Sunday, September 28, 2014

The People Want Proof by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

We are physical people. And we are immediate people. When we want something we want it now. Professional advertisers have pinpoint accuracy when it comes to playing into our desires for physical and immediate satisfaction.
SLIDE ONE –  Satisfy your thirst    

SLIDE TWO – Drink Evian

Chris Busch writes:

“Take Evian ?? origins in the French Alps, mountain aquifer, special bottling process.  Feel fresh, young, and beautiful with Evian, the original beauty product.  The story tells of the Cachat Springs located in the quaint town of Evian-les-Bains on the southern shore of Lake Geneva in the Haute Savoie region of the French Alps.  Suddenly I'm having a European experience through the bottle of chilled water I just procured at the c-store with the filthy floors.  I feel healthier.  I've redefined cool.  It's not just water, but water from the French Alps.  It's superb water.  Beyond all other waters.  I feel smarter.  I look better.  You've lifted me out of my mundane, middle-class existence.  Thank you, Evian.  I love you.  I need you.”

Seth Godin writes: “And for those that are missing the point: hey, it's just water.”

You can get it out of the bathroom tap. “You buy bottled water because of the way it makes you feel, because of the impact the story has on your mood, not because you need the fluid.”
Advertisers play into our insecurities. We feel stupid, unattractive and unpopular. So they sell us products with promises of feeling smart, attractive, and popular. We will be successful if we drink Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Evian, and everything else they are trying to sell.
The problem here is that a good life has been turned into a product. We’ve become a transactional society; we trade something for something else.  When we buy into this way of life, paying for products, we are promised companionship, wealth, peace, joy, longevity, health, energy, passion, contentment.
When we view life like this, and then bring God into the picture, we believe God gives us what we want and need as long as we are basically good people. God gives us the products we want in order to give us all these things, these resources. We expect God to bless us with all of those things. When we don’t get them, we blame God.
This is what happened to the people of Israel.  They were freed from slavery by God and going to the land He promised. On the way, they got really impatient.  They were in the desert, the wilderness. They started demanding some products. Some proof. “Okay God, you said we are your people. Let’s see some stuff to prove that you are going to take care of us.”
Interaction in Exodus 17 is quite telling.
There wasn’t a drop of water for the people to drink. The people took Moses to task: “Give us water to drink.” But Moses said, “Why pester me? Why are you testing God?”
[Just like last week with the Manna], they complained to Moses, “Why did you take us from Egypt and drag us out here with our children and animals to die of thirst?”
Moses cried out in prayer to God, “What can I do with these people? Any minute now they’ll kill me!”
5-6 God said to Moses, “Go on out ahead of the people… Take the staff you used to strike the Nile. I’m going to be present before you there on the rock at Horeb. You are to strike the rock. Water will gush out of it and the people will drink.”
6-7 Moses did what he said, with the elders of Israel right there watching. 

Here is the fascinating thing. The scripture does not even record that the water came out. Walter Bruggemann writes that the narrator does not tell us if the people drink. (Source: New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994, p. 817). 

Of course they drank. Over and over again Old Testament stories have the pattern of problem and resolution. Just like a 30 second TV ad. We know that God is not going to bring the people out of slavery just to let them die from dehydration. Of course, we know Moses hit the rock and water comes out.

The significance of this story comes in the last verse. We learn that Moses names the place:  Massah (Testing-Place) and Meribah (Quarreling) because of the quarreling of the Israelites and because of their testing of God when they said, “Is God here with us, or not?”

The story is not about whether or not God will give them water. It is about them testing God and quarreling. 

Walter Bruggemann says that what we are seeing here is “Israel’s inappropriate and remarkable lack of faith” (ibid, p 818). They are “stubborn and arrogant.” They are demanding concrete action from God. God had made this wonderful sweeping promise of a relationship with them. I will be your God and you will be my people. I will love you and you will love me with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. 

These small-minded people have turned God into someone who will dispense products to them like a drive-through carry out. This is why the place is called quarrel and test because the people had completely inverted the relationship. They think they are in charge. They think they can make demands of God. 

