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Sept. 13 - “Treasure Hunting” - Rev. Plank
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 13, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
Text: Luke 12:34 “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Scripture Lessons: Luke 12:32-40
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that worship equips us to do God’s work to the end that hearers will feel empowered and inspired to do God’s work in the world.
Prayer for Illumination: God our Creator, we come to you humbled and awed by your grace for us. Give us a spirit of understanding this morning so that we may better know what you call us to do. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20: The book of Isaiah opens with the prophet’s writings to the kingdom of Judah; and, as is true of many books of prophecy, begins with a biting critique. Listen for God’s Word.
Luke 12:32-40: Jesus speaks to his disciples in Luke in a much softer tone in these verses, but speaks of some of the same things as Isaiah. Listen for God’s Word here.
Lauren and I replaced one of our cars recently. My trusty old Jeep, which served us well for years, finally at 22 years old just needed too much work to justify. The Jeep is dead, long live the Jeep. So we got a different vehicle, that’s newer and has things like air conditioning and working interior lights, which I’m led to believe come standard on cars these days? But getting into that new car the other day, I did that thing that always happens when you switch cars after having gotten used to one.
I tried to stick the key in a non-existent ignition. I reached for an absent gear shift. I unlocked the doors instead of rolling down the windows, and I fumbled for the seat back adjustment lever. Our bodies adapt so quickly with their muscle memory. You get so used to doing things a certain way that you stop thinking about it. Repeat an action enough times and it becomes hard-wired into your system. It’s the reason that you never have to re-learn to ride a bike; it’s the reason that quarterbacks don’t have to look to make sure the laces on the football are in the right place before they throw a pass; it’s the reason pianists can play entire pieces of music with their eyes closed. We go through the motions of that action so many times that we can do it without even thinking about it.
Doing things without being fully conscious of what we are doing or why we are doing them goes far beyond muscle memory; take our rituals surrounding holidays: Easter, for example. Why do we put out eggs for Easter? They’re used in decorations, we dye them, we get plastic ones filled with small toys or candy; they’re everywhere. But, why? When Jesus rose from the dead, and stunned the disciples by appearing to them in the upper room, did he hand out eggs to them and say “Happy Easter guys, figure out something to do with these.”
No, we use eggs in our celebration of Easter because early Christians often adopted certain pagan rituals and symbols as a means of spreading the gospel. Easter is celebrated right around the time of the spring equinox, which for many cultures marked an enormous celebration of fertility and new life. Eggs are an almost universal symbol of fertility. So the early Christians said: “you have a celebration of new life? So do we! Ours is about a man named Jesus, come and join us! Bring your eggs!”
But even knowing that little bit of history, we probably don’t call it to mind when we dye eggs each spring. We go through the motions and celebrate Easter with eggs because that’s what you do. It’s easy to do things like that on autopilot. We shift out of park without even looking at the gearshift. We do school shopping because it’s the end of August. We dye eggs without once thinking of how that tradition got started. We mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer while we mentally make our Sunday afternoon to-do lists. We sing the doxology, focusing on that leadwork in the window that we’ve never noticed before.
Going through the motions is as old as time. In our reading from the Hebrew scriptures this morning, the people to whom Isaiah writes have altogether stopped paying attention to what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. The formal worship of God, as practiced by the Israelites, was highly ritualistic. Animals were sacrificed and burnt offerings were offered to God. Everything from the slaughtering, to the butchering, to the parts offered as burnt offerings, to how the blood was treated had extremely specific guidelines.
The rituals in the Temple were being followed to the letter. Sacrificial slaughter was by the book, burnt offering ceremonies were immaculate, incense tinctures were perfect, every festival was kept, not one word of a prayer was misspoken. But God speaks through Isaiah and says in no uncertain terms “these rituals just won’t cut it anymore.” God says “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts… Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… I cannot endure solemn assemblies… your new moons and your appointed festivals… have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them” (vv. 11-14).
This is confusing, coming from God. Israelite worship depended upon these rituals. There are chapters and chapters in the first five books of the Bible – what our Jewish brothers and sisters call the Torah or the Law – devoted to the proper practice of the rituals of worship. These rituals were so important that an entire Hebrew tribe – the Levites – were entrusted with enacting them and overseeing the teaching of them. And here, God appears to Isaiah in a vision, and through him God says to the people: “stop the rituals!”
But as the passage progresses we see that the root of God’s anger is not the smell of incense, it’s not the burnt offerings, it’s not mud on the Temple floor, it’s not that the festivals have gotten too raucous, it’s that worship has become empty. The people forgot why they did any of this worship in the first place. They had gone back to the old ways of corruption, exploitation, pettiness, bitterness, but were still engaging in the ritualized worship of God, failing to acknowledge the hypocrisy of their empty worship. “Wash and make yourselves clean,” God says, “Take your evil deeds out of my sight!...”
