Sunday, November 25, 2018

Reign of Christ

Psalm 132
At Ephrathah we heard God's ark was there;
we found it in the region of Jaar.
'Let us approach the place where the Most High rests,
let us kneel in worship at God's footstool.'
Arise, O God, and enter your resting-place,
you and your mighty ark.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness;
let your faithful people shout for joy. R
For your servant David's sake, do not reject your Anointed.
You made a sure promise to David,
a promise that will never be revoked:
'One of your own children I will set upon your throne.
And if they in turn keep my covenant,
the teaching that I give them,
their descendants too shall sit on your throne
in succession for ever.' R

As symbols of royal power go, this one has had a troubled history.

I’m speaking, of course, about the mace, that fancy gilded object that looks—well, like a mace—and is a symbol of the authority of the crown. It sits on a table in the center of the house, and reminds legislators that the Her Majesty (or her representative) is always present. Parliamentary fun fact: when the queen or her representative is actually there, the mace is draped with a velvet cloth, since it would be redundant to have it out.

The troubled history began during that time our town was captured by the Americans. Funny, we don’t seem to talk about it much, maybe we’re embarrassed about the defeat in April 1813, but one of the atrocities was the burning of parliament (then located on Parliament Street) and the theft of the mace. For 122 years it sat in the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, a prize of war, until FDR saw fit to return it.

Fast forward to 1849, and the replacement mace was busy serving the Parliament of the United Provinces of Canada in Montreal. Stolen by a riotous mob, it was returned. Threatened after a riotous mob burned parliament to the ground, it was saved. Moved to Ottawa when our shiny new dominion was formed, it lived a comfortable life after all that tumult only to be caught in the 1916 fire that destroyed the Centre Block, leaving the mace just a lump of gold and silver amalgam.

The great thing about symbols, though, is you can just make another one. The mace, the throne, even parliament itself can be rebuilt or replaced but the underlying authority remains. So too with the symbols of biblical kingship, beginning, of course, with the Ark of the Covenant. Constructed while the Israelites were wandering in the desert, this symbol of God’s presence became the unifying symbol during this period. It contained the shattered tablets and a pot of manna, representing God’s law and the God’s sustaining presence through bread from heaven.

When they entered the promised land, the ark led the way. The waters of the Jordan parted (more symbolism) and the feet of those who carried the ark remained dry. It was carried about the walls of Jericho seven times, leading the siege before the walls tumbled down. The ark then become an important tool of war, leading the army of the conquest, overcoming tribes and peoples until the day it did not.

Captured by the Philistines, much like our beloved mace, it became a prize of war. Apparently the Philistines didn’t have a naval academy, so the ark was toured around the land, now a symbol of the humiliation of the Israelites. Well that backfired. At Ashdod, it caused the holy statue of Dagon to fall. Outside the temple of Dagon, the people developed tumours, followed by a plague of mice, just because. Moved to Gath, then Ekron, it gave the locals boils. Moved to a nearby field, some made sacrifices before the ark, and seventy were smitten—not smitten like your first sweetheart, but smitten.

Needless to say, this particular symbol wasn’t working out for the Philistines, so they packaged it up and gave it back, return to sender. The Israelites, by this point used to fighting without the ark, sort of forgot about it. It wasn’t fully retired, but King Saul was too impatient to consult the ark or carry the ark and it began to collect dust.

Enter David. Former shepherd boy, budding poet, he quickly becomes a favourite in the king’s court, impressing Saul and befriending Jonathan, and the world seems good and pleasant. David kills the giant, and the old king begins to feel uneasy, wondering what’s next for this bright, young warrior, if it isn’t the throne of Saul himself. I’ll leave it to you to read 1 Samuel, the Bible’s own Game of Thrones, but the outcome is certain: David becomes King David, and we arrive at Psalm 132.

Power is an interesting thing. Often it’s easier to get than keep, and in maintaining to you need to have a narrative, a compelling story that becomes symbolic in its own way. And in the case of David, former shepherd boy, part-time poet, giant killer, there should be enough material to string together a myth or two that will help him maintain power. But it’s not enough.