The reason they wander for 40 years is because that is how long it takes to mend their relationship with God. 

The passage ends with the question that sums up their testing: “Is God here with us or not?” These people make me crazy!! How could they not know that God is with them? God brought them out of slavery, killed all the first born in Egypt but spared them. God used Moses to convince Pharaoh to release them, then brought them through the sea in a dramatic escape. These are God’s people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. 

We look back on this story, and we know that God is with them. But their faith was weak. They wanted signs and miracles. They wanted water from a rock. They wanted Evian, the best water from the French Alps. That would prove that they were still God’s people, because God gave them what they asked for. But God wanted so much more.

Friends, let’s ask ourselves: are we like them?  Just a little bit? We want signs from God that we are blessed. We want the good life. We are physical people. And we are immediate people. We want it now. We get caught up in the idea that if we are good, then we will get what we want from God: companionship, wealth, peace, joy, longevity, health, energy, passion, contentment. And if bad things happen, and we are lacking any of those things, then we start complaining. Why has God abandoned us? How could God let me get cancer? Or let my child go through a divorce? How could God let me lose my job or get old? 

We want God to make things right, and do it now. God does give us a world where our basic needs can be met, when we learn to share with one another. There is enough food, water and shelter to go around. God has provided what we need. All that other material stuff, it is just extra. We don’t need nearly so much of it.
This is what we do need, and this is what God has to offer. Jesus called it “living water.” Living water is the stuff you drink and then you never get thirsty. It will become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. You see, when we have a relationship with God, when we love God, and let God’s love fill us, then we will have joy. That does not mean we won’t have hard times. It means that with God walking with us through hard times, we will have a sense of deep contentment.  We won’t be worried about physical things like water, because we will trust that God is with us. This is what the people in the story did not understand.
But we can. God wants to walk with us through life, to carry us when we are weak, and to dance with us when we are joyful. God does not want to be an ATM that we go to when we need some cash. God wants to be a best friend who weeps with us and who loves with us. God wants our trust. God never leaves us. God is the living water. God is with us. God’s love never fails.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

God Cares for the People by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

     When I graduated from college I had a once in a life time experience. Actually it was an experience that most people will never have. I know I am so fortunate to have had this opportunity. I won a scholarship through the Rotary Foundation that paid for me to study abroad for a year. I went to the University of Durham England and lived and studied theology for a year before going to seminary. That year was one of the most exciting years of my life. 
But I was actually very insecure when I was in college. I know you will probably find that hard to believe, but it’s true. I suffered from depression and I was not yet getting any treatment for it. That’s another story for another day. I was a very functional depressed person, and so I got the scholarship and went to England. 

It was a really big deal for me to say good-bye to my parents, get on a plane in Dallas Texas, all alone and fly what seemed like half way around the world to another land. I didn’t know anybody in the place that I was going.  Even though they spoke English, it was not the same English we spoke in Texas. I felt a bit like the Israelites who left Egypt and ended up in the Wilderness. 

Everything was different in Durham, England. Now, there were other American students in Durham so there were times when we would get together, often sitting together in the dining hall. We would share stories of how we were adapting to this new place, which was actually a very old place. The buildings we were living in were older than the United States! 

I soon discovered there were two types of American students. There were those of us who went with the flow and tried to make the best of things, drinking in the cultural experience and being grateful for this amazing opportunity. 

And there were those who complained about everything. I remember this one guy who was on his junior year abroad from Harvard. He could not get over the fact that the hot and cold water came out of two different faucets in the sink. I kept trying to tell him, “Just put a stopper in the sink and let the hot and cold mix in the sink to make warm,” it was not that complicated, but he would have none of that. He complained that the milk was not homogenized, so the crème rose to the top. All you had to do was shake it to mix it up. He could not wait to go home for Christmas. I wondered why he had come at all.  What’s the point if  you’re going to complain the whole time. 

The rest of us, leaned into the tradition, even if they pulled us outside our comfort zones. After dinner, the graduate students and the professors would go to their senior Common Room for coffee, cheese and “biscuits” (their word for crackers). Once or twice I got invited as a guest. It was a bit like being on an episode of Downton Abbey. Very formal.  I was stepping back in time but I was also stepping into the culture from which the United States was born. It was not something I would want to do every day, but it was interesting.   So I just went with the flow.

