Saving What We Love

December 31, 2017 – 1st Sunday after Christmas
Matthew 2.1-15

The story of Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is not entirely what we expect. It begins with Joseph’s anxiety about whether he should marry Mary because of the uncertain circumstances in which she became pregnant. An angel appeared in a dream to Joseph and assured him that God was at work in this unexpected circumstance.

In Matthew, we don’t get any of the extended drama that Luke’s gospel has about Mary and Joseph leaving their home in Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. There’s no story about the inn with a “no vacancy sign.” There’s no manger, no shepherds, no angels singing, “Gloria!”

That Jesus is actually born is told in less than a sentence at the very end of chapter 1.

The very next thing we hear about Jesus’ birth in Matthew’s gospel is conflict. King Herod is approached by astrologers from far away (that’s another translation of wise men or Magi)—people who studied the stars and planets and their influence on human actions. These foreigners from the east had seen a star that indicated a new king had been born and they wanted to worship the new king.

King Herod says, “Oh, a new king? Well, you all go visit him and then let me know so I can worship him too.”

Now what do you think King Herod is really thinking? He, and all of Jerusalem, are agitated and stirred up. There’s only room for one king in a kingdom and the birth of one who is already being called a king, is cause for alarm among those who are committed to life staying the way it is. There’s going to be a big lot of trouble when one king is threatened by another king.

And it doesn’t take long for the trouble to show up. The astrologers, who are also skilled at interpreting dreams, have a dream in which they are warned not to go back to see Herod.

Joseph has another dream in which he is told to flee with his family to Egypt because Herod, determined that he will be the only king, is about to go on a rampage and kill all the babies and toddlers in and around Bethlehem.

Joseph, Mary and Jesus become refugees, fleeing for their lives from persecution, seeking asylum in the land where their ancestors were enslaved generations ago.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is born and this great conflict between kings and kingdoms is set into motion.


Which makes me think about Star Wars. Because, of course, the 8th episode was released this month and I saw it this past week. I spent my teenage years with the original three episodes so even though it’s been forty years since the original Star Wars movie was made, I’m still interested in the story.

The current episode, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, like the others before it, is a struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil—you might say a conflict between two kingdoms. It is an outer struggle between those who have chosen the way of domination and destruction and those who are choosing the way of life. But it is also an inner struggle as few of the main characters are ever only good or ever only evil.

Now I’m going to try and talk about The Last Jedi without giving it all away but if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to know anything before you see the movie, you might want to cover your ears for a few minutes.

In The Last Jedi the First Order (which is the evil empire) has far more fire power than the Resistance (led by General Leia—known in the first episode as Princess Leia—delightfully, there are a number of great women leaders in this Star Wars episode). This inequity in weaponry and people power does not stop some in the Resistance from launching themselves headlong into a battle with the First Order. The Resistance makes a bit of progress but mostly ends up with its fleet decimated and many of its fighter pilots killed. There is tension between members of the Resistance about strategy: do they keep fighting the forces of evil with decreasing military might or is there another way to regroup and find more allies?

This comes to a head in one scene where three fighter pilots are flying toward a huge battering ram aimed on a shelter where members of the Resistance are hiding. The lead pilot realizes this a death mission and he calls the other two pilots, Rose and Finn, to turn around. Finn, who used to be a soldier for the First Order, is intent on destroying the battering ram and refuses to give up the mission. But it is clear if he continues he will die and the battering ram will breach the shelter and the First Order will kill the members of the Resistance. The next thing we know, Finn’s plane is knocked out of the air by the plane piloted by Rose. Both planes crash into the ground. Finn rushes to rescue Rose who is badly injured in the crash. Why, he wants to know, did she intentionally crash into him, knocking him off the route of his mission? She says, “We’re going to win this war, not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.”[1]

That made me think about the incarnation. You know, God coming to be with us in Jesus. Born as a baby into this world, living a fully human life, showing us what it is to be fully human. Teaching us how to live as God’s people in the world. All of it built on love. Because at the heart, the most essential characteristic of God is love and the foundation of Christianity is love. You might not know that from listening to some Christians these days. But it is the truth: God’s essence is love and the way of Jesus—which we also call Christianity—is love. One of my teachers says, “The central practice in mature spirituality…is that we must remain in love…Jesus did not say, ‘Thou shalt be right’; Jesus said, ‘This is my commandment, ‘Love one another.’’”[2]  The writer of the letter of First John says, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”[3]

Now this love is not a squishy, love-y feeling. This is a fierce love that enables us to courageously give ourselves to something bigger than ourselves. It is a fierce love that refuses to let brutality and lies be okay. It is a fierce love that rejects indifference when people are demeaned or the earth is degraded. It is a fierce love that insists on everyone having a place of value and respect in the human community. It is a fierce love that is fed by kindness and generosity and joy, even in the face of suffering or in the face of the anger of others.
Back in Matthew chapter 2, in the middle of the beginning story of the conflict between the two kings and the two kingdoms, there are two little verses filled with joy. The foreigners from the east, Matthew says, are “overwhelmed with joy.” I love that phrase, “Overwhelmed with joy.” Can you feel that? It feels like another way to express great love.

The 20th century Jesuit and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Even in the midst of conflict, even with the deception by Herod and his murderous rage, there is joy because God is present.

The Magi worship the baby and offer the gifts they have brought with them for this occasion—with so much joy and love.


Rose says to Finn, “We’re going to win this fight not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.” Certainly saving what we love means we will fight against what we hate but not from a place of hate. “Hate cannot drive out hate,” said Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,[4] “only love can do that.” And we see that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus loving fiercely, even in the face of opposition and criticism, suffering and hate, and even death.


One final Star Wars connection. One of the final scenes of the movie shows three small children gathered around some small homemade figures. These are children who appear to be kept as slaves and made to clean animal stalls. One of the children is telling a story to the other two with the little figures. As their keeper comes in the stall and yells at them to get back to work, you realize the one child has been telling a story of the Resistance to the other two—and you know the Resistance will gain strength again and a generation of children will be inspired by the stories that have been passed down to them and will rise up to commit themselves to what is good and to living out of love.

