Saturday, September 13, 2014

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 15

I will sing to God, who has triumphed gloriously.
Horse and rider are thrown into the sea.
God is my strength, my song, my salvation.
This is my God, whom I will praise,
our parents' God, whom I will exalt.
God is a warrior: Eternal is God's name. R
Pharaoh's chariots and his army are cast into the sea;
his chosen officers are sunk in the Red Sea.
The floods covered them;
they went down into the depths like a stone,
your right hand, O God, glorious in power,
your right hand, shattered the enemy.
In your great majesty you overthrew your foes;
you sent out your fury
and consumed them like stubble. R

Time to open the crazy phone call file.

In my secret life as the church secretary here, I get the most interesting calls, like this week:

Someone called asking to rent our baptism pool. ‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘we don’t use a baptism pool. We have a font.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘so you don’t do real baptisms.’ I tried to explain how we like to think we do the real kind, but she hung up.

Or the person who called some time ago asking for money. This is not an unusual request, except this person wanted the money to be hand delivered to her house, and if I refused, she was going to call down fire and destroy the city. ‘Can I at least get some warning on the whole ‘call down fire thing’ I asked. ‘Nope, no warnings.’

The collection agency called for Iman Amadi again this week. That’s year six of calls on that particular file. When I told the caller that I had preached about Iman Amadi back in the spring they were simply delighted.

This one bugs me the most: I got two calls in the same day regarding trouble with my computer. It’s a well-known (and scary) phishing scam whereby the caller begins with something like ‘we see there is a serious virus in your Microsoft computer and we can help.’ I’m supposed to give them unfettered access to the computer (which can be done remotely) while they steal all my information.

Ignoring the fact that I have a Mac, I let them talk long enough to incriminate themselves. So, a minute or so into the first call I say ‘I know what you’re doing, so I’m going to hang up now. But after I do, I want you to call the police and turn yourself in. Bye now.’ When the same call came in the afternoon, I was getting annoyed. A minute or so into the call I said ‘look, you called me earlier—this is a terrible scam—and I have to warn you that if you continue on this path your soul will spend eternity in hell. Bye now.’

I should tell you that I don’t usually cast people into the lake of fire, or condemn them to eternal damnation—but two calls in one day, come on! Phoning people randomly to steal all their personal information? So this is the PSA part of the sermon. If someone calls you out of the blue offering to fix your computer remotely, you should politely say no, tell them to turn themselves in to police—and if you wish—hint at some eternal peril.

Of course, that would be rather unusual for good United Church folk. We seem to have largely walked away from a belief in hell—and for good reason—since too many of our Christian kin like to make long lists of who’s off to hell and who isn’t. It’s Christianity’s least attractive side, the we’re-in-and-you’re-out approach to ecumenical and interfaith relations.

It remains, however, part of our DNA, with Article 19 of the Basis of Union still official belief: “the finally impenitent shall go away into eternal punishment and the righteous into life eternal.” In other words, we’re pretty happy with the last part, but increasingly uncomfortable with the first part.

And this, it seems, is part of a wider movement toward a friendlier and more palatable understanding of the Christian religion, not just in the United Church, but among mainline tribes generally. Tired of Christians judging everyone? Downplay God’s judgement. Tired of people praying that God take their side? Downplay God’s agency.

We end with a God that is little more than a bumper-sticker (“God is love”) or little more than a projection of what we imagine is our best selves: left or centre-left, pacifist, reads the Toronto Star. And it’s easy to find this understanding in the Bible, simply by reading the wildly popular Micah 6: “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Now, I’m not dismissing this vision of God for our lives—God knows this world needs more justice, mercy and humility. My concern is a reduction in our understanding of God based on our experience, worldview, or personal preferences. The picture of God found in scripture is complex and multifaceted, preserved from generation to generation, and deemed authoritative for our life together. In other words, a discipline: we need to consider and seek to understand the complexity of God, while confessing that much of what we think we know cannot be fully known.

I share all of this because of a treasure known as the “Song of the Sea.” We recited it with Joyce, an ancient and epic poem that describes the moment Moses and the Israelites pause to mark and celebrate their liberation—the liberation God has just provided.

It is considered by scholars to be among the oldest parts of the Bible, and includes a fragment of a poem that may reach back to the event itself. Some of the phrases may have been inspired or borrowed from ancient Canaanite sources, and express an idea that forms the heart of the Exodus story: God overcame Pharaoh to save the Israelites.

3 The Lord is a warrior;
the Lord is his name.
4 Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.

The poetry is vivid and visceral—a violent end for a violent people. The very ones who would enslave these people once more are drowned in the sea. Moses continues:

7 “In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.
8 By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood up like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.

And in the end, when the people are safe on the other shore, there is singing, led by Moses’ sister Miriam, the prophetess who—timbrel in hand—gives voice to this great moment:

“Sing to the Lord, for he is high exalted.
Both horse and driver, has hurled into the sea.”

It was Philo of Alexandria, writing at the time of Christ, who suggested that this was sung by “two choruses, one of men and the other of women,”* with one led my Moses and one led by Miriam. They both sing it in the passage, making Philo’s suggestion rather elegant.

So I clearly love the poetry, but can I love the sentiment too? Can I embrace this warrior God, this defender of the helpless ones, trapped between warhorses and the Red Sea? Or is it simply the projection of hope, a postlude of gratitude? Or, is it a description of divine violence we can countenance no more?

And these questions lead me to ISIS, or ISIL, or more commonly, the Islamic State. Shunned by al-Qaeda for being too brutal, this group has managed to occupy territory across Syria and Iraq roughly three times the size of Lebanon. Using unspeakable methods, this group has terrorized local populations, displaced thousands, and certainly committed genocide.

President Obama said “ISIL is not Islamic,” since “no religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslim.” His statement that this is extremism and not religion is an important bit of context, and underlines why ISIS is opposed by Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and countries around the world.

So what do we pray? Do we pray for the defeat of ISIS? Or do we simply pray for peace? Do we speak out when some of the oldest Christian communities in the world are destroyed, or do we keep silent while remembering the Crusades and our own version of holy war?


Then Peter said, “Lord, if someone sins against me, how often should I forgive? Seven times?”
“No Peter,” Jesus said, “not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” Then he told a parable.

In this parable, a merciful king decides to forgive a great debt. But moments later, when the one forgiven a great debt is barely out the door, he meets someone who owes him a paltry sum, grabs him by the throat and says “pay me what you owe!” Learning of this, the king summons the forgiven debtor once more and turns him over to be tortured until the original debt is repaid. Jesus concludes: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."

It’s not a warm and fuzzy story. It has to be his most violent, and most unexpected when the topic at hand is forgiveness. Even omitting the conclusion, which could very likely be the work of an over-zealous scribe, the parable gives us an unexpected turn pointing to the paradox of forgiveness: In a Kingdom defined by forgiveness, the truly unforgiving can hardly expect forgiveness.

So we are back to a merciful God who may not show mercy to the unmerciful. The God of peace who will destroy those who seek to destroy the vulnerable. The God of love who spoke through Jesus to say “love your enemies” but will “scatter the proud and bring down rulers from their throne” (Luke 1) to quote the mother of Jesus.

I propose we step out of our comfort zone very briefly, and set aside a sense of God’s neutrality in favour of God’s justice—God’s justice that demands that the vulnerable be protected. And I suggest we pray: for a world made new, where war and terror are no more, and where people of goodwill can live in peace, Amen.

*Kirsch, Moses: A Life, p. 193


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