Sermon by Elisa Owen
Crescent Hill Presbyterian
June 24, 2018
Plant that mustard seed! Or, What difference does faith make?
Exodus 14: 10-14
Our faith, or lack of it, has absolutely no impact on God’s saving activity in our lives. God’s grace comes to us with or without our consent or cooperation. Faith has everything to do, however, with our ability to recognize God’s saving activity in our lives when it comes, however it comes, for what it is. And so seeing God is with us, even in the darkness, we do not have to be afraid. Let us pray.
God we ask that You use your Word to confront our fears about today, and about the mysterious future to come, with Your great promise that You will shower your people with your creative, grace filled spirit, forever. Amen
The Israelites stay the night before they cross the Red Sea at a campsite we are told God Himself picked. Clearly God wanted them exactly where they were. The people of God spend the night with their backs up against the water; watchmen scanning the horizon for evidence of the Egyptian persecutors they left behind. They wake up stiff from the desert cold. Still groggy with surprise to find they have been delivered into freedom.
Before they can think much about what such a drastic change will mean, terror sets in. A cry goes up from the watchmen. It appears that even the hand of God, might have finally met its match. Great acts of grace – locusts and frogs among others — have gotten the people this far along. But the Egyptians appear now to have them cornered.
Quickly becoming aware of the depth of the quagmire they are in, the people panic. Notably, no one suggests that the God who brought them out of Egypt might just save them this time as well. Instead, the people reveal in their frightened outcries the deepest fear of their lives, and of ours. “What is the problem here God? Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have brought us here?! If this your idea of salvation, you will pardon us if we decline the favor.” And then more softly, pleadingly, “Look, Lord, if despair, defeat and failure are what you had in mind, why did you even bother to nurture our hopes? Is this your idea of a cruel joke, to seduce us into believing that your plan was to deliver us from oppression, when you knew all along that you were going to abandon us to death in the wilderness?”
We’ve all stood facing our despair with our backs turned on the future. We’ve all stood with our faith and hope drowning in the Red Sea. Why does God continually call us out of the security of the only lives we know? Why did God call this nation to face the division and rancor? Why does God call us out of health to battle with debilitating disease? Why would God rob me of joy by taking the one person I couldn’t stand to loose? Surely it is not God who called my sister into a marriage we now all hope ends, for her sake?! God who calls Crescent Hill to bring its conflict to the surface? As we pass the halfway point of this year of our Lord 2018, some of us are most worried about what might change in the next year. Others of us are worried most about what might not. But we are all frightened, about something.
At the root of all these worries is the suspicion implicit in the question of whether graves in Egypt aren’t just as good as those in the wilderness. Or, for that matter, those in the Promised Land. It is the suspicion that the great truth waiting for us in all the places to which God calls might just be that we are dying. Maybe sooner, maybe later, but that the trend of all life is toward loss. It is a fear that can color all we do — the fear that all our yesterdays, and all our tomorrows, only lead the way to a dusty, and meaningless, death. Then there’s the other possibility. The whispering, very persistent, siren call to faith. That call to faith dares us to consider whether the assumption behind the question about graves that is wrong. Maybe, just maybe, the business of life is not ultimate death, but new, and deep, rich, and ever more abundant, Life.
Richard Niebuhr, a prominent 20th century American theologian, answered the Israelites’ question about graves in Egypt this way. The cross of Jesus Christ challenges us to ask whether the operating assumption that we are perishing just may be wrong. The new hypothesis the cross demands we consider? We are being saved. We may indeed be coming through disaster, a time full of pain, but we will not be lost. The cross does not deny the reality of death, or of fear. It reinforces the reality of both. What the cross does deny … is death’s finality.
So how does the God of Jesus Christ answer the cries of his people at the Red Sea? “Fear not!,” he says. (What?! We want to retort — he’s asking us not to be human! This enterprise called life can be a precarious scary one indeed.) But God’s answer is still do not be afraid. These Egyptians will not bother you after today. You have only to be still.”
Now I do not know about you, but a still expectation is not a posture I tend to take when I am frightened. If something threatens, the lesson from a very young age is that the right response is to get away from it. To run without waiting for God, or anybody, to do so. But there are times in life when we look up and find ourselves trapped with only the hard reality of life. Times we suspect the future will be full of failure, fear, mistakes, and our despair over them. It is then that we become painfully aware that what we need is not just to escape to new place. It is then that we become aware that what we need is a whole new life. Now we’re ready to hear God’s call to faith.
But how are we to heed it? Listen to the scripture again. By being still. In the midst of our trembling uncertainties God calls us to stop struggling. Stop struggling long enough to ask if the ultimate purpose of the upheaval we experience may be to lash us ever more securely to God of abundant life, the very source of life and meaning. In this light faith is not some kind of mystical certainty. Faith is not rose colored glasses granted to those that succeed in believing hard enough that things will turn out their way in the end. Faith in the God of the cross is no easy walk to a happy ending. Faith in the God of the Bible recognizes the hard truth about the way our lives sometimes really are. But, it also insists on recognizing the ways God works in our world, and in our individual lives, to redeem them both.
Faith is not certainty about what will happen, at least not in the short run. A faithful life is one lived, rather, in the expectation that God has, does and will show up to surprise us, to renew us. And faith believes that God in Chrsit can even resurrect our fear and despair through His eternally creative, irrepressible grace. Faith is the belief that through grace God can redeem all of the roads we find ourselves on today, right now, whether chosen or imposed.
Now I ask you, what changes for those who decide to nurture the mustard seed sized gift of faith? Those who nurture the possibility that God does indeed have His heart set on our salvation and not our destruction? What difference does faith make? I think I can tell you that. Such an approach to life frees us to take risks. It keeps us from being content with the morsels of paltry comfort that may drop from the tables of the taskmasters in Egypt. Those who have convinced us that just not dying is all the life we can expect, and all we deserve. Faith frees us in a grand way to live fully in the moment, to be completely human. That is, to be afraid and to take chances anyway; the chances God’s other great gifts of hope, love, reconciliation, forgiveness, joy and peace often require. Faith frees us for the risk taking freedom to love with abandon. And loving with abandon is that exquisite freedom to which Christ calls his church.
Well, once the Israelites have sat a moment with the order to be still, once they mull over the possibility that God’s magnificent creative grace might just deliver them again, they receive word regarding what to do next. They are not told immediately how God is going to get them out of this particular fix. They are told, however, to “move forward” through the great upheaval that is rocking their lives. They are also assured that as they get on their way, the Lord of Life, and of Hope, will be there alongside, fighting for them.
We never know how God might deliver us. We do not know how God might deliver us from those things that cause us despair. Or even how God might lash us more securely to God’s life giving Spirit during this transition time. Or how God might use our willingness to address the conflict change brings openly and honestly to deepen and make more authentic our relationships with God and one another. In the case of the Israelites, scripture tells us, the God who had led the people of the covenant out of bondage, the God who called you and me into life and into love, that very same God, responded with earth shattering grace to the cries of fear from her people. She reached down from heaven and she parted the Red Sea.
Let us pray: Holy God, mark the second half of 2018 with the gift of enough faith that we will be able to see even our fear and uncertainty as pathways, pathways that lead us ever deeper into the mystery of the redeeming grace that sits at the very heart of your love for us. Amen.
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
June 24, 2018