So, too, we keep telling these stories about Jesus (some told with little figures—like we tell the story of Jesus’ birth at Christmas) and his fierce insistence that God is love, not rules and regulations for a gated community. We keep telling the stories about Jesus and his fierce love for people who were overlooked and ignored. We keep telling the stories of people, throughout history, who were inspired by the fierce love of Jesus and dedicated their lives to abiding in God’s love. Hopefully, that is your story and my story too. We may feel we don’t do it as well as someone else or that our hearts tremble and we sometimes lose our courage and think our story is not worth telling. But it is in these stories—the stories of Jesus and his followers, including us—that will inspire another generation who will long to give themselves to something greater than themselves and to live from this deep well of God’s love for the world and the power of that love will live on and on and on.

I end with a prayer written by Miriam Theresa Winter, a musician, writer and scholar:

Inhabit our hearts,
God of history,
as You once inhabited
human flesh.
Be here among us
with all of Your wisdom,
all of Your power,
all of Your mercy,
all of Your love,
that we might learn
to be like God
from our God who came
to be like us.
Holy are You.
Holy are we
who are one with You forever.[5]

* * * * *

[1] Star Wars: The Last Jedi

[2] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, “From the Bottom Up: Summary” accessed December 28, 2017,

[3] 1John 4.7-8

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Loving Your Enemies,” in Strength to Love, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), 51.

[5] Miriam Therese Winter, WomanPrayer WomanSong: Resources for Ritual, (Crossroad, 1987), 74.


A Light in the Wilderness

December 17, 2017 – 3rd Sunday of Advent
John 1.6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

For 25 years I have been preaching during Advent and for 25 years I have been surprised by the Advent readings. I have finally gotten used to the first Sunday of Advent reading being apocalyptic: the scene of the sun failing and the stars falling from the sky and Christ returning with power and glory. Keep awake the stories say. Be watchful for the day and the hour is known only to God.

So I’ve come to terms with Advent not beginning with the birth of a baby—or even an announcement of pregnancy. But then the lectionary serves up two weeks with John the Baptizer—every year the second and third weeks of Advent are about John the Baptist. We don’t hear that particularly at Central because the second or third Sunday of Advent, when the choir sings their cantata, almost always takes us to Christmas Day. Last week the choir sang Bach’s “For to us a child is born.” So, we got to jump ahead to the story of the baby being born.

But in the lectionary readings, the baby is nowhere in sight yet! In the story of John in the wilderness, we know Jesus the baby has been born and has grown up and John is giving witness to Jesus who is coming, but it’s not a story about the baby being born.

And in fact, in Mark’s gospel there is no story of Jesus being born at all. And there’s also no story of Jesus being born in John’s gospel which is the gospel reading for this morning.

So I have to ask, why does it take so long to get to the baby story?? And how will we ever get there if we’re reading from Mark and John?


Well, here’s the thing about Advent. Advent has two directions: looking back to the birth of Jesus and looking forward to the coming of Christ. We look back and tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a similar way that we tell the story of the arrival of the children in our families. It’s an event that’s already taken place but one that has changed our lives and so we keep telling it again and again. Sometimes it’s tumultuous and a whirlwind. Sometimes it’s overwhelmingly beautiful. Sometimes it’s long anticipated and sometimes it’s a surprise. Sometimes it’s marked with danger and even death.

And then we look forward to the coming of Christ when justice and righteousness, and all the good God intends for creation will fill the world, the cosmos even.

But you know, if I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to make of Christ’s second coming. That whole second coming idea can get kind of crazy with talk about people being raptured and tribulation and battles—a lot of which comes from biblical material that was not written to be taken literally. And sometimes the idea of Christ coming again becomes a way for us to be content with injustice and inequity and brutality today because “God will work it out tomorrow,” we say. And who’s to say that Christ is not already here? In us. Working through us, and maybe even in spite of us, to accomplish God’s desires for us and for the world.

So now we find ourselves with John in the fourth gospel. No baby in sight. Professor Barbara Brown Taylor describes this story as an Advent pageant with only one character and barely any costumes or props.[1] A man sent from God as a witness to testify to the light. John’s testimony is that he himself is not the light but he is a voice crying out in the wilderness. John testifies, he bears witness to the light. His role “is to recognize the true light when it appears, and to call attention to it so that others may recognize it…trust in, and commit themselves to the light.”[2]


But how does John recognize the true light? I suspect he goes back to the prophet Isaiah who describes a person who is anointed with God’s light. This light brings good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, those held captive, prisoners, and those who mourn. The light ushers in the year of jubilee, when debts are forgiven, land is returned to its original owners, people enslaved are freed. The year of jubilee is a reconfiguration of community with real, tangible, social and economic changes[3]—probably even changes to the tax law but not where the rich get more and the poor get less. In God’s jubilee, ruined cities are restored. Desolate land becomes a fruitful garden. Everyone and everything has what they need to flourish.

I wonder if our call isn’t also to be a voice in the wilderness, bearing witness to the light and reflecting the light in our lives. We tell the story of the baby born in Bethlehem and we stand in the wilderness, looking at the horizon, testifying about the light that is coming into the world, the light that is, at the same time, already in the world.

Now from where I stand, it can be hard these days to see much light. There is a lot of ugliness around us. The gap between rich and poor grows greater and greater—and people who could do something about it don’t seem to care. Lies are paraded as truth. We are losing the capacity to talk to one another when we don’t agree. The essentials of a civil society—things like education and healthcare, access to affordable and nutritious food, neighborhoods that are neighborly, and a justice system that is just—those values are treated as commodities available to the highest bidder.

It is easy to give in to the undertow of distrust and suspicion, to name calling and the dehumanization of people with whom we don’t see eye-to-eye. It is easy when the light seems far off, to turn inward and see ruined cities and desolate land, to see meanness and inequality, as “just the way the world is.”

But every year we tell the story every year of the birth of Jesus—who arrives in the world as a helpless, vulnerable infant—who is, we say, the presence of God, come to be with us. That story from the past shapes our present. Today, we wonder who are we when God is vulnerable? Where is the light breaking into the world when God is born into our lives as an ordinary baby?

As the past shapes our present, our present is also shaped by our view of the future. Do we see the future as hopeless or do we see glimmers of the dawning light? Where do we see the brokenhearted being healed? The prisoners being freed? The cities rebuilt? Gardens restored? How are our lives, even in whatever wilderness we find ourselves, bearing witness to the light?

Jan Richardson, an artist, writer and pastor, wrote a blessing she titled, “Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light.” I share it with you.