And I don’t know about you, but I feel some conviction reading this text the week of the 19th anniversary of September 11th. We all have been reminded this week of that day. We’ve been reminded of the unity so many of us enjoyed on September 12th – though it bears mentioning that a whole lot of Americans who were Muslim or had Middle Eastern roots were scapegoated hard that first September 12th. But I think it’s fair to say that the majority of the unity that was present then is gone now. And so the anniversary of September 11th, 2001 one comes, and there are pictures of the towers and we say “Never Forget,” never forget the sacrifice, never forget how we came together, never forget the heroism, etc. But I think we forgot. We devolve deeper and deeper into our echo chambers instead of working to build relationships across lines. I’m not willing to go so far as to say that our memorializing of September 11th is a ritual that’s become empty, but I think we’re already starting to see it be on autopilot. And that’s the beginning of what evolved to where the people of faith were.
And so God offered an alternative to their empty worship. God reminds the people what worship really is. Worship is not just some collection of rites and ceremonies. God says “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (vv. 16-17). This is not a tirade against ceremony or organized religion; it is an urgent call to stop just going through the motions, and to transform worship into something more powerful than hollow rituals.
Because worship is about so much more than going through the motions. We’re gathered virtually worshiping today, but for what? It’s about more than rituals. It’s about more than burnt offerings, festivals, and “solemn assemblies.” It’s about more than hymns, more than the Apostles’ Creed, more than the collection plate, even more than celebrating the sacraments. Worship is about praising God, and more than that, it’s about doing God’s work. Worship goes beyond the prayers and hymns and ceremony. Worship is seeking justice, encouraging the oppressed, defending the cause of the fatherless, pleading the case of the widow. Worship is building relationships and healing our communities.
The Directory for Worship, which is the section of the Presbyterian Book of Order that outlines in detail how and why we worship as a community of faith, is absolutely clear in its understanding of the relationship between worship and doing God’s work in the world: “God’s call to compassion is proclaimed in worship. Those called are equipped and strengthened for the ministry of compassion by the proclamation of the Word and by the celebration of the Sacraments” (W-7.3002).
We are called and empowered through worship to do justice, to love kindness, and walk humble with our God. We are called to build bridges, to be restorers of the breach, to forge partnerships and strengthen relationships. We are called to plant instead of destroy, to build up instead of tear down. We are called to make the world a kinder, better place. This is worship.
It is a call to worship echoed throughout the Bible. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8). This is worship. And it is a worship that Jesus describes as being rich beyond imagining.
When I was a kid, my mom would design a treasure hunt for me and my brother on the last day of school. Riddles and clues would lead us to a cache of summer toys, hidden somewhere clever. But when we got too focused on the clues, when we got too stuck in the literal, and couldn’t wrap our minds around what the words on the paper were pointing to, we went nowhere and our treasure hunt just led to frustration.
When we get so caught up in saying the right words, saying the right prayers, playing the right music, singing the right songs, we get caught on the clues and miss the treasure. The treasure is not a worship service. The treasure is worship that uplifts God’s people, that empowers them to serve others and stand up for those too beaten down to stand for themselves, that urges them to do justice and love kindness. Jesus calls us to make for ourselves through our worship, “an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).
The kingdom of God is not merely some far away heaven, that we go to when we die, it is a world of peace and love and justice. It is the treasure at the end of the treasure hunt. And when we work to do God’s will, we build up that kingdom in our hearts. By doing God’s work in the world we are empowered and blessed to experience heaven on Earth! That is why we rejoice that we are empowered to answer God’s call to do justice. That is why we go into the world and do God’s will. That is why we worship. Amen.
Sept. 6 - “ Hard to Love” - Rev. Plank
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 6, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Hard to Love”
Text: Romans 13:11b: “The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.”
Scripture Lessons: Romans 13:8-12
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that Christ’s call to love one another is more important now than ever, to the end that hearers will be encouraged to continue striving to love their fellow human beings.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious and loving God, we ask you once again to speak to us this morning. Open our minds and give us the Word we need to hear in our lives. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Romans 13:8-12: Some 1500 years after Moses, Paul references the Levites as he writes to the Romans. Listen for God’s Word here.
There are people in this world who seem to be able to do just about anything. My wife’s uncle is an internist. He can take people apart and put them back together again. He can do the same thing with buildings, with automobiles and with guns. He builds knives from scrap metal that he fires in his forge in the garage. He has a staggering understanding of history. He has raised everything from turtles to emus. There are not many tasks you can throw at him that he can’t do.
The author Tim Ferris is another one of those people. He is, by all accounts, a great cook, an excellent athlete, an accomplished dancer, a savvy businessman, and is fluent in multiple languages. But his obsession is learning. This seems to be true of most of those folks who are so multi-talented.
We often talk about teaching methods and learning styles when it comes to different subjects, but Ferris talks about learning itself as an art that can be taught. He contends that in nearly any subject, if you learn the right fraction of the material, you will gain competence more quickly than you could imagine. For example, there are over 200,000 words in the English language. But the 100 most common words – if, and, he, she, etc. – account for just about half of all written material in English. What that means is that out of over 200,000 words, learning less than 1/10th of a percent of them will open up 50% of the language to you.
The people who are the best learners, the best at becoming proficient in all kinds of skills, are the people who understand how to find that small percentage of the material that will open up huge amounts of it to them. Learn the right handful of things and you’ll find the shortcut to new abilities. If you want to learn a language, focus on learning the 100 most common words and on how to use auxiliary verbs. If you want to learn to track animals, focus on learning their different gaits. If you want to learn to cook, focus on braising, grilling, and sautéing. And Paul says if you want to learn to follow the commandments, focus on loving.
