I’m preaching for a bunch of preachers in two weeks, at an event called the Festival of Homiletics, or as many of us affectionately call it: Homies.
In preparation, I’ve been thinking a lot about the text below from Matthew. I’d love to know what you hear in it, especially as it speaks to our current context. Jesus’ words about “what comes out of the mouth” speak to me about cheap talk, the proliferation of words in a world of cable news and Twitter, and yes, the rise of snarkiness.
And then what’s going on with Jesus’ reaction to the Canaanite woman in the second section? It’s not every day you hear a word from the Lord that makes you want to say “Ooh, burn!” (Yes I’m a child of the 80s.)
What is up with Jesus’ reaction? How do you hear this story?
I’m especially interested in thoughts from you non-churchy types.
10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand: 11it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.’ 12Then the disciples approached and said to him, ‘Do you know that the Pharisees took offence when they heard what you said?’ 13He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted. 14Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind.* And if one blind person guides another, both will fall into a pit.’ 15But Peter said to him, ‘Explain this parable to us.’ 16Then he said, ‘Are you also still without understanding?17Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.’
21 Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon.22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, ‘Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.’ 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’ 24He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ 26He answered, ‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ 27She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ 28Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
April 20, 2014
28:1 After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.
28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.
28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.
28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.
28:5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
28:6 He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.
28:7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”
28:8 So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.
28:9 Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.
28:10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
Sermon audio is here (for a few months anyway–our free account only keeps the most recent 10 sermons)
I have a quiz for you… let’s see whether your brains are sluggish from too much Easter candy. What is distinctive about these phrases?
Do, O God, no evil deed! Live on! Do good!
Ma is as selfless as I am.
Was it a car or a cat I saw?
A man, a plan, a canal: Panama.
Yes, these are all palindromes. Palindromes are words or phrases that read the same forwards or backwards. So if you read any of these phrases from right to left (and disregarding the spaces) you’ll see the same phrase.
What you may not know is that this is palindrome week. All week long the dates have been the same backwards and forwards. Read them left to right or right to left, the numbers are the same:
Each of these dates reads the same frontwards or backwards. 4-1-2-1-4. And the same would be true the next day. And the next and the next, all week long, April 15, 16, 17, 18, and 19. (Yes, it takes a special kind of nerd to figure this out. I’m just the kind of nerd who enjoys it.)
There’s something very satisfying about a palindrome. It’s very clever when you spot it. There’s an internal pattern to it. Whichever direction you start reading, you’ll end up with the same message. It’s like a seesaw that’s perfectly balanced. There’s this sense of perfection—a statement that’s the same no matter how you look at it.
But you will notice that palindrome week ended today, April 20. 4-20-14 is no longer a palindrome. That pattern has been broken.
And that’s not just a numerical statement. That is a theological statement.
Because today isn’t just April 20, it’s Easter Sunday, Resurrection Sunday, the day that breaks the old pattern. All of the days leading up to this one had their own logic and coherence. The world worked a certain way, backwards, forwards, however you looked at it… but on Resurrection Sunday, everything is turned upside down.
* * *
It is daybreak in Jerusalem. The sun is almost ready to spill its gold on the horizon. Maybe there is a mist on the ground, but it is not yet light enough for that mist to bathe the world in a holy glow. Instead that mist hangs over the city and countryside like a shroud.
It is daybreak, after the longest and saddest sabbath Mary and her friends had ever had.
Their friend and teacher had been arrested, beaten, humiliated and executed. His body had been anointed for burial and placed in a cave. The women make their way there, knowing what they will find: a stone rolled in front of the mouth of that cave with all the finality and silence of the whole world.
And as if the stone were not enough, there are guards. The poor women can’t even grieve in privacy, they have to deal with these agents of Rome, these smirking guards, who may have been the same ones who shoved a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head, the ones who divvied up his clothes two days before.
And yet the women come. In Matthew’s telling, they don’t come to anoint the body—that’s already been done. They don’t come with any purpose whatsoever.
They just come to Jesus’ grave,
for the same reason that we visit cemeteries clutching tulips and hyacinths,
or listen to the song that we danced to at the wedding,
or make the Coca-Cola ham just like mother used to.
