Here is a summary word about Israel's encounter with Pharaoh. Good for these days of Passover.
Israel knows that Egypt is endlessly resolved, vigilant, and canny for its way of life. In the narrative of counterreality, however, it becomes clear - over and over in reenactment - that the Egyptian project is doomed. In the end, Pharaoh is desperate and must say to Moses, "Bless me!" (Exodus 12:32). In the end the repressive achievements of Pharaoh are empty. This little community that begins in pain and ends in dancing, that stops its life for sabbath, that cancels debts for the sake of neighborliness, in the end this community has in its midst the force for life, and is the wave of the future. It is so because in the end, Yahweh denies Pharaoh any authority, even over Egypt (compare Exodus 19:5: "The whole earth is mine.").
The story bring forth a truth that the world does not always let itself see - this God of ours is Lord of all. Yes, the line of empires runs one after the other and seem to never end, but it is this strange community that is contrary to the power of the day that lives on through all the powers. Israel, like the Church, is a living witness to another way to be human in a form that is truly blessed. The blessedness of the community is always for the good of all - even the empire. That is why we can dance...that is why can sing. In fact, I would go so far as to say our lives must be filled with dancing and singing and all the signs of a great banquet taking place even under the oppressive rule of empire. The word and the life we bring to the day will be a challenging one that will not give up the celebration of God's Reign for the reign of any other power. God Rules - that is enough to transform the day and be a part of the transformative power that will never be silent.
Connection: Even in Holy Week, it is time to dance and sing. That is what Jesus did throughout the last days of his adventure in Jerusalem.
Lord of the Dance, ignite our hearts that we will be bold followers of your way even as we must walk the paths through the powers of life that attempt to bend us and break us. Grant us you peace that we might find rest and courage. Amen.
Brueggemann writes that there are 'two commands (that) epitomize the best of Israel's counterpractice." These are from the commands at Sinai - today is #2.
Second, the first specific law in the Sinai utterances after the decalogue, given in Exodus 21:1-11, concerns "the year of release," whereby Israel is enjoined to engage in a countereconomics that willingly cancels the debt of neighbors and permits the indebted to rejoin the economy as a full and viable partner. It is this neighborly act of debt cancellation that is the taproot of all Jewish and Christian notions of forgiveness. Forgiveness is cancellation of debts in every zone of existence; this countercommunity takes as its foremost social characteristic the refusal to exploit the poor, the refusal to get even, the refusal to hold grudges, the refusal to exact vengeance. All of these practices, to be sure, are at the core of the pharaonic enterprise, but Yahweh authorizes and summons otherwise.
Everything gets released. It is a new beginning. That seems to be what this covenant community is all about - new beginnings - life again - refreshment - liberation - endless possibilities for life. And yet, "the year of release" has always been something about which we talk but simply write it off as something that was not really meant to become a part of "real" life - for who would live like that!?! Here is where I go back to Jesus. He has "release" written all over his actions and words. Unfortunately, release is not what the established order wants - do we!?! The Prophets were masterful at pointing out how far the people had gone astray from the way of life that was handed to them by the God of Exodus. But to allow for a "year of release" - let alone a few moments of release - is a strange journey that is not only difficult to grasp, it is also unheard of in our everyday experiences in the world of empire and pharaoh.
Connection: At the end of the day it would be interesting to take note of there was a time in the day when we really were able to cancel debt - offer release to others and even ourselves.
Lord God, you bid us to come and walk and live in the land of forgiveness. It is there that we will come to see the bountifulness of your Reign and realize what joy you bring to life as we are your people. Remind us to forgive - and then again. Amen.
Brueggemann writes that there are 'two commands (that) epitomize the best of Israel's counterpractice." These are from the commands at Sinai - today is #1.
First, there stands at the center of Torah commands the practice of Sabbath, the steady practice of work stoppage that makes visible the claim that life consists in being and not in doing or having. I have no doubt that the recovery of this discipline is decisive for the reenactment of this community of emancipation and resistance.