Remember that the church to which Paul wrote – the church in Rome – was one embroiled in conflict. The church was new and was made up of Jews who believed in Jesus and also of Greeks who believed in Jesus. The Jews and the Greeks did not see eye to eye and the conflicts between those two groups in the church were intense. Add to that the fact that the church was existing in the heart of the Roman Empire and was anything but popular. Though the fierce persecutions that would come under Domitian and Nero hadn’t hit that particular church, they still faced scorn and oppression.
But Paul wrote to them of love. “The commandments,” he said, “‘Do not commit adultery,’ ‘do not murder,’ ‘do not steal,’ ‘do not covet,’ and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (13:9). If you want to learn the whole scope of worshiping God and following the commandments, learn this one thing: love one another. Easily said. When the fellowship in Acts was breaking bread with one another, holding their goods in common and sharing with all those in need, when they were growing exponentially, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” was easy. But times had changed already.
Love is easy when things are good. But when the relationships you thought were built on trust and respect become bitter and divisive, love becomes much harder. When your church is falling apart at the seams from infighting and Roman oppression, love becomes much harder. When the whisperings of persecutions have begun and the writing is on the wall and you are living a subhuman life, love becomes much harder.
It’s hard to love when things are bad. Don’t you find that to be the case? We preach love for all God’s people, but it’s hard to love today. It’s been a long time since our country has been this divided. It’s been a long time since our politicians have been this vicious to each other. Tensions are high, we are fed misinformation, sensationalized stories, and discord is sown for ratings day in and day out, and we are supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves? Where do we find the energy for that? Where do we find the time for that? Where do we get this magical surplus of love that we are supposed to be able to share? It is all we can do to put on a smile even one more day, and we’re supposed to muster up the phenomenal energy that it takes to love our neighbors as ourselves?
Yes, Paul says. Yes, you are supposed to love. “And do this, understanding the present time” (v. 11). The turmoil of the church, the oppression of the Romans did not excuse the church from love, they demanded a response of love. Especially in the face of hatred, you are supposed to love. Especially in response to vitriol you are supposed to love. Especially where there is injustice you are supposed to love. Especially when everything on television looks grim, when disease and violence swarm across the earth, when systems keep people oppressed, especially then, you are supposed to love.
And don’t get me wrong, loving in the face of hatred and discord is not remotely the same from condoning them. If a person lashes out at me and I respond with love, that doesn’t mean that I just roll over and let them stomp on me. Love is not incompatible with boundaries. When Harvey has gotten furious and said something hurtful like “I wish I lived in a different house!” I respond with love because I know that he’s a kid and he’s learning and he’s figuring out how to deal with his pain. So I embrace him and tell him that I love him and then explain to him why we don’t say things like that. Love is not weak. Love is strong.
Love is taking the high road. Love is seeing the best in other people even when they show you their worst. Love is giving the benefit of the doubt knowing that you’ve said and done things you’re not proud of too. Love is treating others with dignity and respect and kindness. Love includes loving yourself enough to set boundaries around how you will be treated. And love includes refusing to reduce someone to a caricature of the worst parts of themselves, understanding that they, like you, are a child of God.
There are circumstances where love is so hard that it seems nearly impossible. Loving someone who bullied you, who terrorized you, who abused you – that’s something else altogether. It’s deeply complicated, and I want to acknowledge that – because that’s for another sermon. But even in the absence of true evil deeds, we find ways to hate each other. And that’s what I am talking about today, because that is what Paul is talking about with the Roman church.
Love, “do this, understanding the present time.” Now is the time to love. When we are in turmoil and division it is the time to love. When we approach a deeply contentious election, we as Christians are called to stand for love and kindness and dignity and respect not just for people like us, but even for our so-called political opponents, because they are mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers and daughters and sons and children of God, just like we are. They are not monsters, or fools, or patsies, any more than we are. God calls us to that most excellent way. God calls us to love. Paul calls us to love. And please, I am begging you, I know it’s hard, but please choose to love.
It is hard to love. It is hard to love. Especially now it is hard to love. But Paul says that the time has come to wake up. Because not loving hasn’t worked. Hatred, resentment, mistrust, none of those has worked. We’ve had those things for longer than we can remember and there’s still bad news. Maybe even more of it. “Hatred begets hatred, violence begets violence.” It’s time to wake up. I don’t always want to get out of bed in the morning. I don’t always want to do the things on my list that day. I don’t always want to get active. It’s hard. I don’t always want to give my energy to others. It’s hard. I don’t always want to love. It’s hard. But the fact that it is hard doesn’t mean that it is not right.
A change is coming. That Kingdom where weeping and mourning are no longer with us is closer with every day. This night we’ve been living in, some of us for our whole lives, will end, and the day is coming. Love is hard, but it makes you better. Love seems weak, but it makes you stronger than anything else. Love makes you vulnerable, but in that vulnerability is immense power.
I’ve had enough of fear. Love is the way out. I’ve had enough of resentment. Love is the way out. I’ve had enough of hatred. Love is the way out. I’ve had enough of injustice. Love is the way out. I’ve had enough of brokenness. Love is the way out. The hour has come to wake from slumber. The night is nearly over and day is almost here. So put aside deeds of darkness, put on the armor of light, and let us walk in love, toward God’s Kingdom together. Amen.
 Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Clayborn Carson; “The Day of Jerusalem’s Fall” by Jeremiah Wright
August 30 - “ Who Am I, that I Should Go? ” - Rev. Plank
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 30, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Who Am I, that I Should Go?”
Text: Exodus 3:10-11: “‘So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’”
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 3:1-15
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that God supports us in the calls to leadership that each of us carries to the end that hearers will be empowered to lead in the unique circumstances in their lives.
Prayer for Illumination: God who is and God who will be, you know our needs better even than we do. Speak to those needs as we hear your Word this morning and open our minds to understand what you say. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Exodus 3:1-15: After a significant event in Egypt, the adult Moses fled to the land of Midian. After years there, he encountered God face to face. Listen for God’s Word.
Maybe the best part of camping is sitting around the campfire at night. It feels so primal. Sitting around the fire with friends and family, eating together, sharing stories, singing songs, looking at the embers; it’s what human beings have done since the beginning; the heat and light and smoky smell all serving to create a beautiful, almost magical experience. I’ve spent a lot of good nights around campfires.
One that stands out was when I was camping with a few friends in the desert outside of Tucson. We were in a wide canyon basin. The sky was clear and the moon was so bright you didn’t need a flashlight. It was fairly cool, maybe in the low 50s still, though I remember it got down to 23 that night. We had eaten our dinner, shared our stories, and were at the point where we were just watching the fire. We burned mesquite wood – which is great for barbecue because it makes such good coals. It’s a very hard wood that doesn’t burn very brightly, but it gives off lots of heat – it’s like oak or hickory.
The last thing we had put on that fire was a large chunk of a mesquite root ball. There was a sphere of wood about the size of a child’s basketball that trailed into a 3 foot log about 4” in diameter. We sat around the fire and watched that dense chunk of wood burn up until it was just coals. But what was so amazing is that while coals usually fall apart fairly quickly, these held their shape. What had once been a root ball of wood was now a lava lamp version of that: reds, oranges, yellows, and blacks swirled and glowed for over an hour before the first chip fell off the log and it began to come apart. But in another desert, long before then, the bush that burned never made it to coals, and never came apart at all. Moses watched, captivated, as the flames flickered and shone, but that wood stayed as green as it had ever been.
The road that brought Moses to the burning bush had been a long one. From a Hebrew baby destined for death he became an adopted Egyptian prince of Pharaoh’s household. He grew up in the most powerful home in the world, but, as is true with many adopted children, began to struggle with his identity and the ways he was clearly different from his adopted family. I don’t know when he learned he was Hebrew by birth, but the inner conflict of knowing that only luck had joined him to the oppressors and kept him from being a common slave must have eaten away at him. He was caught between cultures: neither truly Hebrew nor truly Egyptian.
And one fateful day he went out by himself and watched as the Egyptians, among whom he had grown up, worked their Hebrew slaves, among whom he had been born. He saw the pain and brokenness of the Hebrews: people who raised children and loved and laughed, and were reduced to pack animals. He saw the cruelty of their Egyptian masters: people who also raised children and loved and laughed, and were reduced to inhumanity. And as the work day drew to a close and he made his way home, he came across an Egyptian beating a Hebrew mercilessly, and something inside Moses snapped. He looked around and saw that no one was coming to help or to stop it, and in a fit of rage, he ran up and killed the Egyptian. The Hebrew slave fled and Moses, in a panic, buried the body in the sand.
And soon word spread. Moses thought he had maybe been able to cover his tracks, but somehow the Hebrews knew that he had killed an Egyptian. Moses knew his days were numbered so he packed his things as quickly as he could, said goodbye to the few loved ones he knew he could trust, and fled Egypt. He traveled for weeks, until he was out of Egypt’s borders, and safe in the land of Midian, in what is now roughly northwest Saudi Arabia.
As Moses walked through Midian he saw some young women watering their flocks at a well. As he approached he saw a few young men come with their own flocks and harass the women and drive them away. Moses chased the men from the well and watered the flocks of the young women and they eventually brought him to their father, Jethro, and Moses lived with them. Eventually he married Zipporah, Jethro’s daughter, and he became happy in Midian. His life in Egypt was behind him and he was content being nothing more than a shepherd for his father-in-law’s flocks. He and Zipporah had a son, they made a home together, and Moses felt settled.
And then came the burning bush. In those days shepherds would take their flocks out into the desert for days or weeks at a time to graze, since pastures and fields at home were scarce. Moses was on one of these journeys with just the sheep and goats as company, and on the far side of a mountain, he saw a fire burning. Anxious for human conversation, he came closer until he saw the bush, and he was amazed to see it burning merrily, but not smoking, not turning to coals, not turning to ash, not crackling or crumbling, not behaving like any fire he had ever made or ever seen.
And then a voice came from the bush. And that voice called to Moses. It called to Moses, the man without a culture; Moses, the sellout who had abandoned his birth people; Moses, the outcast who was never good enough for his adopted people; Moses, the murderer; Moses, the coward who had fled; Moses, who had developed a stammer and couldn’t string words together; Moses, the inadequate; Moses, the failure; Moses who had finally become content just getting by. The voice called to that Moses and told him to lead the entire enslaved Hebrew people out of bondage to the most powerful nation in the world, and into freedom. And Moses responded the way so many of us respond to those calls to leadership: “Who am I, that I should go?” (Exodus 3:11).
