Safely through the Waters: A Baptismal Sermon for September 21, 2014

Exodus 14:19-31
14:19 The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them.

14:20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

14:21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.

14:22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh’s horses, chariots, and chariot drivers.

14:24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic.

14:25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”

14:26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”

14:27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.

14:28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.

14:29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

14:30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.

14:31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

How many of you have ever seen the movie “The Ten Commandments”? The one with Charlton Heston? It has been years since I have seen it, but I watched a short piece of it this week in order to prepare for this sermon, so if you haven’t seen it or it’s been a long time, don’t worry…I’ll remind you.

Charlton Heston, Moses, is leading the people out of Egypt and to the promised land. And over the last few weeks we’ve heard some of this same story from Exodus. Moses speaks to the Burning Bush, Moses goes and tells Pharaoh “let my people go”, the plagues come, Pharaoh reluctantly agrees, and Moses gets the people ready to move. And so they start on their journey. But they don’t get very far before Pharaoh changes his mind. And Pharaoh and his army take off after Moses and the Israelites.

Finally they all find themselves on the shore of the Red Sea. And water is in front of them, and Pharaoh and his army are behind them, and things look bad. A man yells out to Moses, “Why did you bring us out here to die in the wilderness? Just to drown in the sea?”

How it probably didn't happen...

How it probably didn’t happen…

Moses steps up and yells, “The Lord of hosts will do battle for us!” And he turns and stretches out his arms and shouts, “Behold God’s mighty hand!” And suddenly there are these really bad 1950’s special effects and the waters peel back on both sides and Moses and the people can see clear across to the other shore. They all look amazed and start shouting “it’s a miracle” and they run through the waters before they close back up again and save them from Pharaoh’s army.

So, that’s the way it happens in the movie. But I’ve always believed that the book is better than the movie. And I think a big part of why books are better than the movies is that they go deeper, they’re more complex, and they tell the story a whole lot better.

The Bible is no exception. The passage we read today from Exodus tells us about a people who are hopeful enough to start out on a journey, but realistic enough to be scared. They have left behind all the knew, which wasn’t good, but was a whole lot better than this new reality where they are in the wilderness and facing certain death. So it’s understandable that they were starting to wonder why they ever followed this Moses guy anyway.

I’m sure that if I were there, I’d be doubting all of this too. And I’d be wondering whether it might be better to give up hope and to just go back to what I’d always known. Because hope can be dangerous sometimes. It can put us in situations we never dreamed of, and it can make us wonder why we ever dared to think we could do something new.

That’s what was happening that day as they stood on the banks of the water. The loss of hope, the triumph of doubt, the fear. They were all there.

In the movie version, that all only lasts a few seconds. Moses turns around and parts the waters and it is so breathtakingly awesome that doubt vanishes just like that. And the people crossed over. And they knew, for at least a little while anyway, that God was with them. How could they doubt after seeing something like that?

But have you ever wondered whether that was how it really happened?

Rabbis have a tradition of Scripture study called “Midrash”. It’s a way of taking a particular story from the Biblical text and thinking about and wondering over the meaning, including those things that are left unspoken. And there’s this wonderful tradition about this text which, in my mind at least, is ten times better than the movie.

In this interpretation, there is a man who is mentioned in the Book of Exodus who is named “Nahshon”. And when Moses calls on God to part the Red Sea, as this version of the story goes, it doesn’t automatically part. Instead, everyone stands there wondering why nothing is happening. But then, Nahshon steps out into the water. First one step. Then another. The water gets up to his ankles, up to his knees, up to his hips and shoulders. And finally, when it is up to his nose, the water finally parts.

I like that telling of the story. Because I believe that God could have parted those waters in one fell swoop, and that the Israelites could have seen the shore and known that they were going to be safe from the get go. But I believe that sometimes God asks us to show a little bit of faith, and a little bit of commitment.

Sometimes God wants us to be a Nahshon and so God lets us get nose-deep in the waters. And that’s not because God is toying with us, or being sadistic. That’s because God is preparing us for something better. God is using our faith and our hope to shape us, and to teach us that our actions, our responses, matter too.