Blessed Are You Who Bear the Light

Blessed are you
who bear the light
in unbearable times,
who testify
to its endurance
amid the unendurable,
who bear witness
to its persistence
when everything seems
in shadow
and grief.

Blessed are you
in whom
the light lives,
in whom
the brightness blazes—
your heart
a chapel,
an altar where
in the deepest night
can be seen
the fire that
shines forth in you
in unaccountable faith
in stubborn hope
in love that illumines
every broken thing
it finds.

– Jan Richardson[4]

* * * * *

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Homiletical Perspective: John 1.6-8, 19-28,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 69.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr., quoted in Gary W. Charles, “Exegetical Perspective: John 1.6-8, 19-28,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 71.

[3] William P. Brown, “Exegetical Perspective: Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11,” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 53.

[4] Jan Richardson, “Advent 3: Testify to the Light,” The Advent Door, December 12, 2014, accessed December 16, 2017,

Giving Thanks in a World of Chaos

November 19, 2017 – 24th Sunday after Pentecost
Philippians 4.4-13 and Psalm 78.1-8

It has been particularly painful to keep up with the news recently. Gun violence or sexual assault seems to lead every news source. It’s in the national news and right here in Louisville. Evangelical Christians in Alabama are in the news for standing up for a Senate candidate accused by multiple women of making sexual advances when they were under the age of consent.

The House and Senate have their eye on tax cuts designed for the wealthy and big corporations that will be used as the justification for slashing assistance to the most vulnerable in our community while tax increases will come to the working poor and middle-class.

Meanwhile the letters to the editor in the Courier-Journal seem to get meaner and more brittle as we talk and yell past one another because we’re all convinced that we’re right and all the evidence supports our view of the world.

And some of you are headed to family gatherings this week where you know you can’t talk honestly about what matters most to you; you surely can’t mention your own experience of sexual harassment or assault; there’s no room for your political views; and when you look around the table you wonder how in the world you could be related to these people.

And some of you may be alone or without much to eat.

You might not be faulted for thinking there’s not that much to give thanks for.

Paul might be someone we would not expect to be giving thanks. He wrote his letter to the Philippians from prison, not from some chaise lounge on the Mediterranean Sea. Despite being imprisoned for preaching the gospel, Paul is not despondent. He writes to his friends in Philippi to assure them in joyful terms that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel. The Good News of Jesus has been shared among the prison guards and among those in the Roman headquarters. Paul also knows that his imprisonment has generated new courage among Christians in the area and that they are now speaking the word of God fearlessly.[i]

In the midst of his own uncertain situation—waiting in prison to be sentenced—and in the midst of the Philippians’ own sufferings, Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Holy God always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

Paul calls the church to rejoicing and giving thanks even in tumultuous, strife-filled, uncertain, scary times because God is near.

Now for Paul, he probably meant the return of Christ was near—which is less of our situation today. However, we can hear Paul’s words today as a reminder that the presence of Christ is with us—we are not far away from God.

And so, Paul tells us not to worry about anything.

I had a pastor when I was growing up who used to say, facetiously, “why pray when you can worry?”

Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

And what happens next? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

There is an odd paradox here, Paul uses a military term to explain the presence of God’s peace: God’s peace “will stand sentry watch like a soldier, over your hearts and minds, protecting you from all that is without and all that is within that would endanger you.”[ii]

Because the presence of God is near and “the peace of God stands guard, the church can rejoice….Because God’s peace is on duty, they do not have to be anxiously scanning the horizon for new threats.”[iii]

Instead of scanning the horizon for new threats, Paul directs us to fix our attention on what is honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise.

We hear in Paul echoes of Psalm 78 with its instruction to talk about the good things God has done. The wonders God has performed for God’s people. The stories of God’s providence that have been passed from one generation to another. The psalmist commends parents to talk about these things with their children that our children will in turn tell them to their children and they will set their hope in God.

Paul talks about what is honorable, excellent, worthy of praise because all of that is of God. “Keep on doing the things you have learned and received” he says. Which is another way of saying what the psalm says—telling us to pass this tradition to the next generation and the next. We share where we have found life and hope, strength and courage, beauty and wisdom to the young people and children who follow us.

Remember that what we read in Philippians is a letter Paul wrote to a particular church in Philippi. He writes out of his own circumstance of being in prison. He is not writing a treatise about the Christian life or an all-inclusive systematic theology. Confined in prison, he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He knows what it is to have plenty and he knows what it is to have little.

The prophets call us to work for justice, to undo systems where those who have plenty get more and those who have little get even less. Paul calls us to give thanks, to rejoice in all the circumstances of our lives—not because our circumstances are always just or right but because God is near and in all circumstances, God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds.

Which brings me back to thanksgiving and giving thanks. Thanksgiving, with a capital “T,” is a one-day event. But giving thanks, thanksgiving with a small “t” is a practice of the Christian life. It is what we do every day.

1 Chronicles says, “O give thanks to the Holy God, call on God’s name, make known God’s deeds among the peoples.” (16.8)

Psalm 136: “O give thanks to the Holy God, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” (136.1)

Psalm 95: “Let us come into God’s presence with thanksgiving.” (95.2)

“The Bible recognizes that times will come when giving thanks is hard, because times are hard.”[iv] The prophet Habakkuk writes:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Holy One;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God, the Holy God, is my strength. (3.17-19)

And Paul bears witness to giving thanks to God even in difficult circumstances. Because God’s steadfast love and grace endures forever.

My mom and I were talking yesterday about how unsettled so many things feel in our country right now.  She mentioned a similar feeling in 1968 and the great suffering during the Great Depression in the 1920s and 30s. In the history of our country, there are times of greater suffering and violence and times of greater justice and well-being.

When Paul says focus your mind on what is commendable, just, and pure, I am reminded of the experience of the more I focus on God’s grace and steadfast love, the more likely I am to notice God’s goodness. And the reverse is true too. When I focus on what is negative, I am more likely to see what is negative.

Again, that is not to say we will ignore injustice or blame the victim or deny there is real suffering in the world. It is simply to remember that Paul’s words stand alongside those of the prophets and are also part of the practice of Christian faith.

Giving thanks to God is a practice of remembering we are not alone, we did not get here on our own, and what we have is not ours alone, nor is it ours forever.

When we live in those realities, it alters the seasons of trial and trouble that come to us all.