Most all of us deal with some level of Imposter Syndrome at some time or another; with the idea that we don’t belong, that we haven’t earned the right to make decisions. But make no mistake, we are all called to leadership. Maybe not all in the same capacity. We might not all be called to lead organizations or movements or groups of committees or companies, though some of us certainly are. But even those of us who aren’t are still called to lead families, to lead children, to lead classrooms, to lead friends, and perhaps most importantly to lead ourselves.
We have so farmed out the control over our lives that we have reduced ourselves to helpless victims. No one has done this to us, we have allowed it to happen. If we feel sad, we ask doctors to prescribe a drug, ignoring the fact that maybe we don’t need medicine, but someone to help us talk through why we are sad. If our backs hurt, we ask for what surgical interventions are available, ignoring the fact that maybe our back pain has something to do with the fact that we eat what my son calls “weak food” and sit on the couch or in the car for 90% of our waking hours. If our bank accounts are low, we complain about how expensive gas or groceries or phone bills are, failing to acknowledge that by and large we are the ones who get to decide how much we spend, and on what. There is unrest and violence in our cities: in just the latest example, Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed by police officers in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and then later, two demonstrators were shot and killed in a protest responding to the shooting. And we condemn and point fingers – much of that done rightly – but we don’t examine where we tolerate or even foster violence, hatred, racism, and division in our own hearts.
There is an epidemic where we have so thoroughly ignored any call to leadership that not only do we have staggeringly few real leaders in our society, we don’t even lead ourselves. We won’t own the fact that for the most part we decide our physical health, we decide our attitude, we decide our happiness, we decide our stress levels. There are circumstances beyond our control, there are diseases, there are mental imbalances that can be terrible to behold. But what the majority of us suffer from is ignoring God’s call to lead our own lives. The majority of us suffer from choosing to be victims instead of choosing to exercise the gifts God has given us. The majority of us suffer from selective deafness when God says “I am sending you to lead yourself out of Egypt.”
I’m not smart enough. I don’t have the right education. My parents never taught me how. It’s genetic. I don’t have the money. My job is too demanding. It’s the democrats. It’s the republicans. It’s not fair. I am slow of speech and slow of tongue. Who am I, that I should go?
I don’t have a college degree, who am I to contribute to any discussion with my doctor about my plan of care? If I don’t go to work, nothing will get done, who am I to choose to decrease my stress? Both my parents had heart disease, who am I to act like maybe I have another option? The economy is in shambles because of Cuomo or because of Trump or because of a virus. Who am I to seek a new definition of prosperity? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?
But God says to Moses, “I will be with you” (v. 12). God didn’t call Moses to some task that he’d have to do on his own. God didn’t set Moses up to fail. God is not some malicious prankster who issues a challenge where success is impossible. If God calls you to do something, you will be given everything you need to answer that call, but the answering is up to you.
Answering can be scary, but you’ll know it when your answer lines up with God’s call. God said that the sign that it was God’s call all along would be that Moses would bring the Israelites back to the very mountain where he was standing and that they would worship God together – away from Egypt, away from slavery, away from oppression, free together on the mountain.
I don’t know what work God has called you to. I don’t know what leadership you’re being asked to exercise. I don’t know where you’re being pushed and prodded, where burning bushes are shouting to you, where voices are calling to you. But I do know that God didn’t call you to stay in bondage in Egypt. God didn’t call you to be a victim. God called you to lead your self. And if you decide to be brave enough to risk it all, to risk comfort and safety and sureness, if you decide to have the courage to answer that call, you will find yourself back on top of the mountain where you first heard it, but you will be a different person.
You will find yourself with a whole host at your back. You will find yourself with a faith you never knew you had, with a hope you never knew you had, with a strength you never knew you had. The mountain that was a stumbling block in the beginning will turn into a champion’s podium. You will not fail. You will not fall. You will not be defeated. Answering God’s call will bring you the victory. Amen.
August 23 - “Do What Is Right ” - Rev. Plank
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 23, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Do What Is Right"
Text: Exodus 1:17,20: “The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live… So God was kind to the midwives and the people increased and became even more numerous.”
Scripture Lesson: Exodus 1:8-2:10
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that following God’s Law leads to unimagined blessings and glory to the end that hearers will have the courage to resist Wrong, even when it may be easy or popular.
Prayer for Illumination: God of power and might, send your wisdom and strength to us as we hear your Word this morning and open our minds to what you say. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Scriptural Context: The book of Exodus begins as a continuation of the story of Joseph and his people after they came to Egypt in the wake of the great famine. Listen for God’s Word.
This Spring, when I was out in the woods, I got to see a few different newborn deer fawns. One morning I spooked a doe in a bean field and she bounded off. A minute or so later, I saw a tiny head and ears pop up from the 6” high bean plants and toddle off a ways. It lay back down and disappeared. Those fawns are so tiny! And adorable with those big eyes and little faces.