Then he remembered the ark. Languishing in Kirjath-jearim, nearly forgotten, David decides to return it to the centre of royal power, in his new capital, a unifying (and rather convenient) symbol for the House of David. Hear the myth-making begin:

O God, remember David and all the hardships he endured,
how he swore an oath to you,
a promise to the Mighty One of Jacob.
'I will not enter my house, nor will I climb into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes, not even let my eyelids droop
until I find a place for God,
a dwelling for the Mighty One of Jacob.'

Ignoring the Dr. Seuss sounding poetry, the psalmist is setting the scene, making it transactional: David will honour God by finding a home for the ark, refusing to rest until God is returned to the centre of Israelite life (and near the throne of the new king).

But it’s not enough to make promises, or bring it back, the story requires a beginning, middle and end, so we learn more:

At Ephrathah we heard God's ark was there;
we found it in the region of Jaar.
'Let us approach the place where the Most High rests,
let us kneel in worship at God's footstool.'
Arise, O God, and enter your resting-place,
you and your mighty ark.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness;
let your faithful people shout for joy. R

The psalmist added a little Dan Brown here, ‘we heard where it was, we found it in the region of Jaar.’ The story of the moving the ark, the poor fellow smitten (not in a good way) when his hand touched the ark, David’s awkward and revealing dance—all of these details are omitted in the psalm because this is not history being written, this is myth.

My resident biblical scholar would interrupt me at this point to say that this is more than myth-making, this is a good example of rewritten scripture, taking the source material and adapting it to make a point or further an agenda. And overall, that’s what seems to be happening in Psalm 132. The story of David is being rewritten and set to song in an effort to add legitimacy to a fledgling dynasty. The psalmist has taken the long story of David, and specifically the promises God made to David in 2 Samuel 7, and turned them into propaganda (the good kind, to be sure, but still propaganda).

And just when the myth-making seems complete, and the promise of a perpetual dynasty seems sure, the psalmist does something unexpected. Remembering that in 2 Samuel God promises a ‘house and kingdom that will endure forever’ we hear this:

For your servant David's sake, do not reject your Anointed.
You made a sure promise to David,
a promise that will never be revoked:
'One of your own children I will set upon your throne.
And if they in turn keep my covenant,
the teaching that I give them,
their descendants too shall sit on your throne
in succession for ever.' R

Suddenly the psalmist is the real prophet, transforming the promise to ‘what God meant to say was ‘if they can keep my covenant, and the law’ then you can keep your throne forever. Kings shutter and governments pause because legitimacy is conditional, it requires faithfulness. What seemed like a sure thing, a perpetual throne and an eternal right is really no more than a contract after all.

At Westminster, the mother of all parliaments, the queen must wait before she can enter the Commons, the people’s house, owing to a little incident during the English Civil War when Charles I had his men enter the Commons to arrest some troublesome MPs. Today, in the robing room where the queen waits is a very unique document, framed and hanging in the wall: the death warrant of Charles I, the instrument signed authorizing his execution after harbouring the foolish idea that kings rule by divine right alone. It’s a symbol and a reminder, that parliament and the monarch are partners in our system, and must work together to serve the people.

The kingdoms of this world have everything they need to be faithful: the law and the gospels, the command to love God while loving neighbour, the words of prophets and seers in scripture and verse. All of these are known, and all of these are available. It doesn’t take a freedom of information request to know that governments know what is required of them. Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Do these, and kingdoms endure, Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 13
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
2 “Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?”
5 Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 6 Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

When it comes to sacred sites with plumbing problems, we are not alone.

But in the case of the sisters of the Sacred Family Institute in Rome, it wasn’t a steampipe but a burst water pipe that caused general alarm, then astonishment, and now speculation among archaeologists around the world. The burst water pipe lead to a sinkhole, which opened up into a hidden chamber, which revealed several hundred non-Christian burials in an area of the catacombs that are known chiefly as an ancient Christian burial site.

So I’m waiting for some future steampipe mishap to reveal ancient catacombs beneath Weston. Actually, it’s not far from a vain hope, since we know that each building project on this site brings up the bones of the Methodist faithful who used this site as a cemetery for more than a century. Dip into our history books and you will learn about ceremonies of dedication and rededication as the same faithful were given an final final rest on the other side of the river.

