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I am With All y’All, September 10, 2017

I Am with All y’All

We’ve been tracing those wonderful stories in Genesis about our ancestors in faith, stories about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his wives and songs. This story in Exodus 12 is the culmination of those early stories. It is one of the most important stories in the whole Old Testament. For Jews, it has the same kind of importance and meaning as the story of the Last Supper or the story of crucifixion and resurrection has for Christians. This is a central part of their identity as God’s people.

For faithful Jews, the festival of the Passover celebrates their liberation from slavery in Egypt. This is when Israel left Egypt, journeyed through the wilderness, and moved into the land they believe was promised to them by God.

Even today, some 3500 years later, faithful Jews gather every year to celebrate this festival of deliverance and liberation. They don’t celebrate in the synagogue or in the Temple, but at home. The extended family gathers around the table, and the celebration begins as the youngest child asks, “Why is tonight different from any other night? Why do we eat unleavened bread, with our clothes on? What does this mean? Why do we do this?”

That’s the prompt to start telling the story. “We were slaves in Egypt, and God delivered us from that slavery. The Lord led us out of Egypt into the promised land. The Lord struck the Egyptians and passed over our houses, sparing us.”

Every year, they tell the story in the present tense. This didn’t just happen to our ancestors. This was for us. God is delivering us from slavery. God is setting us free. What happened in the past becomes real in the present for us.

There is a deep truth in these stories of faith. Our ancestors told these stories as a way of discerning the presence of God in life. We tell these stories, hoping to find ways to tell our own stories and seek God’s presence among us. As God was present then, God remains with us now.

Exodus is a story about liberation. God’s people are set free. Egypt was a cruel place, led by a despot who was desperate to get rid of the Hebrews. He enslaved them. He tried to kill off all the baby boys because of his paranoia, and it was only because of the courageous faithfulness of two midwives Shiphrah and Puah that his plan failed.

Then God reached out to Moses to lead the people out of that hellhole called Egypt. Moses was one of those Hebrew baby boys whom the king wanted to kill. Instead, he was raised by the king’s daughter. Moses was raised as an Egyptian; he lived in court with all the privileges of Egyptian royalty.

When he finally learned that he was a Hebrew, he had an encounter with God. God gave him a vocation, and Moses tried everything he could to weasel out of it. I don’t speak so good. I stutter and stammer. I can’t do this. Who am I? Who are you? What if the people don’t believe me?

Finally, Moses was overwhelmed by God’s awesome love. He had no choice but to do what he was intended to do.

“Let my people go,” said Moses. “Set my people free.”

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, refused. The story says that God hardened his heart. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

The confrontation ends with a series of 10 plagues in Egypt. The story is told like a cosmic battle between God and the Egyptian king. The plagues are like weapons of war between competing gods. The story ends with a horrifying final plague in which the eldest child of every Egyptian is killed, from the highest to the lowest.

This story is actually told twice. In this telling, it is God who kills every firstborn child. A later author tells it slightly differently—not God, but an angel of death was responsible for killing the Egyptian children.

There are some theological landmines in this story. Do we believe that God chooses to harden the hearts of some people so that it results in this kind of pre–ordained slaughter?

I don’t.

At the beginning of these sermons about these stories in Genesis and Exodus, I said that it was important to remember that these stories don’t describe what God did, or what God said, or what God thought. These stories are what Israel thinks God did, or God said, or God thought.

For Israel, being set free was God’s victory over the gods of the Egyptians. They had been oppressed, and it’s easy to understand why they would rejoice in this freedom. It’s easy to understand why they delighted in the deaths of the Egyptians. It was retribution, pure and simple.

It’s easy to demonize those who are different than you. We see it around us all the time. Strangers, those who are different, those who stand out—they are all victims of this tendency. Even Christians and churches demonize others, those who think differently, those who believe differently.

God forgive us.

We cannot do that.

Paul reminds us that the law is summed up in this word: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

I want to go even further. Our whole lives are summed up in this word.

Part of our Vision Statement is that we “follow Jesus compassionately and faithfully. All are welcome!” Our whole lives, our whole mission, our whole ministry, everything we do in this place, is summed up in this word: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”

Jesus teaches the same thing in Matthew 18. Some people treat this instruction as a set of rules. I think it’s more about relationships than it is about rules. Do whatever you can to build relationships, to make them stronger, to make them more healthy. Do your utmost to regain a lost relationship. Reach out. Speak to each other face to face. Forgive. Not just 7 times, but over and over and over again.

I think Israel was wrong in the way it told this story of the Exodus. They demonized those who had brutalized them.

But God didn’t kill the Egyptians. Just as God didn’t kill the victims of Hurricane Harvey or Irma. Just as God isn’t complicit in any act of brutalization.

We follow Jesus, faithfully. And Jesus did not strike back at those who killed him. What Jesus did was to ask God to forgive them. What Jesus did was to reach out in compassion to a thief crucified alongside him.

And every week we tell that story. We tell the story of one who died, of one who rose again, of one who stands in solidarity and compassion with anyone in the world who is suffering.

We also gather around a table every week and tell the story of one who says to us, “This is my body. It is given for you.”

We tell the story of one who goes on to say to us, “Give yourselves for the sake of the world.

We tell the story of one who embraces us with wide open arms, and then invites us to embrace each other.

We tell the story of one who holds us close and whispers that in every part of our lives, in fire and hurricane, in life and death, in sadness and joy, in turmoil and in calm, “I am with you.” Not just with those who think like me, or act like me, or believe like me. I am with you all. All y’all.

I am with you.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

September 10, 2017 (14th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23)

Exodus 12: 1–14

Romans 13: 8–14

Matthew 18: 15–20