The reason, incidentally, that we think baby animals are so cute is because they share some characteristics with human babies. (Are you excited for this digression? Because I always feel like if there’s anything that can make me appreciate something as pure and innocent as cuteness more, it’s cold, hard facts). So here we go. The combination of big eyes, retracting chins, and large foreheads are the combination for cuteness, and studies have shown that they trigger nurturing responses in adults across all cultures. Put those three traits together and you have something so phenomenally cute that we are biologically wired to nurture and protect it. A cute African baby looks like a cute Asian baby looks like a cute European baby looks like a cute South American baby. And pharaoh told his people that if one of those cute babies was born to a Hebrew family and if it had a Y chromosome they should throw it into the Nile.
Can you imagine the evil it takes to make that kind of decree? Can you imagine the systemic cultural manipulation that had to be done for people to comply with that decree? Can you imagine the utter terror you would be in if you knew that there was a 50% chance that any one of the women of your nation who were pregnant would have their baby murdered within the first minutes of his life? That is the world of our text this morning. Now that world didn’t start that way of course. It gradually, subtly moved in that direction over generations.
First, you remember, there was the whole saga of Joseph being sold into Egyptian slavery and coming up with a plan to save the nation from a 7-year famine and then rising to power as second only to Pharaoh. Joseph’s family came to Egypt for relief where they were reunited, all 70 of them. And as they lived in Egypt and mingled with the Egyptians and the Canaanites they quickly began to grow from a tribe to a nation. But in the meantime, they needed food. So they bought all they could from the grain stores Joseph had set up. But eventually the money ran out, and there was still famine. So they came to Joseph begging for more and he agreed to trade them food for their livestock. But the famine went on. So they came to Joseph again begging for more. “We have no money and no livestock left to give you. Take our land and buy us as slaves in exchange for food to survive the famine.” So Joseph did. And so the slavery in Egypt began (Genesis 47).
And little by little, slavery of one group led to feelings of superiority by the other group. But that didn’t mean the subjected people went away. In fact, it was the opposite. They were slaves, but they weren’t badly treated. And so they had families and lives and intermarried and their people grew. This went on for generations, until, the text says, “A new king, who did not know about Joseph came to power in Egypt.” It’s difficult to say how much time had passed, but enough that a famine so big to affect national policy for 14 years had been forgotten.
The new king was afraid of this subjugated nation. Which makes sense on the surface. If you have control over a large group of people, someone whose ego is easily threatened or who might be a fearful person anyway might logically project a scenario in which the controlled people revolt. And that kind of person, throughout history, tends to double down on oppression in the belief that breaking people’s spirits will prevent an ultimate loss of power. And in the short term, that virtually always works.
So that’s what Pharaoh did. It started slowly. First, he worked the Hebrews harder and harder and had them build store cities. Then he encouraged their overseers to abuse them. Then he worked them more and more, with greater punishments and fewer rewards, in order to break them. And then as their numbers continued to grow he became ruthless and ordered that the midwives kill all infant Hebrew boys the moment they came into the world.
Shiphrah and Puah are the names of the midwives that the Bible mentions. It’s hard to imagine them being the only midwives for the entire Hebrew nation, but maybe they were the most experienced, or maybe they were in charge, or maybe they were the only ones to resist. But when they received the order they agreed to it, and then deliberately disobeyed. Of course, it wasn’t long before there were more Hebrew boys toddling around than there should have been if this order had been carried out, so Pharaoh called them and demanded an explanation and (and this is my favorite part) they played dumb and said, “These Hebrew women are just so vigorous! They’re not like Egyptian women! They just pop those babies out before we even have time to get there!” (1:19, paraphrase). And Pharaoh clearly bought it because the midwives were allowed to live. And God blessed them and gave them families of their own. Because sometimes the right thing to do is to resist.
That can be hard to reconcile. Christians have a reputation in society sometimes for being rule followers. Paul has that whole section in Romans on obeying government authorities because no authority exists other than what God has put in place; and how rebellion against authority is rebellion against God (Romans 13). We have a kind of civil religion in this country that rests on Christian foundations and includes good citizenship which includes obedience to laws. We have an entire order as functional groups of human being that depends on obedience to authority: children to parents, citizens to governments, soldiers to officers, employees to employers. The whole thing rests on the idea that there must be some kind of respect for rule, order, and leadership.
I would submit to you that all of that is true. But there are exceptions. Martin Luther King, Jr. said “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” The Nuremberg Trials of 1945-46 established precedent that “Just following orders” is not a valid legal defense. Even Napoleon Bonaparte wrote this: “Every general is culpable who undertakes the execution of a plan which he considers faulty. It is his duty to represent his reasons, to insist upon a change of plan--in short, to give in his resignation rather than allow himself to be made the instrument of his army's ruin… the general ought to refuse obedience.”
There are bad orders. There are bad laws. There are times when you are told to do things or expected to do things that you know in your bones are wrong. Maybe by a boss or a friend or a politician or even a pastor. But if I encourage you to do something and you know it’s wrong, or if your boss does, or the leader of your organization and you do it anyway, you can’t say, “Well my pastor said… my boss said… the coach said…” It is your duty, your obligation, your holy responsibility to disobey.
Governments have been manipulating their people for millenia. And people have been coerced into going along with things that are bad for them and bad for the world countless times in history. And right now, both the left and the right believe that is happening in our country, but for very different reasons. And so here’s what I’ll say. What Shiphrah and Puah did, what I am called to do, what you are called to do, is to stand for what is right, no matter the cost.