Because that’s what love and grief require of us.
But the women don’t have any expectation that something unexpected will happen. They know what they’ll find there. Grief, it seems, is its own sad palindrome—look at it frontwards, or backwards, it’s still the same message:
Dead is dead.
The lost ones stay lost.
There is no second chance.
The person is gone and there’s no bringing them back.
Except the pattern gets broken this one time.
This one time, two thousand years ago, a messenger comes and rolls up his dazzling white sleeves.
This one time this ambassador from the heavens puts his shoulder against that rock and strains and grunts to move it… or maybe he just flicks it with the power of his angelic fingers. This one time he climbs atop the rock, straddles it like a child and says,
“Look, Mary. Look.
He’s. Not. Here.”
This one time, life stares death in the face and said, “Not today you don’t.”
I don’t know how it happened. I don’t even know what happened. But it has to be more than just the miracle of spring. It has to be more than daffodils stretching their green stalks into the air, and baby birds in nests, and caterpillars turning into butterflies.
It has to be more than that. Otherwise there’s no reason for us to be here. We’ve got better things to do with a beautiful Sunday morning. There are lawns to be mowed; there are bags of mulch stacked along the driveway, waiting to be raked over the hard soil of winter. There’s that email that’s been sitting in your inbox for far too long; you really should answer it. And hey, those checkbooks aren’t going to balance themselves.
And yet here we are. And we’re here because we don’t know how it happened, but we believe—we hope—we know (we hope)… that it’s more than just a metaphor.
Something happened that one time—resurrection happened that one time—and because it did, we look at every other death and grief and dead end and heartache and illness and loss and struggle and say, This is not the end. This is not over, not near over.
* * *
Several years ago I was at a church conference. It was the year after my father died and that anniversary was weighing heavily on me. One of the speakers was praying a prayer before communion, and it was going on in the way that those prayers sometimes do, until she got to this line.
Now I know, I know that what was written in her script was “Love is stronger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is about.
But what she mistakenly said was, “Love is stranger than death.”
And it is. And that’s what today is really about.
Death is death, it follows the rules. People live, then they die. Beginning and ending, it’s the logic of the world. But love, especially Easter love, is strange. It is unpredictable. Love can bring life out of death; love can move a stone away from a tomb and empty it of its contents; love can inspire a band of women to feel joy and fear. Fear and joy.
They don’t get it; they’re a little freaked out by it… but they like it, and they can’t wait to tell the others. The pattern has been broken.
* * *
It’s been twenty years since Hutus took up hate and weapons against their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, leading to a genocide that claimed some one million victims. In the two decades since those terrible events, the heartache has continued and in some cases intensified.
You can see the heartache on their faces. Pieter Hugo took these photos twenty years after the genocide.
Yes, reconciliation has also occurred. An organization called AMI has brought together Hutus and Tutsis for counseling and training, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.
Here are some of their voices.
“Mother Mukabutera Caesarea could not have known I was involved in the crimes against her, but I told her what happened. When she granted me pardon, all the things in my heart that had made her look at me like a wicked man faded away.”
“The day I thought of asking pardon, I felt unburdened and relieved. I had lost my humanity because of the crime I committed, but now I am like any human being.”
“I used to hate him. When he came to my house and knelt down before me and asked for forgiveness, I was moved by his sincerity. Now, if I cry for help, he comes to rescue me. When I face any issue, I call him.”
“After I was chased from my village and Dominique and others looted it, I became homeless and insane. Later, when he asked my pardon, I said: ‘I have nothing to feed my children. Are you going to help raise my children? Are you going to build a house for them?’ The next week, Dominique came with some survivors and former prisoners who perpetrated genocide. There were more than 50 of them, and they built my family a house. Ever since then, I have started to feel better. I was like a dry stick; now I feel peaceful in my heart, and I share this peace with my neighbors.” [source]
This is not what we expect. Hutus hated Tutsis and viciously attacked them. So of course Tutsis should hate them right back for what they did. It’s a palindrome—backwards, forwards, however you read it: hate begets hate. That’s what we expect to happen. That’s the way the world works. What goes around comes around. Someone hurts you, you hurt them right back. If your enemy has a weapon, you build a bigger one.