I often try to tell our confirmation students how important this command is when we think of how God is trying to make a new community that is not the same as the ordinary ways of the world. It is not easy to trust that God will provide if we stop. And yet, this also means that in the days when we are not at rest, we work. The Sabbath is not made to build a community of sloth. It is to build a community of people who will trust that God shapes us by what God calls us. We are the children of God. That is our status and our life and our future. Even when we have nothing or can do nothing, this status never changes. Within God's Reign - which is the community of God's people throughout all time and in each and every day - we are a named people - a marked people. Yes, the mark is different as we move from the Jews to the Christians - but the claim is still the same - forever and ever as God has made it so. When we talk about Sabbath, I do think we must always watch for the legal aspects of Sabbath that, quite honestly, can make a mockery of the day of rest. That can take us into a many-sided conversation that would be best done when we are together.
Connection: Do you give yourself time to rest - to remember that God is Lord of All - Creator of all that is?!? Do you make rest a legalism in your life - or a gift that you treasure?
Walter Brueggemann presses on with this community obligation and what it is that is formed as we enter into relationship with our God as a covenant people.
Along with liturgical reiteration, this community accepted rigorous disciplines for the sake of alternative community. These disciplines we regularly call commandments or even laws. The emancipating, resisting community, in the imagination of its self-presentation, moved along to Sinai. Mount Sinai, in this tradition, is the mountain of address. There Israel heard the very voice of Yahweh (Exodus 20:1-17), and then they heard the meditation of Yahweh in the voice of Moses (vv. 18-22). In this holy voice and in its Mosaic echo, it heard a voice of summons and of assurance, a voice of demand and of promise, a voice guaranteeing a peculiar identity. And there they listened. Thus emerges the verb shema as the defining claim of Israel's life. In listening, Israel knows itself not to be self-made, self-invented, or self-imagined. In that listening, moreover, Israel knows it must cease to listen to the voice of Pharaoh that defines reality in terms of brick quotas. In listening, Israel comes to the startling, dangerous conviction that its life consists not in bricks for the empire, but in acts of neighborliness whereby Israel replicates Exodus for its neighbors.
This piece will find its way back into my telling of our story of being followers of Jesus. We too are a community that is meant to listen. We hear whose we are and who we are before we have done anything at all and in the face of all that we have done. It is a voice of our God we hear through the Christ of God, Jesus. We do not - cannot - invent this story line we call the way of Jesus. It would be foolish to do that. To serve others, to love enemies, to wash feet, to heal without limit, to rescue without condition, and to forgive as though it is our only task in life is nothing but the life of a fool. That be us! Those who want to invent their own lives and make their own lives or want turn the way of our God into a piece of themselves will continue to build nothing but the empire that is Pharaoh - the world as it always has been. I so look forward to Easter Sunday and the renewal of our baptismal covenant and to hear the promises and to see the water fly and to witness the steady burning of the paschal candle and to watch babies getting wet at the font. I like to listen to it all. The laughter that comes with water wildly whipped around the room is the beginning of remembering how the voice of our God speaks to each of us - forever and ever.
Connection: This is, like all of our days, a time to listen to our God calling us by name and embracing us with stories of liberation and salvation. Everyday is the day we become the children of the most high God.
Take us up and place us at your feet, O God, that we may listen to your Word of Life that will always pull us into the life that it sows among us. When other voices want to claim our attention, be - as you have promised - the voice of unending love. Amen.
This identity of emancipation and of resistance is one that is to carry on beyond what is often seen as a closed community.
....the provisions of Passover make clear that this is a theological-ideological act not contained in ethnic boundaries: "Any slave who has been purchased may eat of it after he has been circumcised....If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it....there shall be one law for the native and for the alien who resides among you. (Exodus 12:44-49)" The offer is inclusive. But it is not casual. One must be prepared to accept a costly mark to qualify for this community of emancipation and resistance.