There were times, for example, when I went downtown and walked into a local bakery, that I felt like I was in the wilderness. The locals spoke with an accent that I could barely understand. As a girl from Texas, I just had to point at the bakery case and say “I’ll have that one.” They would laugh at me and I hope they did not cheat me when they made change for me. 

I would get homesick sometimes. Even though I really was not happy in West Texas. As a feminist who wanted to be a pastor I really had no home in West Texas. I knew I would never go back there to live. But living in England, in a place so different from home, there were times I longed for the familiarity of even those awful rednecks back home.  It was strange.  You want what is familiar. 

My situation was just a little bit like that of the people of Israel when the left Egypt and went into the Wilderness. Because, you see, God had promised that they would go to the Promised Land, to a place flowing with milk and honey. But instead they found themselves wandering in the desert with no food to eat and no water to drink. They immediately began to complain. They said to Moses in one of my all-time favorite lines in scripture: “Did you bring us out here to die? Why didn’t you just let us die in Eqypt? At least there we had food to eat?”

It just took a minute for them to go from suffering as slaves to the point that slavery was looking pretty good. How soon we forget.  We human beings can be so fickle. Like that kid from Harvard that could not even appreciate that he was LIVING IN ENGLAND!   What an experience, what an opportunity.  

Walter Bruggemann writes that their “first task is leaving; the second task is believing."  (Quoted in, Kathryn Matthews Huey, Sermon Seeds for September 21, 2014.) They had to put a great deal of trust in Moses in order to leave Egypt. Their second task, now that they are in the wilderness, was believing, to believe in Moses, and also to embrace God. They have to put their trust in God. They have to give themselves over to living in the way of God. 

It appeared that they were going to have to go through a period of testing in the wilderness before they would arrive at the Promised Land. Kathryn Huey writes: “life wasn't going to be suddenly easy… freedom itself provided huge problems” (ibid).

You see, the people had to make a shift in their thinking. Even though living as slaves was horrible, they had been slaves for a long time. It was all they knew. It was familiar. So, in the story, the people have to make a choice for freedom. Kathryn Huey suggests that in this story Pharaoh is not just a “long-dead historical king.” He is “everything that traps us and keeps us down and draws us into a system that mangles the "system" of God.”  By contrast, God tests us, and challenges us. If we are truly going to live as free people then we must answer the question: “Will we put our trust in God?” (ibid).

Walter Bruggeman writes that the manna represents a connection between our loyalties and the source of our food. Are the people going to keep living under the tyranny of Pharaoh’s? Or are they ready to be loyal to God? God “gives in abundance but calls us to walk in faith, in trust, not hoarding but sharing to make sure everyone has enough?” “Will we share with one another? …[we are] strangely trapped and tied to the systems that oppress ... We find ourselves comfortable with that system, whether we realize it or not: are we people of Pharaoh, or people of God? Brueggemann warns, then, that "we must pay attention to what we eat and to who feeds us” (ibid).

The people had to decide if they were going to trust God to provide enough manna, or bread for each day. We didn’t read this part, but the story goes on to say that they were told that on the sixth day, they should collect a double portion for day six and seven. Because as we all know, on the seventh day, creation is supposed to rest. They were told that the food would not spoil and it did not. But some people did not obey Moses and on the seventh day they went out and tried to gather manna. So God said to Moses: “How long are you going to disobey my commands and not follow my instructions? Don’t you see that God has given you the Sabbath? So on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. So, each of you, stay home. Don’t leave home on the seventh day.” So the people quit working on the seventh day. Having this emphasis on the Sabbath in this story shows that this time in the Wilderness was about teaching the people what it means to be in relationship with God. They had lived as slaves for so long. They had forgotten what it meant to be God’s people. 

This season was necessary so that the people would re-form their bond with God. They had spent all those years in an unhealthy dependence on Pharaoh, expecting him to provide for their needs. Pharaoh was a cruel parent. But he was all they had.   They had forgotten God.

