Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Sermon Sunday September 14, 2014

Proper 19 Year A
Exodus 14:5-8
Stepping Past the Edge
By Rich Gamble

We’ve been in the story of the Exodus for the past few weeks. We talked about how the Hebrew slaves in Egypt out of the depth of despair cried out to the heavens for relief from their suffering and how a God heard their call. This God was not the God of the empire and all such systems that enslave and oppress, this God was a God who stood with the vulnerable and suffering. Not only this but our faith tradition claims that this God, is the one true God, creator of all things.

In the story God seeks to liberate the slaves of mighty Egypt by sending a tongue-tied sheep wrangler to tell the god-king Pharaoh to let the slaves free. Pharaoh as you might imagine was not excited by the idea of giving away a foundational part of his empire’s wealth and workforce. It took a lot of plagues before Pharaoh got the idea that something had to change.

Moses led the Hebrews east, away from the empire. Unfortunately as the flee Egypt they find themselves moving towards the sea. In the meantime, Pharaoh has changed his mind and gathered together the cream of his army with the latest of military technology (chariots) to crush the dreams of freedom of those slaves who dared to reject his ultimate authority. It doesn’t look good. What will the Hebrew slaves do? The sea is in front of them and the Egyptian army is sweeping down upon them from behind. Where will they go?

Often people read these stories literally and if we do so, then it seems to be a demonstration of God’s ability to dominate the natural world and destroy human enemies. When we read these stories in this way it locks them into the past. But these stories are not relics of the past or illustrations of God’s ability to manipulate and destroy. These are stories that are alive for us today.

I believe that this story is the product of an initiating incident and the creative input of storytellers. And it doesn’t matter to me which is which, separating out the incident from the creative memory of a people is not helpful for me, it is all inspirational. It is only important to read the story and seek the truth within it. This is not just a history of a certain group of people, it is a way of seeing the world in which we live.

When you hear the story you are led to believe that there are three locations: empire, middle ground and sea. Empire we understand, that is the system of dominating authority, where the strong rule and oppress the weak. In one form or another it is what we have known as civilization. It is oppressive for the vulnerable but it provides order. The sea represents chaos, that place where order does not exist. Biblically chaos stands opposed to all order, even righteous order. It is the unknown, uncharted, uninhabitable place. Often in the propaganda of empire, we are told that the only alternative to empire is chaos, and chaos is deadly.

Between chaos and empire we find the middle ground. It is in that place where the Hebrews find themselves, between empire and chaos. The Middle Ground is that place where people have not completely bought into the values of the domination system but are unwilling to enter into chaos.

People sometimes embrace chaos out of hate for the empire. Hate is their guiding light. They do not seek their own security or profit, they seek only to damage the order of empire in any way they can. The violence of the domination system can push people and whole communities into chaos.  That is what is happening in Iraq. Our invasion pushed that nation into chaos. We expected the people there to play by the rules. We had the superior military, we beat their army, they should have allowed us to form a government, and they should have supported that government. Instead they have had civil war and now ISIS.

Those who defend the domination system of empire tell us that chaos is the only alternative to the domination system. Better to have an unjust system than no order at all. And given the story of the Hebrew people, it seems that this logic has been operative from the earliest empires. The Hebrew people flee Egypt. They go to the middle ground between empire and chaos but the middle ground is an illusion because that ground can be taken by empire at any time. The Hebrews who remain on the middle ground are certain to be slaughtered.

Liberals are generally middle ground people. Conservatives generally embrace the logic of empire and domination. Liberals condemn the inequalities abhor the violence, and seek to ameliorate the suffering of the victims. These are all good and noble sentiments. But the ground upon which liberals stand is still land dominated by empire. Liberals do not want chaos. They do not want to give up the goodies of domination. They are still playing by domination’s rules and supporting its order.

The wonderful thing about this story is that we are given to believe that there are only three locales: empire, middle ground and chaos, and actually the middle ground is shown to be an illusion as Pharaoh’s chariots race rapidly across it, and so there are really only two options empire or chaos. But then at the last moment a third way is found. A path is made through chaos to the other side. Empire, chaos and Promised Land is the new dynamic. The Promised Land is not sitting right there on the other side of chaos. To get there you have wonder in the wilderness until you lose all vestiges of empire in your heart and mind. For most of us it is a journey of a lifetime, with the Promised Land a distant but real goal.

The forces of empire cannot conquer the chaos. They get swallowed up, just as our mighty army was swallowed in the chaos of Iraq. The only way through chaos is on the path of faithfulness to the God of love. In the end, our story of faith shows that chaotic violence is not the opposite of orderly dispassionate violence. Chaos is no more desirable than empire. In the end this story speaks of a true alternative to empire, found not in chaos but on the other side of our fears and hates. The Promised Land, the Realm of God are names for the utterly opposite place. A world ruled by love and not by fear.

Our liberal values are indeed a step away from the violence of our political and economic system but this middle ground is illusory, it is still land controlled by the domination system. For the past forty years we’ve seen the ground of liberal gains disappear under the tide of tax breaks for the wealthy and weapons and war. We stand on the shrinking middle ground, trying to have all the comforts of our empire while opposing the practices of that empire. As the middle ground erodes away we are pushed to the edge of a hope that looks like chaos.

This story challenges us to seek a path through our fear of chaos. Our conservative brothers and sisters have turned back towards Egypt, they have forsaken any hope of a system based on love and justice and instead seek one in which the forces of domination can enforce order and their idea of morality. They say that economic system may be unjust but it does provide order and our use of violence to maintain order is the only alternative to chaos.

Liberals on the other hand have tried to set up permanent housing in the middle ground and ask the forces of domination to please not be so violent but also please help us maintain our benefits as members of the empire.

Neither of these options are a faithful solution to poverty, violence, or the destruction of our environment; and we know this deep in our souls. We know that something is lacking, that there has to be a vision bigger than empire or chaos and the middle ground isn’t it.

The Bible in this story and countless others points to this alternative but to get there we have to first turn our backs on empire, on its logic and values. Through this lens we look at the story of Jesus walking on the water of the sea and inviting Peter to do the same as a reenactment of the lesson of the Red Sea crossing. Our own ritual of baptism can be seen in this light: abandoning the worldly systems of domination, passing through the water of chaos and rising to a new reality.  We are called to follow the call of God on the path of the third option. We may not be able to see how a whole world civilization can be built on the power of love but we can see how we can live out this law one step at a time in our own lives.

Each of us at some point in our lives awakens to the realization that we are standing on the edge of the unknown. We are facing the fearful chaos of an uncharted path and yet we can feel deep within us, a call to step out in faith. We are called to give up the measures of success handed to us by the world around us, to give up many of the comforts and distractions that consume us and instead embrace a path of uncharted hope.

As we constructed the Justice Leadership Program we saw several essential elements: working for justice, living in community, living simply, and living in the context of faith. We chose these elements, not as something for naïve young adults to try for a year and then abandon. We chose these because we see these as essential elements for living a life of faithfulness. By making a choice to live this way this year, our interns are not simply young adults needing our support but examples for us all.

Once we forsake personal gain or personal security as primary motivations of our lives we cease to play by the logic of the domination system. Once we forsake violence and hatred we avoid being consumed by chaos. Once we step out into the uncharted path of lives lived centered in the logic of love we discover that our fears of the unknown are unfounded. This middle ground is no place to live, it is time to move on. We are being called to a journey of freedom and hope. It is our path and our promise. It is Good News…

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