Sermon September 6 2020 “ And what of death?” by Rev. June Fothergill
Scripture: Exodus 12: 1-14; romans 13: 8-14; Matthew 18: 15-20
Not too long ago Jim and I watched again the movie “ Hannah and Her Sisters.” In it, Woody Allen plays a character who has become obsessed with his own death. He is terrified and anxious about not being anymore. He goes to his Jewish parents for advice but they don’t see the issue. He tries a Catholic priest and comes away with a pile of reading but that’s not for him. He even talks with the Hari Krishna but can’t imagine wearing an orange robe and hanging out at the airport. Discouraged and still in terror, he goes to the movies. As he watches an old Marx brothers which makes his laugh, he has a revelation that he needs to turn away from his anxiety and search for “ answers” and embrace life with all its mystery and maybes and laughter. I admit it, his antics made me laugh.
Most of us face the reality of death at some point in our lives. And Woody Allen, although exaggerating, is right, it is a fearsome thing. We do shrink before the mystery of death. This is only natural. So what of death? What place does it have in our lives, our theology , our faith? I cannot answer all those questions in one sermon. I ‘m really not sure I can answer them any better than a Marx Brothers movie. Yet, the reason I bring up the topic at all, is the impact of this passage from Exodus. Let’s look at it together.
When reading again this passage in Exodus, I got a bit of that terror at or at least the solemnity of death. I had always thought of the first born- when I thought about them at all, as children- terrible enough certainly. But this time I realized- I am a first born. I would have been dead. It was a little like when after 9/11 I realized that that many dead, would be everyone in the town I lived in at the time would have died! We do not usually keep thoughts about death in the forefront of our minds. As Woody Allen showed it is not a healthy way to live, obsessed with death. Yet, death and transformation are at the heart of our faith and our deepest questions.
The passage from Exodus depicts a liturgy, an important ritual of the Israelite life and faith. According to the commentators it is made up of materials from many centuries of Israel’s worship and faith. It proclaims that God delivered them from oppression and death. The blood of the lamb not only saved them from the angel of death but marked them as a set apart, liberated people.
But there was a cost to this liberation- the deaths of innocent Egyptians. Biblical scholar Terrance Fretheim points out that neither God nor the Israelites savor this victory, “Israel, like God voices no pleasure in the death of anyone.” ( p. 136 Exodus, Terrance Fretheim) There is a story from the Rabbi’s in one of the more recent Passover liturgies that tells of God chastising the revelers after the drowning of Egypt’s army in the sea, “ These are my children too.” God tells them.
There is a solemn reality to the situation. The hardness of heart of those in power does lead to the death of the innocent. If the King of Egypt had been willing to let them go, all that death could have been avoided. We see it in any war. We saw it in the Halocaust in Germany. We see it in past and present lynching and killing of brown and black lives and in the stories of drug kingpins and mob bosses. Innocent, untimely death is heart breaking and wrong. That Pharoah let the request for freedom of his slaves go this far challenges us and upsets us. Yet, we as a country fought a dreadful war at least in part to defend oppression and slavery. The Passover liturgy does not glorify but solemnly reminds us of the dreadful cost of slavery and hardened hearts. As they celebrate liberation, they also recognize its cost and the human suffering that oppression brings to the oppressor and the oppressed.
Yet, ultimately the Passover is a liturgy of liberation. It lets each generation re-imagine not only the cost but also the possibilities of God to bring life and liberation even in the midst of death and oppression. The liturgy doesn’t just remind people of an historic event but allows them to re- member, re involve themselves in it.
This is very much like what happens for us in Holy Communion. Here too we remember a terrible act of oppression and death- Jesus death on a cross. For us we connect Jesus death to that of the Passover lamb whose blood saved the Israelite people from death. Only this time through the interpretations of Paul and the early church, we believe this sacrifice of Jesus is for the whole world. Its purpose is to be the final living sacrifice to liberate all from sin and death and oppression.
This means standing in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters in their Passover of liberation. It means standing in solidarity with anyone who suffers because of the sins of the world. It means standing in solidarity with all human beings for we all need the freedom and love and grace Christ brings.
These ancient liturgies show us a Judeo Christian approach to death. Not as something to be glorified but as a solemn reality in our mortality and sinfulness- the outcome of hardened hearts. Not as something to be avoided in this life – but to be understood as a threshold to a new life with God- a resurrection. Not as something that we have any right to bring upon another, because we are not God. And finally not as something to fear but as a part of our human journey toward God.
Jeffrey Munroe has a prose poem called “ Imagine the Dexterity of God.” It ends this way, “And now imagine the dexterity of God, who stands both in and out of time. Consider that it cost God everything to have a foot in our world and a foot in eternity. It may cost God still. Imagine a God who keeps choosing to do so despite the cost, a God who keeps saying yes.” ( p. 29 Christian Century, “ Imagine the dexterity of God,” Jeffrey Munroe)
Sermon September 20, 2020 “ Manna” by Rev. June Fothergill Ex. 16:2-15 Mat. 20: 1-16
Wow, what a couple weeks it has been! I identify a bit with the Israelites wandering in the desert. We just get a little used to one set of troubles and then there is more! I admit to being upset by the harsh air that made it impossible for me to go on my walks, that I had finally gotten into my routine! I became grumpy and unappreciative. Of course, it’s not quite the same as losing ones home or job or even having to face possible evacuation from the fires. It was a scary prospect- the fires coming into Springfield and so many more people needing to evacuate.
