A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Self Interest at the Red Sea Sermon on Exodus 14 June 26, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church in Holladay, UT on June 28, 2020. Worship can be viewed on YouTube on our channel Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church SLC. *Image from Google Free Images-no copyright infringement intended

The text was Exodus 14 in our series I Love to Tell the Story

You may know that on Tuesday we start our Conversations on Holy Ground book study on “How to be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. All are welcome and invite a friend! If you haven’t read the book, even if you can’t attend the discussions, I invite you to do so. He wrote it about two years ago now and he names the root of many of our societal and personal challenges-yes racism, but also patriarchy, misogyny, classism, homophobia, and whatever other “ism” we as humans create. You see, Kendi’s thesis on why humanity struggles to get along is simple: It’s all about self-interest. And right now, you’re saying to yourself, as I did, well, of course! That’s not a revelation! Self-interest in and of itself, isn’t necessarily bad, it keeps us alive on some basic level day to day, but when self-interest, particularly unexamined self-interest, drives every decision, every action, every thought-the outcome is not hard to see. It means everyone around you has to lose in order for you to win. It means that whatever seems comforting, safe and certain must be the right thing. Kendi unpacks how that unexamined self-interest shapes our every thought, word and action and only brings sickness, death and fear. Learning to examine our self-interest, to recognize it, name it, and set it aside, allows for imagination, health, newness and a hopeful future.

Self-interest is of course rampant in our Exodus story today. The Israelites had finally been freed from Pharaoh, but only after 10 plagues brought devastation and death to the Egyptians. It was only out of self-interest that the Egyptians told Moses to take his people and leave, and they did. The Israelites were led by God (represented by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night) to camp on the shores of the Red Sea. It must have seemed fool hardy to flee in a direction that put them in the path of a major body of water on one side and the enemy on the other. But there they were. Self-interest reared it’s head again when Pharaoh and his officials realized that they had just let all of their free labor, the basis of their economy, leave. So they pursued the Israelites. The Israelites saw the army coming and out of self-interest complained to Moses that they were better off in servitude in Egypt than what was about to happen. They feared death more than they could imagine the life that God was up to in their midst.

I love the next couple of lines as we get a little humor and snark out of God. Moses tells the Israelites to stand firm, be still and watch what God will do. But then God, clearly having a “what in the world” moment with Moses, said “no! Don’t just stand there! Go forward! I know that there is a sea in front of you, I know that it looks like there isn’t a way out. I know that this looks bad, but I need you all to keep moving forward, even when it’s hard, even when it seems to be not in your own self-interest!” Then the pillar of cloud moved to the rear of the Israelites, I like to believe to prod the Israelites forward and not let them fall back into self-interest.

The Israelites moved forward towards the Red Sea and through Moses God parted the waters with God’s own breath for them. They walked toward the promise of a new life and new freedoms. The Egyptians saw this powerful act of God and out of self-justified, self-interest, kept pursuing. While it is indeed a difficult piece of this story to name that the Egyptians died so that the Israelites could live, I tend to believe that it was the Egyptians own self-interest that led to their demise. God sends the Egyptians into a panic we read, a panic of realization that without the Israelites to serve them, to be exploited to support their “civilization,” to be a scapegoat for the ills of Egyptian life, that they would have to rebuild their entire way of being. A panic that maybe they weren’t the smartest, best, most developed, and most powerful. This panic, this need to reinforce their own self-interest, is what led to their demise. If they had not pursued their own self-interest, but faced the reality, they wouldn’t have drowned.

Like the Israelites, we might feel trapped between a formidable obstacle and a coming army. We can’t see a path forward, to what the future might hold, and so it seems in our self interest to go back to what we know, except we can’t and it’s not. We’re also like the Egyptians in that we don’t want to lose what makes our lives easy and comfortable. We don’t want to lose the idea that we have all the power, the know-how and innovation. We don’t want to examine who is being exploited for our way of life.  We don’t want to admit that someone else is paying the price for our comforts. We don’t want to admit that something has to die in ourselves or in our society for all people to have life.

This is what Jesus means when he says that we need to die to live. We have to die to our own self-interest-our self-interest that brings death to our neighbor, and our neighbor’s self-interest that brings death to us. Paul names that in our baptism, the old person dies so that we arise from the waters as a new life with Christ. That paradox is a hard one, but God’s very breath will create a path where none before existed or at least, we couldn’t recognize. In these days of a pandemic, economic devastation, the sin of racism coming to a head, God calls to us, don’t stand still! MOVE! Move forward, act not from self-interest, but for the interest, care and liberation of your neighbor of what oppresses and harms them.  It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable and it may look like walls of death ready to drown you. But God as our rear guard, prods us to walk in faith, away from our own self-interest, toward the promises of God’s interest for unity, justice and deep love for humanity and creation. We let God’s interest shape our todays and our tomorrows. We walk forward to a new life. Thanks be to God!