The Psalmist and Paul counsel us that to remember God’s good gifts in the past, and to be reminded of God’s continuing loving presence, is to find courage and hope to live in times of trouble.

Paul teaches us “by his own example as well as by his exhortations, that the act of thanking God in the midst of adversity has the effect of reminding us of our deeper resources, puts us in touch with the One who has befriended us in the past and who…will be our present help in trouble.”[v] Not just in the week of Thanksgiving, but every day.

So may our hearts and minds be drawn each day toward thanksgiving—giving thanks and rejoicing always. Sustained by the presence of Christ and guarded by God’s peace, no matter the circumstances, may we live lives of thanksgiving.

I invite you in a moment of stillness, to become aware of something or someone you are thankful for and in your own heart and mind, to give thanks to God.


(At the end of the stillness): I heard a quote on a podcast recently that was something like “In a world with muted hope, music is the light and faith is the word.”[vi] So let us sing our faith together. (“How Can I Keep From Singing” in Glory to God, #821)

* * * * *
Fred Craddock, Philippians, Atlanta: John Knox, 1985, p25.

[ii] Jon Walton, “Do Not Be Anxious About Anything” sermon preached December 17, 2000.

[iii] Craddock, p72.

[iv] William C. Poe, “Thanks for What?” in Presbyterian Outlook, vol. 177, no. 39, November 13, 1995.

[v] Eugene Bay, “ From Transformation to Thanksgiving and Back Again” sermon preached November 23, 1997.

[vi] Code Switch, November 15, 2017.

Gladness and Joy

November 5, 2017 – 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Revelation 7.9-17 and Psalm 34


I feel the need to say, “I’m going to read from the book of Revelation. Don’t be afraid.” My growing up experience was the book of Revelation was used to scare young people about the tribulations and sufferings that were coming before Jesus returned to earth. It was not a good experience.

Truthfully, the book of Revelation was written to be a comfort, a solace, the confirmation of a promise that the people of God were not abandoned even in the midst of evil, oppression, injustice, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword. All those things that the Apostle Paul in Romans 8 says will never be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

So hear these words of comfort. This scene takes place in the heavenly throne room of God.

[Read Revelation 7.9-17; v. 10 “Salvation” = shalom, wholeness, well-being, all is as God intends in body, mind and spirit.]

This past Wednesday was All Saints’ Day. It’s a day we give thanks for the people whose lives illuminate wisdom to live by and a path that leads to life. People who pierce evil’s disguises, who are wiser than despair, who say no to falsehood and unkindness, who cry out for justice, as the hymn writer Brian Wren describes.[1] People whose lives were a light, caught from the Christ-flame, who touched the truth, who burned for what was right, as Shirley Erena Murray writes[2] in the hymn we’ll sing at the end of worship today. In my book, saints can be people who are living or dead.

I want to tell you about one of the saints in my life. Dale was a friend, a husband, a father. He was a social worker and a professor. A preacher, prophet and mentor. He would think I was ridiculous to count him as a saint. But I do. He was joyful, he had a great laugh and laughed easily. He was an encourager and generous with his time.

He could identify so clearly what was happening in a peer group or a classroom and offer his critique as an opportunity for everyone to learn and grow. He had a keen eye for justice and was an outspoken advocate for people who had been marginalized and excluded. His office was in a coffee shop and a Waffle House. He was not afraid to speak the truth. He was wise and kind. He was humble and he changed the lives of many people.

He found great joy in teaching, in seeing people grow and live into all that God desired them to be.

He often said, “I have more questions than answers. I have more problems than solutions. And from these gifts I freely share.” Dale always ended that statement with his hearty laugh. The colleague who preached at his funeral said Dale took that which troubles us and made a gift out of it.

He took that which troubles us and made a gift out of it.


In an article titled, “Why Doing Good is Good for the Do-Gooder,” a neuroscientist who studies the effects of positive emotions, such as compassion and kindness, says the brain behaves differently during an act of generosity than it does during an activity that only benefits ourselves. “When we do things for ourselves, those experiences of positive emotion are…fleeting…When we engage in acts of generosity [toward other people], those experiences of positive emotion …outlast the specific episode in which we are engaged.”[3]

Other studies show a strong association between helping others and experiencing well-being. In one study, older adults who volunteered to help children with reading and writing experienced a greater sense of purpose in their life.[4]

In another study, half of the people were asked to spend money on themselves and half of the people were asked to spend money on other people. Those who agreed to give money away reported feeling significantly happier than those who planned to spend it on themselves—just thinking about giving away money made them happier.[5]

In a related study, people were given money to either spend on themselves or to spend on others. People who spent the money on others showed “a significant reduction in blood pressure…similar to what is typically observed when people start engaging in regular aerobic exercise.” Even two years later, the researchers “discovered that the more money people had reported spending on others, the lower their blood pressure.” This effect was not determined by variables like income or physical activity. No matter how the researchers looked at the data, “financial generosity was linked to lower blood pressure.”[6]

I do think I should say, I am not a medical doctor and if you have high blood pressure, I am not recommending that you stop taking your medicine.

But isn’t it fascinating, this connection between generosity—generosity with time and energy, emotional availability, attention, encouragement, as well as money—isn’t it fascinating that there is a connection between being generous in these ways and experiencing increased well-being?

And the paradox, as other researchers have written, is that while giving is known to improve our lives, many Americans fail to live generous lives.[7]

The authors of the book The Paradox of Generosity write, “By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves.”[8] But, “in giving of ourselves for others’ well-being, we enhance our own well-being as well. In letting go of some of what we own, we actually increase our own security and sense of comfort. By giving away our own resources, we move ourselves toward flourishing. This is not only a philosophical or religious teaching. It is a sociological fact.”[9]

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”[10]

“Science has proven what our faith has always known.”[11]


I suspect my friend Dale knew this. I suspect others we would identify as saints knew this too.

Not that their lives were in any way easy or pain free or paved with golden streets. But they knew the life-giving power of giving of themselves to others.

The multitude of saints who gather around God’s throne in Revelation have suffered but still they praise God. The Holy One on the throne shelters them and dwells with them. They do not hunger or thirst. The sun and scorching heat does not strike them. They are guided to springs of living water and God wipes away every tear from their eyes.

