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Sunday, March 22
Scripture: Exodus 13:17-22 & Acts 15:22-29
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon
Let me start by saying God is good. I have never experienced a week like this one in my life or ministry, and I suspect that is true for you as well. It’s been a ton of work thinking through virtually every aspect of what our ministry looked like and what it might look like while we do our part to keep each other healthy. It has been hard for sure.
It’s been hard for families and school-age children and youth who are balancing work and school from home. It’s been hard for employees and employers. It’s hard for retirees who worry if they catch this virus. We are learning a whole new way of doing life. If I could just wave a magic wand and get things back to normal I would. Man, do I miss my schedule. I’m not a huge hugger, but I genuinely miss hugging people. So, just be warned. When this is all over, I just may hug you. For real.
Yet, we’ve seen God working. In January I started reading the Bible from the beginning about three chapters per day. I’m struck by how much of the early part of the Bible is about how a group of people living in close quarters keep each other from diseases spreading. It’s like a historic guidebook to what we’re living now. Our Youth Director, Maddie, put together this past Wednesday’s Taize service as part of her seminary training. She had her service planned well over a month ago, including the Bible texts. As she, Maryanne, and I sat on this chancel on Wednesday we were all struck by how much those readings spoke right into that particular moment.
I had the same experience when I sat down with our texts for today. Well over a month ago I was sitting in the dentist’s office waiting for one of my children to get his teeth cleaned. I used the time to map out Lent sermon texts, including today’s. On Monday I sat down to think about what God needed me to say, anticipating that my previous work was worthless now. And yet, I read our texts, stopped what I was doing, and thanked God, for only God’s providence could have led to how well these texts matched up with what we’re going through.
Friends, this is difficult. I won’t sugarcoat it. This is a challenge – perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime challenge – yet God is at work. I see God’s fingerprints and guidance all over the place. I see new openings for ministry. I see new paths forward in ministry. We just may be in a paradigm-shift, and I suspect that on the other side of this, we just may be better equipped to be disciples living out the good news of Jesus in our community. It’s like this to me: My friend Abe Overway tricked me into signing up for the Hero Mud Run last year. It’s one of these obstacle races where you climb over things, avoid barbed wire, submerge yourself in frigid water. Sounds terrible, right? Well, it wasn’t the funnest thing I’ve ever done, but when I finished I felt a sense of satisfaction. I had made it through – alive and stronger. I see this time doing something similar for us. It’s hard to do this, but we will be stronger on the other side. Be patient in this journey.
So, what does it mean to be guided together? Let’s take a look at both of our texts. They offer insights into this particular season of life for us. These insights are particularly useful in this time, but I believe they are applicable to us even when life gets to a new normal. We’ll begin in Exodus.
Our text is thirteen chapters into the story of Exodus, but let me give us some context. The Hebrews have lived in Egypt for centuries, and as their numbers grew, the Egyptians became fearful of them. They enslaved the Hebrews, putting them to grueling work. Moses arrives and receives a call from God to liberate the Hebrews from slavery. Pharaoh and the Egyptians don’t want to let the Hebrews go, and over a series of chapters God sends ten plagues on the Egyptians – darkness, water turning to blood, locusts – culminating in the Passover, where the firstborn of all Egyptians – human and animal – die. Fed up, Pharaoh finally sends the Hebrews away. After crossing the Red Sea and one final attempt by Pharaoh to keep the Hebrews, they end up in the wilderness, a place they will spend forty years migrating slowly towards the Promised Land.
Exodus 13 is at the very beginning of these wilderness wanderings. The people are fearful. They have left behind a terrible but familiar situation, and now everything has been turned on its head. Nothing feels familiar. They are camping in the wilderness. They aren’t sure where food or water will come from. It appears Moses took them from security into an unknown future with no plan for what to do with a wandering nation, their possessions, and their animals. Is this starting to sound a bit familiar to the past week?
Our text begins this way, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer” (Ex. 13:17). Here’s lesson one in God guiding us together: The shortest path often leads to trouble. God has freed the Hebrews so that they could move to the Promised Land, the land God promised to Abraham centuries before. Now, if I were taking a trip to Detroit, I would go the shortest way possible. I wouldn’t zip down to Indianapolis and over to Pittsburgh then up through Buffalo, into Canada, stop at Tim Horton’s, and eventually make my way to Detroit through the Ambassador Bridge. That would be ridiculous – unless that was the safe route to get where I need to go. God sees that things will not go well for the Hebrews if they go straight to their destination. As it is, they often complain to Moses that he took them away from the familiarity of their slavery in Egypt so that they could die in the wilderness. They often look back to the way things were, and at least those things were familiar, even if they weren’t optimal. So, God sends them the long way. It’s not an easy way. They still face war. They have rebellion from within their own people. Yet God is preparing them for what they are to be when they arrive in the Promised Land.
Friends, we are in the wilderness right now. It is tempting to want to return to the way things were and ignore our reality. It is also tempting to jump immediately to how we want things to be. Remember that the shortest path often leads to trouble. Together we will patiently endure this journey, trusting that in God’s time we will arrive at the promise.