I say final final rest, but maybe I should add a caveat to that, since the Christian hope is never one of eternal earthly rest, but a great and glorious day of return. We sang about it just yesterday, at the service for our beloved Dorothy, when we sang the old Methodist spiritual that explains the time to come:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
and time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks, eternal, bright and fair
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there.

Our history, of course, is rife with speculation about that great and glorious day. When will to come? What will be the signs? Mark 13 reminds us that the conversation and the speculation is happening around Jesus, among his followers, locating him and them in the apocalyptic themes found throughout the Bible Jesus read. All the prophets, major and minor, lift up this theme of new age, the new order that will follow when God moves to make all things new.

But something else is happening in Mark 13, a kind of back-to-the-future event that only reveals itself when we look at Mark’s context. It’s about AD 70. Mark sits down to write a gospel, collecting what is known about Jesus, his ministry, and most importantly, his death and resurrection.

And while he’s busy writing, he is surrounded by the most dramatic events since the ancient exile. The Jewish revolt, the Roman intervention, first seeming to fail and later to succeed in the most dramatic fashion possible, form the backdrop of a gospel to can barely conceal this context. In Mark, Jesus describes ruin of the great buildings of Jerusalem, not one stone left upon another, the temple destroyed in just three days as attested in each of the gospels.

But for Mark, it’s happening. He has taken his day and read it backward into the gospel, using this event to remind his readers that this terrible event was predicted, that it is but one sign of the new age, and that such destruction will the harbinger of that morning, ‘eternal, bright and fair.’ But there’s more.

As Mark sits down to write, Jesus has been gone for 35 years. And one by one the disciples have gone, along with many of the early believers Paul mentions in his letters. Even the great Paul has died, maybe four or maybe five years past. Some from natural causes, some caught up in the earliest persecutions, but nonetheless at rest.

The problem for Mark and the others in his era is the waiting. Jesus promised to return, to “take them to himself,” to call them home in but a little while. The “when” was not revealed, it could come even as a thief in the night, but they would not be left orphans, and he would soon return.

Well waiting, as any child will tell you, is difficult. Time seems to slow and the promise that follows the waiting begins to seem more and more remote. Some even doubted the promise, and so Mark and others feel compelled to remind them. Members of the twelve ask, “When will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” but we know this was a question in Mark’s community too, likely asked the day he put pen to paper.

So what is it and what is it not? What are the signs, and what can we expect? Whenever I’m confronted by questions that cannot be easily be answered, I retreat to the comfort of the greats, Barth and Moltmann, to name just two, towering voices of twentieth century theology. And picking up the topic of the age to come, I found this:

To apprehend the Beginning in the End (this is how Barth describes the end times)...neither should we join the sentimentalists in expecting some magnificent or terrible FINALE, nor should we comfort ourselves for its failure to appear by embracing the confident frivolity of modern protestant cultured piety. (Romans, p. 501)

With this the kids might say “oh, burn.” Barth says, in effect, ‘you’re both wrong.’ The conservative Christians who have made an industry out of the end of the world, or who neglect every problem the world faces since it will soon end anyway, you’re wrong! Likewise we, playfully dismissed by Barth for the modern protestant cultured piety that defines us, have turned away from the new age.

Instead, we think we can create heaven on earth with the latest issue or consciousness raising exercise, heaped upon the last. We should not forget that “modern protestant cultured piety” led to Indian residential schools, cultural hegemony disguised as global missions, and the folly of temperance, imagining that we could force all of society to our way of thinking and expect that they would thank us for it.

So if it’s not column A and it’s not column B, what is it? What will be the signs? Moltmann wants to back up even further, to remind us that even the topic itself is little understood. What is “the mysteries of the end-time” he says, “God’s future and the righteousness of his kingdom...are concealed and cannot be known under the conditions of the present age.” (Crucified, p. 167)

In other words, we have to be satisfied with signs. God will only be fully revealed “at the end of the old age and at the beginning for the new” and until then we wait. We can read the signs, and we can wonder at the promise of the age to come, but we cannot fully know its measure.

