Delivered at Ames UCC on June 3, 2018
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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Look at God, working the deals.
Last week God asked Moses, who is now in the desert wilderness with the freed Hebrew slaves, to say to the people, “You saw what I did back there. Now, if you will just bind yourself with devotion to me, you will be my most special people for all time.” I helped you, now you serve me. God wants a little something for God’s trouble, it seems.
But we are not Moses and Moses’s people. We have witnessed no plagues, no walls of water providing safe passage. What have we “gotten” from God? What has God done for us lately, that God can make demands of us still?
To use Advent as an answer: hope, peace, joy, and love.
Last week I handed out copies of the church’s schedule of seasons and holidays along with their traditional colors. I invited you to put those into your own personal calendars as a means to remember that our finite lives are within the infinity that is God.
Today I’d like to continue the practice of putting our everyday into the context of our faith, this time by bringing Advent into Ordinary Time. Not only is the time of faith cyclical, as exemplified by the perpetual calendar of the church, the time of faith is all seasons at one time. We are no less in Advent today than we will be in December.
But as a refresher, Advent is over the four weeks before Christmas. I wish I didn’t have to put it that way because then it sounds like Advent is the Christmas prep season, the Christmas pre-season. It isn’t. Advent is the first season of the Christian year and it is followed by the twelve days of Christmastide. So Advent stands on its own.
Advent stands on its own because it is not just pointing toward the birth of Jesus but to his execution and mystery, too. We spend that month preparing not for one night, but for another year of studying and praying the full story of God in Jesus Christ. Advent’s means for doing so are the weekly themes of hope, peace, joy, and love. In Advent we are preparing for the story of a holiness in whom, through whom, and with whom, we can receive hope, peace, joy, and love.
But that didn’t start with Jesus. What God has to give didn’t begin just two thousand years ago. Let’s look at today’s passage.
We have the preface—I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery—then the first four of ten: Don’t worship other gods, don’t create new gods, don’t use my name to swear an oath you won’t honor, and keep every seventh day as one of rest.
Calling this list commandments does not do us any favors. It makes God into a commander and sets the tone of a scolding boss. So let’s call them teachings, as I was taught by my rabbi, and look at what they instruct:
Remember I have been with you in the worst of times, the most frightening and risky.
Please stay in relationship with me.
Please don’t be tempted to ditch me for something that is shiny but hollow.
Please don’t lie.
Please be a people who rest, for I need it and you need it and the Earth needs it.
That doesn’t sound like God working a deal. That doesn’t sound like God telling the people to pony up now that they are free. God is not negotiating a fee for service. The actual negotiations, ones that we see throughout our Biblical stories and our own lives, are between people, between each other, just as it was during the flight from Egypt itself.
Despite how this section reads, God did not free the people on God’s own. God sought Moses out, and created a means of communication, the burning bush. Through the bush, God negotiates with Moses to convince him to become a leader despite never having lived among his people, because he grew up in the palace then ran away after killing someone and then married a woman outside of their faith.
Moses then has to negotiate with the Hebrew people to get their buy-in to a plan, executed by his outsider self, and born of fire-y flora. Moses and the people then successfully, if gruesomely, negotiate with Pharaoh for their release. Or temporary release—Pharaoh with his hard heart and stiff neck didn’t realize they meant forever and eventually sent off the armies that then drowned in the sea.
Regardless of Pharaoh’s slowness, once God makes God’s presence known, freedom is all negotiation between people. Whatever the plagues and demonstrations of power God offers, they are not the acts that give freedom. They are testimony to whom God favors—the oppressed—but the Hebrews had to do a lot of work amongst themselves and their captors in order to get away.
And the negotiations continue to this day. Do we want to be free?
If not, we can bail on faith in community, worship our own egos, lie our pants off, and never take a day off—or work to make sure others can have days off.
But if we do think we want peace, hope, joy, and love, we might choose to attend to the divine and offer proper respect for all that is holy, including the delicate interlacing between all people and all creatures on this earth.
To take up Advent’s offer to prepare for the whole story of God is really to prepare for the whole of our own lives. Not just a season of special prayer and song, but the necessary, mundane, and ordinary time negotiations with ourselves, including our shadow sides, and each other.
Last week I mentioned that we tend to humanize God, particularly in the person of Jesus, so we need reminders that God always is and must be so much more than us. But we remain human, and so our life with God will be lived on human terms.
As sacred as these teachings are, they are also practical and they also work and they are also all that we have to possibly turn around the anti-hope, anti-peace, anti-joy, and anti-love that we are experiencing on so many fronts right now, that are diligently working to restrict our freedom right now.
What God seems to be asking for, is actually what God has to give and what has been ours to get since the time before time, which is also right now.
So in these days of stiff necks and hardened hearts, of armies of ICE agents and bots and violent laws being sent out to get us, let us remember that God has been with us in the worst of times, the most frightening and risky.
Please stay in relationship with God.
Please don’t be tempted to ditch God for something that is shiny but hollow.
Please let us be an honest people.
Please let us be a people who rest, for God needs it and we need it and the Earth needs it.