SERMON PREACHED at St LUKE’S, TAIERI (MOSGIEL)
23rd ORDINARY SUNDAY (September 6th) 2020
Exodus 12: 1-14
Romans 13: 8-14
Matthew 18: 15-20
There is an ancient rule of preaching that suggests as the preacher stands trembling at the threshold that she or he should seek to glean two key ingredients: what’s happening here, and what is the good news for us. I would add a third: “so what” – not as a contemptuous adolescent sneer this last, but what do we do now?
I wouldn’t say that in this Sunday of the Year of Matthew – obviously an occurrence somewhat recurrent in a liturgical preacher’s life ! – the answer immediately slapped me across the face as I prepared myself for this day. I never reproach a sermon after it’s one day of airing – I change, you change, the world changes – but I sometimes allow myself a glance back. Three years ago I was on a complex sabbatical from preaching duties, so that was no help. Three years before that I seemed to have vastly different readings – so that was no help. What was God telling me? I decided to go no further back, and turn once more to the to the present (there’s no time like it, they tell me).
And what a time: 2020, the year we will never forget. The year in which some have descended into conspiracy theories, while others have acknowledged that for a whole swathe of historical and political and even theological reasons we were always going to have to face brutal crises of economic and ecological collapse, even if we didn’t expect a return of pandemic. Can readings from what some of my liberal friends call “an old book” speak to us meaningfully of God’s purposes when pandemic and economic implosion are sweeping across the globe? Come to think about, could the biblical texts speak to us even before that, when our greatest concerns were and can continue to be one day – ecological implosion, the looming death of planet earth? Can God speak to us through, for example, the Exodus, three thousand years after the events and on a different quadrant of the globe?
Let’s set aside historical specifics. The writers of Exodus were not writing post-Enlightenment attempts at “reportage” history, were not pretending to generate something akin to absolute truth the way some people want a writer to do. Philosophers (and I think on this they are right), will tell us that absolute truth reportage is impossible. Perhaps the nearest we get to that is police statements, and we know only too well that they are open to a whole heap of variables. Don’t get me wrong: there is an Absolute Truth – but it is far beyond our comprehension, and dwells only within the heart of the God we see only through a darkened glass.
Exodus is to some small degree “reportage.” Ancient societies were oral communities, and the fireside tellings that went on and on – in the aboriginal communities with which I used to rub shoulders on and on for perhaps 60,000 years – accruing meaning and symbolism. There are details in the Exodus narratives that ran deep in the memories of the Hebrew people. They had been slaves, they had escaped, they had come home to a land promised, they believed, to their ancestors. More important for us, they had faced a cataclysm, and by the hand of God they found themselves in a -place of hope. Can that happen for us, or has God given up on humanity and Creation?
The Hebrews continued to tell these stories through cataclysm after cataclysm, so we can safely assume they believed that God did – and we might suggest still does – take humanity through times of darkness and terror. This doesn’t mean that we won’t live and die in times of turmoil, nor that bad, even fatally bad things won’t happen to us. It means that God, who holds us in the palm of those divine hands, carries us beyond Egyptian pharaohs and Roman conquerors and Black Deaths and World Wars and cancers and car crashes and COVID-19.
The authors of Exodus knew that chaos existed. Their forebears had escaped the chaos of slavery. In their own experience of #BlackLivesMatter they had eventually overthrown tyranny and exploitation and corrupt and despotic leaders. They found their own equivalent of a black president – though the pendulum swung innumerable times in the centuries that followed. They found an ambiguous liberator, in Moses. They found a Promised Land. They grew into rituals that told them of a God who hears the cries of the oppressed, whether it be in the brickyards of Egypt or the plantations of the American Continent or the refugee camps of Kenya and Jordan and Ethiopia and Tanzania and Manus Island to name just some. They found empowerment so they no longer had to cry #MeToo to be heard. While it wasn’t perfect, and again the pendulum has never ceased to swing, they found signs of hope, signs of justice, since of equality, and even signs of reconciliation and mutual respect that are a foretaste of the Reign of God that is yet to come.
Many of us, if not all of us, are on the privileged side of history – so far. Perhaps economic and ecological collapse will change that. But for now most of us know where our next meal will come from, will have a roof over our head, and will not die of cold or starvation tonight. The Hebrew people reached that blessed state too, after they fled Egypt. They promised then never to forget the God who had delivered them. They often forgot that promise – as we do. God again and again used the rigours of nature and politics to remind them and us that we are not gods, not immortal, not beyond the brute force of judgement. The word “wrath,” in various languages, is associated with God from time to time. Not the wrath of an impulsive and evil deity, but the wrath of a God that has little choice but to bring humanity back to some semblance of justice and fair play – compassion and justice for neighbours, human and otherwise, with whom we share this planet. Ours is a time a wrath. Our churches, nations and eco-systems are collapsing. As Paul says in the opening of his great letter to the Romans, we are “handed over” to the ramifications of our own decisions and behaviour.
The wrath of God, though, is not a final word. At the heart of the story of Exodus, and at the heart of what we believe is the story of the Cross of Jesus, the new Exodus, is the knowledge that God goes ahead of us. Even when all turns to custard and we experience closure in our lives God’s footsteps are still warm, and we are led on to futures as unimaginable as our world would be to those stumbling Hebrews. Indeed more unimaginable still. For behold, says the author of Revelation, I see new heavens and a new earth, and the Lamb will be the light of the City of God.
But we have many rivers to cross yet.
Nevertheless, as we remember past deliverances of the People of God, and probably repeat their recurrent mistakes and descents into chaos, we can do worse in preparation for our encounter with the God of Judgement, God even of Covid-19, than to practice peace, peace that is the presence of justice, reconciliation between fractious opponents that is the presence of love, and practice worship together that is the foretaste of the eternities of God.