So we are left to locate our hope in the signs we have. And what are they? Well, we look around us and we find hope in each other. We are the hope of the Risen One, alive as his body, doing his work in the world as we tend to each other and those beyond these walls. Next, we see hope in the Advent of our Lord, the days of waiting that reveal God’s willingness to enter the world in a new way. And, of course, the cornerstone of Christian hope, the death and resurrection of Jesus, commemorated every Sunday in this place.

But this isn’t just theology of philosophy, nerds with books like me who read and reread looking for insight. It’s a living question that begins in the catacombs and other sacred sites, to churches surrounded by cemeteries with loved ones long past. It weighs on us because it finds the heart of the Christian message and the answer to the questions “what are the signs?” and “how long will we wait?”

Here is Jurgen Moltmann’s answer:

For the Easter hope shines not only forwards into the unknown newness of the history which it opens up, but also backwards over the graveyards of history.(p. 163)

We are at the intersection of a faithful past and a hopeful future, and the answer becomes “now is the time.” Now is the time to show others the compassion of God in Jesus, now is the time to express God’s hope for the living and the dead, now is the time to remind everyone that this reality is not all that is, now is the time to point to our future hope, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven. Now is the time we see glimpses, but soon we will see God. Amen.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Remembrance Sunday

Psalm 46
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

Come and see what God has done,
the wonders wrought upon the earth.
God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.
Be still and know that I am God,
exalted among the nations, exalted in the earth.
The God of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge.

John 15
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Obviously every town and village in England is unique, but Accrington deserves our attention today.

First, it’s the birthplace of Charles Edward Hoyle, the young man we honour today in our service of remembrance. It’s also the home of his nephew Jim, who received the letters that were so carefully preserved by the Canadian Virtual War Memorial.

But there are other things about Accrington that stand out: the town is famed for making the hardest and densest bricks in the world, used in the construction of the Empire State Building, and the foundation of the Blackpool Tower. In town, the Haworth Gallery holds Europe’s largest collection of Tiffany Glass. And there is one more thing the town is known for— the Accrington Pals.

The Pals were part of a unique strategy employed in the Great War, reportedly the brainchild of Lord Kitchener himself, that entire battalions would be made up by recruits from a single town—pals. The logic here was that young men would be more inclined to perform valiantly in the service of friends and neighbours.

It doesn’t take a lot of 20/20 hindsight to see what might go wrong. On July 1, 1916, just one day after the death of Charles Edward Hoyle, the Accrington Pals joined the Battle of the Somme near Serre, resulting in over 600 casualties in the first 30 minutes. At the same moment, maybe a mile away, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment was virtually wiped out, a 90 percent casualty rate that was only surpassed by the West Yorkshire Regiment fighting some six miles south. It fell to a German officer to put all this in perspective: “Somme,” he said, “The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.”

The Somme joins a list of military disasters beginning all the way back at Cannae, to Antietam, and Gallipoli just a year earlier. History tends to turn on such battles, national identities are forged, lessons are (sometimes) learned, and the real cost of war becomes plain to see. We don’t celebrate the end of wars, we mark them: with solemnity, and humility, and a sense of awe at the sacrifice made.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” Jesus said, “that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

In all things, Jesus begins with the individual and human cost of where we find ourselves: giving calm in the midst of trouble, healing in the face of suffering and loss, a word that brings life when the world cannot. He gave his disciples the seemingly simple command “love one another,” and knew that only in the fullness of time would they come to understand what this means. This was not kindness or amity, but a love that remains costly and implausible.

The first sacrifice, of course, would be his own. The water was barely wine when we learn that the temple that will be destroyed in just three days is his body. That unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains but a single seed. The world will see me more no more, he says, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

And this brings us back to the Somme, Vimy, Hill 70, and all the other names and places lodged in memory. It was Sir John Arkwright who managed to describe the journey across this ruined landscape, putting the individual and human cost in perspective:

Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

One hundred years on and there is a natural tendency to relegate these things to the pages of history. For many in our society, the Great War seems as distant as the War of 1812. The difference, of course, is the continuing presence of monuments and plaques, preserved and in some cases updated to include Afghanistan and dates from our century.