Our second lesson in God guiding us together is this: God’s guidance connects to human action. God doesn’t lead the people on the short route as our texts relates, “For God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea” (Ex. 13:17b-18). It is tempting in times of struggle to wonder why God isn’t just taking over and fixing all the things. God is all-powerful, so why wouldn’t God just clear the path for the Hebrews to get quickly and securely to the Promised Land? No, God’s concern for human affairs takes into account the reality of sociopolitical forces and how our ability to hold up or not in difficulty influences how God guides us. “One might expect that God, with all the power at the divine disposal, would not back off from leading the people into any situation. God would just mow the enemies down! No, the human situation makes a difference regarding God’s possibilities and [so] affects the divine decisions.”
Applying that today, we would love God to miraculously intervene and cure the world of this virus. We are praying for that. Yet divine action is frequently in partnership with human action. It’s a way that a perfect God interfaces with an imperfect people. “God’s leading is not independent of human involvement.” This is why we both pray and practice good hygiene. This is why we both offer up this pandemic into God’s hands and to do what we can to limit its spread. This is why we both do our best to live out these days to honor God with our lives and why we’ll still go to the doctor if we are experiencing symptoms.
It takes the Hebrews forty years in the wilderness before they reach the Promised Land. It was often perilous. People got angry. Yet, God guided the people every step of the way. By a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, all the people who chose to look in that direction could see God guiding from what was to what will be. I encourage you to pray for eyes to see God working even in this and to pray for patience as we are in the wilderness.
Let’s now turn to Acts to encounter two more lessons in God guiding us. Acts 15 is about as Presbyterian as the Bible gets. The early church is going through a real struggle. How do Jews and Gentiles live and worship together as this new thing that we now call the church? This Jerusalem council is a mixture of human involvement and divine action, just like the Exodus. God works through these groups of people to determine what is best. The early followers could not agree on how to best live with each other because the things they valued as pleasing to God conflicted. So, after prayer and deliberation, they come to these seemingly strange conclusions. “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication” (Acts 15:28-29). Seems like a fairly odd list to us today, but these four concessions allow God’s children – Jew and Gentile – to live into their identity as a newly formed people. It’s part of revealing who they are.
This brings me to lesson three: Life together means we sacrifice for the greater good. This is what happens in Acts. These concessions to each other bring some peace to the church. Today, we’re not so worried about these things, but we are struggling to know how to live best with each other. In this season, we are learning to make sacrifices for the greater good. My family has felt fine, but we’ve largely sequestered ourselves in our home for the greater good of others. In this season, we’re all learning a new way of life – a way that we pray is only temporary – so that we can promote the flourishing of our neighbors. Believe me, I’m not someone who overreacts. I’m actually a chronic under-reactor. As things were unfolding over a week ago, I came across the statistic that COVID-19 is lethal for our older population at a rate of around 8%. I thought back to our Lounge filled for the Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser and imagined the lounge filled with 100 of our older friends. Then I thought if we do nothing, ten of those people won’t survive this. And it became crystal clear that it was unconscionable to act as though life could continue normally. In this time, we learn to love our neighbors by doing all we can to keep them from catching this – even if we’re bored, even if we’re sick of working from home, even if our kids are staging a coup over online school. Life together means we sacrifice for each other. It’s always been true, and it’s so plainly necessary now.
I love that verse 28 begins, “It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” They stared down a hugely divisive issue and discerned God’s way forward. That’s the ongoing work of the church. The discernment continues, and our discernment has become laser-focused on what it means to be the church in this season. On Tuesday this week our Session met for the first time ever online. I wish you could have seen it. I should have taken a picture of my screen. We looked like the opening of the Brady Bunch – except there were nineteen of us on one screen. Miraculously, we all got into our meeting with little technical difficulty. Miraculously, we rarely talked over each other, which is hard when you’re not in the same room. Yet, we emerged from that meeting with that sense of “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” I have no doubt we’ll be adjusting the decisions we have made, but there is a sense of purpose and peace as we learn how to be the church in these difficult times. I urge you to pray for your Session in these times. I am so incredibly grateful to them for their wisdom and guidance.
Weeks ago this was supposed to be a sermon on spiritual guidance, one of our corporate disciplines. It’s turned out a bit differently than I intended, but God’s plan is working through us even now. I promise that not every sermon during Corona Time will be so focused on our present situation, but this one needed to be. Life has forced us into a new way of living. I urge you to learn “the sacrament of the present moment.” Be present in the moment. Be prayerful. Seek God’s way for you, for your family, for your community. There is blessing even now. God is shaping us into a beloved community. Sometimes the guiding just takes us on a much longer path than we anticipated.
 Terence Fretheim. Exodus. Interpretation Series. 150.
 Ibid. 151.
 Foster, Richard J.. Celebration of Discipline: The Path To Spiritual Growth (p. 186). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.