Weekly Preaching: September 13, 2020

September 9th, 2020

Exodus 14:19-31. Was this a miraculous event, as the text implies? Or a natural one, as the text also implies? It was a strong wind drying up shallow waters in the Sea of Reeds (yam suf) not the Red Sea. Luck? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out places we’ve seen ― I thought of Lindisfarne and the tides! ― where water retreats rapidly. Napoleon was almost killed by a sudden high tide while crossing shallow water in the Gulf of Suez ― Moses’ neighborhood! Sacks reminds us that “it is the genius of biblical narrative that it does not resolve the issue one way or another.” Miraculous or natural?

Yes. “A miracle is not necessarily something that suspends natural law. It is rather an event for which there may be a natural explanation, but which ― happening when, where and how it did ― evokes wonder, such that even the most hardened skeptic senses that God has intervened in history.” He also points out the moral message here, “that hubris is punished by nemesis, that the proud are humbled and the humble given pride.” On foot, you could make it through the mud, but not in chariots. “The Egyptians’ strength proved to be their weakness. The weakness of the Israelites became their strength… God mocks those who mock him.”

So we need not cling to mental images from Cecil B. DeMille’s film of the grand miracle with high walls of water defying gravity. There was a lot of courage in the people. Who was the first to step into the water? According to the rabbis it was Nahshon son of Aminadav. Only after Nahshon actually waded into the water did the sea part so everyone else could cross over. That first person to step forward is always the key. I admire Elie Wiesel’s retelling of this story: 

‘One could see people running, running breathlessly, without a glance backward; they were running toward the sea. And there they came to an abrupt halt: this was the end; death was there, waiting. The leaders of the group, urged on by Moses, pushed forward: Don’t be afraid, go, into the water, into the water! Yet, according to one commentator, Moses suddenly ordered everyone to a halt: Wait a moment. Think, take a moment to reassess what it is you are doing. Enter the sea not as frightened fugitives but as free men!’

Walks to freedom inspire, and illustrate this text. Mandela out of prison, Gandhi to the ocean. John Lewis and a holy horde crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge ― and then the time Lewis was shown a photograph of himself as a young seminarian being released from prison in Nashville. His face glowed with a dignity, a confidence: “I had never had that much dignity before. It was exhilarating ― it was something I had earned, the sense of the independence that comes to a free person.”

In my book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, I point to Moses and his repeated, failed attempts to lead: “In his first appearance in Pharaoh’s court he was humiliated. The plagues he unleashed only drew the ire of his own people, as their lot only worsened. Once Moses finally got them to the sea’s edge, when they heard the rumbling of Pharaoh’s chariots in pursuit, the people wailed in horror, pleading with him to take them back. His response was not to turn and fight, or to flee in a zigzag escape route. Instead, with Pharaoh’s juggernaut bearing down on them, he said to the people, ‘Stand still and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today’ (Ex 14:13). Do… nothing at all.” Words for the preacher! You have to do something, but maybe it’s to be still.

Romans 14:1-12. Try verse 3 as your text: “The weak eat only vegetables.” Carnivores win! Paul is grappling with Jewish dietary laws as Christianity struggles to morph from a Jewish thing to a Jewish and Gentile thing. The homiletical takeaway could be how utterly unintentional we are about what we eat. Or we eat what we eat because we like it, we’ve bought into some dietary plan, we’re trying to lose weight.

What connection might there be between our food, where it comes from, how we get it, and eating it ― and with whom! ― and God? Norman Wirzba has brilliantly awakened many of us to what’s involved (in Food and Faith, from which I borrowed heavily in my chapter on Eucharist and all our meals in Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, including Wendell Berry’s elegant thought about the starting point of all our food, the soil: “It is enriched by all things that die and enter into it. It keeps the past, not as history or as memory, but as richness, new possibility. Its fertility is always building up out of death into promise.”). A rich topic for preaching, just food.

Of course, Paul spends more time here on why we should not pass judgment on others. How easy it is then to slip into judging those who pass judgment! We need constant reminders that we aren’t any good at it, and it’s not our job anyhow. What a relief! I simply am liberated from the slightest responsibility to pass judgment on others. This was obviously important to Jesus ― the log and speck in the eye and so forth. In one of his novels, Robertson Davies writes, “It is part of God’s mercy that we do not have to undertake that heavy part of his work, even when the judgment concerns ourselves.” I’ll ask my people on whom they are more harsh in judgment: others? Or themselves?

Matthew 18:21-35. I read and listen to lots of sermons. Oddly, forgiveness doesn’t get much play ― as it’s been the heart of the faith forever. We’re rightly wary of manipulation and shaming that clings to forgiveness like magnets. Plus, listeners don’t feel much need for forgiveness, in our culture of blame, of rights, of self-fulfillment. But they do know broken relationships. Not bad to lift up Frederick Buechner’s wisdom: “To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to rollover your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back - in many ways, it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the end of the feast is you.”

Jesus engages in typical, laughable hyperbole. Forgive seven times? (a lot) ― No, 77 or 490 (the text isn’t clear, but either is essentially a number you’ll never achieve). His debt parable: 100 denarii, a manageable amount for even the poor. But 10,000 talents? The entire budget for the province of Judea for a year (Josephus tells us) was 600 talents. This is Bill Gates wealth. Forgiven. It’s not really volume or amount or counting, is it? Forgiveness is finally an embrace of the other person. Relinquishment of power is required. And a miracle in the soul you can only pray for. Donald Gowan, in his informative book The Bible on Forgiveness, says “As mothers and fathers are hurt by their wayward children, husbands hurt by their unfaithful wives, and brothers who have been betrayed, find something in themselves to make it possible to work toward a restored relationship, that something, multiplied many times, is present, and in fact originates in God.”

Restoration. Reconciliation. The art of being a Christian. We have to talk about it constantly. And to clarify that forgiveness isn’t putting up with abuse forever. Regularly, I am talking to someone who can’t forgive. As pastor, I point out that the Greek word for forgive, aphiemi, means simply to open your hand and drop what it’s clutching. Then I drop something onto the floor and tell them, if reconciliation just can’t happen, let it go. I think that’s theologically on point.


This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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