Elements of Encounter

IMG_1939This is the sermon, as written, I preached at First Presbyterian Church in Nebraska City, NE on October 4, 2015. The sermon text was Exodus 1:8-2:10; 3:1-10. You can click on the audio here.

This week as I was preparing the sermon I came across these thoughts from a group of pastors in Scotland that call themselves “Spill the Beans”. In their most recent publication they say,

“Who are we in this story? Are we the Israelites, held captive to outside manipulating forces, or are we the Egyptians who wittingly or unwittingly are the cause of oppression?

So much in the words and images of our narrative today resonate with the circumstances and emotions within our own society in our current time.

We might reflect on the fact that the Egyptian perspective, metaphorically speaking, mimics our own outlook on life and our actions more than we think. In the first section of today’s narrative we are told that the basis of the Egyptian’s actions stemmed from ‘fear’ of being overrun and the coming together of a strong army who could attack them. It was not out of hatred, loathing, the need for revenge, or desire for more that the Egyptians decided on a strong response. It was more to do with the fact that they were scared that their liberty, within their own land, would be threatened by these foreigners who would come and take their top jobs, reduce their available wealth, clog up institutional welfare provisions, limit the opportunities for their own young, and ultimately threaten their own precious values.”

This story has echoes of the way the Nazis treated the Jews, this story has echoes of the way the slaves were treated in our country, this story has echoes in the current refugee crisis in Europe, this story has echoes of the way any powerful minority treats a powerless majority. Whether it’s in Apartheid South Africa, it’s the 1% treating of the 99% in the US, it’s the echoes that give rise to movements like the Civil Rights movement, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and on and on.

When those in power encounter fear they often seek to deal with the issues “shrewdly” but that quickly gets out of hand and becomes ruthless. When those in power encounter the injustice of the powerful they are often called to speak out, speak up, and take action.

Like midwives to the Hebrews, Shiprah and Puah, in our story. The midwives who refused to follow the orders of Pharaoh to kill all the male Hebrew children. Sometimes we are called to stand in the face of ruthless oppression even if it means severe consequences. Shiprah and Puah encountered Pharoah, a man who had the power to take their life, but they feared God and chose to follow God rather than Pharaoh.

There are many times in our lives when we have encounters that challenge us, that test our faith, that cause us to change our hearts, that push us to think differently, to respond in love rather than fear.

Whether it’s standing up to a friend who uses racial, homophobic, or insulting slurs. Whether it’s standing up for a friend who is being bullied. Whether it’s fighting unjust laws or demanding justice for others. We will have the opportunity to respond faithfully in all of these encounters.

This week, we got the news of another mass shooting at a school in Roseburg, Oregon. It was the 45th school shooting in 2015 and the 142nd since the tragedy of Sandy Hook. In the midst of this horrific tragedy came the story of Chris Mintz. Mintz is a 30-year-old, Army veteran who is a student at Umpqua Community College. While the shooter was still firing, he charged him. He was at least 5 times. A nurse, also a student, on the scene, who performed CPR on several victims, sat with Chris as he repeated, “This is my son’s birthday.” Thursday was Chris’s 6-year-old son’s birthday. The day that a man armed to the teeth walked in to his classroom and opened fire. Chris knew that he could be hurt or even killed but he allowed the love for his son and his commitment to others to overcome his fear and respond even if it meant his life.

Like Shiprah and Puah before him he used what little power he had to try and save as many lives as he could.

All of us have encounters in our life that call us to use what power we have to try and save as many lives as possible.

Too often when we are faced with these encounters we shrink from our responsibility because we are overcome by fear and, certainly in our world today, we are shown a lot to be fearful of. Economic collapses, drug addiction, the next generation, gun violence, ISIS, Iran, gluten are just a few of the things that we are told to fear on a daily basis.

We know something is wrong, we know something needs to change; we are lost and scared. We no longer know how to deal shrewdly with the problems of our world. We too often like Moses, respond rashly to injustice. Then we run saving ourselves but turning our backs on our neighbors.

As the psalmist says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.“

Even though Moses fled to Midian, God had a plan for him, God saved him from death as a child, he was raised in the house of Pharaoh to learn what it meant to be a leader, he was cast out to know what it felt like to be oppressed and lost. Then God found him, searching for his lost sheep. Moses encountered God in the form of a burning bush. God spoke to Moses, challenging him to speak for God’s people. Calling him to return to the place of his birth and free the Hebrews who had been enslaved for over 400 years. God persuaded him to speak truth to the God of Egypt, to give voice to the powerless by confronting the powerful.

We know the end of the story, so we know that eventually Pharaoh let God’s people go. But in this moment, in this encounter Moses did his best to avoid the challenge, the call from God. The great I AM spoke to Moses and Moses was scared. In the midst of his fear God said, “I will be with you.”

So often we get so wrapped in reasons why we can’t do something that we can’t hear the voice of God speaking words of peace to us.

Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we share the Lord’s Supper not only with those here in this room but with Christians around the globe. Christians who come to this table, this holy place and give action to the words of God, I will be with you.

World Communion Sunday started on the east side of Pittsburgh, PA at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933.

In an article by The Rev. Dr. John A. Dalles published in the October 2, 2002 edition of the Presbyterian Outlook. Rev. Dalles relates that this initiative was, the pastor, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr’s attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information, and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another.

Rev. Dalles also asks the question, “What was the world like, in the autumn of 1933—that first World Communion Sunday?” Surprisingly, not much different from the world this autumn of 2015. 1933 was the darkest year of the Great Depression. The storm clouds of Nazism and Fascism hovered all over Europe and threatened the entire world. The prevailing mood was anxiety—fear about economics, fear about politics and fear about the future.

As a faith response to the fears of three generations ago, in 1933, a group of leaders at Shadyside Presbyterian Church sought to do something both real and symbolic, to proclaim that God is God indeed, in spite of politics, economics and future shock. How, they wondered, might one church counteract the pessimism of the larger society? How might they succeed in eliminating the walls of separation between Christians?

So here we are, with what often feels like the walls closing in around us. Even in our own sleepy little town we have stories that feel like we are losing our grip on our safety, but still we encounter God. We encounter God through this meal; we encounter God through our interactions with our friends, family, and neighbors. We encounter God throughout our lives. Oftentimes that is scary, almost always it’s uncomfortable, and every time it causes us to risk something, to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of God and our neighbor. So like the midwives, Shiprah and Puah, like Moses’ response to the burning bush, like the 30 year old Army vet, Chris Mintz in Roseburg let us use these encounters to respond to God’s call with the sure and certain knowledge that God is whispering to us, “I will be with you.”

May it be so.

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