That sounds like the story of the people of God in the wilderness with whom we’ve been traveling this fall—God shelters them from the burning sun, provides food and water, and leads them to freedom.

It is the story we hear in Psalm 34. A song of praising God who hears us and delivers us from fear. Who provides what we need.


So what about you? You are a congregation of generous people. You are generous with money, with time, with energy, with emotional availability, with attention and encouragement.

What is it like for you when you give to others?

Think of a time when you have given of yourself—of your resources—of your time—of your energy. Take a minute and think of a time.

What does that feel like? What does it feel like to give to others with a loving heart? Take a minute and recall what it feels like when you give to others with a generous spirit.


Today, we celebrate God’s generosity to us and in response we dedicate our financial commitments for 2018 to support Central’s ministry and mission. Many of you have already sent in your financial pledge. Those are here on the communion table. If you brought your pledge card with you today, please put it in the offering plate when the offering is received a little later in the service. You can also find a blank pledge card printed toward the back of the bulletin which you can use today.

And we hope you will all stay for lunch after worship to give thanks for God’s generosity and your responding generosity.

Friends, your giving matters. Our giving together matters. Our giving makes our lives better, because it makes the lives of those around us better.

The more we give, the more free space opens up in us and that gives God more room to live in us.

In a few moments of silence, let us give thanks for the joy of giving, offer our lives to God, and invite God to live in us.

* * * * *

[1] Brian Wren, “Bring Many Names,” © 1989 Hope Publishing Co.

[2] Shirley Erena Murray, “Give Thanks for Life,” © 1987 Hope Publishing Co.

[3] Nicole Karlis, “Why doing good is good for the do-gooder,” The New York Times, October 26, 2017, accessed October 31, 2017,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Gretchen Reynolds, “Giving Proof,” The New York Times, September 14, 2017, accessed October 31, 2017,

[6] Elizabeth W. Dunn and Ashley Whillans, “Give, if you know what’s good for you,” The New York Times, December 24, 2015, accessed October 31, 2017,

[7] Christian Smith, and Hilary Davidson, The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receiving, Grasping We Lose, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2.

[8] Ibid., 1.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Matthew 16.25.

[11] Heather Wood David, “Anxious Stewardship,” Center for Stewardship Leaders, September 5, 2017, accessed October 26, 2017,

Gracious and Merciful, Slow to Anger, Abounding in Steadfast Love and Faithfulness

October 22, 2017 – 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 33.12-23

This story is part of the golden calf story that Mark preached about last Sunday. Moses is up on the mountain with God, he’s gone a while, the people get anxious, and Aaron makes a golden calf for them to worship.

It is just a few chapters back that Moses brings the ten commandments from God, the first of which are “You shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”

God is mad and ready to wipe them out. But Moses pleaded with God and convinced God not to destroy the Israelites. And God relented and did not destroy them.

But all is not well. God tells Moses to go with the people to the land God promised to their ancestors. But instead of saying, “I will be with you” God says an angel will accompany the people. God is still angry—probably also brokenhearted after being betrayed by the people with whom God had made a covenant. And that’s where Moses pleads with God again in the story from Exodus 33. “How can we go if you are not with us?”

What draws my attention in this story is how God responds to Moses’ request. They go back and forth and finally, God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The LORD.”

Now, unless you are actually looking at the biblical text, you don’t necessarily know that the expression the LORD (it shows up in all capital letters) is the substitute word for the sacred name of the Divine. In Jewish practice, the Divine name is so holy that it should never be pronounced. Wherever the name occurs in the text, the reader substitutes the Hebrew word “adonai” which the English language Bible translates “the Lord” (and at Central, we often say “the Holy God”).

You might remember at the beginning of Exodus, when Moses meets God at a burning bush and God tells Moses to free God’s people from slavery in Egypt, Moses doesn’t get an army or a cache of weapons or a political treaty, Moses gets the name of God who will go with him. “I AM WHO I AM” is the name. Or “I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE.”

Now in this precarious time, where the people have broken God’s heart, broken the covenant, and God is not sure that she can go with them, Moses intercedes and pleads with God to go with them. And Moses gets more of the divine name. “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”

For most of us, our names are not significant in the way names are significant in the Bible. You know my name is Ann but that name doesn’t tell you anything about my character. In many of the stories of the Bible, to know someone’s name is to know something about their character. And the significance of a name is at work in this story.

Back in chapter 32, when Moses came down off the mountain and saw the disobedience of the people, he threw down the stone tablets with the commandments and they broke—symbolizing the brokenness of the covenant relationship between the people and God.

In chapter 34, God tells Moses to cut two new tablets of stone and come back up on the mountain. Moses went up the mountain and God descended in the cloud to the mountain. As we say in the Godly Play class, God came close to Moses and Moses came close to God. And in that closeness, God proclaimed God’s name.

Chapter 34 says, “The Holy God descended in the cloud and stood with Moses there, and proclaimed the name, ‘The LORD.’ The LORD passed before Moses, and proclaimed,

The LORD, the Holy God,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” [34.5-6]

In these two proclamations of the Divine name, in chapters 33 and 34, we learn more of the deepest character of God. The deepest character of God revealed in a time of disappointment, anger, and betrayal. Yes, God is mad. Yes, there are consequences for the Israelite’s betrayal. But “the balance in God’s deepest character leans toward grace and mercy. God freely extends grace upon whomever God chooses. In this time and place on Mount Sinai, God chooses to love, forgive, and have mercy on the rebellious Israelites.”[1]

God renews the covenant with Israel.

One commentator says in these revelations of God’s name and character, “Israel receives an articulation of God’s fierce, unwarranted graciousness, in the face of a profound act of disobedience.”[2]

We will hear this declaration of God’s character throughout the Hebrew scriptures: merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. And then we will see it embodied in the incarnation of Jesus in the Gospels.

The story of Exodus, a story of freedom and covenant, was most likely shaped during the 6th century exile. It was written for a community in crisis whose experience made them despair that their disobedience had caused God to abandon them. And into that despair they hear these words of grace. What kind of God is it who has covenanted with us? A God who is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Perhaps you come to this place today wondering where God is. Anxious that perhaps God has abandoned you. Or worried that something you have done will separate you from God’s love. May you, too, hear these words of grace.

* * * * *

[1] Dennis Olson, Commentary on Exodus 33.12-23,, accessed October 19, 2017.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 927.