And though we can spend all the time in the world debating policy and ethics, there are certain things that we know are right. We know those things because we are children of God, and God has put that knowledge deep within us. We know those things because Jesus reminds us of them. What’s right isn’t the same as what my favorite thing is, or what I most want to be the case. What’s right is what moves us closer to the world God dreamed for us. Is it right to stand for the powerless? Is it right to advocate for justice? Is it right to work for equality? Is it right to be a champion of peace? Is it right to be stand for decency, kindness, dignity, and respect? We don’t need a philosophy teacher for that. We know that. We know that those are right things to do. And we also know that we face daily pressure to do the opposite. But you must resist.
Maybe, like Napoleon says, you resign from your job rather than obey a bad order. Maybe, like Martin Luther King, you go to jail rather than obey a bad law. Maybe, like Shiphrah and Puah, you lie and say you tried but just couldn’t pull it off. But you resist. You do what you know to be right. You do what you know God calls you to do. You do those things which dig deeply into our knowledge of good and evil, and you choose to have integrity and to treat people with dignity and respect and kindness and to not exploit or oppress. And you do those things regardless of the cost, even if the cost is disobedience and punishment.
Because the payoff is worth the risk. Disobedience is a risk. You might lose friends. You might lose your job. You might lose privileges. In extreme cases you might lose your freedom, in truly extreme cases you might even lose your life. Jesus did. But the payoff is worth the risk.
Shiphrah and Puah paved the way. They disobeyed a direct order from the most powerful man in the world. And because they did, there were more Hebrew babies, and more Hebrew women had the courage to resist too. Because they resisted, a Levite man married a Levite woman and had a son. Because they stood for what was right, that Levite woman hid her son for 3 months. Because they disobeyed, that Levite woman risked wild beasts and drowning and put her baby in a basket in the river where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter who raised him to be a prince.
Because they disobeyed, Moses protected his people. Because they disobeyed, Moses was able to stand before the burning bush. Because they disobeyed, he was able to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt and into the wilderness. And because they disobeyed, the people made it from slavery to the Promised Land. A nation was set free and God’s promises were fulfilled, all because two women did what was right. Amen.
 Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” April 16, 1963 Napoleon Bonaparte Maxim’s of War, Maxim 72.
August 16 - “Beyond the Red Sea” - Rev. Plank
20th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 16, 2020
Rev. Michael S. Plank
Hudson Falls, NY
“Beyond the Red Sea”
Text: Exodus 33:12a: “Moses said to the Lord, ‘You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.’”
Scripture Lessons: Exodus 33:12-23
Proposition: I propose to experientially show that though the Exodus was long and painful, its outcome of liberty was sure, to the end that hearers will be encouraged to stay the course as our culture journeys from darkness ever closer to the light.
Prayer for Illumination: Gracious and loving God, you see the profound need in the world and in our lives. Open our minds this morning, and speak to our deepest needs as we hear your Word. We pray this in your name. Amen.
Exodus 33:12-23: In the depths of the wilderness wandering, Moses finally confronts God to see what this grand plan of salvation might be. Listen for God’s Word.
Four hundred years the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt. Four hundred years they built and harvested and labored for their Egyptian masters. Four hundred years they were beaten and oppressed. Babies were born, grew into adults, had children of their own, grew old, and died, all under Egyptian rule. Generations rose and fell in the darkness of slavery. And then a hero came.
Do you remember? God saved a Hebrew boy, who grew up as an Egyptian prince, then fled Egypt, met God again at a burning bush, and came back to tell the most powerful man in the world to let God’s people go. But Pharaoh refused. So through Moses, God brought plagues of blood and frogs and gnats and flies and boils and darkness and death. And eventually Pharaoh relented and freed the Israelites.
So this mass of people, broken from a lifetime of slavery, finally saw a glimmer of hope. They packed what little they needed as quickly as possible and moved as fast as they could out of Egypt, following Moses. They left the cities and had just begun to breathe a little easier, when word came up the line that Pharaoh had apparently changed his mind, and the might of the Egyptian army was on their heels. Before them lay the uncrossable Red Sea. They were trapped.
Steel was behind them and water was ahead of them. But Moses was filled with the power of God, you remember, and he raised his staff and the Red Sea split in two. The people dashed across as quickly as they could, and as the last of them stepped out of the sea bed, Pharaoh’s army had almost overtaken them. The path they took through the sea was now filled with hostile soldiers. And Moses dropped his arms and the waters crashed back down and Pharaoh’s army was obliterated. And at long last, after four hundred years, the Israelites were free – out of Egypt, with their pursuers destroyed.
But do you remember what happened next? God had promised to bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. God had promised to protect them from harm. God had promised to care for them like a mother. Surely beyond the Red Sea life would be easy. They had left slavery behind them, they had left the borders of Egypt, their captors now lay drowned at the bottom of the sea, and now surely their troubles were over.
Except they didn’t make it to the land of milk and honey that day. Or the next. Or the day after that. Not only did they not find milk and honey, they didn’t find water. They didn’t find food. There was nothing but desert. They were hot, tired, and bitter. They had risked their lives and crossed the sea. But beyond the Red Sea they found only more suffering.