Now they were free, but they did not know how to live free. They did not know how to live in a trusting relationship. Have you ever seen this with anyone? They have been treated badly for so long, that when they are in a relationship with someone who wants to treat them well, they don’t know how to function, so they end up sabotaging the relationship? This is what could have happened with the people of Israel. But God stayed with them in the Wilderness, teaching them, and caring for them.

There are at least two important lessons in this story. God provided the food that they needed. And God reminded them that a day of rest is crucial. The food was provided for the day of rest. Pharaoh certainly never gave these slaves a day of rest. They probably had no idea what to do with a day to rest in God and to enjoy the beauty of creation.

Do we? What would happen if we really took one whole day a week to rest in God and to enjoy the beauty of creation? Not to shop, or do housework, or home improvement projects, or run errands, or get more work done for our jobs to make more money so we can buy more stuff. Kathryn Huey writes: “Ironically, we're in a wilderness of too much rather than too little - and not just of food and other necessities and luxuries as well, but of too many electronic screens, too many emails, too many social media calling to us...distracting us from ourselves, in a sense, hindering our ability to be still, to be quiet, to be open to God” (ibid).  

That time in the wilderness for people of Israel called them to see their dependence on God. While they were free from slavery, they still needed God. 

We all need God. We have all been slaves to something. Slaves to the illusion that we are in charge of our lives. Slaves to our work. Slaves to idea that there can be a perfect relationship that will make us feel whole. Some person who will complete us. Don’t get me wrong, I love my husband, and I am glad to have a life partner. But it is too much to expect any human being to meet all my needs. 

But We need God. That time in the wilderness showed the people that they needed God. During our wilderness times, we turn to God. When we are out of our element, like I was in England, it is a test, a chance to see if we will embrace the adventure and trust God, or just spend the whole time complaining and wishing we can go back to the bad old days.  How stupid is that?   Why would I ever want to go back?   
Moses invited the people, standing there in the wilderness, to see the Glory of God. And they did. God fed them. God gave them just what they needed. And they learned to trust God on their journey to the Promised Land.

How about us? When we go through seasons of wilderness, and we find ourselves complaining, can we pause, can we take a Sabbath day to listen to God? Can we take a walk in God’s beauty and remember that we are surrounded by God? Can we look at the food we eat and give thanks that God provides bread? A season of wilderness is an invitation to put our trust in God. We are never far from God. God is right there in the wilderness with us, providing for us. We just have to be still and trust God. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Be Still! by Rev. Tom Rand (with an assist by Patti Lusher)

