I asked preachers from all over the diocese to send me the sermons they used to kick-off the Exodus Big Read, and they responded magnificently. Here’s a small portion of the collective wisdom of the diocese, with links to the full text of the sermons.
Thomas Van Brunt points out that, if the Book of Exodus was a play, God would be the main character, it would have three acts, and its through line would be the movement out of slavery into freedom. Thomas writes:
In the first act God takes his people out of Egypt. In the second act God dwells with the people in the Wilderness. In the third act God prepares the people for living in the Promised Land.
Phyllis Spiegel asks
Do some things, some ways of being church, need to be dismantled and re-built for this time? While finding one’s home being dismantled is most unsettling, is it sometimes necessary or beneficial in the long run?
To illustrate this question, she uses a charming story from A.A. Milne’s “The House at Pooh Corner.” In the story, Pooh and Piglet mistakenly rebuilt their friend Eeyore’s house, in a different part of the woods. Do we need to find different neighborhoods (whether physical or metaphorical) in which to rebuild the church? Phyllis offers this prayer to us:
O God, the texts seem to have us asking, have you seen a house around here? Who might you call upon to re-build it? And will you stay with us, O God, as we wander in the wilderness, trying to find our bearings, remembering how to live in covenant with you and with one another?
Michael Kreutzer focuses on names, since the Book of Exodus starts with the genealogy of Joseph and, because of this, is called Shmot, or “names.” The politically powerful Pharaoh isn’t named in the story, but two seemingly insignificant women, the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiphrah, are. Michael goes on to say that we are each given a task to do when faced by seemingly insurmountable problems, tasks that make the most of who we are, rather than requiring us to become someone else. Michael writes:
It does no good for us to try to be people who we are not. Instead, we need to recognize the unique gift that each and every one of us is, in and for the world. As Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has put it (Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, page 139), “Peace comes when we see our reflection in the face of God and let go of the desire to be someone else.” Shiphrah and Puah were not Moses. The recipients of the Letter to the Romans were not Paul. The disciples, who appear in our gospel reading, were not Jesus. But then, God didn’t need them to be. God already had one of each. What God did need them to be were people who used whatever seemingly small talents that they had in order to touch people’s lives in a positive way and to make the world a better place for everyone to live. That is exactly what God needs us to do as well.
Fred McGavran picks up on Pharaoh’s fear, and the fear of all oppressors that someday the people they oppress will outnumber and overcome them.
When we first meet this new pharaoh, the king of Egypt and one of the most powerful men in the world, he is afraid. Like so many slaveholders, he was afraid that his slaves were about to outnumber the Egyptians. No oppressor ever rests easy. Fear goes hand in hand with power.
He traces how fear has been at the root of oppression throughout history, and in our political life today. We have a choice. When God acts on behalf of the oppressed, we can give into fear and join the oppressors, or we join those who are striving for freedom.
Maggie Leidheiser-Stoddard marvels at the courage of the midwives, as well as the courage of Moses’s sister and mother, and the courage of Pharaoh’s daughter. Such courage, she says, fills the world with “God-light,” and we have amazing examples of similar courage today. Maggie singles out the theologian Ruby Sales, who was herself blessed by an act of courage when Jonathan Daniels pushed her out of the way and died from a shot gun blast that was meant for her in 1965. Maggie writes:
Her father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all Southern Baptist preachers, and she said that for her and her peers, faith in God was “the ground we stood on that positioned us to stand against the wind.” She spoke of the incredible courage and strength it takes to resist hating one’s own oppressors – “I can’t control the world, but I can control myself. And you are not going to coerce me into hating.” You are not going to coerce me into hating. That’s powerful, it’s revolutionary, it’s miraculous and holy and dignified. To resist demonization and hatred, to recognize and name the humanity in those who deny your own humanity… that is courage.
Bruce Smith places the contemporary church into the Exodus narrative.
We are living in age of rapid change for Christianity. The “glories of Christendom” are a thing of the past. And, we are experiencing throughout the churches in North America, a decline in the both the influence on society by the church and a decline in the number of folks who find participation in the life and worship of a community of faith to be even marginally important to their lives. So, maybe, like the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness for those 40 years, we find ourselves wandering a bit, and trying to figure out who we are and how God is calling us to live as the people of God. Who will we follow? Who will lead us? Who will guide us? Who will walk alongside us in this 21st century wilderness?
It’s important for us to remember that the story of the Exodus is still going on, and we are still living it. Its questions are ours, and its answers will be ours as well. Bruce articulates the spiritual discipline that will help us: “To be still and know that God is God, and we are not. To be still and to listen… listen to God in Christ working in us and through us.”
George Glazier moves beyond the story of Exodus to focus on how it has effected Christian history and world history. George talks about Exodus as a history that is written “from below,” that is, from the perspective of the oppressed and seemingly unimportant, rather than from the perspective of the powerful. Exodus calls us to take this perspective when we read and think about all history. He writes:
It is ironic that southern slave owners felt that their slaves were being domesticated to be better laborers by worshiping God and listening to the stories of the Bible while in fact what the slaves were hearing were stories of freedom and a God who acted in history to free the enslaved. Their hope was that the God that heard the cries of the Hebrews would hear their cries. Can you imagine how the slaves hearing the deception of Shiprah and Puah, lying to Pharoah straight-faced, would have chuckled to themselves at how easily the powerful are deceived?The powerful cannot imagine that their power will end.
Joan Maynard emphasizes the everydayness of the midwives. We often think that taking a stand and working on behalf of the oppressed has to be dramatic and attention grabbing. But for the midwives, and others among the heroes of the story of Exodus, it meant simply doing what they were going to do anyway, regardless of whether the powerful approved or not.
Hearing God call, the midwives continue their tasks as usual, secure in their faith. God is calling so loudly they can’t hear Pharaoh. They cheerfully carry on. I imagine Shiphrah and Puah bustling about whistling as they washed and swaddled healthy baby boys.
Stephen Applegate gives us a brilliant overview of how the Exodus narrative has been used in American history, by all sorts of people and for all sorts of reasons. His parish, St. Luke’s in Granville, is about to go through a transition as Stephen steps down as rector after fourteen years of ministry there. He makes it clear that Exodus is the book about transition, and quotes William Bridges:
“one management classic that provides an excellent account of a leader’s successful transition-management project. It is the Old Testament book of Exodus, and the leader is Moses. It should be studied by anyone interested in how to lead a group of people from an old way of doing things to a new way.” That’s what will happen here. Sometime after I leave, a transition priest will come who will help lead St. Luke’s through the transition. But that person’s leadership will not be enough. Members of the Vestry, those who will be selected to serve on the Search Committee, committee and organization chairs – anyone who leads here will want to know the story of Exodus. And since even those of us who simply show up Sunday by Sunday are leaders, too, we should all read it.
What is true for St. Luke’s is true for all of us. We are all, in one way or another, in a time of great transition. And we are all called to lead each other through this transition, to lead each other from an old way of doing things to a new way. What a great gift to be invited into this work through the collective wisdom of the diocese.