What It’s Like To Be Free

October 8, 2017 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 20.1-21

In 1967, musical icon, Nina Simone, recorded the song “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free.” Written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, it quickly became a civil rights anthem.[1]

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free
I wish I could break all the chains holding me
I wish I could say all the things that I should say
Say ’em loud, say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear[2]

            In 1967, Nina Simone sang into the context of racial segregation, discrimination, and the violence of white supremacy.

I’ve been thinking about this song this week as I’ve thought about the Israelites, led into freedom in the wilderness by the providence of God.

Freedom in the wilderness scared the pants off the people of God. “Where’s the food?” “Where’s the water?” “What are we doing out in this wilderness??” “You brought us her only to die!” “We wish we were slaves again in Egypt.”

And into this wilderness—and into this fear—God gives instruction. This is how you live as free people. This is how you live as my people who are free.

We often talk about the Ten Commandments as God’s law and this story as the giving of the law. But the word “law” is a misleading translation for the Hebrew word which really means instruction or teaching. Psalm 19 says the la—the precepts—the teaching—of the Holy God is perfect, reviving the soul…it is to be desired more than gold…and is sweeter than honey.

That’s not how we Americans generally think about the law. We tend to think about the law and laws as things you are required to do or prohibited from doing—more like a minimum expectation. But “in Jewish understanding the law is seen as a gift, because it provides the signposts that show how to live as the people of God.”[3] (And you’ll find that note about the law at the bottom of the hymn we sing following the sermon.)

And so the Ten Commandments, The Ten Best Ways to Live as Godly Play tells it, are a gift from God given in love to God’s people. They are teaching for how we live in relationship with God and with one another. How we love God and love our neighbor.

Freed from the law of slavery, God teaches this fledgling community how it would live—how they would be God’s people. And isn’t it telling, that to live in relationship with God, we get instructions on how to live in relationship with each other?

Now when you hear the Ten Commandments, they might seem like rather common sense instructions. Wouldn’t everybody know to act this way? Well, apparently not.

In any community—whether it’s a country, city, neighborhood or family—there is always tension between my needs, your needs and our needs. We learn as children that our needs are not the only needs to be considered and we begin a life-time of learning how our actions, or inactions, will affect other people.

All the commandments have both an obligation and a restraint. The majority of the commandments begin “You shall not.” But they also contain a “You shall.”

John Calvin gives us an example. In the commandment “You shall not kill” it is common sense, Calvin says, to “see only that we must abstain from wronging anyone or desiring to do so.” But, he goes on to illuminate that there is a positive requirement in this command “that we give our neighbor’s life all the help we can…God wills that” our neighbor’s life “be dear and precious to us.”[4] As dear and precious as our own life.

About a hundred years later, in the discussion of the ten commandments in the Westminster Larger Catechism—which was designed for preachers to use for instruction from the pulpit each Sunday—the question is asked “What is required in this commandment” and “What is forbidden?”

So in the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal,” part of what the Larger Catechism says is required by this commandment is truth, faithfulness, and justice in contracts and commerce between people, giving and lending freely, avoiding unnecessary lawsuits, living frugally, and endeavoring by all just and lawful means to procure, preserve, and further the wealth and well-being of others, as well as our own.[5]

What I’m trying to say is the Ten Commandments are what we aspire to, not simply what we are prohibited from doing. We aspire to live a life in community where the well-being of everyone is supported.

Another way to think of it is when I am prohibited from bearing false witness against you, you can live in freedom to know you will not be lied about. When we are instructed to honor our parents, our parents can live in freedom knowing they will be cared for even when they are frail and vulnerable.

Nina Simone sings another stanza:

I wish I could share all the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars that keep us apart
I wish you could know what it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every [one] should be free[6]

            Nina Simone cries out for this kind of freedom. To bring herself as an equal and valued part of the community that is not whole without her.

Frank Bruni, writing in the New York Times on Tuesday after the mass murder in Las Vegas, said, “There’s the right to bear arms, sure, but there’s also the right to walk into a nightclub or a concert—or to send a child off to school—without a sense of dread that’s increasingly and fully warranted. Aren’t we entitled to that too?”[7]

You know, I’m really sick and tired of preaching after yet another mass shooting or after the police shooting of another African American man or woman. I know it’s a preacher’s job to honestly address the brokenness and ugliness of the world in which we live but it feels like broken and ugly is the new normal that only gets more broken and even more ugly.

All this week there’s been wringing of hands in the news and by law enforcement to figure out what was the motive of this week’s mass murderer. We call him a lone wolf—making him isolated and not even human because we don’t want to admit that he is anything like us. The white skinned shooter didn’t get called a terrorist even though he terrorized a crowd of 20,000 people. But if the shooter had brown or black skin he’d likely be labeled an Islamic terrorist or a Black Identity Extremist.

The Presbyterian Planning calendar designates today as Domestic Violence Awareness Sunday. Most years that’s an invitation to draw attention to the scourge of violence that takes place between intimate partners. But this week, domestic violence takes on an additional meaning—violence that is cultivated here, in our own country, in our national home. It is carried out by an American against other Americans. It didn’t come from someplace else outside of our borders.

It’s a little hard to pin down what the statistics are about the number or percentage of white men in our country who perpetuate mass shootings. But I think we have a problem. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a 20th century mystic, prophet, rabbi and social change agent, said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.”[8]

Some of our white brothers have drunk an extra lethal dose of the kool aid. And I think it’s the kool aid of white supremacy—that death-dealing ideology that took root in the founding of our country that says white people are superior to people of all other races, especially African Americans, and by right we who are white should control the wealth, land, analysis and decision making in American society.[9] And we don’t, we can resort to violence White supremacy is an ideology that we’ve all been steeped in and that continues today in both subtle and overt ways. It’s a way of life that has been institutionalized in our laws for generations and continues to have life-altering repercussions in our communities and in our country. It’s an “ideology that objectifies, dehumanizes and kills”[10]—not just people with brown or black skin but all of us.

Why do we focus on just this one white man in Las Vegas? If we do discover a motive, won’t we use it to say, “See, he wasn’t like us?” Shouldn’t we be looking at the cadre of white men murderers? Shouldn’t we be asking, “Why do so many white men take the lives of others? Why do white men stockpile weapons of war to use on other human beings?” If he were anything but a white man in America, we would attribute a group motive to him. But since he is a white man in America, we think he is an isolated individual and I just don’t buy it.

