Today we hear how the story begins when the LORD our God delivers the whole congregation of Israel out of slavery, and here’s what I’m wondering. It’s not in the Bible, but do you suppose there was one person who — didn’t want to go…
Go on without me, she said. I’ve been living here my whole life, I can’t leave now. I’m too old, she said. I’m too tired. And when that didn’t convince them, she sighed the deep sigh of resignation. You might have heard her mutter under her breath: Whatever. It’s not like anything matters.
What happened was the people of Israel were living in slavery in Egypt. They cried out to the LORD, and God heard them, and God’s heart was moved. Finally. And God remembered the covenant.
And so it is that the LORD our God imposed a series of plagues on Egypt. There was water turning to blood and an outpouring of frogs! Imagine thick clouds spiraling, swarming of gnats and flies! There were diseases, excruciating boils. Then came the thunder, and the hail, and the darkness covering the face of the earth. It was so dark, even if you closed your eyes, you could feel the darkness in your body. Then the LORD killed the firstborn in every house.
Now if you think it’s a problem that the God of love and life chooses to unleash suffering on the people and the earth, you’re exactly right. It is. If you think it’s a problem that the Bible says God is the one who hardens Pharaoh’s heart so he had no chance to repent, you’re right. It’s a problem that I can’t solve.
It could be, the human authors of the story were mistaken. They looked at the immensity of horror and decided, it must have been God who did this! But they’re as human as we are, and they could have been wrong.
It could be, the LORD really did these things and this is something of God that I don’t understand or even recognize… Nobody knows all there is to know of God.
What I can tell you is the Holy Spirit has a way of getting himself into our human stories. Even when our stories are hellbent on driving us deeper into oppression, God finds a way into the story like a stowaway on a ship, and God does what God does. She makes a way out of no way.
The Holy Spirit keeps turning the story toward liberation and more liberation as though the LORD can imagine this world turning toward life and more life! As though God is living for that day.
If you need some kind of sign that the God whom we worship imagines the day when the world is set free, how’s this: The story of the Israelites escaping slavery did not remain confined to its assigned pages in the Bible. The story itself got out! Every year our Jewish sisters and brothers re-enact this story in their own homes at their own tables. Now for generations to come, the Jewish people are joining its trajectory toward liberation.
In this country, the narrative of the Exodus is what gave sustenance to the abolitionist movement. It strengthened the people escaping on the Underground Railroad. This is the story that gave rise to the singing. This is the story that shows us what it looks like to overcome slavery as though we could do it again.
I know the Holy Spirit has lavished her promise of coming back to life across the sky; now we can’t help but lift our eyes and remember the longing in our own soul. It’s just…
In the whole congregation of Israel, I wonder if there was one person who — just couldn’t. Not after the toll slavery has taken on her body. Not after what she’s seen. Not after the water turning to blood, not after the frogs, and the flies, and the gnats, the disease and the locusts, the thunder and the darkness so dark it gets in your bones. Not after the pandemic, not after the homelessness, not after the police brutality in her own neighborhood, and the hurricanes and the fires. You go on ahead, she says, and who can blame her. And it could be, we have sighed the same sigh.
If you have ever lived through depression, then you’re familiar with this force. It shows up and stands in the doorway, leaning against the frame, and it whispers its taunts. You really think you’re going to live to see things get any better? You really think there’s anything you could do that would help? You think the world needs you, really?
If you have ever heard this taunting in the deep place of your soul, if you have considered giving in to it because why not just curl up and turn bitter, because what is left to live for,— what you need to know is, this is not because it’s your fault; it’s because you’re hungry; see the difference. When you have lost your hope, you can’t make yourself feel hopeful any more than a hungry person can make themselves feel full.
Now the Bible does not tell us there was a woman who tried to stay behind, but I’m pretty sure she was there, and I’m pretty sure she was ready to give Moses a hard time because in our scripture today God answers her unspoken objection and God takes an unmistakable tone.
Listen up, says the LORD. I’m going to say this once. You need to help your neighbors and work with other households. Slaughter a firstborn lamb. Put the blood on the doorpost. Roast the lamb in the fire, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Eat it with your shoes on and your bags packed because then we’ve got to go.
And I’ve got to tell you, there is something of God right here who I absolutely recognize and you do too. This is the Holy Spirit who drives a minivan, who is not leaving until every seatbelt is fastened, who has never left a child behind at the beach, who always has juice boxes in the cooler.
Your despair is not your fault, says the LORD our God. I know that you’re hurting and you’re hungry, but we’ve got to go. Ain’t nobody got time for bread to rise. Put your shoes on, we’ll eat flatbread in the car. We’re not leaving without you.
Last November, the people of Church of Peace voted to make Twenty Twenty the Year of Caring and Service. I don’t know all the reasons why this topic won, but I have a few ideas. It could be this theme expresses the truth of our identity as a church. Way back in Nineteen Seventy-Five, Church of Peace voted to stay in the neighborhood because we experienced God calling us to serve those who were most in need.
Another reason this theme might have won is because Caring and Service is already in our wheelhouse. We know how to care for each other; we know how to serve. We already do this, and we love doing this. It’s not a huge surprise that this theme was the winner. But I’ve got to tell you, I think there might be another reason as well.
See, sometimes I wonder whether our church gets taunted by those forces of despair. You know we’re a small congregation. Most of our members are older. We’re tired. We’re giving as much time as we can give. We’re doing as much as we can do! We’re giving as much money as we can give, and still more is needed.
As a congregation, we could start to entertain the possibility that these forces are right. We could feel the resistance deep in our bones. We could hear ourselves sigh. You go on without us, we’ll say. We’ve done all we can do, we’ll say. The despair in our world is real, and it’s asking us to give in and give up.
Only thing is… God is asking us to do something else.
God is telling a story of how the world comes back to life, how the people got set free, and we’re in the story. The Holy Spirit is coaxing us to get up from the dead, to challenge the forces of oppression, and sing the songs of liberation. And here’s the thing, as a church, we already know this! Something in us is hearing God’s call today just like we did forty-five years ago.
It could be the reason why Caring and Service won the year is because we know the truth. There’s no way to take on the work of caring and not have some inkling of your hope restored. It’s as though dedicating ourselves to service is an act of defiance against all those forces that taunt us saying: Why even bother… It’s as though the work of our hands has something to prove to our hearts.
So now when it’s your hope that has gone out, we know what to do. We’ll write Thinking Of You cards, and make a casserole for your freezer, and drive you to the doctor. Our church will make you a mask if you need one. We’ll make music that nourishes your soul. We will make time for you to cry. We will listen to you and hear you sigh the sigh of all the world and then…
And then we will hear the word of the LORD who speaks to those living in depression, to those locked in prison, to those who have made their bed in Sheol. He says: I know your hope is gone, and your heart is breaking, and you are hungry, but I’m going to set you free. Put your shoes on, we’ll eat in the car. We’re not leaving with you! Thus saith the LORD. Thus saith the Church.
We’re not leaving without you. Let’s go.