 

Letter to OSLC On Racism May 30, 2020

Dear OSLC Family,

Words escape me for what is happening in our collective life in this country. Yet, as a public leader, as a theologian, your pastor, as a human, as a follower of Jesus, I must speak out even when it’s hard. I’m struck by the words of Jesus from the John 20 reading for this week’s gospel: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Jesus sends the disciples into the world to be the Church, and to name sin when they see it in action.  Friends, we must name the sin that we are witnessing with horrific and murderous consequences: the sin and evil of systemic racism. We have to name the murder of George Floyd, and so many others Ahmaud Arbery, Breeona Taylor, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland to name a few, as unjust murder. I know that this topic may make some of you uncomfortable, and possibly angry with me that I am “being too political.”  I can tell you that even writing (and now speaking) these words are not comfortable for me either, yet I must say them because politics is about how we live together as humanity. Our own confession of sin, as found in our book of worship, proclaims that if we don’t name our sin, the truth is not in us. The truth is, structural and systemic racism is evil and sinful. It denies our siblings who are black and brown full and abundant life. It denies them the very breath that Jesus breathes into all of God’s people. It denies us all the fullness of our humanity. Our health, well-being and liberation from sin is inextricably bound up in health, well-being and liberation from sin of all people. If one part of humanity is harmed, we all are harmed.

As people of faith who are white, we have hard work to do for this sin and evil to be healed. We must admit our own complicity, comforts and benefits of the current system of racism. We must renounce and repent of our witting and unwitting participation each day that upholds this unjust social structure of racism and white supremacy (not to mention all unjust social structures). This work will be difficult, risky and decentering. We must listen to and center the voices of people who are suffering in the system of racism, we must lend our voices when appropriate and called upon (this alone will be great learning), and we must act to dismantle racism in our lives, congregation, community, country and world.

This risky work will cost us something; Jesus never denies that picking up our crosses and following him will be easy or safe. Jesus says that he came to divide, those who will stand for the truth of the gospel and those who will continue to be complicit in the ways of the world. The truth of the gospel demands that we lay down our lives for our siblings, that this is what love looks like, our own deaths. Love that risks family and friends distancing themselves from us as we tell hard truths and learn to walk the walk of antiracism. Love that engages in difficult and uncomfortable conversations for the sake of learning, growth and abundant life for all people regardless of color, gender, sexual orientation, class, race or creed. Love that hangs in tenaciously despite fear, exhaustion or uncertainty. Love that commits to change and to do better for the sake of our neighbor in need. We won’t do this perfectly, we will make mistakes, I will make mistakes, (I’m likely making mistakes in this very letter) but when we do make a mistake, we learn and do better.

Yes, I know that we are also in the midst of a pandemic and the uncertainty of many aspects of our lives together is palpable. We are uncertain of when our building will open and when we will have in-person worship. We are uncertain of how the church will change in the coming year (as it will have to). Yet, the pandemic has highlighted what has been certain in this country for 400 years: that not all lives have mattered, particularly lives of black and brown people. The certainty that black and brown people are dying of COVID19 at a higher rate and is out of control on the Navajo Nation in our own state. The certainty that those who are essential and have to work in public are predominately people of color. The certainty that many people of color lack health care. In the midst of our own uncertainties, some things are certain.

AND, there is the certainty of God’s presence, the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit to prod us to do hard things. God’s power, as witnessed in our Acts texts by wind and fire, is poured out to us today, connects us as one, unified humanity, and gives us the ability to speak and hear the languages of our siblings-do we hear them? Do we hear their cries of fear, lament and injustice-even if it’s a language we don’t know such as protests and riots? Can we hear the language of oppression and anger that hasn’t been previously heard and taken seriously? Can we hear the language of looting as a language learned from white culture that has looted other cultures for our own benefit for centuries? Can we hear the words “I can’t breathe” and offer our own breath in solidarity?

My friends, I don’t have any answers. I don’t know where this journey of dismantling racism in ourselves and the country will lead us.  I do know that I have a vision of unity and love with this hard work. I do know that we must take the first step of being on the path. I will be offering a book club to explore this hard conversation this summer and probably into the fall. We will start with the book “How to be and Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi. Look for details of when to come in the enews. This is only a baby step, the prayer is that it will lead to leaps of faith.

Thank you for your faithful work in a world that offers no reward in return for this work. Thank you for your commitment to the gospel of Jesus, particularly when it’s difficult. Thank you for taking your baptism into the mission of God’s Kingdom, for reconciliation and freedom of all, to your heart, head and soul. Thank you for listening and contemplating this letter. It’s a privilege to be your pastor. Please know that I am always available for a phone call, a Facetime or a Zoom for conversation. I know that this is hard but we are in this together. We are not alone.  Jesus says “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28: 20.

In the love of Christ, Pastor Brigette