And maybe that’s part of the problem. That he and many like him feel isolated from individuals. Tragically, unconnected to the human community where our lives matter to one another. Unmoored from the life-giving freedom that is possible when we live in relationship with God and with our neighbors. This is part of the lie of white supremacy—that says some neighbors don’t matter, that their well-being doesn’t count, that their lives are disposable. And that is a lie that dehumanizes and kills us all. Some of us just more slowly than others.

Last year, Colin Kaepernick began taking a knee to give voice to the tragedy and violence of racial injustice in our country. His teammate, Eric Reid, joined him a few weeks later, taking a knee beside Kaepernick. Reid recently wrote about why he did this. He said, “We chose to kneel because it’s a respectful gesture. I remember thinking our posture was like a flag flown at half-mast to mark a tragedy.”[11] So on Monday, and through this week, when flags were flown at half-mast because of this worst mass murder by a single shooter in US history (let’s be clear that it’s the worst mass murder committed by a single person—there are several more devastating mass murders of African Americans by groups of whites in our nation’s history[12]). When I saw all the flags at half-mast because of this tragedy this week, all I could think of was Colin Kaepnerick and his NFL brothers kneeling at half-mast because of the tragedy of racial injustice that goes on all across this nation every day of the year.

Nina Simone sings again:

I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way over due I’d be starting anew

            The Bible is a collection of stories of people trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to live these hard commandments—to live as God’s people who are free—to live as free people in relationship with God and our neighbors.

We, too, are writing our story into this collection as we try and fail, succeed and stumble to be free—to love God and love our neighbors. How we are trying and failing, succeeding and stumbling to dismantle white supremacy so we can all live in freedom. The freedom that brings abundant life. The freedom that brings wholeness in body, mind and spirit. The freedom that God desires for every single one of us in the human family.

* * * * *

How to Build Community

Turn off your TV.
Leave your house.
Know your neighbors,
Look up when you are walking;
Greet people;
Sit on your stoop;
Plant flowers;
Use your library;
Play together;
Buy from local merchants;
Share what you have;
Help a lost dog;
Take children to the park;
Garden together;
Support neighborhood schools;
Fix it even if you didn’t break it;
Have potlucks;
Honor elders;
Pick up litter;
Read stories aloud;
Dance in the street;
Talk to the mail carrier;
Listen to the birds;
Put up a swing;
Help carry something heavy;
Barter for your goods;
Start a tradition;
Ask a question;
Hire young people for odd jobs;
Organize a block party;
Bake extra and share;
Ask for help when you need it;
Open your shades;
Sing together;
Share your skills;
Take back the night;
Turn up the music;
Turn down the music;
Listen before you react to anger;
Mediate a conflict;
Seek to understand;
Learn from new and uncomfortable angles;
Know that no one is silent although many are not heard.
Work to change this.

— Syracuse Cultural Workers

* * *

[1], accessed October 7, 2017.

[2], accessed October 7, 2017.

[3] Hymn note on #61 “Your Law, O Lord, Is Perfect” in Glory to God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013).

[4] Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 8.

[5] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q.141, Book of Confessions, (Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, 2016), 248.

[6], accessed October 7, 2017.

[7] Frank Bruni, “God bless America,” New York Times, October 3, 2017,, accessed October 3, 2017.

[8], accessed September 25, 2017.

[9] Thanks to Rev. Dr. Kevin Cosby for this analysis.

[10] Jessica Vasquez Torres, facebook post, October 3, 2017.

[11], accessed September 28, 2017.

[12] Thanks to Dr. A.T. Simpson for this reminder. (E.g., East St. Louis Massacre in 1917, Tulsa Massacre in 1921, Rosewood, Florida in 1923.)


September 17, 2017 – 15th Sunday after Pentecost
Exodus 14.19-31, 15.1b-11, 20-21
Last week we heard the story of Moses’s encounter with God in the wilderness. The upshot of that meeting was that God wanted Moses to go to Egypt and free the Israelites who had been enslaved there for 400 years. This morning, the story has the Israelites out of Egypt and on their way to freedom.

In between these two stories, God sent Moses to Pharaoh ten times with the message, “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” Nine times Pharaoh refused. In response to each refusal, God sent a plague as a means of persuasion.

If you grew up going to Sunday school, you might remember the plagues. Things like swarms of frogs, gnats, flies, locusts. People and animals developed boils on their skin. The last plague was the death of all the Egyptian firstborn children.

When all the firstborn children died Pharaoh finally said, “Go!”

Moses had prepared the Israelites and they grabbed their bags and their kids and their animals and the bread that did not have time to rise and got out of town. All 600,000 plus of them.

After a few days, Pharaoh comes to his senses and says, “What were we thinking to let all that free labor leave our country?? How will our economy survive if we have to pay people to do work??” So Pharaoh and his battalion of slave catchers chase after the Israelites, who by this time, are out of Egypt and on the edge of the wilderness.

The Israelites notice a big dust storm coming approaching behind them and they are afraid. They said to Moses, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians as slaves than to die in the wilderness.”

But Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand [still], and see the deliverance that the [Holy God] will accomplish for you today.” (Exodus 14.11-13a)

And the story you heard from Exodus 14 and 15 unfolds.


This story is the bedrock—the center of the Israelite faith—the witness to God’s saving power on their behalf—that gets told again and again. Every year, Jews tell this story of God’s liberating power on behalf of those who are oppressed. It’s a story which has provided hope and sustained communities in terrible times. Many of the spirituals born out of the enslavement of African-Americans in this country echo the story of the Exodus—the experience of being enslaved and the fervent hope that God would hear their cries and bring them out to freedom.

You’ve probably heard the spiritual “Go down, Moses / way down in Egypt’s land, / tell ole’ Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go.’”For the enslaved people who sang it in this country, it was a song of resistance—a song of promise—singing of the day when white owners would no longer be their masters and they would be free from the torture and economic exploitation of slavery.

Another example of this is the last hymn we’ll sing this morning, “Freedom is Coming.” It comes out of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and is a reminder that spiritual and political freedom are intertwined.[1]

The Exodus story is a profound story of liberation. God notices the anguish of the Israelites who are enslaved, hears their cries, and responds with liberating power to bring them to freedom.


But this story is not without its difficulties.

