“All the Way Home”
Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
“All the Way Home”
You've seen these tiny houses?
I don’t think I’d enjoy living in a tiny house.
I'm too much in love with being surrounded by books and magazines
and half-sewn quilts and yarn and dogs and craft paper.
In November especially, I want to be home all the time -
"Like We Are Called"
Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
A sermon presented on the occasion of Pastor Annette's 25th year in ministry!
A day like this is rather like attending one’s own funeral.
You’ve graciously skipped over all the times I’ve disappointed you
- and worse.
You’ve done so much work and I am grateful beyond words.
"Where the Word is Rare & Precious"
Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
How is what we do as disciples of Jesus
different that people who pursue justice and righteousness
but never come anywhere near church?
Two things make discipleship different than morality - I think.
Holiness . . . . And grace.
"The Fleshpots of Egypt"
Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
“The Fleshpots of Egypt”
We ran into a friend from our cheerleader parent days. Her daughter has graduated IU and is in her first job. She called home recently and complained a little: "I like my job okay. But it's not like I thought it would be. It seems like all I do is go to work to pay bills. There is almost no time or money to do anything fun.”
Freedom isn't like the Israelites thought it would be. And slavery definitely was NOT how they remember it now. The Hebrews in the wilderness fussed at Moses, “If only we had died by the
hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread.” First of all, I hate the word fleshpots. Teenage boys have been making gross jokes in church about it since 1611 of the Common Era, and still the translators won't pick another word.
Praise the Lord for Eugene Peterson (The Message) who translates it “lamb stew.” “When we sat by pots of lamb stew and ate as much bread as we want.”
There is also a bluegrass band of seminary professors who call themselves The Fleshpots of Egypt. Here they are:
They aren't terrible. They are Lutheran so they play lots of beer gardens. What seems wrong with this pic, but actually isn’t: the guitarist has no legs – just in case you’re prompted to complain about how far you have to walk some days.
But more to the point: Really? That's what you remember about Egypt? Back in the day when you did nothing but sit around munching on fresh bread and lamb stew? Can we fact-check that a little, please?
Exodus 1:13 – The Egyptians got so they couldn’t stand the Israelites and treated them worse than ever, crushing them with slave labor. They made them miserable with the hard labor of making bricks and mortar and back-breaking work in the fields. They piled on the work, crushing them under the cruel workload.
Moses first asked Pharaoh to give the Hebrews three days' vacation, just to go into the desert and worship – a revival, we called them in my childhood church. Exodus 5 says Pharaoh took immediate action. He sent down orders to the slave-drivers and their underlings: “Don’t provide straw for the people for making bricks as you have been doing. Make them get their own straw. And make them produce the same number of bricks — no reduction in their daily quotas! They’re getting lazy.”
13 The slave-drivers were merciless, saying, “Complete your daily quota of bricks—the same number as when you were given straw.” 14 The Israelite foremen whom the slave-drivers had appointed were beaten and badgered. “ 15-16 The Israelite foremen came to Pharaoh and cried out for relief: “Why are you treating your servants like this? Nobody gives us any straw and they tell us, ‘Make bricks!’ Look at us—we’re being beaten. And it’s not our fault.” 17-18 But Pharaoh said, “Lazy! That’s what you are! Lazy! That’s why you whine. Go back to work. Nobody’s going to give you straw, and at the end of the day you better bring in your full quota of bricks.”
So no, they did not in fact sit around eating lamb and fresh bread. However, what they did eat they recognized. And they didn't have to hunt for it, did they? They went from the brick factory to the cafeteria where other slaves had been cooking all day to feed them whatever the Egyptians had decided they'd all eat that day. They've been out of Egypt a month. Thirty days in a row now, they've woken up to a day having no idea what would happen to them. For the 400 years – or 146,000 days – previous, they and their ancestors had woken knowing precisely what each day held. They woke to work, ate to work, slept to work, and bred children to replace themselves when they could work no longer.
They were slaves, born and bred to enrich the Empire. Slaves have no need of trust or faith. Slaves have no choices nor make decisions. No future for which to prepare, nor much to lose in death. Complaining may be the only indulgence a slave has. Then, for the first time in the Bible, this clan born of Abraham (now numbered somewhere around 600,000) is referred to as a “congregation.” In verse 9: Then Moses said to Aaron, “Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, ‘Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.’” 10 And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.
They are not slaves; they are a congregation, a people for whom faith is now appropriate and expected. They are introduced the possibility of having a choice: complain or trust? Can you imagine having never made a single decision in your life until thirty days ago, on Friday, September 8, 2017? I remember that day. I went to the balloon festival with Carl and Lily E. We thought about a balloon ride and decided it was too loud, and there was fire involved, so we chose the bouncy house and a rainbow slushie instead. Because free people get to choose, and people who've been free awhile don't think anything of being able to choose.
