for advice, and everything you share is confidential.
Stand with me, if you would, and I’ll pray.