Sunday, March 03, 2013

But Deliver Us

 Exodus 3:1-15

            In his introduction to our book for Lent, Speaking Christian, Marcus Borg tells us that when he left the Midwest and went to the West Coast to teach, he began one of his classes by stating that in order to understand Christianity, you have to understand its roots in Judaism.  Immediately a hand shot up.  “What’s Judaism?” a student wanted to know.  Borg began to explain Judaism by referring to Moses.  Another raised a hand.  “Who’s Moses?” 

            I suspect that there may well be a good slice of this congregation today in the same predicament in which Borg’s students found themselves.  You may know what Judaism is (or not) and you may know who Moses was (or not), but I suspect that few people could articulate exactly why we would be hearing about Moses on this particular Sunday. 

            So we have our work cut out for us.  The second and third Sundays in Lent, this season in which we are moving towards a celebration of “the Paschal Mystery,” a name we give to Jesus’ death and resurrection, are invariably about Abraham and Moses.  That is because in our holy history, Abraham and Moses represent the two pillars on which our covenant relationship with God rests.  What Borg was trying to tell his students is that there is no way of understanding the importance we Christians attach to Jesus and the “New” Covenant made through him without understanding the “Old Covenant” in which God creates a people through Abraham and delivers them from bondage to freedom through Moses.  By the way, “new” is not necessarily good and “old” is not necessarily bad.  There is nothing shameful about being old, even if you are a covenant.  I’m saying that because it has become fashionable in recent times to avoid calling the Old Testament the Old Testament or Covenant.  No matter what you call it, it gets a certain amount of bad press in Christian circles because it is quite wrongly supposed that the Old Testament’s God is pretty wretched in contrast to the rather cuddly God of the New.  Nothing could be further from the truth regarding either Testament.

            Now the reason that all this business about Old and New Covenants (better known as “Testaments” in the sub-titles of the Bible), is that it is all one story.  It makes no sense to skip act one of a play because all you want to see is act two, especially if there is no way of understanding the second act without the first.  It can also work the other way around.  Sometimes what it revealed in the second act or the third clarifies and indeed interprets what was happening in the first act.  So Paul, writing to the Corinthians in the Letter you heard read a few minutes ago, uses the language and experience of the New Covenant to understand what was happening in the Old Covenant.  I’m not so sure that Paul was all that successful in reinterpreting the Old Covenant, but give him an A for at least trying to see the relevance of past experience for his own time. 

            If we had to choose one chapter in the entire Old Testament that is the lynchpin of the whole thing, it would arguably be Exodus 3, the story you heard this morning.  Why?  Because the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt is the formative event in its history.  Before that, we can’t even be sure that there was a history, to be honest.  Yes, we have stories, important ones.  But we can say with some assurance that the nation of Israel was born in the Exodus from Egypt.  All the scriptures are written in light of that conviction.  When centuries later a scribe wrote, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” he was writing about the God he knew from the story of the Exodus.  The creator God was the liberating God. 

            Exodus:  the way out, the coming out of God’s people.  It all began one day when Moses was out keeping the flock of Jethro, his father-in-law.  Moses had gotten there ironically because he had indeed escaped from Egypt and from a murder conviction that was likely coming his way.  If you read the whole story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush on Mount Horeb or Sinai, it is full of humor and pathos.  We feel for Moses who is being called to do something indescribably difficult, namely lead a horde of slaves out from under the control of a very powerful state.  But the guts of the story is not what Moses says but what God says.  “I have observed the sufferings of my people in Egypt…  I have heard their cry.  I know their sufferings.  I have come down to deliver them.”  I have come down to deliver them.  That one phrase sets the stage for all that is to come.  God is a God of deliverance.  God observes, hears, knows, and delivers. 

            It would be hard to overestimate the importance of those verbs, because from then on, the story unfolds a relationship that God has with the oppressed, with the downtrodden, with the marginalized, with the non-people, the outcasts, the vulnerable, the poor.  We never ever hear the Bible saying that God somehow prefers that we should be slaves or downtrodden or oppressed.  We hear instead how God makes a people and challenges them to share God’s concern for the little people—children, strangers, foreigners without citizenship, the socially outcast, the politically powerless.  The scriptures make no bones about what God is up to.  It is called righteousness.  But righteousness in the biblical vocabulary has nothing at all to do with moral rectitude, let alone with personal purity.  It has to do with right relationships, the goal of which is always to bring about a redress of wrongs, a healing of broken bonds, and the establishing of justice.  That is in fact what justice means:  the lining up of relationships in their rightful order and proper balance. 

            Now if you can get that far, then it is perhaps possible to begin to see why it is that God is so intent on delivering people.  Sometimes people simply need to be delivered from oppression, and they need someone to intervene on their behalf.  Note that God apparently cannot, or will not, do this alone—at least not among humans.  It seems to be the divine preference that people, Moses for example, be called up and enlisted in the program, because it is through humans that humans are most likely to be delivered  and thus to be changed.  That is not to say that God is not a hands-on God; but it is to say that God works within the very limits, as well as with the capacities, that we humans manifest.  After all God made us and the world the way we are, not the way we might wish to be.