But love is stranger than death.
And this one time, a long time ago, the pattern got broken.
And because it happened that one time, it can happen all the time, again and again and again.
It has been an incredible week at NEXT Church. I’ve had very little to do with the inner workings of the conference, but I did have the opportunity to preach at the closing worship service. Here it is. (You can see some “summing up” statements and a few inside references.)
32:1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 32:2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 32:3a where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. 32:6 Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: 32:7 Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 32:8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. 32:9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 32:10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales.
32:11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 32:12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.
32:13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 32:14 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. 32:15 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
Well, NEXT… here we are.
This week we’ve explored the deviance of Mr. Rogers.
We’ve strewn the chancel with sawdust and hand tools, and because it was a NEXT conference, there were Sharpies.
We’ve been ignited; we’ve been sorted into regions; we’ve been sent off to dinner with our prayers echoing in our ears; we’ve been folded and spindled.
We’ve disembarked from the ocean liner, safely in port, and instead joined the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
I stand here on this day, like Alika Galloway said on Monday, with equal parts hope and realism. And I find that an incredibly energizing place to be. And I can’t wait to talk to the congregation I serve about what has happened here… but I’m also at a loss for words to describe the experience.
We’re going back into our contested spaces. And we have to find a way to embody what’s happened here, but we’re also aware of how hard that is. Meanwhile, Sunday’s coming. Holy Week. Budgets to be balanced. Deferred maintenance to fret over. And neighbors in need. So, so much need.
If you’re like me, you’re going to want to schedule a few hours to sift through the notes you’ve taken here. You’re going to want to meet with a colleague who was here so you can debrief, or send an email to start planning that regional gathering, or pore over the liturgy so your congregation can break into pairs and do the confession and assurance in little groups of grace… You will certainly be talking to your finance committees to see how you might support the mission of NEXT.
And the day to day grind of ministry is going to make it very hard to stay NEXTy; and for some of us the pull back into ordinary time is too great; and sadly, a few of us are going to go home and run right smack into a funeral, so you know what… the picture of the waterfall on the screen on baptism Sunday is just fine.
What do we do with what has happened here? Where do we even start?
* * *
One of the benefits of experiencing a conference through Twitter is seeing instant feedback. Some of you are feeling the tension in the language of exile. I hear ya. Jeremiah’s call to build and plant and seek welfare is strong and clear, but in the Bible, that call comes amid exile, which is a complicated metaphor for us. We are not in exile. Declining membership is not exile. Losing our clergy parking space at the hospital is not exile.
But where we do feel a kinship with Jeremiah is that he, too, is living in a contested space. Jeremiah insists that God is at work through Babylon’s seige on Judah. The people’s displacement is a sign that God is up to something terrible and painful and important, and they put Jeremiah in jail for that message.
…Even while Jerusalem is getting crushed, apparently they’re not too busy to turn on one of their own.
…They’re not so defeated that they can’t throw Jeremiah in prison for sedition for daring to see God’s fingerprints on what is happening.
Now. None of us is likely to get thrown in the pokey for talking about NEXT—
…though the “deviant” thing will need a bit of unpacking.
But we have to take what we’ve experienced here and do something with it. And after hearing Jeremiah 29 for the past three days, here in chapter 32 he shows us a bit of how it’s done, when he buys a field in a land that’s in the process of being conquered, when he puts money down on a contested space and says “I claim this field for the saving work of God.”
Jeremiah is enacting what we’ve been hearing all week. He doesn’t try to break out of jail; he doesn’t mount a defense so he can be released. He does what he’s capable of doing. Does the next right thing as God has seen fit to show it to him. And he does it right where he is.
He’s improvising. That’s a word we heard a lot last year in Charlotte and not as much this year, but improv has been lurking around quietly here in Minneapolis. The basic rule of improv is to yes-and. When something is offered to you, you receive it and you build on it.
And Jeremiah nails it. What he’s offered is pretty straightforward. Buy the field. Buy it for yourself. And he does. This is the yes.
