September 14, 2014 – Holy struggle

Revelation 15:1-4

Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended. And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.”

Exodus 5:1-9, 15-23

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’“ But Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!” Pharaoh continued, “Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words….”

Then the Israelite supervisors came to Pharaoh and cried, “Why do you treat your servants like this? No straw is given to your servants, yet they say to us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look how your servants are beaten! You are unjust to your own people.” He said, “You are lazy, lazy; that is why you say, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to the Lord.’ Go now, and work; for no straw shall be given you, but you shall still deliver the same number of bricks.” The Israelite supervisors saw that they were in trouble when they were told, “You shall not lessen your daily number of bricks.” As they left Pharaoh, they came upon Moses and Aaron who were waiting to meet them. They said to them, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”

Exodus 7:14-24

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning, as he is going out to the water; stand by at the river bank to meet him, and take in your hand the staff that was turned into a snake. Say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, sent me to you to say, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness.” But until now you have not listened.’ Thus says the Lord, “By this you shall know that I am the Lord.” See, with the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water that is in the Nile, and it shall be turned to blood. The fish in the river shall die, the river itself shall stink, and the Egyptians shall be unable to drink water from the Nile.’” The Lord said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over its rivers, its canals, and its ponds, and all its pools of water—so that they may become blood; and there shall be blood throughout the whole land of Egypt, even in vessels of wood and in vessels of stone.’“ Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord commanded. In the sight of Pharaoh and of his officials he lifted up the staff and struck the water in the river, and all the water in the river was turned into blood, and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water, and there was blood throughout the whole land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt did the same by their secret arts; so Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them; as the Lord had said. Pharaoh turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart. And all the Egyptians had to dig along the Nile for water to drink, for they could not drink the water of the river.

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Pentecost 14 September 14, 2014   Revelation 15:1-4, Exodus 5:1-9, 15-23; Exodus 7:14-24                   Holy struggle

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Israel’s been groaning in slavery. God has heard…And God has called Moses from out of a burning bush, saying, ‘Go down Moses – way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh – Let my people go.’

Moses has grown up in the belly of the beast, in the household of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Only when he’s hit by a mid-life crisis does he come to realize – he’s an Israelite, not an Egyptian. In a fit of passion – (Moses may have some anger management issues) – he kills an Egyptian slave driver and becomes a wanted man. He flees to Midianite territory – helps some shepherd girls bullied there – marries one, settles down, has kids.

When God first calls Moses he’s not exactly eager to go back – way down in Egypt-land again. But God is very persistent, and Moses eventually gets to yes. And God sends his older brother Aaron to help. And Moses and Aaron together tell the elders of Israel what God’s said – and show the elders what God’s empowered them to do – turning a staff into a snake and back again. Now they go before King Pharaoh at the riverside – perhaps the same royal bathing spot where Pharaoh’s daughter pulled infant Moses out from the river long ago. They urgently request time off from slavery to worship their God in the wilderness…

Pharaoh says, “You’re uppity and lazy. You don’t have enough work to keep you busy. Make your same quota of bricks every day, but from now on find your own straw.” (Straw was the binding agent that kept bricks together. Pharaoh’s adding yet more hours of hard labor to the already very long working week.) Political Science 101. Make demands of Pharaoh – the Empire will strike back. Empires always call their dissidents ‘the cause of all our troubles.’

Pharaoh orders the Israelite shop stewards to be beaten when slaves don’t fill their quotas. Stewards appeal to Pharaoh–“be reasonable.” He says, ‘You’re all lazy-good-for-nothings.’ His aim is to turn them against Moses. And sure enough, Israelite stewards accuse Moses and Aaron of making life worse. And Moses cries to God, asking “where are you Lord when I need you? Why did you ever send me here?” And God tells Moses “hold on, be patient, help’s on the way”.

And God coaches – and Moses and Aaron do their turning-a-staff-into-a-snake routine again, now in front of Pharaoh. But Pharaoh’s not budging. His own staff magicians can do the same thing. (It’s a metaphor – but – they were the rocket scientists of their day. Go and figure.) And the staff of Aaron swallows-up all the snakes of the magicians, but still Pharaoh won’t relent. Stronger measures are needed. So “Thus saith the Lord,” bold Moses said… (let my people go)…

If not I’ll smite your firstborn dead… (let my people go…)

But God doesn’t escalate in a hurry. First comes a series of lesser plagues. Drastic interventions designed to give Egypt a chance – and another chance – and yet-one-more-chance to repent.

God, working through Moses and Aaron, starts by turning the river Nile, then all the waters of Egypt into blood. The Nile was considered a god by Egyptians. The Nile was where an earlier Pharaoh committed genocide against Hebrew babies. Now God turns the river to blood to demonstrate God’s power over the gods of Egypt and remind us of the blood of Israel’s children. But again, Pharaoh’s not persuaded. Again, even his own magicians can do the same thing. And still Pharaoh won’t let God’s people go.

The next plague is frogs, swarming in all the households of Egypt. The Pharaohs have stirred up paranoia about Israel’s fertility. The Egyptian god of fertility was portrayed as half-human, half-frog. The plague of frogs mocks Egypt’s paranoia. (But again the magicians can make frogs happen also. (Never mind that again they’re making a bad situation even worse. That doesn’t matter… They’re working with Pharaoh in a Game of Thrones against God…) And the magicians only know how to make hideous frogs appear on demand. They’re not able to stop what they’ve started. (Like the old mad scientist movies.) And in real life – only God (and people cooperating with God) can make disaster stop. And the pattern of God’s lordship over all the elements and all the gods of Egypt is seen yet more clearly – as the forces of nature are turned against Pharaoh, in a reversal of creation itself.