And these memorials, many designed and dedicated in the 1920s, broke with the past and the conventions of remembering victories in battle. Gone were the equestrian statues and their supposed symbolism, one leg raised for a wound received in battle, or the triumphal arch.

Instead, the memorial makers opted for a different direction, Lutyens Cenotaph in the centre of the street at Whitehall becoming the most emulated design. An arch or pedestalized rider became an empty tomb, the wreath of remembrance in stone, a place to remember the dead who were missing or far away.

The other difference is the listing of names, ten in this room, and dozens more in our Upper Room. Search long enough, and most public buildings from the first decades of the last century will have a list of names: employees, students, members, individual names that draw the eye, asking only that we pause and remember.

Within the church, of course, we have a unique role to play, both in remembering and putting human conflict into the context of our faith. And it’s not just for the aftermath: chaplains were found in trench and field, sharing words of comfort, often quoting verses such as the psalm we shared this morning:

God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear.

God makes wars to cease in all the world,
God breaks the bow and snaps the spear,
and burns the shields in the fire.

Back home, these same words gave comfort and reminded worshippers that God’s desire was peace, and an end to the wars that begin in the human heart. For concord between the nations, and justice within the borders of the same.

One of the resources I fell upon this week was a copy of the service of thanksgiving, published by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, for use on Sunday, November 17, 1918. And while the hope of the moment remains only a hope, even a hundred years on, the words still speak:

“Grant that a just and merciful peace may repair the losses and heal the wounds of war: unite in the bond of brotherly charity those who have been at enmity; and continually guide the counsels of the nations, to the promotion of thy glory and the lasting welfare of [human]kind.”


Sunday, November 04, 2018

Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 146
Praise God, O my soul. As long as I live I will praise God.
Yes, as long as I have life I will sing praises to God.
Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
the One who keeps faith for ever,
who gives justice to the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry. R
God sets prisoners free, restores sight to the blind.
God straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
God cares for the stranger in the land,
and sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.
God shall reign forever, O Zion,
your God for all generations. R

My mother liked to tell the story about the time she was an enumerator, visiting homes throughout East Gwillimbury, adding people to the voter’s list. She and her co-worker were met at the door by a potential voter with a less-than-welcoming look. When informed about the purpose of the visit, the person was quick to say “I’ll not be registering to vote—you see, I’m voting for God.” My mother’s co-worker, without missing a beat, said “I see, ma’am, but God’s not on the ballot.”

There is something magical about having just the right comeback at just the right moment. I think we all wish we were as quick-on-our-feet as my mother’s co-worker that day. But setting aside the power of a good comeback, I’m left puzzling over the response, and the extent to which religious people vote for God.

If we could track down this anonymous non-voter, she might tell us that there should be a strict separation between church and state, and that those most actively involved in a life of faith should focus on that realm alone. Most Amish, for example, choose not to vote, believing that politics belongs to the material realm, and they would rather remain in the spiritual realm.

Or, perhaps her motives related to our “fallenness,” the idea that humans are too corrupt to govern themselves. It was Billy Connolly who said “The desire to be a politician should bar you for life from ever becoming one. Don't vote. It just encourages them.” I’m not sure this person in the wilds of East Gwillimbury was channeling the great Scottish comedian, but the impulse is the same.

The last suggestion is that she was advocating for theocracy, literally “rule by God.” One need only point to Calvin’s Geneva to see where this leads. In the mid-1500s, people in Geneva came to believe that God had ordained that Calvin should rule every aspect of faith and life in the city. Social control was maintained by a group of twelve elders who heard reports once a week of any moral infractions. Penalties included fines, excommunication, banishment, and death. Blasphemers, traitors and adulterers were put to death. Every “vice” was banned, including alcohol, dancing, cards, the theatre, laughing in church, coming late to service, and so on.

Obviously this is an extreme example, but theocracies exist in our world, and at least one politician was campaigning this past week on the idea that it’s okay to make war on your neighbours if they don’t support a program that bans abortion, same-sex marriage and idolatry. And all of it hinged on obeying “biblical law” without defining what that means.