The name “Naschon” is sometimes used to mean “an initiator”. That’s what he did that day. He took the initiative and started the crossing. And there are some who push this text even further and say that even after he got nose-deep, and even after the sea started to part, it was a gradual process. The people took one step, and a little more of the sea parted. And then another, and it parted more. And another, and another, trusting that if they just took the next right step, God would show them the next place after that. And eventually, God would lead them to dry ground.

When you think about it, that’s what the journey of faith is like. We don’t get to see the end. We don’t get to see dry land on our first step. But sometimes we get to see just enough to see the next right step. And we step out in faith believing that God won’t leave us stranded, and that the waters will not overpower us. We step out believing that God will make a way.

Today in worship we are baptizing a child we know. And this church knows her story, and her parents have given me permission to say a little about it here today.

On the day this child was born, the parents she would come to know weren’t there. Neither were her brothers and sisters. She had not yet met this family. But God was there. And God was with her in the deep waters, carrying her safely towards the shore.

One day when she was 16 months old that child wound up here in Exeter, at a new home, and everyone thought it would only be for a little while. This was a foster care placement, and they believed that one day it would be time to bless her on the rest of her journey and send her onward.

They took that first step, not just her foster parents, but the whole family together, to welcome a child into their home and to love her. But step by step, day by day, it became clear what God was calling them to do next. And when it became clear that this child wasn’t going anywhere, they took that next step out in faith too. And what God showed us once through Moses, another adoptee, God is showing us now through her. God parted the waters, and God made a way.

And so, today her parents bring their daughter, and her brothers and sisters bring their sister, to the water. They are bringing her to the font. And today as a congregation we baptize her.
And in baptism this is what we are saying: this child belongs to God, and she has all the days of her life. And in baptism she is entrusted to her family, and to all of us now, to help her to learn how to step out in faith until she can do it for herself.

We are going to teach her how to be a Naschon. We are going to teach her how to be an initiator. We are going to teach her how to turn to God even when hope seems foolish, and to trust that the same God who brought her family together, will continue to carry her through the waters. We are going to teach her to step out in faith. And she is going to teach us too.

And so in the waters of baptism today we are responding to what God has already initiated, and we are wading in, and saying we will walk with her on this journey. And so now, let’s gather at the edge of the water. And let’s wade in together. Because I truly believe that if we make a start, God will make a way. Moses and Naschon and and this beloved child we baptize today have taught us that much. Amen.

Journey Through Lent: Day 21

Carvaggio's "Incredulity of St. Thomas"

Carvaggio’s “Incredulity of St. Thomas”

We all doubt. At least all of us who see faith as a journey, and not a one time stop. Our faith gets shaken, we question it, we wonder why Jesus doesn’t appear to us when everyone around us seems to have seen him. We may even feel a bit ashamed of our doubt.

I wonder if Thomas did that first week. Why couldn’t he just accept what the others said? Why did he have to see for himself? I wonder if the next Sunday he thought about not going back. He wasn’t “one of them” anymore. He was the doubter. The one who hadn’t seen.

And yet, he went back. And maybe he went back because he had loved Jesus so much that he needed to hear them talk about him, even if he wasn’t so convinced it was true yet. Maybe he went back because it was easier than being alone. Maybe he went back because he thought maybe, just maybe, Jesus would come again. For whatever reason, we went back to that community in his hour of greatest doubt, just like many of you come here every week, and that day Jesus showed up and he believed.

Doubt can be the thing that propels us to faith. It can be what shakes us up. It can be what pushes us out of the doors of our once comfortable places and into a new, and better, world. Doubt can be the ticket that starts our journey to new life. It can be a sign not of the absence of God, but of God working in us to do something new.

I’ll close with this. During the time in my life of greatest doubt I went to a lecture by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. I know I’ve shared this story with some of you before, but it’s worth sharing again as we talk about journeying in faith while filled with doubt.