The door to this community is one that is open for all. But if you want to really be about this alternative life - take on this mark. Ouch! And yet, what an important piece of the story telling to take to heart. There is a sign - there is a commitment - there is then one way that will be the way for all. I would imagine that many men thought twice about becoming a part of this story of liberation. To step across the threshold of this story, was to step into a life - real life. Today, the church tries to make participation in the community of saints so easy that a person who comes along the way of the followers of Jesus really does not have to commit to anything at all. In many ways it is nothing more than a cultural adventure or a personal and individual journey. The story telling community of the Church does an interesting thing these days. We are willing to change everything in order to let folks come along the way. That is not all bad - but it does leave us open to letting go of the story and letting it become nothing more than a popular movement of convenience and self-pleasing exercises. I would like to argue that our simple action of marking with cross on the foreheads of the saints carries the weight of circumcision. If you want to walk with us and live with us and turn the world upside down, take this mark. Yes, you can blow it off because it is not visible and you can simply walk away because the mark is one on your heart - then again, it is a never-ending mark - a mark meant to shape - a mark meant to create new life - a mark that is available to all (even the fear-full), and a mark that makes a person a full brother and sister - no questions asked. The mark moves us and makes us a part of the people. We are inspired then - to make this a viable way to live and not just a casual and occasional acquaintance.
Connection: We must be a people who are willing to mark our lives - daily. We do not do this to prove a point - but to give us the way of our next steps through this day.
Lord of the Wilderness, we are so often being tempted to forget how you have marked us with the cross of Christ - forever. When our mark is one on our heart it, is easy to forget the life it offers us. And yet, your Spirit continues to tap us on the forehead and whisper "come follow me" and we are guided into the way of your Reign. Amen.
At the center of a community of resistance is a common story that is reenacted so that people of today can be brought along and caught up in just such a journey - again, Walter Brueggemann.
We do not know the actual "history" of the Passover festival. What we do know is that Passover emerged, is situated in the text, and is regarded in Israel as the occasion and script for the periodic, disciplined, intentional reenactment and replication of the exodus narrative. It is the cultic staging whereby in every circumstance, through every generation, this community sustains and makes visible and unavoidable a distinctive identity of emancipation and of resistance to the pressures of pharaonic culture.
I'm not a fan of reenactments - but this is different. I don't like Christmas Pageants or "living" nativity scenes or Good Friday theater. In all of these cases it is nothing more than a show. The storytelling of Passover is an attempt to keep alive the liberated community through having them go through the events of the storytelling. The food and the words and the gathering around in households and remembering the story of the Exodus brings each household into the grasp of that promise and that liberation that took place so long ago. Through this liturgy of sorts, is taught the way to live - no matter who seems to be in control and power. This living is in the face of empire and actually sets people free from the power of empire. From this storytelling, people are to get up and go out into the world as the emancipated ones who no longer are held hostage and in bondage to the ways of empire. If this story does not raise up a liberating and new community, I would suggest they would be nothing more than the powers that oppress.
Connection: Resisting the culture is not an easy way to go. And yet, it is the way into the promise of a new reality - a new creation.
Come, O God of all Hopefulness. Come and whisper the story of your love and faithfulness to each of your children so that we have the strength and encouragement to live and walk in your Reign even when the reigning powers of the day attempt to own us. Amen.
The very process of liturgy thus creates an environment and a community that understands itself to be special, under a special mandate of emancipation from that Holy Power that Pharaoh cannot withstand. There can be little doubt that intentional resistance is rooted in the imagination and maintenance of an alternative world in which ostensive powers of intimidation are narratively discredited and dethroned.
I remember reading about Bishop Desmond Tutu preaching in a packed congregation. He was speaking the truth about a world that is free and cannot be contained by any power. He spoke directly and powerfully. Everyone in the room knew the picture he was painting. It was a picture of imagination - a picture that was not yet a reality but part of promise. In that sermon, members of the national police of South African -during the reign of apartheid- came in and were standing against the walls of both sides of the sanctuary. An unholy display of power meant to intimidate Tutu and everyone in the church. Bishop Tutu did not shut down the words of vision and hope and promise and imagination. This is the kind of stuff that can get you killed. And yet, he continued - an act of intentional resistance that did not step back into the power of the apartheid system.
Connection: It is important to step up to speak and do what is expected within God's Reign - even when it may not be a safe place. Such a voice and such action is a breath of life that helps to lift others and makes it easier to speak up again.