Now, we on this side of the border have an internal mechanism, somehow inserted at birth, that protects us from wacky things that happen down there. It’s a self-protection thing, allowing us to say ‘yeah, but that’s America’ without needing to spend too much time worrying that what happens there will somehow happen here. The reflex keeps us sane, but it also lulls us into a false sense of security. Sleeping next to an elephant, as Trudeau the Elder famously said, means that “no matter how friendly and even-tempered is the is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

Just now you’re thinking ‘this sounds like one of those pre-election sermons that the preacher feels compelled to preach, but we’re not having an election. Has he been listening to too much MSNBC again?’ Amazing how I can read your thoughts. And I might agree that I’m listening to too much MSNBC except that the lectionary, our three-year cycle of weekly readings, gave us Psalm 146, one of the most overtly political psalms in the hymnbook.

It begins by echoing our old friend up that country lane in East Gwillimbury:

Put not your trust in princes, nor in any mortal,
for in them there is no help.
When they breathe their last they return to dust;
then their plans come to nothing.

This seems to have shades of Billy Connelly, but it’s clearly a hymn to the Most High, as the very next words say “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is the Maker of heaven and earth.” This is voting for God, seeking help and hope when the princes of this world have returned to dust.

So let’s travel this road for a moment, and consider what this ‘vote for God’ might look like. And most often, we begin with a platform. Good metaphor, the platform, which of course is made up of planks, things politicians stand on, and ask for our vote. And the psalmist, God’s campaign manager, doesn’t disappoint:

[God is] the One who keeps faith for ever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
sets prisoners free,
restores sight to the blind.
straightens those who are bent;
loves those who are just.
cares for the stranger in the land,
sustains the widow and orphan;
but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.

Just now you’re thinking ‘this God sounds like a Democrat, maybe Beto O’Rourke’ but I don’t think you’re right—not that I want to disagree with your imaginary interior monologue. That’s probably rude. No, the clue that this is not about a party or their platform, as close as it may appear to Psalm 146, is in that last line: “but the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.”

The great Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and dean of applied theologians, would say that’s Pharaoh, the ultimate object lesson when “the way of the wicked God turns to ruin.” We want to imagine that there is some sort of running battle between progressive forces and those that stand in their way, when (for Brueggemann) the stakes are higher and the objects of the lesson are bigger.

Let me explain. First, we are reminded that there is a mystery at the heart of the story of the Exodus. God hears the cries of the Israelites, and God moves within history to free the people, but God does it by hardening the heart of Pharaoh. Somehow God brings an end to empire by acting through Pharaoh and what are the very worst impulses of maintaining power in the face of popular rebellion. Even Brueggemann can’t explain it.*

Next, Brueggemann underlines the true reality of what’s happening at the Exodus. And he does it by lifting up one of those verses that is easy to overlook in the scope of a dramatic story. The verse is Exodus 11.7:

"But against any of the people of Israel, either man or beast, not a dog shall growl; that you may know that the Lord makes a distinction between the Egyptians and Israel."

In other words, this is the God who takes sides. Not between political parties or contrasting ideologies, but between oppressed and oppressor, slave and taskmaster, the hungry and those who are excessively fed. It’s a remarkable thing, this God who takes sides, but it’s also a note of caution, and a safeguard of sorts to be aware that we alternate between oppressed and oppressor, we can feel enslaved but we can enslave others, and we generally spend more time feeling fed than hungry. We can get very excited about the God who takes sides until we soberly assess which side we’re on–sometimes depending on the day of the week.

And there is one more thing, a kind of coda to this platform that God is running on, this manifesto for the bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans at the rear of the caravan. The God who remains ‘wholly mystery’ and more-often-than-not inscrutable, does provide moments of clarity and comprehension. And this takes us to the second reading Victoria shared:

“First,” Jesus said, “Love God through the mystery, with all your heart, your soul, and your strength. And second, do this [knowing full well that it was a perfect summary of bent, the blind, the prisoner, the stranger seeking asylum, and the widow and orphans too]: love your neighbour as yourself.” Amen.

*The Prophetic Imagination