He was talking about the parting of the Red Sea and how we have this movie version in our heads where Moses lifted his arms and you could see across to the other side. The reality, he says, was more like this: the people put one foot into the water, tentatively, and the waters rolled back a little. And then they put another foot down, and the waters rolled back more. And so on, and so on, until they found they had safely reached the other shore.

It’s the same with doubt. You won’t see to the other shore. And you don’t have to. God is already there. And God is with you in the waters. Doubt as much as you need to, but leave just enough room for the faith that God will show you the next right step. And just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s the life of doubt, and that’s the life of faith. Amen.

“Hope, Memory, and Why This Day is Different from All Others”

At Jewish Passover Seders there is a point in the meal called the Mah Nishtanah, or the four questions. The youngest child at the table asks four questions on focusing on, “Why is this night different than other nights?” The adults at the table answer the child’s questions in turn, and in doing so recount the story of the Jewish people as told in the book of Exodus.

 

I think about that tradition when I read the book of Exodus, from where our passage from today comes. I love the idea of remembering as a body what happened before, and teaching it, the good and the bad, but especially the triumph of the good over the bad, hope over pain. It’s something the Jewish tradition has always done remarkably well, and it’s something we could learn from in our own tradition.

 

Whenever i read the book of Exodus, i remember that tradition. The story we read today is a familiar one. It takes place not long after the Passover and the fleeing of Egypt for something better. The people are not long removed from their lives as slaves and they know that they are now being pursued. They know that they could go back to a life of pain and no hope. And they look behind them and see the Pharoah’s army approaching. And they look in front of them and see the Red Sea. And at first glance everything looks very bad.

 

But you know the story. You know what happens next as surely as the adults who answer a child’s questions at the Passover table. You know that Moses picked up his staff, and stretched out his hands, and the waters rolled back, and the people were saved. It’s one of the first stories many of us learn from the Bible. Even though neither we nor anyone we knew was there, it’s a part of our memory. And it’s a part of our hope.

 

I’ve been thinking about memory and hope a lot this week. Memory as we approached today, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. Hope as we as a community seek to rebuild. And I’ve been reminded again and again that memory and hope are often two sides of the same coin.

 

But sometimes we get a little weary of remembering things. It starts to feel like we are dragging around a heavy weight all the time. As we’ve approached this anniversary I’ve seen the commercials for program after program about 9/11. It’s pretty amazing how low some stations have sunk in their quest to capitalize on this anniversary. It was hard enough the first time, and this time it’s enough to make me want to turn off the tv and not pick up a newspaper.

 

I even wondered whether or not to preach about it this morning. Especially here as we struggle in our communities to come to terms with what happened two weeks ago and what it will mean for us next. Do we really need another reminder of that day?

 

But as I thought about it, I realized that to not say anything about it here, in this place where we lift up every Sunday the divine memory of what God has done, is to cede the memory of what happened ten years ago, and even what happened two weeks ago, is to abandon our memories to other places. Our memory of the events become shaped not by the Gospel and God’s love, but by CNN and MSNBC and Fox News. They deserve more that that.

 

When the child asks at the Seder table why this night is different from all others, why the food is dipped into salt water first, they are told it is meant to symbolize the bitterness of the tears cried in Egypt. The past, the past before the Red Sea rolled back and freedom was assured, is not forgotten.

 

Today may feel a little like a day where you remember, “Why this day is unlike other days” and all you can taste are bitter tears.

 

And today may be a day when you also feel uncertain. It may be a day where you are standing at the shore, looking out at an obstacle you can’t cross, and feeling a threat approaching not far behind. And you may be wondering, “What am I going to do now?”

 

I’d like to tell you that this is the day that the sea is going to part, and you are going to walk right through with safe passage to the other shore. I’d like to tell you the memory of bitter tears is going to be washed away in that water, along with all that is trying to drag you down. If life were a movie, that’s how this would go.

 

But sometimes movies get it wrong. And in this case they’re not nearly good enough.