But the word freedom surely tasted as strange in their mouths as congregation sounded in the ears of the Israelites, as they sat around in this strange place waiting for Moses and Aaron to figure out what was going to happen next. They thought they were dying for sure. And it was all MOSES' fault. Until God explained to Moses that there in fact was NO food crisis but rather a faith opportunity about to rain down on them. And rather than complain, they were going to have to learn to trust God for every little thing from now on, because that is what it means to be free and, coincidentally, what it means to be faithful.
A perceived famine is NOT the same as a real famine. Have you ever opened your fridge or your pantry and thought, "There is nothing here to eat”? Was there? Just little cracker crumbs on the shelf, nothing else? A milk jug that someone put back with seven drops of milk inside so they didn't have to wash it for the recycle bin? At my house, "There's nothing here to eat” means “The muffins are all gone. I don't want to cook. I'm tired of leftovers.”
Here are some pictures I saved for this sermon – from my Korea trip.
fresh and ready to eat:
roasted pig snouts
BBQ chicken feet
Steak tartare w/ caviar
I think it’s easier to believe that manna and the quail miraculously rained from heaven for those special 40 years so long ago than to believe that it had been there all along and the Israelites just couldn’t see it. But what if maybe it wasn't a once-in-the-history-of-the-world miracle?
Other really smart scholars can talk about a couple of different kinds of dry, resin-like, edible substances that are found early in the morning in various place in the Sinai. And birds flying from Africa that get blown off course by Mediterranean sea winds and fall dead to the ground. And see, if it’s a natural phenomenon – if something wasn’t a brand-new miracle – I think that will also preach. In fact, I love how that preaches, because I can relate to people who believe that the-way-it-was is far better than the-way-it-is, especially when the-way-it-was is long over and the-way-it-is is new and scary.
They call it a wilderness, but the scripture never says famine. A wilderness is a place that isn’t cultivated, domesticated. Wild things live and grow there, but it isn’t a famine. They will only starve because they choose to, not because there's nothing to eat. Not because God hasn't provided. Complaining: it’s like worrying, except it's aggressive.
Complaining is so easy to do and so difficult to listen to. Amen? Especially complaining about situations that are static. Ever complain about the weather? About traffic? About IU football, or the American congress? – things that never truly change.
Complaining makes demands of others. In Numbers, chapter 11, Moses complains to God about the Israelites complaining to him: 12 ”Did I conceive all these people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them on your chest like a breastfeeding mama carries a sucking child’?” If it is hard for us to listen to a complaining co-worker, can you imagine what God must go through? Which is why I find it so interesting that faith is the alternative response in the text. Instead of complaining, God says, I want you to trust me. Is trust aggressive? Or is it passive?
If I woke up every morning and my fridge was actually empty but my front yard was knee deep in groceries, how much effort would it take for me NOT to pick up as much as I could carry? Trusting that it would be there tomorrow would take the greater effort, the greater faith. Work as hard as you want, what you don’t eat today will rot and you'll have wasted your time and energy. You don't need manna for tomorrow. You don't need faith for tomorrow. Just today. Try it, God tells the people; see if I don't do exactly as I'm telling you now that I am going to do.
And every day for forty years, the manna and quail was given. Lots and lots of those days they ate it without complaint. But naturally, they got tired of eating the same thing. And they complained. And again said they wanted to go back to Egypt to eat watermelon and fish and cucumbers. But mostly they just wanted meat, which they always got for free back when they were slaves (this is that same Numbers, chapter 11 passage), which really ticked God off and so God said, Is that right? Well how about I just force-feed you quail until it comes out your nose and you can’t stand the sight of it? And God did. And it apparently did not satiate God’s anger, so God wiped out a few of them too, because they were so amazingly, phenomenally, remarkably ungrateful not to be slaves anymore.
Which you might imagine – over time – would have motivated the congregation of God to cease complaining. But has it? Can you remember the last time you complained? Was it today? Yesterday? This week? Was it a kind of perceived famine? Something you were sure you needed, but there simply wasn't enough of it to be found in your life here and now? Your fleshpots of Egypt, if you will.
I made a long list of possible perceived famines for the modern congregation. What would you put on it? Kindness, Courage, Decency, Peace? Wisdom, Security, Compassion, Justice? Nearly everything about which I complain comes back to my craving for more time. As if in some other place or time other people get more done because they have more hours and days than me. As if by working harder I can actually create time itself. Time. We can't bank it, borrow it, buy it, sell it, trade it. We can only receive it – just this one day's worth.