I went down to the evacuation site one afternoon to offer pastoral care. You know, if you are feeling lousy, go try to help someone else. There I talked with a woman who had lost her place to live. She told me a lot about her grandmother and her grandmother’s wisdom. These messages were some of the things getting her through her loss. She told me a story about a young hero and how humble he had been. I told her I thought she was a hero, putting her life back together again. She wasn’t too sure about that! Together we looked through the clothing. Hey check this out- this might look good on you. That kind of thing. Something to do. Something to enjoy in the midst of tragedy. The clothing given by the generosity of neighbors today. For this days needs. God in the day to day.
In a way the manna in the wilderness was like that. It was not a great big miracle but a natural, daily phenomenon that met a daily need. Biblical commentator Terrance E. Fretheim says that the description of the manna sounds like something that actually happens in the Sinai Peninsula. A bug gets into a local tree and produces a sweet tasting, flaky substance that cannot last into the heat of the day. It is still gathered and made into bread by local residents. One of God’s gifts of creation.
Food. Clothing. Friendly conversation. All part of the gifts of creation and humanity that we can share with one another daily. That like the Israelite’s we can learn to trust. Interesting thing about the manna. People had to gather it every day. They gathered different amounts but when they measured it, they each had only what they needed. Like the laborers in the vineyard story- extra effort didn’t mean you got more. Rather everyone was given what they needed. God’s provision. Our daily bread.
This daily provision of God runs counter to our society’s desire to accumulate. We are supposed to save, invest and plan ahead. Our economy depends upon accumulation. If we are able to do it enough we can have capital to invest in enterprises that employ others and fuel our economic prosperity. We can hardly imagine any other system. Yet, this economic system like any human system has its problems. One of them we face today is a greater and greater disparity of wealth. Some people have barely enough for their daily bread while others build huge mansions. This is not a new story. It’s a very old one. Pharoah’s army tried to keep the slaves that fueled Egypt’s wealth. Israel’s prophets saw it happening in their day. Jesus saw it in his. And along side this common human story of accumulation, there is this story of the daily bread/ manna in the wilderness. Where everyone worked each day and everyone received what they needed.
Yet, this way of living was temporary. When the people came into the land of milk and honey, they no longer gathered the manna but began to grow their own crops and keep their own animals for food. Economies and societies change even in the Bible. Yet, the legacy of daily manna and receiving what they needed was to be remembered in Israel. Moses was told by God to keep a jar of manna to remind the people of their daily provision.
Today we live this out in how we work to share our wealth. We give to our church, to community organizations, to thrift stores so that everyone can have the basics of life: like food and clothing. Sometimes we also tax our wealth so that our governments can provide for larger things like healthcare and housing for those with less. We find ways to recycle and re-distribute because somewhere in our hearts we still hold the lesson of the manna. In God’s way of economy- That everyone’s needs can be met.
You see, God sent the manna, but the people had some responsibilities too. In this case each household was expected to gather manna for that day but not try to hoard it. When they tried to hoard it, there was trouble. This daily discipline helped them to participate and also rely on God the Creator of the manna.
Also, there was one exception. The sabbath. On one day they could gather more, so that they could the next day have a day of rest. The order of creation according to God included a day of rest. A day that they did not have to gather the manna. Thus, they had a routine that included rest. A day to just enjoy the gift of God’s provisions. Remember they had been slaves. Their whole lives had been work. Now they had a new thing- a sabbath day. To rest and also to enjoy manna. Sabbath became one of the foundations of their lives as families and society. One of the provisions of God’s economy is time for rest and relaxation. A rhythm of work and rest that brings human welfare and joy.
Much has been written about our loss of sabbath time in our society. Factories, stores and services work 24/7. People are proud of their 60-70 hour weeks. Working long hours is expected and usually rewarded. It was only in the past century or so that limitations on work hours came about after workers struggled for them. Can we trust God enough to practice Sabbath in our lives and our economy? Could we work for a better distribution of work and rest just like we try to do for food and other things people need?
Daily Bread and Sabbath. The two phenomenon in this story in Exodus are foundational to God’s way of life. To God’s economy and justice. As we see homes go up in flames. We realize the temporary nature of all our accumulation. As we slow down to respond to a pandemic. We realize the importance of companionship and connection. When we open our eyes to the common needs we all have. We realize we can share our wealth so that everyone has their basic needs met. The Manna and the Sabbath teach us to persist in faith and take time for joy. Day by Day.
I close with some short stories from a health training program our denomination sponsored in Latin America. Women were given time – a kind of sabbath time to grow in faith and skills. “ Maria Sylvia is a Peruvian woman disfigured with arthritis who felt so bad about herself that she could not look into the mirror. During a Health for All training event she had a profound experience of God’s love, enabling her to accept herself and her gifts for health care ministry. She looked into the mirror and wept for joy. Another women, Juanita of Bolivia found the courage to confront a local official with the urgency of using town land for a vegetable garden to address he hunger crisis. Though timid and afraid, she persisted until she gained permission to start a community garden. ( Prayer Calendar entry by Wilson and Nora Q. Boots, missionaries in Bolivia ) Manna and Sabbath. God’s gifts to share and time for rest. These are the source of faith and joy.