 

I know I’ve told you the story before about hearing Bishop Gene Robinson speak about the parting of the Red Sea. It was not long after he had gone through a trying time in his own life. There had, I’m sure, been plenty of tears and a search for hope. He was a man who could understand standing at the shore and feeling like there was no way across.

 

What I loved about the talk that day was that he didn’t make this story easy. In fact, he made it harder. And in doing so, he made it even better.

 

Bishop Robinson said that the parting of the Red Sea was probably nothing like what we saw in the movies. The waves didn’t roll back and the way across wasn’t clear and safe. It probably wasn’t like that at all.

 

Instead, it was more like this: the waves rolled back just enough that the people of Israel could put their feet on safe ground. And then they rolled back just enough that they could take another step. And then another. And then slowly, by faith, they made it across to safety. They did what they never thought possible.

 

The reality of life is a lot more like that than it is like the movies. God gives us enough that we know where to take the next step. And when we take that step, no matter how high the odds are, no matter how overwhelming the journey may seem, we get enough room to make the next. We are rarely shown the whole journey at once. But we are often shown exactly what we need to make the next step there.

 

Ten years ago we stood at the river banks and we wondered what happened next. Our safety and serenity had been taken away from us. Rebuilding felt impossible. We wondered if anything would ever feel normal again. We were afraid.

 

The first day I saw an airplane flying again, the first time I saw a baseball game, I knew that life, no matter how changed, was still good. And we would be shown a way across the scary, deep unknown, step by step. But I also knew, just like those children at the Seder table knew, I would, and should, never forget. I would never forget what happened, and I would never forget what God did next.

 

Ten years from now, you may well be back in church, remembering what happened in this place just a few weeks ago. I can’t tell you what you will be like then, what this church will be like then, or what the world will be like then. We have too many steps to take between now and then, and the shore is not yet in sight.

 

But I do know this. God will not lead us this far, and then abandon us. God, the same God who became human and suffered with us, did not allow pain and hatred and destruction to be the last word. Instead, God transformed it into something new. Something that could resurrect us all.

 

At the Seder, after the food is dipped in something salty, it is then dipped into something sweet. The sweet signifies what God has down to transform what was once so bitter. The meal is not complete without both the bitter, and the sweet. The memory, and the hope. And so it is with us as well.

 

Look behind you, and never forget. The only way what’s behind you can hurt you is if you refuse to remember. Look in front of you, at that sea that looks impossible to cross, and hope. Because it’s only by hope that you can begin to do what God is calling you to next. And then, step out on memory and hope. Put your feet down in new places. And look around to see where God rolls back the sea next. And then remember your last impossible step, and make another. Amen.

Sermon for February 27, 2011: Lilies, Sparrows and You.

Matthew 6:24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

6:26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

6:27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

6:28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin,

6:29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.

6:30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

6:31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’

6:32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

6:33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

6:34 So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

I have this recurring dream. Maybe twice a year I dream that I get a letter from my high school. The letter tells me, “You didn’t actually graduate”. It turns out that there was some requirement that I overlooked and the school didn’t catch it until now, and I have to go back. In the dream I argue that I actually have a college and seminary degree now, but they tell me if I don’t finish this high school class those will be rescinded as well. I always wake up panicked and trying to figure out whether or not it really happened.

I’m told it’s not an uncommon dream. Another favorite of mine that a lot of people seem to have is finding out that you have an exam in a class you haven’t been to all semester. And it’s always something like German. Something you can’t even try to fake it on.

When I have dreams like this, I pay attention. Because I know when I have them, it means there is something else going on in my life that I am getting really anxious about.

We are get anxious. It’s part of what it means to be human. We worry about our family. We worry about work. We worry about money. We worry about all the details of our days. And by the end of this sermon, you will still worry about these things. But my hope is that you might worry a little less.

Jesus is still preaching the Sermon on the Mount. He’s been at this for a while now if you’ll recall the last few weeks. And today he is talking about worry and fear and anxiety.

Jesus tells the disciples a few things. First he tells them that they cannot serve two masters. They cannot simultaneously serve God and serve wealth. They cannot set those things as equal and work towards both at the same time. One must take precedence over the other, and Jesus tells us the only choice that makes any sense is God.