                                                                                                          Exodus 14:10-16

         I was sitting in a barber's chair in Cincinnati 13 years ago when I first saw those fateful images flash across the screen.  The twin towers had been struck by planes. I watched with disbelief as the confusion unfolded; and great fear began rising in the pit of my soul. Suddenly, what once felt safe seemed vulnerable.  My first reaction was to get back to my wife and my then 10 month old son and hold them tight.  My second reaction was anger, rage at those who would so brazenly disregard life.  I wanted to do something.  My third reaction, almost an afterthought I confess, was to pray.  I organized an impromptu prayer vigil at the church that night and struggled for the rest of the day to find anything to say that was of God.
          In the days and weeks to come, through many hours of prayer I sifted through my responses, my fear, my anger, my disbelief, my sense of vulnerability, my defiant rage until I stumbled upon something to say that seemed to come from God.  Our enemy, I realized, was not Osama bin Laden or the terrorist network that perpetrated these vile crimes against humanity.  Our enemy was hate animated by fear.  Surely those responsible should be held to account, but in the process the only way to rise from the ashes would be to find a deeper courage to resist the fear that leads to hate.  Otherwise, our compulsion to violence as a means of exerting control over the world around us would come not from a desire for justice, but from a thirst for vengeance.  Our enemy was hate animated by fear, and as surely as it motivated our terrorist enemies, it found a home in us too.  The drumbeat for war was already beginning; and it was finding a great resonance chamber in the emptiness we all felt in our hearts.
         I was serving a church in Clermont County on the East side of Cincinnati at the time.  As one of my friends once quipped, it is an area where people had to look left to find George Bush.  As the drumbeat for war intensified, our country struck first Afghanistan, then Iraq with "shock and awe" bombardment designed to demonstrate to the world the power of the United States' military.  I rose in the pulpit on the Sunday following the Iraq invasion and preached against it.  I remember the next Sunday being amused by the congregation's passive-aggressive response.  Every single church member, including the choir in their robes, sat in the pews smiling at me wearing great big red, white and blue stickers stating defiantly, "Support Our Troops."  I don't know how many of you have read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but to me it was like that moment in which every student at Hogwarts seemed to don a magical pin that alternated between the message: "Support Cedric Diggory: the REAL Hogwarts champion" and "Potter Stinks."  That is what I saw in those stickers: Support our Troops: Rand Stinks.
         In polite society, we don't often respond to challenges with overt violence.  We know that is across the line.  Instead we respond with barbs, one-liners, put-downs and passive-aggressive responses that are signals meant to put another in their place.  My church in Cincinnati was masterful at it, but I confess to you that I am well accomplished in this form of manipulation myself.
         In my family I am the primary chef.  I love cooking and, on most days, it is a healthy diversion from work, a creative outlet, and a means of contributing to the domestic well-being of my family.  My wife, Elizabeth, who is also a pastor, does not like to cook.  Most days this arrangement works out fine.  One day last year, however, I came home tired after a long, intensive day in the office.  I was late and I knew we had evening meetings and activities for our kids so I would have no time to cook.  I wondered as I drove home, whether Elizabeth would intuit the stress I was under (even though I had not communicated with her).  I wondered whether she would realize the pinch that I was feeling.  I expected her to have dinner cooking or ready when I walked in the door, even though I had not asked.  She did not.  The expectations of my upbringing in which my mom always cooked and had dinner ready for my dad when he got home came out as I stomped around the kitchen proclaiming, "I can't do it all."
         It was a revealing comment that was meant to manipulate by inserting the knife of guilt and twisting it with shame.  It was meant to put her in her place, even though it was not a place we had agreed to.  It came out of the familial roles I had experienced growing up and was exacerbated by the stress and strain of that particular day. If I'm honest, it also came out of my own shame at not being able that day to pull my weight in the family because I was weighed down with other burdens.  Rather than stopping in the midst of my internal turmoil and asking whether there was an alternative response, rather than communicating openly with her and asking for help, I used my sharp tongue to injure her through the violence of my words.
         When my kids are in trouble, my instinct is to double down on control rather than building up an internal resistance within them that will help them navigate the stresses and temptations of the world around them with grace.    When things are not going well at work, my instinct is always to work harder rather than asking whether there is another way.  When I feel under siege by people and circumstances around me, my instinct is always to exert myself over the people and to manipulate the circumstances to my advantage rather than asking whether there is something valid about criticism that can help me see another pathway forward that is to everyone's advantage.  When I feel vulnerable, I compensate by exerting my will to establish a sense of safety and security around me. 
         As humans, when we feel powerless and out of control, our instinct is to reestablish control over the world around us sometimes by passive-aggressive messages, and sometimes by imposing our will, even by violence.  It is this instinct that lurks behind anger. My will is thwarted; I get angry.
         When the children of Israel got to the Red Sea, they were hemmed in.  There was a vast sea in front of them, a dust cloud of chariots in pursuit.  They saw no way out.  So they cried out to Moses: "was it because the graves in Egypt were not good enough that you took us out in the wilderness to die?  It would have been better to be slaves in Egypt than to die in the wilderness!"  Do you hear the passive-aggressive digging in their outcry, the anger at Moses for leading them into a dead end?  What choice did they have?  They could turn and fight the Egyptians hoping that some remnant would escape, yet knowing that they were unarmed, like sheep led to slaughter.  Or they could roll over, hoping most would not be killed by the bloodthirsty Pharaoh but would be captured and enslaved again under what would surely be even more harsh circumstances than before.  "Was it because the graves in Egypt were not good enough that you brought us into the wilderness to die?"
         So how did Moses respond?  He recognized the fear and vulnerability behind their anger, and he said to them:  "Do not be afraid.  Stay where you are and see what God will do. The Egyptians you fear today you will never see again.  All you have to do is keep still."  Really?!  What was Moses talking about?  If they kept still, they would surely die!  What did he know that they did not?  Why was he not afraid in the face of impossible circumstances?  How could keeping still change their situation?  Surely someone needed to do something. 
         When Moses said, "keep still," he did not mean "don't move your bodies."  He was talking to their souls.  He was speaking to the spirit within that was wracked with fear and looking for a way out, a way to change their circumstance, a way to exert control over the situation in which they found themselves.  Keep still, he insisted, because your instinct is always to exert yourself and your way.  Stop it.  Be still.  Release your desire for control and see what God can do.  Trust your life to the One who sees possibilities that you do not, to the One who can make those possibilities real.
         Moses' call to be still was not a call to passivity, but an invitation to trust God beyond our human capacity to problem solve and work things out for ourselves with the resources we see before us.  Immediately after telling the Israelites to keep still, notice what God says to Moses, "why are you all just standing there?  Tell my people to move forward."  Move forward?  How can we?  There is a sea there.  We cannot swim.  We don't have resources to build boats.  What do you mean move forward?  Then God tells Moses, "lift up your staff and stretch it out over the sea, that my children may walk through the sea on dry ground." God saw possibilities that they could not.  And Moses trusted God.
         The invitation to keep still in the face of fear and uncertainty is not a commandment to passivity and inaction; it is a call to radical trust in a God who knows what we need better than we do, a God who has resources we do not, a God who sees alternative pathways forward that we cannot even imagine.
         This morning I invite you to join me on a journey.  My first response to fear, to stress, to vulnerability and uncertainty has always been to revert to anger, manipulation and control to exert my own will over the circumstances around me.  I am learning, however, that my best response is usually not my first response.  My best response is to stop, to be silent, to ask God to reveal what is really going on in and around me, and to show me a better way forward.
         Right now, I invite you to think about a circumstance in your life that is bothering you, something that is causing fear, stress or anxiety in you, something that feels like it is beyond your control and outside your ability to fix.  What is Pharaoh's army, relentlessly closing in on you?  Now, be still.  Quiet your fear by placing your trust in God, who wills your well-being and knows what that means better than even you do.  Ask God to show you another way.  After a time of silence, I will close with a paraphrase of Psalm 46 that God has rewritten in my life.  I invite you to make this your prayer.