One small phrase at the end: “God saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.” (v30)

It’s an uncomfortable text to preach on the heels of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. And we don’t have to go back very far in many of our memories to the events of Hurricane Katrina. We’ve seen people clinging to their roofs in flood waters. We’ve seen people die because of drowning. We know in New Orleans in 2005, some neighborhoods were allowed to flood in order to save other neighborhoods that were deemed more desirable.

Exodus 14 doesn’t let us look away from those painful realities.

In this story, Egyptians die in order for Israelites to be free.

And then Moses and Miriam and all the people sing a victory song with all those dead bodies on the seashore.


There is midrash, that is, Jewish commentary, on this story that says the angels “sought to sing a hymn to God as the Egyptians were drowning [but] God rebuked them, saying, ‘While my creatures are drowning in the sea you would sing a hymn?’” It’s a poignant commentary by the rabbis to say that [God] “does not rejoice in the death of the wicked.”[2]

That midrash doesn’t erase this text or solve the moral dilemma of the death of Egyptians for the freedom of Israelites. But maybe it gives us a little breathing room in the story.

One Biblical scholar clarifies that the Bible does not “claim…the stories it tells are paradigms for human action in all times and places.”[3] That is, singing a song of victory while your enemies lie dead around you is not necessarily what the Bible says is the way we should conduct our lives or worship God. Instead, the Bible must be read carefully and thoughtfully, holding up its stories to the light of day and the dark of night, asking for the illumination and wisdom of the Spirit who continues to move in our world and our hearts.

The freedom of the Israelites is not without the reminder of how they got there and the continuing pain and brokenness in the world. A world in which they are blessed by God in order to be a blessing to all the people of the world.


Another difficulty many have found is with the miracle of the Red Sea itself. Can it really be that the Red Sea was split in two—a wall of water on both sides and a dry pathway for the liberated slaves to walk on? Was it a miracle of nature that caused a big east wind to blow combined with just the right tide height? Others have said that “Red Sea” is really a mistranslation and should instead be “Reed Sea”—designating a marshy, swampy area that could have been fairly easily navigated with a good pair of hip waders.

Instead of trying to explain what really happened I suggest we see the story as a master story—the kind of story that defines a community. It could be that if Moses was on facebook live, we would have seen the Red Sea divide—or maybe what really happened was a little less Cecil B. DeMille style but whatever it was got progressively bigger and bigger with the retelling. Whatever the video replay would show, “the most important thing for us to know is that” the Israelites were being pursued by the Egyptians and “something happened that they could explain in no other way than as divine intervention.”[4] Maybe you’ve had that kind of experience in your life.

For the Israelites, it was a transformational experience. “Israel left Egypt as enslaved people fearing for their lives and emerged from the sea as a people who testified to God’s miraculous deliverance.

This kind of story provides a community with identity: this is who our God is. This is how God works on our behalf. This what happened to us because of God. This is what happened to our enemies. This is who we are because of it all.

This exact story—became the well-spring of revolutionary faith and practice from that first day of freedom right into our own contemporary world. Many struggles by people to shake off oppression have been envisioned on this story of the Israelite people being saved from Pharaoh by God. African-American slaves sang of it, Martin Luther King, Jr., preached on it, theologies of liberation around the world have been built on this story—built on the hope that the story of the Israelites would be our story as well.

This is why writers and singers get exiled and murdered in times of oppression. The stories they tell and the songs they sing have power—power that comes from giving voice to truth—power that gathers energy like a tiny mountain stream that eventually becomes part of the roar of the ocean—power to transform what is now, into what will be.


Dom Helder Camara, [pronounced Dom- with hardly any “m” Elder Ca’mara] a Roman Catholic archbishop in Brazil, was very involved in the movement of liberation theology—a theology that developed in the Catholic Church in Latin America in the 1950s and 60s expressing concern for the liberation of the oppressed.[5]  For many years Camara was an outspoken critic of the decades-long military dictatorship in Brazil and he was an advocate for social change. You may have heard the quote, “When I give food the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.”[6] That was Archbishop Camara. He also wrote,

“When you are dreaming alone, it is only a dream.

When you are dreaming with others it is the beginning of reality.”

It is that kind of collective memory and story that shapes a community’s identity, that has the power to transform the way things are into the ways of God’s justice and peace. That’s the power of this story of God who liberates the Israelites.


Now what if we believed this was our story as well? And that just as the Israelites experienced themselves as the recipients of God’s liberating power, we will too. We and our larger community. Liberation from oppressions that hold us down personally—the addictions, wounds, and fears that keep us from being all that God intends for us to be—and liberation from the political and economic oppressions of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and so many other isms—that keep us all from living in the abundant life-giving ways that God intends for all of us.

And what if we told our stories of liberation—of getting to the edge of the sea and hearing the thunder of the chariot wheels behind us and just when we think we will never survive, the waters part and by God’s grace and God’s power there is a way when we thought there was no way at all. What if we told those stories as if our lives depended upon them—and that it was by God’s grace and power that we made it through.


A friend told me about a friend she knew years ago. This man saw prayer as a kind of energy—and he really saw it that way. When two people got together and prayed he could see the energy going out from them—going out of the tops of their heads, in fact.

This guy couldn’t go to church because when all those people got together and prayed…well, all that energy would send him flying out of the sanctuary.


Now what if we believed that really would happen? That there is so much power in what God is doing in our midst—that we were sent flying out of here to be part of leading people out of bondage, across the wilderness, through a way we never knew was there until we trusted God to take us there.

What if we trusted this could happen—that it is happening. What if we lived as if it was going on all around us?

What if we believed God works in history, in human life, in the realities of political and economic situations (that is, the real life in which we live)? What if we believed that God works in our history, transforming oppression into freedom?

And what if we lived as if God really did bring liberation to an oppressed community before us and that God continues to hear and respond to the cries of those who are stomped on and looked over and held back and cut down?

What if we did?

* * * *

[1] “Freedom is Coming” in Glory to God, #359, hymn notes.

[2] The Jewish Study Bible, eds., Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), Exodus 14.20 note, 135.

[3] Quoted in Barbara Lundblad, “Exodus 14.19-31,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Lundblad, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 4.

[4] Wilton, “Exodus 14.19-31,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).

[5], accessed 16 September 2017.

[6], accessed 16 September 2017.