Jesus goes on to say don’t worry about what you will eat. Don’t worry about clothing. Don’t worry about what you will drink. Because worrying will not add a single hour onto your life. Instead, trust that God will provide. Trust that the God who takes care of the birds, the God who puts the lilies in the field, will care for you even more.

I think we’re all prone to anxiety. Some of us even more than others.

I was a very anxious kid and that continued as I got older. In high school, I worried about getting into college. In college I worried about getting into seminary. In seminary I worried about getting ordained. And then I worried about what I would do after I was ordained. I spent so much time worrying about the specifics of my future that I often missed the beauty of what was going on around me. I often missed the lilies in the fields, or the birds in the air. And when I finally got to that place I’d been trying so hard to get to, I felt like I had run a marathon.

More of us are like that than we like to admit.
If you are anything like me, you want to know exactly how the future will unfold. You want to know what everything will look like. You want to know that you will have not only everything you need, but everything you want.

When the hospice I was working for had to make cuts, I knew that they would have to cut chaplains. I know I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating. I was basically prepared. First they cut one chaplain and gave me her territory to cover. And then, one morning, they cut me.

I was pretty terrified. I wasn’t long out of grad school, so I had no real savings to speak of. My transfer to the UCC was still is process so I couldn’t take a church yet. And no other hospices were hiring. Even non-ministry positions were overrun with a glut of applicants. I had no idea what I was going to do.

But I got through the year. And that’s not a testament to my thriftiness or anything like that. That’s a testament to what God was doing in me, and how much I had to learn to trust God. Because the more I learned to trust that God would provide for me, somehow or another, what I needed next, the more I felt my faith deepening. I began to feel God in ways that I never had during that year.

I really do hope I’m never in that situation again. But, in other ways, I’m grateful for having been there. Because as I searched for a call that year, I had a feeling that God was truly guiding me to something I did not yet understand. That God would make a way. That God had a plan and it would be revealed in time. I knew that being laid off would not have the last word. God would.

There is a story of the earliest Christian monks who were in Ireland. They used to build boats and put them on the sea, and then ask God to take the boats to the place they needed to be. They would let God be their navigator, and they would trust that their boats would be safely brought to shore.

While I don’t recommend the same course of action to you, there’s something to be said for that.

There’s something to be said for the idea of putting your boat on a stormy ocean and saying, “okay God…show me where you want me to go.” There’s something to be said about that act of faith in a sea of fear.

What would it mean for you to get in a boat? What would it mean to cast yourself out on the seas and see where God could use you? What would it mean even for our church to get in a boat and let God direct our journey? Would our life together look the same? Look different? I don’t know. But I think it may be worth asking.

I’ll close with this story that I heard about four years ago, and which has become integral to my faith life. I heard it told by a Gene Robinson, a bishop who had faced threats of great violence. He had been called to be a bishop and in the aftermath there had been great division. He had to celebrate worship in some places with a bullet proof vest under his robes because of all the death threats. Yet, his quiet, certain faith was so apparent to all who saw him. He told this story. Some of you have heard me tell it before, but it’s worth telling again.

Robinson talks about the parting of the Red Sea. He recalls the movie “The Ten Commandments” and how in that telling we see the sea parted wide from shore to shore. The Israelites are able to pass through quickly, always knowing they will make it safe to the other side.

Except, he says, it wasn’t really like that. Instead, Robinson argues, the sea only parted a little bit at a time. Someone put their foot in and the waves rolled back just enough for them to put another foot down. And then they did. And the sea retreated a little more. Little by little, step by step, they made their way across the sea. And finally they made it to the other shore. They did not know exactly how things were going to turn out. But they knew that God was with them in the next step.

Jesus tells us not to borrow tomorrow’s trouble. We have enough today. Instead we can pray earnestly and with faith, “Jesus show us the next right step.” And we know that he will. And we know that in God’s love there is always a safe shore waiting for us. Amen.