And from here on the magicians can’t match God, as the plagues continue – with a plague of gnats – then a plague of flies – then a pestilence on Egyptian livestock (with the livestock of Israel exempted). Then a plague of boils on humans and animals (again with Israel protected). Then a plague of destroying hail and terrifying thunder. Then a plague of crop-destroying locusts (with Israel’s gardens left intact). And a plague of darkness over all the land. All because –

God intervenes in human history on behalf of the oppressed. “The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.” Psalm 103 tells us Israel’s exodus is a model for all oppressed peoples, everywhere. Which is good news – but – the exodus is not exactly a trouble-free trip to freedom. (And…)

I’m not fond of the judgement parts of the bible. But divine justice is a major biblical theme. Here the judgement is against Egypt. Soon we’ll see judgement is universal, for all. Even gentle Jesus, who tells us not to judge others lest we be judged ourselves, also tells us God’s justice will require judgement; be ready. And when we get to the last book of the bible, we hear again a series of plagues remarkably similar to those of Exodus. In Revelation (chapters 15 and 16) waters again turn to blood – here’s frogs again – hail and thunder again – darkness again – now coming on all nations of earth. And now the host of heaven sing the ancient song of Moses – which is now also the song of Jesus, Lamb of God.

The theology of the plagues is way too big a download to unpack in a day. But we notice that even while acting in judgement on Egypt, still God, working through Moses, offers grace to Pharaoh. And many times it seems as if Pharaoh’s almost ready to let Israel go. But each time Pharaoh hardens his heart again and again.

Reminding us of what Frederick Douglass, American slave and abolitionist leader, often said: “Power concedes nothing without a struggle…” (Douglass lived for a time in New Bedford, and one of his autobiographies records his esteem for several local families there who were supportive of the abolitionist struggle… one of them was the Grinnell family, whom Ginny of our Cataumet church notes is her family… We are all still connected…) Our struggle may be a moral struggle, Douglass would say, it may be a physical struggle – however we call it, it will certainly always be a spiritual struggle… But power concedes nothing without a struggle…And life is about choosing the right struggles… Making good choices… And learning to recover from bad choices…

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Last week I had lunch with a pastor friend and two of his friends active in 12-step recovery programs. All three are part of what they call “The Eleventh Step Café” at a Methodist Church near Boston, in which church members and folks active in twelve-step programs come together to share a meal, stories, and testimony, and study ways of being in prayerful supportive community together. The name Eleventh Step Café comes from the eleventh step in 12-step programs. ‘Seeking through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God… Praying for knowledge of his will for us, and power to carry out God’s will…’

Pastor Mike told me some of his church members who’ve been participating have told him they’ve shared more openly in a few hours in the Café than they’ve ever done in church. The mix of people involved promotes deeper sharing. We draw closer to God when we’re more closely connected with other people struggling for faith and healing and freedom and redemption…

Anyone who’s suffered addiction or been close to anyone suffering from addiction knows – getting free from addiction requires struggle. Struggle first to admit our inability to get free, be healed, by ourselves. (That’s a huge struggle for most of us.) But recognizing our absolute need for God (our higher power) is the first and most crucial step in all 12-step programs.

Then, having made the first step – now all the other eleven steps involve doing the parts that we ourselves must do. Once we admit we can’t get control over our lives without God, God does give power to start doing all the parts we can and should do – now with God’s help, and the help of others. Which still requires struggle on our part. But now we’ve turned the corner. Now we have God’s help and the help of a supporting community…

And there’s perhaps some risk here of overstating the metaphor – but Israel in slavery is suffering something very much like addiction. Perhaps some have in fact become addicted to slavery. So accustomed to slavery that now the risks of freedom seem more frightening than the slavery we already know. (Addicts often backslide because they fear failure in the world of sobriety… And again, this is a double metaphor, but – )

Whatever the specifics of our addiction or affliction – whether we’re strung out on drugs or alcohol – or money or power – tv or internet games – gossip or self-pity – dependence or co-dependence on any lower power that enslaves us – The truth is still that our Pharaoh – whatever binds us – won’t let us go voluntarily – not till it must. Our addiction, our sin, our challenge – whatever enslaves us – won’t let us go without struggle. Our struggles will differ. But struggle will always be part of getting free… from any form of slavery.

And our holy calling, as people of God, set free already by Jesus, yet always still learning Christ’s freedom ways – is to discern the struggles that are of God and holy – from those that are not. And to be very patient and persistent in the holy struggles that are from God. And to get ourselves out of all the unholy and unnecessary struggles that are not from God.

God tells us all along this won’t be easy. Moses still struggles with his calling. He pours out his doubts to God today, as he did last week, when first called by God. Read the biographies of any of the saints. Real leaders all have real struggles. Real faith is always tested.

Israel too, is in struggle. Israel’s elders believe Moses is sent from God when he first appears before them and does miracles. But soon as there’s push-back from the king of Egypt – soon as Pharaoh cracks down and asserts power over them – they fall back into disbelief. This too has been a pattern for the people of God, the church of God, all through the ages.

And the struggle to break free from slavery to all false gods of all kinds… is still our struggle today… But thanks be to God…

God our God is still calling…. Patiently, steadfastly, persistently calling… us to join hearts and hands together… and –

Tell old Pharaoh… let my people go….

Amen.

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