But then comes the ‘and.’ Jeremiah knows that the field is not just for himself. He is a prophet and this is for everyone. So he builds on the situation. He yes-ands it. He takes this mundane real-estate transaction between family members and makes a big show of it. He weighs out the money. Twice. He signs the deed—and I am picturing a big ol’ John Hancock with swoops and flourishes. He seals it. He makes two copies. And he brings in witnesses—witnesses to sign the deed and witnesses to watch what he’s doing, “all the Judeans in the court of the guard.” And I have to wonder exactly how many people there really are milling around the palace jail, but Jeremiah makes it sound like a cast of thousands.
I mean, he doesn’t just buy that field. He buys the hell out of that field.
(Hey, sometimes the Texan’s gotta come out.)
This is not just private property, this is public prophetic action, and he pulls out all the stops! And then when he presents the paperwork to his secretary Baruch, in front of Hanamel and everybody, his instructions are clear: take good care of these documents. They need to last a long time, so put them in an—ahem—an earthenware jar.
Now this was standard procedure of the time, but I wonder if any of those people milling around the jail have been paying attention to Jeremiah, because if they had, they would have heard some words about pottery. Remember Jeremiah’s visit to the potter’s house recorded in chapter 18, when he says that God is like the potter, who takes a vessel that’s misshapen and defective and smashes it in her hands and starts over.
And just so the point is abundantly clear, the next chapter has Jeremiah, clutching a clay jug in a field littered with shards of broken pottery and smashing it to the ground and saying “That is the kind of destruction our God is capable of.”
So I don’t know if Jeremiah gives these instructions with a wink and a nod, or if he just lets the irony hang there. But if you’ve been listening to Jeremiah at all, you know that earthenware is the last thing you use if you want it to last.
Because pottery doesn’t last a second longer than the potter intends it to.
* * *
It’s encouraging to me that 5 of the 6 moderator and vice moderator candidates are here at NEXT, in this place of hope and creativity and renewal. And the theme for this year’s General Assembly is “abound in hope.” And I do. And I try to surround myself with people who are similarly hopeful.
And over the last couple of weeks, I have had more than one person ask me some version of this question:
Why would you volunteer to be on the bridge of the Titanic?
And here is what I say to that. The structural “thing” that is the PCUSA is changing, and maybe even ending as we currently recognize it. Churches will close. Maybe a lot of them will.
But when I look around, I don’t see the Titanic. I see Lord of the Rings.
There’s a scene in The Two Towers when the people of Rohan are beseiged, they’re outnumbered and outmatched, and they’ve retreated to the fortress of Helm’s Deep and they think they’re safe there but they’re not, the enemy has found them and is ready to bury them. And their king Theoden looks around and sees this ragtag group of people who are scared and ill-equipped for this battle and he urges them to be courageous and to fight with everything they have, and he says,
“If this is to be our end, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.”
That’s what Jeremiah is doing. Jeremiah buys a field that he believes, and hopes, will be bursting with life and fruit someday. But his deed of purchase is in a piece of pottery, and that is a precarious container.
But even if he never makes it back to Anathoth, those documents are a witness to an eternal God who works through earthenware jars.
If there is to be an end to the PCUSA as we know it, then I would have us make such an end, as to be worthy of remembrance.
I serve a small congregation, full of good folks who are deeply committed to one another and the church. But we realized that over the years we had gotten complacent and insulated. We didn’t know our community. So for a year we launched an initiative called “Who is our neighbor?”, that great question from the Good Samaritan story. Each quarter we had a different emphasis: one quarter it was hunger and homelessness, another quarter was at-risk youth, another quarter was issues facing the elderly. And in each of those chunks of time we brought people in to talk to us, so we could learn, and we planned some kind of mission event, so we could serve.
And my thought was that over the course of the year we’d find that one thing that really animates us, that one issue to rally around that would energize the congregation and focus our mission, so we could be known as the church that does… [blank]. I expected us to figure out what our niche is.
And guess what? We didn’t. We came to the end of the year with no more focus than when we started.