If there aren’t famines, then what are there? How about favorites, preferences, prejudices? I was raised eating fried chicken legs. I could eat this roomful of Carl’s mama’s fried chicken. Fried chicken legs are my favorite. And I’m fully aware of the irony of loving the legs and thinking that those boiled and BBQ’d chicken feet are revolting. It’s not a famine just because it’s not my favorite.
Now grow that reality into every nook and cranny of our lives and our life together; our hearts and minds and spirits; the assumptions and opinions that have been embedded there forever; the preferences, the prejudices, the revulsions, and the blind spots. All the things we couldn’t see simply because we never had cause to look – to look and to see the manna, the life, the spirit of God, that has always been there.
They came to this space between what they’d known and where God wanted them to be, and it was scary, because everything was new and different. And given the choice – which was itself new – they had to learn to trust instead of complain. Of all the questions this text prompts in me, the one that flits around me most is this: what’s the point of faith, if God was going to give the manna anyway?
I’ve scribbled pages of paper to come to this: without faith, the people of God would have starved to death in a world of plenty. They would have been their own taskmasters and still lived like slaves instead of the free people God had called them to be. They weren’t escaped slaves any more; they were a promised and provided-for people who were now going to walk and live by faith – faith in the same God who was with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. And, also, another – the One who called Himself the bread of life who has come down out of heaven. Whoever eats this bread, he said, will do what? – will live forever. (John 6)
May we be found never complaining, slipping back to a place of slavery, to the fears and lies of a life that is over and gone – but, rather, trusting the One who leads us and provides for us day by day by day.
Would you pray with me?
"Heirs of the promise"
Sermon ~ Pastor Annette
“Heirs of the Promise”
Twenty-two Bible chapters ago, Jacob was on the run from his brother Esau. He escaped, had twelve sons who tortured each other, and they all landed in Egypt to escape a famine. The descendants of those twelve sons ended up enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, during which the promise of God – made to their ancestors Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – fell out of their memory. Eventually the king of Egypt, the Pharaoh, decided the Hebrew population was growing faster than he could feed it, so he ordered their baby boys be killed at birth. Infanticide.
A pair of midwives defied the Pharaoh and refused to kill the boys they delivered. One of those boys was named Moses. Brave as the midwives were, his mama was braver. She gave him away rather than risk an Egyptian soldier finishing him with a spear. Her plan was brilliant, and Moses grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh himself. They adopted him and he was their little pet Hebrew.
One day, and one day only, when Moses was grown but still a young man, who he was born to be flared up in him. He saw an Egyptian beating one of his Hebrew kinsmen. It was as if the two parts of Moses himself, that were always inside him all the time, were before his eyes for one minute. And in that moment Moses was clear-eyed and brave and as true to his people as those midwives and his mother had been. He killed the Egyptian for beating his kinsman.
But Moses' first burst of courage didn't last. We know so by the way he buried the dead Egyptian in the sand. Hid him, hoping no one saw. Someone saw. He freed just one Hebrew from just one moment of suffering. So Moses ran away. The Pharaoh wanted him dead. (So much for being their pet.) So Moses ran away. This story can't move until someone runs away, don't you know!
He comes to a no-place place called Midian – across the Red Sea, interestingly, in what is now Saudi Arabia. He meets a priest named Jethro, the father of seven daughters, who gives him one of the daughters in marriage, Zipporah. They have an extremely weird marriage. You can read about it on your own time.
Eighteen thousand, six hundred days go by – forty years, that is. The Hebrews enslaved in Egypt suffered hugely, as enslaved people are prone to do. The work was menial and back-breaking. Exodus 3 says, God heard their cries. And the Hebrew baby born to die, adopted into privilege with access to the highest palace in the land, is now herding sheep in a foreign country. It is honorable work for the people who are called to do it. Biblically, it always is a metaphor. Biblical shepherds don’t shepherd sheep and goats. They shepherd people. They shepherd people from hopelessness to joy, from suffering to salvation, from fear all the way to faith.
Sometime around Day 18,601, foreshadowing the greater leave-taking that God is about to usher in, Moses walks away from his flocks to investigate a mystery: a tree on fire but not at all burned up. Unbeknownst to Moses, he's come to the space called worship, the space where human meets divine directly. Holy ground, it's called. Shoes are not appropriate. Floors either. Nothing human-made between the ground and human feet. We come from that ground, and it all comes from God.