You promise new life, O God. This is to be a life that is real and present and available to all your people. Be our encouragement so that we walk in your promises and surprise the world with the reality of your Reign. Amen.
Part three of a liturgical resistance against the power of Egypt becomes our opening devotion for this week - from "Texts That Linger, Words That Explode" - Walter Brueggemann.
Third, the payoff of such daring imagination is the dance and song of the women, enacted as a gesture of defiance: "Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." (Ex.15:21) It is clear that this liturgical act - liturgical dance!? - is an act of unadministered, unauthorized freedom, the very freedom of bodies Pharaoh could not permit.
There is just something about calling an act - "unadministered, unauthorized freedom. Quite powerful and yet quite frightening for how do we know what will happen next. Who will be upset? What will be the fallout? But they don't care - they dance and sing. Quite some time ago on Easter Sunday, I surprised the congregation by slipping on a pair of tap shoes and - much to everyone's surprise - it was a sermon by way of tap dancing. It is the absolute best day in the church to dance as though our feet cannot stop and the celebration will go on even when it is not appreciated by everyone. I don't think I was ever as nervous as I was that day. No one authorized it. The worship committee was as surprised (stunned) as the rest. There is something about letting go and going forward within a spirit of unbounded freedom. If it was just a act on a stage it would be just an act. But that day, the dancing was part of the whole renewal of our baptismal covenant - the resurrection of Jesus - our participation in the tomb rocking adventure of the church. Since that day, it has been much easier for me to think about dancing in places that are not meant for dancing and singing when voices to remain quiet.
Connection: I really think every day is open to acts of unadministered, unauthorized freedom. In fact, that is called life - abundant.
Pull us into the freedom of your liberating presence, O God, and teach us to dance within the Spirit of the Lord of the Church. We have so much to fear and yet you remind us to sing and dance and give praise to you alone - and live courageously. Amen.
As the week ends, here is Brueggemann's second point about liturgical story telling.
Second, this liturgy dares to off a critique that ridicules established power. Obviously such actions are precluded in the empire, for the maintenance of illicit power depends upon the stifling of dissent. (Brueggman goes on to comment on the recital of the plagues and the weakness of empire) The critique includes the assertion that Egypt "could not," that is, had reached the end of its technological capacity (Ex.8:18).... This liturgy is a scenario of reality that contradicts Egyptian reality. This distinctive community is invited to affirm that the world constructed in liturgy is more reliable and more credible than the world "out there." The purpose of such liturgy is to nurture imagination and to equip Israel with the nerve to act out of its distinctiveness in the face of formidable, hostile power.
We build a world in the liturgy. I always think of the way we enter. The simple action of walking in behind the cross. We - in merely walking and following that cross - face who we are and who we are called to be. A simple walk through a common space - and yet it is a contrary walk. That is how we begin. In that action - followed up by so many other pieces of the Reign of God washing over us in the liturgy - their must always be the recognition that we do and we say will ridicule established power. The story of Exodus that is retold is retold so as to make the reality around the people one at which we can point our fingers and laugh and celebrate and dance. We are able to do that because we are telling ourselves that such mighty powers as empire do not rule us.
Connection: Listen this week to the story that is constructed in the liturgy.
Before us you move, O God, so that we will know the way through the wilderness of the powers of this world. Before us, you go and bid us to follow even when the powers of death attempt to rule us and own us. As we venture out into this day, go before us, as promised. Amen.
Here is what the liturgy offers us within our faithful story telling - again Walter Brueggemann.
The liturgy provides a script for a season of counterbehavior. The first aspect of counterbehavior is the public voicing of pain:
"The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them." (Exodus 2:23-25)
The world of Pharaoh produced great pain, but it was silenced pain in which brick-producing slaves were to accept their suffering and abuse as appropriate to their condition. The public voicing of pain is the refusal to accept suffering in docility and to resist the status of slave and the abuse that comes with that status. The very first utterance in the liturgy makes available that which Egypt forcibly denied.