But we did some things we never thought we’d do. And more important, we committed ourselves to responding to the opportunities that come to us, whether they fit some narrow vision statement or not. We don’t know what the future holds for us. We just know that we’re gonna love our neighbors indiscriminately for as long as we can.
We’re going to seek the welfare of the city.
And we’re not just going to serve the world, we’re gonna serve the hell out of it.
And I mean that in the Texan sense and in the literal sense.
Jim Kitchens said on Monday that some of us are standing in the rubble of what used to be. I submit that it’s not just rubble that’s around us, but shards of discarded pottery.
And Jeremiah is calling us, begging us, to pick up those shards and fashion something useful and hopeful out of them.
Pick up that bowl-shaped piece and pour living water into parched throats.
Glue those pieces together, even if they were never meant to fit that way, and fill them with the bread of life.
Take those sharp edges and cut the bonds of oppression,
grind that hard clay into powder and paint a love letter to this world God adores,
String those pieces onto ribbons and make windchimes, so that the whole world may hear a joyful noise to the God of our salvation.
Do it all.
Do it now.
Do it without a five year plan for it.
Do it badly if you have to.
Do it… for as long as you have life and breath and shards to spare.
Yes, your small church can set up a podcast—no knobs or whatsits required.
Some pastor friends and I got to talking recently about sermon podcasting. I’m always disappointed when gifted preachers I know, whose sermons I’d like to listen to, aren’t available as a podcast. Some congregations put their sermon audio on their church’s website, but that’s not the same as setting up a podcast that can be searched for and subscribed to via iTunes.
Many medium-sized and large congregations have folks to record the service and take care of this technical detail. But what about small congregations? Yes you can! We’ve been podcasting at Tiny Church for a few years now. (Search Idylwood Presbyterian on iTunes, or click here.)
In my experience with a small church, many decisions are inevitably weighed in terms of stewardship of time and resources. Or to put it crudely, a cost/benefit scale. Is it worth going through the effort of podcasting if only a couple of people will avail themselves of it?
It is absolutely worth the effort because it doesn’t take very much effort at all. It’s also an easy and important method of evangelism—a way of being in the world, exactly where people are searching for inspiration and ideas.
Thinking about setting up a sermon podcast but not sure where to start? Let me put on a very old hat of mine, that of technical writer.
There are three basic steps to podcasting: recording the sermon, converting the sound file, and uploading it to a podcast service. Here is how I handle those three steps in a small church without an A/V team.
1. Recording. I use iRecorder Pro, which is a $2.99 app for my iPhone. I put the phone on the pulpit and hit record when I start preaching and stop when I’m done. (Protip: Write start/stop reminders into your manuscript or notes.) The microphone works fine whether I’m using a microphone or not.
2. Converting to mp3. Most recorders I’m familiar with save the recording in some other format. Podcasts require mp3. I download the audio from my phone to my MacBook Air and use Switch to convert. It looks like there’s a paid version of Switch, but the version I use is/was free. There are a ton of audio converters out there.
3. Uploading the mp3 file to your podcast service. I use SermonDrop, which I’ve been very happy with. The free version keeps the 10 most recent sermons. If you want more than that, you can pay. You upload the file to their site, and there are places to type in scripture text, name of preacher, whether it’s part of a series, etc. You can even upload Here is IPC’s SermonDrop page.
You do those three steps every time. There’s also an intermediate step that you need to do once, which is to register your podcast with iTunes so it shows up in their listing. Here are some instructions. Basically you’re telling iTunes “hey, my podcast exists, here it is.” So anyone who searches for your church name will find it.
As a pastor of a small church, you could certainly find someone to take care of this each week. But honestly? It takes me 10 minutes per week, and that’s mainly waiting for the computer to convert and to upload. There is no reason not to do it.
Does your congregation podcast? What tools or suggestions do you have?
Have preached variations of this sermon recently in different venues, including last weekend at Tiny.
(Yes, I admit sheepishly, some sermons are retooled for different contexts. Fred Craddock said that if a sermon’s not good enough to preach twice, it wasn’t good enough to preach once. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it! That said, this one’s done.)