God you are my refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.
Therefore, I will not be afraid, though everything around me changes,
         through earthquake and tsunami,
         through fire and flood,
         even the mountains tremble before you.

Your river of life feeds the streams that sustain me. 
You are constantly flowing through my life, my home, my city.
You are always there with me.  Your home is all about me.
You are there through the long night watch.
You draw me to wakefulness to see you in the fresh light of dawn.

I read in the news and see in my life:
the nations are in an uproar, self-made kingdoms totter.
Yet when you speak, hearts melt.

You really are with us.  Even Jacob eventually gave in and trusted you.  Why do we not?  Why do I not?

I look for evidence of your work all around me.  What are you doing with this mess?
What are you laying to waste and where are you bringing life?
Then I see it: You break our will to dominate by violence.
Your self-giving and sacrifice disarm us.

Speak Lord.  Melt my hard heart.  What would you say to me?  Then I hear the Voice whisper:

Be still.  Stop your tireless striving.  Let go of your desire to control.  Release the world around you into my hands.  Don't you see what I do with it when you let me?

You are not God.  I AM.  Let me be.

Lift me up, let me be Lord of your life so that I may be lifted up and made Lord among all the nations throughout the earth.

I AM with you.  I will be the God of the heavens and of the earth,
         if you will let me be. 
Even Jacob finally gave in and trusted me, when will you?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

God Promises Freedom by Cheri Holdridge (with an assist by Kurt Young)

If you have been to a worship service during Holy Week, on the night we call Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, then you have definitely heard the story of Passover. It’s the meal Jesus and his disciples, as good Jews were celebrating the night he was betrayed. Perhaps you have even been to a church where they have done some sort of reenactment of the Passover seder which is the special meal associated with Passover. Or maybe you have had the privilege of participating in a Passover seder with a Jewish family.

