Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Promised Land (1/27/08)

The Promised Land
John Shuck
January 27, 2008

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, ‘This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, “I will give it to your descendants”; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.’ Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord’s command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred and twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab for thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.

Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequalled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Deuteronomy 34:1-12

We come to the end of the Torah. We find Moses on the top of Mount Nebo. He is 120 years old and the text says his “vigor was unabated.” But YHWH tells him that he will not enter The Promised Land. He will see it, but his days will end. His successor, Joshua, will lead the people across the Jordan.

It doesn’t seem fair that Moses doesn’t get to cross the river. YHWH seems a bit petty. The answer is given in the book of Numbers 20:2-12. According to the story, the people are thirsty. There is no water. They complain to Moses. According to the text:

The people quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.’

Moses and Aaron ask YHWH what to do. YHWH tells Moses to take his staff and go to a rock. In front of the people Moses is to command the rock to yield water. So Moses and Aaron gather the people before the rock. Instead of commanding the rock Moses says to the people:

‘Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?’ Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.’

YHWH wants credit where credit is due. He sees Moses getting the glory when Moses said: “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” This seems like a minor point. After all Moses has been through, you would think YHWH would give the guy a break.

Yet this is an important theme throughout the Torah. The storytellers want us to know that it is not by human power but the power of YHWH that things get done. Not even Moses can presume to have this divine power. Moses, in this instance, lost his cool and in so doing showed a lack of humility.

There is probably no bigger sin in the eyes of these storytellers than the sin of arrogance or presumption on the part of human beings. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures we find YHWH choosing the second son, the weakest person, the smallest army in order to show that it is not human power, but divine power that gains us freedom, victory, or blessing.

This point is hammered home throughout the Bible. Jesus is an example. The messiah is crucified. In our weakness the power of the Divine Presence reveals itself. In our February readings, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, we will see this theme repeated.

Joshua wins the battle of Jericho not with weapons but by having his army march around the city seven times. They blow their trumpets and the walls come a tumbalin’ down. In the book of Judges, YHWH tells Gideon to reduce his army to a few hundred to fight a huge army of thousands. This is to show that it is YHWH’s victory, not Gideon’s.

In the books of Samuel, we read about the adventures of the first Israelite king, Saul. Saul is not a bad king. Nor is he a bad guy. But he has a tragic flaw. He has an arrogant streak. He lacks humility. He starts to believe that it is all about him.

Moses doesn’t go into the land because he showed a lack of trust in one instance. But the story is bigger than Moses’ disobedience. His story is over. He can’t do it all. It is appropriate for the Torah to end with Moses on the mountain. They made it to the edge. He can see it. But it will be the next generation that takes them across the River Jordan. Crossing that river will require the skills, gifts, and faith of more than one hero.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said:

“Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.”

Moses’ story ends. Joshua’s begins.

The Torah is the story of a people outside of the Promised Land hoping to get there. It was completed in its final form when the people were exiled in Babylon. They had suffered bitter defeat and humiliation. They longed to return home. The Torah is the Instruction on what it will take for them to return. It will take a great deal of courage. Even more than that, it will take trust. Then again, trust is courage.

The Promised Land. What is it? Some believe it is a narrow piece of real estate between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. The battle is fierce over this little, and yet strategic, piece of land today.

Others believe it is heaven. It is the place we go after we die. Here are the words of Samuel Stennett’s 1787 hymn, Promised Land:

On Jordan's stormy banks I stand,
and cast a wishful eye
to Canaan's fair and happy land
where my possessions lie.


I'm bound for the promised land,
I'm bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I'm bound for the promised land.

There gen'rous fruits that never fail,
on trees immortal grow.
There rocks and hills and brooks and vales
with milk and honey flow.

All o'er those wide-extended plains
shines one eternal day;
there God the Son forever reigns
and scatters night away.

No chilling wind nor pois'nous breath
can reach that healthful shore;
sickness and sorrow pain and death
are felt and feared no more.