The world of pain is the world of reality. It is not a world that runs according to the script provided by those who want the vision of the world to follow the lead of the powerful. Nice, clean worship that gives us nothing more than a reflection of the values and desires of any empire may inspire many people. And yet, to what are they being inspired - to be just like the world as it is. I don't think we do ourselves any good when we cannot tell the truth in the face of all who want to keep living in the slavery of Egypt. The liturgy must bring us a light that we exposes what is actually the condition of life around us and a voice that reminds us of those who are not able to lift every voice and sing. Praising God is not an end in itself. We praise the God who hears of our pain and responds and sees our suffering and bends down to touch. So prior to praise - in the midst of praise - and when praise is coming to an end: let us be honest with ourselves and hold our lives before the Lord, God. It is there that liturgical voicing of pain becomes a healing balm and a life-giving reminder of whose we are and who we to become.
Connection: Listen to the liturgy - do you hear that honest voice of pain in the midst of our words of praise and thanksgiving? That is a full story.
You expect to hear our pains and sorrows, O God. Free up our tongues so that we may share our whole lives with you as we trust that they are in your hands and ready to be shaped and healed and given new life. Amen.
For those who pooh-pooh the worth of liturgy, Brueggemann reminds us of how important liturgy becomes when people need to be shaped by what has taken place in prior days.
Israel develops and practices liturgical resistance by a stylized, regularly enacted drama whereby Egyptian power is given liturgical articulation and Israel is invited - through the course of the drama - to move outside Egyptian hegemony to its own distinctive practice of life.
The substance of Israel's resistance is through the regular reenactment of the Exodus liturgy of Exodus 1-15, which is presented to us as a historical narrative. Each time, over the generations, that Israel participated in this drama of counterreality, Israel imagined and construed a social world outside the hegemonic control of Pharaoh. Indeed, the very doing of the drama itself permitted emancipated imagination that refused the definitions of reality sponsored by Egypt.
"The drama itself permitted emancipated imagination" - what a wild image to keep in mind when we find ourselves living as nothing than the world around us. Good story telling has the power to free up our imagination and when that takes place, our lives also begin to reflect the possibilities of overcoming what is and becoming what is not yet. Often, the great stories of the Bible - like the Exodus - can be seen as too far away. For Israel though, it is a story alive in the room as it is being retold. All of our faithful story telling needs to create such a realization among us. I just happened to think of the gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday of Lent. It is the parable of the father with two sons. It is so familiar that we do not let ourselves enter the story because we know how it ends. Well, without the story washing over us once again and we find ourselves made wet by the word and promises and grace, it can be just a story that has no connection to life. And yet, this is a life story - a story of God's grand love and the possibilities that break into the day even when we are not anticipating it. The story has the power to shape and bring life.
Connection: Remembering a story is very much like turning today into a story we may not have been willing to enter alone.
Lord of Liberation and Rescue, once again we call on you to step into our lives and carry us into the promised land of your faithfulness. There, we can both rest and come alive again. We give you thanks for you power to change life. Amen.
Today we continue to look at Egypt as empire and the need for Israel to walk in a different light as they hear this story - Walter Brueggemann from "Texts That Linger, Words That Explode."
We may identify two disciplines of resistance that mark the life of Israel in its relation to Egypt. The resistance Israel practices vis-a-vis Egypt is rooted in the most elemental conviction that Yahweh wills otherwise. Yahweh wills otherwise to the state building project that monopolizes labor power, Yahweh wills otherwise to surplus wealth, whereby some live indulgently from the produce of others. Yahweh wills otherwise than the Egyptian socio-theological system. Yahweh engages in counteractivity, and therefore Israel, as subject of Yahweh, must resist.
For all of us who turn to this God of liberation, there is another world into which we are invited to move and breathe and live out our lives. There will be no oppressive behavior that insists on stepping on others - no matter what good reason we may give ourselves or the world around us. That is not to be us! We Christians read this liberation story, we, like Israel, are called on board a reality that will not look like every other power - like Egypt. Instead, we are to resist such life and we are given a story to help us go this new way no matter where we live or when we walk through time. The story is to guide us and remind us of something more than the will of the state or the empire or the country. We pray that God's will -will be done. That is a revolutionary statement that really should not become a prayer of the state - unless of course the state or the empire is willing to give up all of its ways in order to be a part of the liberation of all things.