Passover is a high holy festival among Jewish people as they remember the time over 3000 years ago when their people were led out of slavery and into freedom. The name Passover comes from these instructions from God. Each family was to slaughter a lamb and prepare a meal. They were to take some of the blood and mark the door frame of their house. They were also supposed to bake unleavened bread. This is to signify that the next day they left in a hurry, no time for bread to rise. They ate bitter herbs, again as a symbol of their pain and suffering as slaves. And they were to eat with their sandals on and a walking stick in their hand, ready to leave in a hurry. 

At midnight every first born in Egypt, even down to the prisoners in the jail and even the animals was struck dead. But God passed over all the homes with blood marking their door. This was a sign that the Hebrew slaves were to be set free. 

Pharaoh called in Moses and Aaron and ordered the Hebrew people to leave immediately. They were free! After 430 years of living in Egypt, much of it as slaves, they could go home. And so to this day, every year, Jewish people celebrate the Passover of God. They celebrate the day that God, using Moses, defeated Pharaoh and led the people into freedom. When Jewish people suffered the atrocities of the Nazi Holocaust, they remembered this story and held onto this story. Our God led us into freedom once, and God will do it again. 

When Africans Americans suffered as slaves in this country they held onto this story of being led to Freedom.  And when they continued to suffer under Jim Crow laws in the south, this story of freedom was a source of strength and hope. Our God will save us. Our God has heard the cries of the people who were slaves in Egypt. God did not forget them and God will not forget us. God will lead us into freedom. This story inspires us when we feel trapped.

However, I must confess I find this story troubling.  There is something about this story that I do not like. I do not like God’s tactics in this story. God is judgmental. God is violent. I know, we sometimes try to deal with stories like this by saying, “This is the God of the Old Testament, but in the New Testament, after Jesus comes along, Jesus shows us that God is more compassionate.” But the God of the Old Testament IS the God of the New Testament. The people had some misunderstandings of what it meant to follow God in Old Testament times, but there is only one God.

So what do we make of a God who comes by night and strikes dead the first born of every Egyptian family? Biblical scholar Terence E. Fretheim explains it this way (Source Exodus: Interpretation A Bible commentary for Teaching and Preaching, by Terence E. Fretheim, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1991 pp.141). We have to go back to a statement in Exodus 4:21-23, the story we read last week, when Moses is still tending sheep on the Mountain of Horeb and God calls him to go to Egypt. “God said to Moses, “When you get back to Egypt, be prepared: All the wonders that I will do through you, you’ll do before Pharaoh. But I will make him stubborn so that he will refuse to let the people go. Then you are to tell Pharaoh, ‘God’s Message: Israel is my son, my firstborn! I told you, “Free my son so that he can serve me.” But you refused to free him. So now I’m going to kill your son, your firstborn.’”

Remember that Pharaoh had tried to kill all the first born of the Hebrew people, Moses’ people? These are the people of Israel, they are God’s first born, and God’s chosen people. If you kill all the first born this equals genocide for the race. Pharaoh was trying to kill off God’s children (ibid). This angered God.

Now, what God had in Pharaoh was a leader who thought he was in charge of a people. He was dedicating the children to their own gods. By putting to death the first born of Egypt God was threatening the future of the Egyptian people. This was a game changer. Something to get their attention. To let them know that the one true God was their God too. The God who created the universe created them too. And by the way, God was no going to tolerate Pharaoh making slaves of the Hebrew people (ibid).  

We can debate whether or not we like the idea of God putting to death so many Egyptians to get their attention. Just like we can debate whether or not bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the way to end WWII. We can debate whether or not we think this story is literally true or some sort of metaphor. I’m cool with that. The point of the story, is that something big happened. The Egyptians were finally crippled. This was the final blow to the tyrant Pharaoh. And the Hebrew people finally had a chance to make their run for freedom. God had sent Moses to free the people and now, finally, they were able to be free. 

This is a story of freedom. God wants us to be free. God created us to be free. God wants all people to be free. 