Do you remember the story? Do you remember that it took God four decades to deliver on the promise? The people who crossed the Red Sea never even saw the Promised Land. Their children were the ones who crossed into it. They risked their lives to leave Egypt, trusting in this promise, and they instead found forty years of wandering in the wilderness. It’s no wonder they were bitter.
And then Moses had told them to wait while he went up to have some secret conversation with God. But he was gone for six weeks. Six weeks they were left to wait; wandering was not enough, now they were supposed to hold tight, but their leader had disappeared. This God and this God’s leader hadn’t done them much good. And so they made a golden calf for themselves and started worshiping that. Can you blame them? There’s not much motivation to stay faithful when you’re not getting out of a relationship what you think you deserve. And when Moses returned and saw that the Israelites had given up on God, the hard times grew harder. God was angry, Moses was angry, the people were angry. Everyone had been filled with such hope when they crossed the Red Sea, but now beyond the Red Sea, feelings were hurt, promises had been broken, and hope had been lost.
Here is where we meet Moses in the text. And here is where many of us now find ourselves. Five months ago we were forced to confront the fact that there was disease in our midst. We locked everything down. We resisted, we were distraught, but for the most part, we did it. We paid our dues. We crossed the Red Sea, but where are we now?
Things have slowly started to open back up. They are continuing to slowly open back up. But the economy is in shambles. The divisions that have run deep in our country for decades are arguably as deep as they have been in 50 years. Racial tensions that many of us in power have tricked ourselves into believing were gone have forced us to recognize them once again. We are eleven weeks from what promises to be one of the most contentious elections in modern U.S. History.
We had the fear and anxiety and desperation of a strict lockdown and we came through it, but we’ve not found the land of milk and honey. Instead there is this. Instead, people are unfriending and unfollowing and canceling anyone who disagrees with them. Instead there is virtually no cultural tolerance for difference of opinion. Instead we retreat deeper and deeper into our ideological fortresses, creating a nation where it’s us vs. them that we still somehow have the audacity to call the United States of America, when we’ve not been united on anything in quite some time. And through it all, businesses close, people lose jobs and income, injustices still loom large, and the death toll from Covid-19 still climbs: 168,000 now and counting.
Pain, violence, injustice, unrest, hopelessness are all around us. And it doesn’t seem like God has been able to do anything about it. I would bet that Moses felt that way in our text. Tensions high, hope gone, bitterness all around, he calls out to God and says “You’ve been telling me to lead these people and that you’ll send someone to help me. But you haven’t even given me a name!” God responds by saying “My Presence will be with you.” But Moses has had enough of empty promises and he fires back and says “If there’s even a chance that that won’t happen, or that it’ll be another 40 years before it does, don’t even bother showing us a way out of here. Just leave us to die.” And so God, a little gentler now, says “I will do the very thing you have asked.” But Moses is still hurting and he yells back “Then show me your glory! Prove yourself to me! Give me something beyond Presence and promises, something to give me hope after a year like this, after months like this, after circumstances like this. Give me some kind of guarantee that this awfulness won’t last forever.”
“Okay.” God says. “Okay. There is a place not far from here. I will place you in a cleft in the rock and my glory will pass by you. You won’t be able to see my face, but you’ll see my back, and you’ll see my glory. That’s how you’ll know that the horror won’t last forever. That’s how you’ll know that I’m in this for the long haul.” And Moses saw God’s glory that day, and his face shone like a light from then on.
Things didn’t get easier for God’s people right away. There were still years ahead of them in the wilderness. The Exodus is named for a Greek word that means “a way out.” But the Exodus didn’t end at the Red Sea. It began there. Our Exodus out of all this didn’t end in March, it began there. Our Exodus out of the pandemic didn’t end with the lifting of the strictest quarantine provisions, it began there. Our Exodus out of division didn’t end with all the ugliness we’ve seen in 2020, it began there. It is the pain of confronting the dysfunction that has been present for a long time, the pain of labor, the pain of transition, the pain of growth. But there in the Exodus, Moses saw God’s glory, and it was a glimmer of hope in the wilderness; a sign of promise beyond the Red Sea.
Life is not necessarily kinder or easier beyond the Red Sea than the life we left behind. But God does make a way for us to survive, and even to thrive. It takes tenacity, and bravery, and faith. Along the way we see riots and violence and murder and tragedy and death. Surviving takes tears and arguing with God and the courage to hang on just one more day. Moses was at the end of his rope. But it was there at the end of his rope that he found the cleft in the rock.
It is in the wilderness beyond the Red Sea that we find that God’s promise of salvation still stands. It is at the end of a dark night that we find the light of this morning and find the hope that God’s covenant claims us for one more day. It is at the end of months full of brokenness that we worship on a day when the sun has risen yet again, and though weeping may linger for the night, joy comes in the morning. It is at the end of this season of death and pain that we found the faith to log on and worship and be reminded that a light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. We have come beyond the Red Sea. We may still be in the wilderness, but with the God’s Presence to lead us, we are marching ever closer to the Promised Land. Amen.
 I am indebted to Katrina Hebb for her sermon “On the Far Side of the Red Sea,” preached October 16, 2011 at Lisbon United Presbyterian Church in Lisbon, NY, and the influence it had on this sermon.