I offer this in honor of my seminary professor Walter Brueggemann, whose book Sabbath as Resistancejust came out. Can’t wait to read it.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014
The Taskmaster’s Command
This morning’s text begins with the word “Afterwards”. Which leads us to ask, “after what?” To help locate us: the people of Israel are slaves in Egypt, captive to Pharaoh. Moses has been called by God through a burning bush, he has spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and Moses and Aaron have now united with people and given them the astonishing news that God has not forgotten them, God knows their misery and is about the work of liberation.
Now listen to this:
Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ 2But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ 3Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’ 4But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ 5Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land * and yet you want them to stop working!’ 6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’
10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. 11Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’ 12So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw.
Several years ago, when Caroline was in first grade, our district made some changes to the bus schedule that meant that the children in our neighborhood were getting home later than they had been before. I didn’t think very much of it, but several of the other parents were bothered by it. Over time, the irritation grew into complaint, until the gaggle of parents decided that something simply had to be done. The children were getting home too late, these parents argued. They needed time to have a snack. They were going to be late to soccer practice, or violin lessons, or Cub Scouts. (Swim team. Language class. Art enrichment.) The change was simply unacceptable.
So these parents got together a petition. They made phone calls. They organized. Couldn’t something be done?, they asked Fairfax County Transportation Services. And then finally—success! The bus schedule was changed, the children started getting home earlier, and the bus stop moms—and a few dads—declared victory over the bureaucracy.
This change in schedule that had everyone celebrating?… resulted in the kids getting home four minutes earlier than they had before.
Now if Robert were here, he would have his head in his hands because when all this was going on, I talked his ear off about how silly I thought the whole thing was. It was almost all I could talk about for several weeks because it seemed so unnecessary, until finally he asked, “Why is this so important to you?”
It felt important to me, because I realized we were raising our kids in a culture that was so busy and time-obsessed that people would petition the county government for four measly minutes of extra time in the afternoon.
I cared, because I could feel the anxiety emanating from these parents. It’s good to want to give one’s kids opportunities to learn and grow. But that desire had tipped over into an almost frantic need to cram their lives full of activities and sports and enrichment.
And I also cared because I knew that while I personally didn’t care that much about the afternoon bus schedule, there were plenty of other ways in which that anxiety had begun adhering to me. I’m not sure what the dysfunction looks like in other households. But it’s been made very clear to me that there are so many young people from Northern Virginia trying to get into a good Virginia university that they’d better find a way to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s never too early to start, I’m told by parents of elementary schoolers. A good foundation means a good college application, a good college means a good job, means success, means a good life, means I’ve done my job as a parent. That’s the message, and I’ve internalized it as much as anyone.
Now, living as we do in the suburbs of Washington DC, the type-A mentality is perhaps more acute there than other places. But as I travel around to other congregations and presbyteries and speak and lead retreats, I hear the same story. People are stressed and overworked. There never seems to be enough time. There’s always something more—something good, something worthwhile—that could and should be done.
And it’s not just a parent problem. The anxiety rans rampant in our culture. As we continue to claw our way out of this recession, there are still too many people looking for jobs and living in poverty.
And those who weren’t laid off, who have good jobs, are finding themselves expected to do the work of two or three people. Recently in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki wrote about the culture of overwork and said that thirty years ago, it was the low-paid workers who were working the longest hours, much longer than people at higher income levels. But “by 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. And a survey of professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.” But that overwork takes its toll.
Meanwhile young people feel anxieties of their own, worrying about their job prospects when they graduate, to say nothing of concerns over this warring and warming world that we have bequeathed them.
And how could we forget the internet and cable news, where bad news travels around the world before good news has even put on its shoes, where school shootings and natural disasters get their own logo and theme music, where a recent interview with a congresswoman about national security got interrupted to report on Justin Bieber’s arrest. We live in a media landscape where there’s more to read and learn than we could ever get to in a lifetime, in fact where 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. A culture so full of information I can’t even keep track of what’s supposed to be good to eat any more. (Have you heard? Now multivitamins are bad and bacon is health food.)