When shall I reach that happy place
and be forever blest?
When shall I see my Father's face
and in his bosom rest?

I'm bound for the promised land,
I'm bound for the promised land.
Oh, who will come and go with me?
I'm bound for the promised land.

I do love those hymns.

Still others believe that the Promised Land is something for which to dream and strive on this side of the grave. It is the realm of justice and peace for all people. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on the Promised Land just before he was assassinated in Memphis. He went to Memphis on behalf of the sanitation workers. This was his last speech. He closed his sermon with these chillingly prophetic words:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

Like Moses, he died before crossing the Jordan. For King, the Promised Land had to do with the here and now. In that same speech, he said:

It's alright to talk about "long white robes over yonder," in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It's alright to talk about "streets flowing with milk and honey," but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day. It's alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God's preacher must talk about the New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.

What is the Promised Land? Perhaps the Promised Land will be realized when human beings arise to a heightened level of consciousness. Perhaps it will happen when we realize that we are all in this together. Perhaps it will be when we internalize trust in a power greater than our own egos.

There is a deep wisdom in these scriptures. That wisdom and our experience tell us that we will not reach the Promised Land through arrogance. The powerful and the wealthy will not give us the Promised Land. We cannot force it through means of violence. Superpowers and their armies cannot get us there.

The wisdom of these scriptures and our experience should also tell us that we will not reach the Promised Land by waiting for a charismatic hero to lead us. Charismatic leaders generally end up dead. The rest of us are left to flounder.

There is a new consciousness arising. We can only reach the Promised Land together. Everyone must participate. No one can reach it unless we all reach it. This means we need to foster this new consciousness of belonging to Earth as one global family. We need to meet together to do small things.

The Promised Land, in my view, is at least living within our means and in balance with Earth. I had a conversation this past week with a minister by the name of Jim Deming. Jim is part of a program called Interfaith Power and Light. The goal is help congregations become “cool congregations.” This is an effort to connect interested people in local congregations to become more conscious about Earth.

It is a simple plan. We find people interested in reducing our waste and we meet with them. We share ideas and we make a commitment to do small things. And we meet again, a few times a year, to encourage each other. We invite others to join us. The key is a growing number of people doing small things together.

I am hopeful regarding our Creating a Culture of Peace workshop in March. Again, it is about people getting together to learn the difficult--yet I believe, life saving and planet saving—principles of non-violence.

We will not reach the Promised Land by waiting for the powerful to get their acts together or for a charismatic leader to whack his staff on a rock and make it all better. It will involve us, in humility, in trust, and in action, to envision this Promised Land and to live it, little by little. That is the Divine Spirit at work.

So let us sing those great hymns of the Promised Land.

River Jordan's deep and wide,
Milk and honey on the other side,

River Jordan's chilly and cold,
Chills the body, but warms the soul,

Let the Divine Spirit in those hymns stir us, all of us, each of us, to vision and action. Let us cross that river so all of Earth’s children will enjoy and share her milk and honey for many, many generations to come.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Wandering (Here Be Dragons!) (1/20/2008)

The Wandering
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 20, 2008

Numbers 13:1-14:35

The Lord said to Moses, 2‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.’

17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negeb, and go up into the hill country, 18and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified, 20and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be bold, and bring some of the fruit of the land.’ Now it was the season of the first ripe grapes.

21 So they went up and spied out the land

23And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27And they told him, ‘We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.’

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.’ 31Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we are.’ 32So they brought to the Israelites an unfavourable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. 33There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’

14Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ 4So they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.’

5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. 6And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes 7and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, ‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. 8If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’ 10But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: 27How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. 28Say to them, ‘As I live’, says the Lord, ‘I will do to you the very things I heard you say: 29your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upwards, who have complained against me, 30not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31But your little ones, who you said would become booty, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have despised. 32But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness for forty years, and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.

Hic sunt dracones “Here be dragons” is a phrase from the world of cartography.   The phrase supposedly was written on old maps to designate uncharted territory.   Although this phrase has been popularized, it was rarely used.  