So why is it that we try so hard to control one another? We need some order, Fair enough. We create traffic laws and street lights so that we don’t have chaos on the roads and won’t run into one another. Parents set boundaries for children because children’s brains have not fully developed. They don’t have impulse control. They can’t handle complete freedom. Psychopaths that are a danger to themselves and others have to be in places where they will be safe and others will be safe from them. Okay, I don’t think God wants freedom to the point of anarchy. 

But God did not create us so that some people would rule over others and live in luxury while others sweat and toil and suffer with no space in life for beauty and joy. The story of Exodus shows us that God will not abide that sort of imbalance in creation. God gets angry and God acts to set people free.

God wants each one of us to be free, free to be the person God created us to be. But if some other person is controlling us or holding us back in some way, that person is going against God. And if we participate in letting that person control us then we have some responsibility to speak up, and work to get balance in that relationship, or leave, to be free. Because God wants us to be free to be the person God created us to be.

Now, if a system perpetuates an oppression of a group of people then that system is going against the way of God because God is not an oppressor. God loves freedom. Let me give you some examples of systemic oppression. 

“While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Once convicted, black offenders receive longer sentences compared to white offenders. The U.S. Sentencing Commission stated that in the federal system black offenders receive sentences that are 10 percent longer than white offenders for the same crimes.  Source: “The Top 10 Most Startling Facts About People of Color and Criminal Justice in the United States.”  That is systemic oppression. 

Just ask any African American person you know and they will probably tell you a story of being pulled over by the police for no apparent reason, or being arrested for no probable cause, or they may know someone who knows someone who has been roughed up by the police or worse. I am not blaming the police here, they are part of a bigger picture of systemic racism in our country that goes all the way back to slavery. 

Our country was founded on the premise that white people could go to Africa and take free people from their homes and force them to come here to work. Our American economy was built on the backs of slaves. There is no getting around that. The freedom of some was built upon the slavery of others. Our country is still suffering from that history. I have, of course, never owned a slave, but I enjoy the privilege of being white in this country. It means I was more likely to grow up with opportunities for a better education and access to opportunities and more wealth. And in this country money brings power and control over others. 

But here’s the thing: God does not want one group of people to control another group of people or one single person to control another person. God wants people to be free. But we have a culture that values money and gives power and control to those with money. In many ways we all still live on the plantation where the one with the most money makes slaves of the rest, because we all want to be the plantation owner. “the one who dies with the most toys wins,” right? 

There is no place in scripture that says money and power will bring us eternal joy. I challenge you to find that.  Rather, God created each one of us to be the person God created us to be. All this striving to be someone else, or the picture of perfection is for nothing. We can never attain some imaginary vision of what we think is perfection. In God’s eyes we are already perfect. I know we say there are no perfect people. That means we all make mistakes. What we do is imperfect, but who we are… well who we are is perfect. In God eyes, we are good. Each one of us free to be the good creation that God created us to be.  

God wants you to live out your calling and that means that the person sitting next to you has to be free to live out his or hers. Until everyone is free, no one is free. Our freedom is interconnected. If one person is enjoying a lavish life at the expense of someone else’s suffering then “WE” are not free. 

So how do we seek freedom for everyone? We value community. We can’t just look out for ourselves. That is not freedom. Looking out for yourself is self-interest but it is not free. Freedom is the security of knowing that you are being the person God put you on this earth to be and so is each and every other person around you. Because when they are being who God created them to be, they will be content, and you will be too. We won’t be fighting with each other because that is not what God wants. God wants each one of us to be blessed and full of joy and using our gifts. 

Now, we can’t force everyone else, today, (or ever) to decide to live into God’s desire for them. If we have a good relationship with them, then we can invite them to do that and we can walk beside them. That is a great thing to do. We can do this today: we can decide for ourselves to live into God’s desire for ourselves. We can be set free: free from the control that anyone else is trying to have over us, free from any systems that would oppress us and others. We can believe that we are free. We can put our trust in God to guide us. 

If you will, I invite you to say these two sentences with me:

I want to be the person God created me to be.

I will be free.