Connection: Yahweh wills otherwise. Something to remember in the middle of the way things are going through this day.
Bring your life among, O God. Encourage us to lift up the stories of your faithfulness so that as we walk through this day we will continue to recall your promises and your ways and your saving compassion. Amen.
What goes around comes around in the world of empires and oppression.
There can be no doubt, moreover, that pharaonic notions of exploitation, which fated individual persons to be submerged in and for state purposes, operated in Israel. Thus Pharaoh is reported to be the father-in-law to solomon (1 Kings3:1), and Solomon's policy of forced labor echos Egyptian practices. In Egypt's own imperial practice and in the derivative practice of Solomon, within Israel, the threat against Israel's distinctiveness has a socio-economic, political cast. The social practices enacted in the name of Egyptians gods are deeply antihuman, and in Israel's purview anti-Yahwistic, for the peculiar God of Israel intended a human community that does not exploit. The resistance Israel is to practice against this alien ideology that legitimates alien social practice is as paradigmatic as is the role of Pharaoh. That is, the way in which Israel resists Egypt is the characteristic way in which Israel will subsequently resist every aggressor empire
Israel must resist the ways of oppression from which they were liberated. The Egypt story brings that into focus and it is to remain within their focus from generation to generation. So, you could say that passover not only tells of the liberation and redemption of Israel from Egypt, it also tells of the character that is to be among the people Israel. There is to be no brutality as was seen in the time of Solomon. Out of passover comes the need for the people to rise up and say we do not live like the powers of empire. We live within the counter community. Egypt may rule all things in the world but we will not be a part of this Egypt life. I find that it is necessary to apply such wonderful story telling to the actual situation in Israel today. If it is going to use this power story and use it as a way to point to their roots and what is to be there character, they need to look in the mirror (as all of us must do) and see what it is they see. There is no excuse for taking on the oppressive ways of empire when the the Lord God alone is God.
Connection: The ways of empire are most likely the easiest ways to go as we find ourselves within a brutal world. And yet, we, along with Israel, must say not and listen again to the saving stories of our lives. That is a daily exercise.
Brighten our way, O God, with the rule of justice and peace that comes within your Reign. Too often and too easily we walk away from this power and attempt to become something other than your beloved - abide with us. Amen.
In a world dominated by Egypt, Israel creates its story - from Walter Brueggemann.
In the memory of Israel, the ancestral narratives of Genesis are framed in the beginning by an acknowledgement in Gen. 12:12-20 that Egypt has a monopoly of food in the ancient world, and at the end by an account of the actions of Joseph, progenitor of Israel, who aids and abets Pharaoh's monopoly of food in a way that reduces the agricultural populations to debt-slavery (Gen. 47:13-26). Thus Egypt is presented as a source of life for Israel, but also as an aggressive agent, which enslaves those who seek its resources for life. Much of Israelite imagination consists in coming to terms with the catch-22 of food and bondage, or conversely, no-bondage/no-food.
When a story is told over and over again, it shaped us. What is most important is that it shapes our imagination. That is, it shapes what we are willing and able to see that is beyond what is simply right in front of us. If we see ourselves and define ourselves as a people caught between a rock and a hard place, our living story may become nothing more than a journey to defend ourselves or try to make room for ourselves because there is an Egypt and its powers that will always be attempting to make us submit and ruin us. As is so often the case in the world around us, those who have had to experience the reality of being oppressed or pushed down or abused often become those who oppress, push down, or abuse others. This happens too much and it a part of too many of our stories. And, yet, the experience of Egypt need not turn one into a reflection of that power over others. Rather, there is the liberation - the rescue - the promise of new life that is not to be a reflection of oppressive powers. That is the light that shines. When it does not shine - with this new light - it has lost its connection to the God who liberates and rescues for life.
Connection: There needs to always be an edge of our lives that is facing reformation. That edge must wrestle with identity and must be willing to imagine something other than what is and what was.
Lord of the Exodus and the Promise of a Blessed Community, you have remained with us to make us into the people of your Reign. You continue to expand our vision even as we draw it in because we are so often ruled by fear and comfort. Continue to lead us and guide us into your blessed Reign. Amen.