The only historical map that contains the phrase is The Lenox Globe that dates to 1510.  It is the second or third oldest known globe.  It is the only known historical map that contains the Latin phrase, “hic sunt dracones” or “here be dragons.”  The phrase appears on the Eastern Coast of Asia.   It may not be about dragons.  It may also be in reference to the Dagroians, a ghoulish people which Marco Polo described as feasting upon the dead.   In either case, it is a pretty scary place. 

The Borgia Map of the world around 1430 has a dragon figure across Asia with a Latin inscription that is rendered in English:  "Here also are men having large horns four feet long, and there are even serpents of such magnitude that they can eat an ox whole."

This phrase “Here be dragons” has come to represent the dangers of the unknown.   “Here be dragons” can elicit the challenge within oneself to venture out into the danger on a hero’s quest.   Or it can make a person think twice and say, “There is no place like home.” 

The Lewis and Clark Caverns are near Whitehall, Montana.  I have probably been through the caverns ten times since I was a child.  It is a great place to take visitors from out of state.  You can take a tour of these caverns deep into the mountain.   Near the beginning of the tour after you descend a number of steps you come to this first landing.  In the middle of the landing is a huge rock. 

It is called “Decision Rock.”  This is the point in the tour when the tour guide becomes solemn and serious.   Every time I went on the tour the guide would say something like, “This is your last chance to turn back.  I can take anyone back who doesn’t want to go ahead.  But after we go ahead there is no turning back.”   Hence, decision rock.  The cave pilgrims need to make a choice.  Forge ahead or return to the entrance.   I never saw anyone turn back, although the guides would say that on occasion, some folks do.  After all, there be dragons or at least tight squeezes.

Our heroes in our biblical story have reached decision rock.    After their dramatic escape from Egypt, they go to Mount Sinai.  That is the place where Moses is given the Ten Commandments.  According to the saga, these commandments had a lot of footnotes.  The second half of Exodus and all of Leviticus are the extra laws that go along with the Big Ten.   Finally, when we reach the Book of Numbers, the narrative picks up. 

They haven’t been in the wilderness for very long.  After a few weeks, they arrive at the edge of the Land of Canaan and YHWH tells Moses to send out spies.  Moses picks one man from each of the twelve tribes to check out the land.   After a forty day reconnaissance mission, they come back with a report.    There are two reports.  A majority report and a minority report.   The majority report is given by ten of the spies.  They don’t like the looks of things.  They tell the people that there are big and strong, like the Hittites and the Jebusites.

According to the minority report, filed by Caleb and Joshua, the land is lush and filled with grapes, figs, and pomegranates.   It is a land of milk and honey.  There are people there but we can take them.   The Lord is with us!

But, then the other ten spies exaggerate their report a bit.  Not only do the Jebusites, and the Amalekites and so forth live there, also in the land of Canaan are the dreaded Nephilim.  We first heard of the Nephilim in the early chapters of Genesis.   These Nephilim were mythical figures, offspring of gods and women.  This is what is written about the Nephilim in Genesis 6:4:

“When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, 2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. 3Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide* in mortals for ever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ 4The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.”

According to Genesis, the sons of gods knowing the attractive human women in the biblical way is the last straw.  YHWH decides to wipe out all living things except Noah and two of every kind of animal with a big flood.   So, how then, do we still have Nephilim after the flood?  Either the Nephilim survive the flood, or the spies are lying, or there is a hole in the plot.  At any rate, the threat of the Nephilim is the argument that wins the day.  A little fear-mongering often does wonders. 

The congregation votes with the majority report.  No way are they going to go into the Land of Canaan.  There be dragons.  There be Nephilim.  So they decide to elect a new captain and go back to Egypt.  It was better in Egypt.   Better to be slaves. 

Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb plead with the people to trust YHWH.  But it is no use.  The congregation threatens to stone them. 

