Sunday, August 31, 2014

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father,[a] the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.

If you’ve decided to take all your summer adventures and turn them into the next great Canadian novel, I have to warn you: there are really only seven basic plots that make up the world of stories. Seven—no more, no less.

I learned this last week during a workshop with Julia Golding, a UK-based author of books for children and youth. While describing her own journey from reader to successful writer, she mentioned the seven basic plots according to the aptly named theorist Christopher Booker.

So what are these seven plots, and how do they summarize every story ever told? We’ll ask Mr. Booker, and he’ll get us on the right path toward becoming the next Dan Brown.

The first basic plot is called ‘Overcoming the Monster,’ so think Beowulf or Star Wars. In this plot, our hero discovers that great evil exists in the world and sets out to destroy it.

The next basic plot is called ‘Rags to Riches,’ and for this we have Cinderella or Harry Potter. Our hero begins in a very humble place, gains wealth or status, faces some sort of setback, then finally matures into a princess or a great wizard.

Third is “The Quest,’ a storyline best demonstrated by The Lord of the Rings. One or more intrepid people set out to get something or go somewhere, encountering every sort of adventure on the way.

Fourth is ‘Voyage and Return,’ like the Wizard of Oz or Back to the Future for you Michael J. Fox fans. Our hero enters a strange land and encounters some adversary or problem, and must confront it before returning wiser and more mature.

Next is ‘Comedy,’ like When Harry Met Sally or Bridget Jones’ Dairy. In this plot it is obvious that two people ought to be together, but circumstances conspire to keep them apart. We laugh as they foolishly try to overcome these circumstances.

This is followed, of course, by ‘Tragedy,’ in the manner of Macbeth, always the best example. Our anti-hero seems to achieve what he seeks, only to have his whole world appropriately fall apart.

The last, number seven, is ‘Rebirth,’ best demonstrated by old Ebenezer Scrooge himself. The one who starts out looking like a villain will have some kind of encounter or experience that will precipitate a complete change in direction.

Now, of course, you are worried that the complete story that came to you in a dream doesn’t fit into one of these neat little categories. You will be pleased to know you can mix and match, or occupy more than one category and easily get away with it. How do I know? Because the story of Moses and the Exodus does precisely that.

Obviously Moses is Overcoming the Monster, because the monster is Pharaoh. Pharaoh is the Darth Vader of the Bible, a fact that Moses only begins to discover after he kills the Egyptian taskmaster and must flee into the wilderness of Midian. When God calls Moses and tells him to go back, the true villainy of Pharaoh is confirmed (“I have seen the misery of my people,” God says).

And the monster Pharaoh’s heart is hardened not once, but twice: once to refuse Moses’ (and God’s) demand to release the people, and again after they were free. As horse and rider are thrown into the sea, we are finally assured that the monster has been defeated.

Equally obvious is the fact that the story of Moses is Rags to Riches story. This tiny Hebrew lad is saved from destruction by floating down the Nile in basket, only to end up in the palace with a princess as his adopted mother. Like the other ‘boy who lived’ (Harry Potter) Moses will only later discover who he truly is, and will then rejoin his people and face the ultimate conflict.

For both Harry and Moses there will be a contest to the death with an intimately connected foe. Moses and Pharaoh grew up together, and in the same way Harry and he-who-must-not-be-named became forever connected the first time Voldemort tried to kill Harry. Only one can survive, and with God’s help, it was Moses (spoiler alert: and Harry).

Of course, you will argue, the story of Moses and the Exodus is a classic Quest story, and perhaps the ultimate quest story: finding the promised land. These intrepid people achieve their freedom, but this is only the beginning. They must wander in the desert for forty years, encountering hunger, thirst, snakes, and ultimately themselves.

And like The Lord of the Rings, the Exodus is really a journey of self-discovery, learning what it means to be God’s people, and learning how they must live once they arrive at the promised land. And like Sam and Frodo, God and Moses journey together and enjoy a special bond, but are still reduced to disagreeing and bickering along the way. And, of course, like Samwise, God always saves Moses in those moments of great peril.

Maybe you will argue this is a Voyage and Return story, whereby a death at the beginning of the story, whether it be that Egyptian taskmaster or a wicked witch, forces a journey into the unknown. Both Moses and Dorothy have made powerful enemies, and must return to confront them whether they want to or not.

I think my favourite is the Exodus as a comedy, in the sense that God and God’s people are meant to be together, but circumstances keep driving them apart. Moses goes up the hill to receive the commandments and the people immediately start making a golden calf, breaking the first and second commandments before the ink has even dried.

There is even the madcap moment when God says ‘look, Moses, at what your people have done—these are stiff-necked people and deserve only one fate.’ But then Moses say ‘wait a minute God, these are YOUR people, not my people. Imagine the humiliation of saving these people only to turn around and destroy them.‘ And God relents. And just like every classic comedy, they end up together in the end.

But maybe you like the Scottish play more than Bridget Jones. The story of Moses is a tragedy insofar as he will never reach the promised land. At a critical moment, Moses makes the mistake that costs him everything. He has confronted God and troubled God, but only once does he accept God’s help and claim the miracle as his own.

God guides Moses to supply water from the rock, which he does, then neglects to give God credit for the miracle. In effect, he tried to take the place of God before the people, and his punishment was to die just before he reaches the promised land. In other words, it’s a tragedy.

And finally, it seems obvious that the Exodus is a rebirth story. Plucked from the Nile, Moses is reborn. On the run in the desert of Midian, God brings him back. Emerging from the parted Red Sea, like we emerge from the water of baptism, Moses lives to lead these people.

Even in his tragic death, in sight of the promised land, Moses is reborn through the epitaph found in Deuteronomy 34:

Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.

The story of Moses, the greatest prophet Israel has ever known, is more than one story or even seven stories. It is the story of stories because it is the story of the one who met the God-who-cares. It is the story of the one who stood in the presence of God and did not perish, selected to facilitate the liberation that God intends for all of us. It is the story of the God who selects unique men and woman to overcome monsters, face overwhelming odds, and ultimately triumph, based solely on their trust in God.

May this story become our story, a journey with God toward the promised land: with trouble that will not overwhelm, with faithful companions by our side, and with the power of God, directing our way and supplying all our needs, now and always, amen.


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