God has something to say about what God made. Things have gotten out of hand. Humans enslaving other humans is entirely out of hand, much too much beyond the pale of what God will now abide. The precedent is set down here, from within a burning bush. Remember that one day, Moses? That day you knew exactly who you were? I need the Moses you were that day. I need that Moses to go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. My people, Moses. Your people. Your mama and daddy's people. Your aunties and your uncles and your cousins. The ones you try not to think about after all these years.
Past what we would call retirement age, Moses is sitting on a nest egg of privilege. Time to spend it, Buddy – that's what I hear God saying, while Moses tries to convince God he really doesn't have anything at all. This is what privileged people do, you know. Pretend we aren't. Pretend that we can't. Claim we simply don't know how to do what needs to be done, when what needs doing is risky or scary – or just uncomfortable. Of course people can't help being privileged. Moses can no more help being privileged than his kinfolks can help being slaves. Except, of course, he has choices and they don't. And pretending he has fewer than he does makes him no less privileged. It just makes him self-indulgent – and a jerk.
And were this NOT the Bible story, Moses would be free to be a self-indulgent jerk who believed that all personal success is really just a matter of personal effort whether one is born to slaves or kings. But this IS the Bible story, with this divine promise embedded in these chosen people. And on this page, MOSES is the carrier of the promise for the people – which means his life is not his own, any more than Abraham's was his, or Jacob's or Isaac's or Joseph's lives were theirs.
Moses was Hebrew by birth, Egyptian by adoption, Midianite by marriage. But below and before all that, he was God's choice to carry the promise to a new generation. And nowhere he could go was far enough to outrun that reality, and no excuse he could compose was going to change God's mind. Not because of who your parents are or who you're married to, Moses, but because you are mine. Because I've chosen you. Because I will be with you all the way.
I could be wrong, but when Moses heard the plan from the tree on fire, I'm guessing it wasn't a brand new idea to him. I'm guessing it was something he already thought about all the time. How the generation before him had taken great risks to save his baby butt from infanticide. And now here he was, hiding in the mountains of a foreign country across the sea, tending sheep. I have the idea that one day he felt compelled to do right by them, but didn’t. Then felt really guilty the next day. And then the next day just ate lots of pasta and tried not to feel anything.
We know Moses felt something for his peoples' suffering – at least once. He killed a man over it. But his passion was pretty quickly tempered by a natural appreciation for his own skin. He was a helper, not an activist. He tells the Lord as much. The Pharaoh won't listen to me, he whines. The Hebrews won't listen to me either, he wails. God answers him patiently twice. Then in verse thirteen, Moses tells the truth: "O my God, puhleeeze send someone else!” And the Bible says, the Lord's anger was kindled against Moses.
Can ya maybe see why? After all the breaks Moses has had, all the good fortune and the privilege, now God wants something from him and he cannot muster an ounce of the compassion or courage he once – ONCE – felt for his own kinsmen. As a Hebrew by birth, Egyptian by adoption and Midianite by marriage, Moses played each to its maximum advantage: he escaped infanticide, he grew up rich and privileged, he ended up safe, loved and set for life. But, before Moses knew he was Hebrew or Egyptian or Midianite, Moses was heir to the promise of God. All his other markers like Hebrew, Egyptian and Midianite were subject to his status as heir to the promise.
About ten years ago our alma mater, Arkansas State University, started a brilliant fundraising plan. They employ undergraduate work-study students in the development office, in the evenings, to call up alumni and to ask us for money. Not a lot – $100, $200. It's pretty easy money to raise, too. You know why? Because 85% of the students that graduate from ASU are first-generation college students. People like us owe our university more than we can pay back in our working lives. In seminary I knew a woman who always gave her parents presents on her own birthday. She said when she grew up she realized she owed them everything.
Friends, to whom do you owe what? – not because they have demanded payment, but because without them you would not have the life you have now? What privilege and access and advantage do we carry around in our personhood every day that we never asked for and never earned? And yet we get to choose upon what we shall spend it.
Likewise, as with Moses, before and below all the other things we are in this life – before we are male or female or non-binary or trans; or white or peach or black or brown or ginger; or rich or poor or skinny or fat or gay or straight; or American or Asian or African; or any of the other markers we assign to ourselves and others – before and below all of them, we too are heirs of the promise of Christ. Apart from Christ, Friends, nothing matters, and in Christ, everything is subject to Him.
If our lives were not the Bible story, we would be free, of course, to be self-indulgent. But we are. We are the Bible story in this time and place; we are heirs to that same promise; we are as chosen and as called as Moses to carry the promise into another generation.
Would you pray with me?