Then YHWH gets angry.  YHWH tells Moses that he has had enough of their whining and whimpering.  He is going to wipe them all out and start over with Moses.   But Moses, like Abraham before him, pleads with YHWH not to act rashly.   He gives an interesting argument. 

“But Moses said to YHWH….”Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, 16“It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.”

Moses tells YHWH that it won’t look good on his resume.   Everyone will laugh at you YHWH.  You will be considered a failure.   So YHWH reconsiders.  He decides instead on an interesting solution.  The people will wander in the wilderness for forty years, one year for each day the spies were in Canaan.  They will wander until everyone over the age of 20 dies.   Except for Caleb and Joshua none of the wicked congregation will go into the Promised Land.   That is why the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years.

How do we enter this story?   How does it become something other than a bizarre fable on one hand or something that literally happened on the other?   The theme of this saga repeats itself throughout the Hebrew scriptures and in the New Testament.   One of the main problems that YHWH has with his people is that they don’t trust him. 

Yet YHWH does not always come across as trustworthy.  Remember YHWH was the one who told Abraham to sacrifice his son, then at the last minute, said, “Just kidding.”  Literary critic Harold Bloom, has written a book I recommend, Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine.   In an interview about the book, Harold Bloom speaks about YHWH and what the name means.  The name comes from the story when Moses is told to go down to Egypt and speak to Pharoah.  Moses asks, “They will laugh at me.  Who shall I say sent me?”  Yahweh responds:   “Say that ehyeh asher ehyeh has sent you.”    Bloom says that phrase means “I will be who I will be” which really means, “I will be present when I choose to be present.”   Harold Bloom goes on to say:

“… that necessarily also means, "And I will be absent wherever and whenever I choose to be absent." And there's a lot more evidence in the last 2,000 years for the absence of this personage than the presence.”

What do we make of YHWH?  Here is what Bloom says about him:

You have to be absolutely a bad reader or crazy or so bound by Judaic tradition of that kind which produces Satmars or Orthodox... how can you possibly like him? He's very bad news…. There's a kind of scamp in there. But he also goes violently crazy as he leads the Israelite host in that ridiculous, mad 40 years [of] wandering through the wilderness, trekking back and forth. He gets crazier and crazier and the poor things get crazier and crazier…. Yahweh is not a theological God. Theology is Greek, as the word itself indicates. Yahweh is a human, all-too-human, much, much-too-human God, and very scary. He is irascible, he's difficult, he's unpredictable, and he himself doesn't seem to know what he is doing.

I don’t think we can enter these stories unless we allow ourselves to read them in the way that Bloom reads them.  YHWH is not the immovable mover.  He is not the god of the philosophers.  We cannot, unless we ignore the text itself, think of YHWH as unchanging, all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good.   That is later theology put on the Bible.   YHWH as Bloom writes, is irascible, difficult, and unpredictable.   It doesn’t take long to read the Bible before you have issues with YHWH. 

So what kind of people conceive of a god like YHWH?  If the gods we tell stories about are windows into the way we see the world, what does YHWH show us about the world?   How did these authors of the Bible experience their world?  

The real world must have seemed to them to be irascible, difficult, and unpredictable--like the god they told stories about.  Wars happen.  Floods happen.  Crops don’t grow.  Good people suffer and the wicked seem to prosper.  People die in the wilderness never reaching their promise.  And yet life goes on.  Another generation is born.  People find time in the midst of their worries to dance, sing and tell stories about their troubles.  These ancient people found meaning by telling stories about their experience of life.   They did so by personifying life through a god who was as unpredictable, violent, and crazy as life itself.  

And yet, they said, trust anyway.  Rather than fight life, trust it.  What other options do we have?   We can trust or we can live in fear.  We can despair.  We can feel sorry for ourselves.  We can be bitter.  

As I read the stories in the Torah, I am reminded of the stories in the gospels, particularly, the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is also unpredictable and irascible.  The disciples never understand him.   Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus tells them not to be afraid.  Trust.  But what is to trust?  The guy is insane.  He goes off and gets himself crucified.    