            Let me be clear about what is at stake here.  The overarching story, not only about Moses and the Children of Israel, but about Jesus and us, is a story about deliverance.  The whole kit and caboodle is about deliverance, all kinds of deliverance on all levels, deliverance from the power of evil, deliverance from our own self-sustaining neuroses, deliverance from illness, deliverance from sin (we’ll come back to that one, so hold on), deliverance from evil, deliverance from death, especially deliverance from death as a scary monster whom we have to fear.  Trouble is, most of the time we are not only not aware that we can be delivered; we don’t really imagine that we need to be delivered.  I know I don’t speak for all of you, but really:  if you are relatively affluent—rich by the world’s standards—have what you think you need or at least able to get it without too much trouble; if you are white, straight, well-educated, or some combination of all of that, what on earth do you need to be delivered from?  And what would you like to be delivered to except more of what you already have?  If you are already relatively powerful, accepted, affirmed, why would you find deliverance an attractive notion at all?  Does it not sound like the title of an old movie, a concept more at home among the snake-handling sects of Appalachia, the province of weird exorcists than anything you identify with? 

            Ah!  You may think that because you don’t fit the mold of this litany of characteristics I’ve named, you are immune to being blasé about deliverance.  But, truth be told, you and I are most likely in need of deliverance from things we at best vaguely recognize.  And usually they are not the problems that we’d put first on our list of priorities to be addressed:  good job, good money, decent housing, affordable health care, happy family life, personal fulfillment.  Let me share with you a telling example.  Some of you are aware that I have been working with a small group of you lately on the matter of violence, especially gun violence.  We drafted a letter and shared it with a number of church leaders in our diocese, calling on our diocesan council to look carefully at the way we invest church funds.  Our belief is that the church ought not to be making money off of firearms, munitions, and other means of killing people.  Someone pointed out that our position might be untenably broad.  After all, were we suggesting that not only private guns but military weapons not be the subjects of investment?  Good question.  But the person, a very thoughtful person I might add, went on to ask if we were prepared to argue for disinvestment in Quaker Oats if they were somehow themselves involved in companies that produce ammunitions and weapons.  What is more, how can we draw the line?  That well illustrates the fact that, like it or not, we are enmeshed in an endless complex net that cannot be easily untangled into “good” and “bad.”  That is the story of the world in which we live.  Whether it is personal life or business life or corporate involvement or government programs or the judicial system or the educational system or the banking system or the medical world, we are involved in networks that far transcend individual human initiatives.  Even the best of them corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and not just human creatures.  It is not just personal sin that we need to be delivered from.  That is relatively easy to deal with compared with these vast and powerful economic, political, and social systems in which we are usually pawns and players, no matter how personally powerful—or good—we might be. 

            Is it possible to be delivered from such a predicament at all, short of the total destruction of society as we know it?  Short of our own death?  Well, no, and yes.  If you read our own holy story, you will see that, although the Israelites had an exodus out of Egypt, they did not necessarily become immune to other kinds of slavery.  Over the coming centuries they were to experience corruption, rebellion, massive government dysfunction, wars, forced labor, deportation, exile, serious religious regression, and spiritual malaise.  From any one of these they needed deliverance on a level they themselves could not supply.  Over and over again they had to turn to God, learning many things that affirmed the old ways, but many things that pushed them across new and frightening frontiers.  And still these our fathers and mothers found themselves trapped in behaviors and mindsets that defied anything but the most radically divine deliverance—witness Jesus. 

            But there is also the “yes” answer to the question of whether we can actually be delivered from our predicament.  And it might not be quite what you think.  When St. Paul, writing to the Romans, asked, “Who will deliver me from this body of sin and death?”  he was not merely talking about his human body.  He was talking about the entire existence of life in this world lived apart from God.  It is personal and it is also communal.  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” he exclaims.  Jesus, through his death and resurrection, breaks through the net which has us trapped.  And while we still have to live, inevitably within this trap where good is on the defensive and evil is always lurking to subvert good purposes to its own twisted ends, we can little by little find deliverance by getting on the side of God.  We can intentionally hearken to the drumbeat calling us to act like God—defying Pharaoh, listening to the cries of the distressed, paying attention to the sufferings of the world (not just our own), even enlisting in Operation Deliverance ourselves.  That is what it means to be baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  That is what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.  That is what it means to thumb our nose at the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. 

            In C. S. Lewis’ famous story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,  Aslan the magnificent lion lies on the great stone table having given his life for the sake of freeing Narnia.  You and I understand that Aslan is in fact Christ, bound on his cross.  And we might well understand that Aslan is also in a sense you and I, tied up in systems that choke and stifle us, bound by forces that keep us enslaved.  Susan and Lucy, two of Aslan’s admirers, grief-stricken at seeing the great animal muzzled and tied by the spiteful rabble that has killed him, want to untie him in one last act to respect his dignity. 
They are unable.  But there is a tiny movement going on in the grass under their feet.  It turns out to be mice, which the girls think are rather pathetically trying to untie Aslan not realizing he is dead.  But as the sun rises in the dawn, dozens and even hundreds of little field mice gnaw through the ropes that have bound the noble lion.  Suddenly there is a shattering noise, the great stone table on which he lay is broken in two from end to end, and Aslan appears behind them, free, alive, real, risen, strong.  All those little mice had played their part.  They had in their own way contributed to his deliverance.  And because Aslan was delivered from his bondage, he is free to bring Susan and Lucy and all who follow him into his own freedom.

            That is our story.  You never can tell what unlikely creatures or mysterious developments will deliver you and set you free.  But you may be sure that if you throw in your lot with the God who has come to deliver the world from its bondage, you will finally be free and there will be no turning back.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

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