It’s no wonder that anxiety specialist Dr. Richard Leahy has said that “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”
I have no way of verifying that statistically. It does make a good soundbite for a sermon. But I know that anxiety is rampant. Though it may not be unprecedented. Because as I read today’s story from the book of Exodus, I see a culture that positively reeks with anxiety.
It’s anxiety that goes all the way to the top, to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who has enslaved the people of Israel and has bound them to him in crippling servitude. For Pharaoh, there’s only one reason why the people would be asking for time off and that’s laziness. And the cure for laziness is more work. He tells his taskmasters: No more handouts. Let them gather their own straw and make brick upon brick upon brick until that is all they see. How dare they ask for three days to worship “God,” whoever that is!
Pharaoh is so captive to his own fear that he doesn’t know God, can’t know God, because he knows only the contours of his own power and his fear of losing that power. There is no place for God in an empire fueled by anxiety.
But the people of Israel are caught in their own anxiety too. There is no freedom, no relief—just the constant lashing of expectations: do more, produce more, build more. But they are also captive to a distorted view of God. Did you notice what Moses and Aaron say to Pharoah? “Please let us go observe our festival or else God will fall upon us with pestilence and sword.” Their despair is so great that it infects everything, even their view of God. They are so imprisoned by Pharaoh that they see God as just another taskmaster, threatening punishment if they don’t comply.
…I wonder if there’s an anxiety that is holding you captive today.
I wonder if the problems our world faces seem so insurmountable, like a wall built brick upon brick, a wall so high that you can’t possibly see around it, let alone break it down.
I wonder if the spiritual life has become just another thing to do, another obligation in an already overcrowded schedule.
I wonder if you are feeling high on stress and low on joy.
If you are, I urge you to read the rest of the story. Because it doesn’t end here. It ends with God bringing the people out of the land of Egypt, flinging aside the waters of the Red Sea and letting the people pass to safety, and then giving them a peculiar gift, tucked in the middle of the ten commandments: the gift of Sabbath. A day every week on which the people rest, slaves no longer. A day in which the people exclaim to the world,
We are not slaves to the empire anymore! We do not have to work, day after day after day without relief, We are free!
God is not just another taskmaster, saying “Worship me or else.” God is leading us out of our captivity with the gift of rest and renewal, with the gift of what Jesus called abundant life.
Our family has been on a journey of Sabbath-keeping for many years. I wrote a whole book about it, to try to make sense of this practice that seems so easy but turns out to be hard, to try to help people find ways to live the practice more fully. And there turns out to be a lot of practical tips that I can offer, and you can read about it those in the book, but here and now I want to say only this.
Sabbath starts to mess with you, because Sabbath comes from God, and God likes to mess with us.
Our family started observing a day of rest because we were tired and needed a little R&R each week. But the practice is more than that. It changes everything. You start to see the anxieties of the empire and in your own heart—the fear of not having enough, the despair that seems built into the system. And you realize, Sabbath isn’t about being well rested so you can go back to Pharaoh’s job site. Sabbath is about realizing that you don’t want to make Pharoah’s bricks anymore.
It’s interesting to me that Moses and Aaron are right about one thing. They’re right about God bringing pestilence down—the plagues are coming. But they’re not raining down on the Hebrew people, but on the entire sick system of too much work and not enough freedom, too much anxiety and not enough joy. Pharaoh’s empire cannot stand, it is too rotten at its core. It will go crashing into the sea. And good riddance.
Our God is one who is not content with personal self-improvement… though self-improvement has its place, that’s not what the gospel is about. Our God is about nothing less than the complete transformation of our lives and our world. Our God is about setting captives free.
I would be remiss in a sermon about our anxious culture if I didn’t say that some people are plagued with an anxiety that is diagnosable, and that God works through doctors and medications and treatment for that anxiety. But I’m also here to say that as followers of Jesus, we can be a voice of calm in an anxious culture.
The economic issues are real, the pressures are real. We have work to do. Important work. Kingdom-building work, and bill-paying work.
But the message of a Sabbath-gifting God is this:
We should not be content with captivity.
God has something deeper in mind for all of us than endless and joyless brick-making.
 “The Cult of Overwork”, James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, January 27, 2014.