One of the most challenging aspects of living is our fear of what could happen.  Here be dragons.  The Nephilim will devour us.  We might get crucified.  Other people won’t like what we decide to do.  We are not strong enough.  Disaster will befall us.  The crazy promise of the Bible is not that those things won’t happen.  They might.  

The message that the authors of the Torah and the Gospels leave us is “don’t fight it and don’t run from it.  Live through it.”  Neither YHWH nor Jesus will keep us safe.  Both of them are just the opposite.  They are not safe.   They are risky.  C.S. Lewis in his Chronicles of Narnia depicted Christ as the lion, Aslan.  Aslan, according to the books, is not a tame lion.    I think that means that Life is not tame either. 

Jesus and YHWH are cut from the same cloth.   They are persistent.  Jesus and YHWH are parables for Life.  They are the invitation to seize the opportunity.   They are the invitation to live with integrity.   If we are going to live with some degree of inner peace and joy, we have to take life for what it is and not complain about what it is not.  

Our heroes, our traveling tribes, made a choice at decision rock.  They retreated and lost an opportunity.  They acted on fear rather than on trust.  They spent the next forty years moaning and complaining until they died.   They didn’t face the Nephilim.  They didn’t enjoy the milk and honey either.

Here be dragons.   Let us venture forth!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Exodus (1/13/08)

The Exodus
John Shuck
First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
January 13th, 2008

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.

Exodus 1:8-20

I don’t know how my mother walked her trouble down
I don’t know how my father stood his ground
I don’t know how my people survive slavery
I do remember, that’s why I believe
I don’t know how the rivers overflow their banks
I don’t know how the snow falls and covers the ground
I don’t know how the hurricane sweeps through the land
every now and then
Standing in a rainstorm, I believe
I don’t know how the angels woke me up this morning soon
I don’t know how the blood still runs thru my veins
I don’t know how I rate to run another day
Standing in a rainstorm I believe
My God calls to me in the morning dew
The power of the universe knows my name
Gave me a song to sing and sent me on my way
I raise my voice for justice I believe
--Berneice Johnson Reagan

Since the Enlightenment, the role and the authority of the Bible has been drastically reduced. The Bible was once believed to tell the cosmic story and its author was none other than God himself. Within this earlier view, the Bible told us the origins of the universe and it confidently pointed to its cosmic end in the heavenly city where according to the Book of Revelation:

“Death will be no more;
Mourning and crying and pain
Will be no more,
For the first things have
Passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Modernity has eroded this authority. And it is no use pretending otherwise. In the modern view, with the insight of science, we now know the following about the Bible:

God is not its author. God is a literary character. The character called ‘God’ represents through story and legend the creativity of a particular group of human beings.

Not only is “God” a literary character, Adam, Abraham, Joshua, Moses, and David are also literary characters. It is unlikely that any of them even existed as historical persons. There is no evidence for any of them outside of the Bible itself. No serpent in the garden, no fall from grace, no flood, no tower of Babel, no parting of the Red Sea, no wandering in the wilderness, no conquering of Canaan, no great Israelite monarchy.

The Bible does not tell the story of the origins of the universe or of humankind. It does not tell us of the end of the universe or of humankind. The Bible is the collection of stories and legends written in their final form between 2500 and 1800 years ago. These stories parallel and in some cases draw from mythologies from other cultures.

The Bible is a human product that is mostly fiction. It is invaluable for telling us about the people who wrote it. It can have great value for us who read it. The wisdom in it can at times be profound. But it is a fallible, marvelous, beautiful, ugly, human masterpiece.
Once we finally say that, we experience both liberation and loss. We are liberated from needing to believe in a pre-modern cosmology. We are liberated from believing in a God who at times is nothing more than a tyrant with superpowers. We are liberated from closing our minds when we open the Bible.

We are liberated to appreciate the Bible in a new way. We can see these stories as windows into the human psyche and into the collective psyche of the Western world. These are our myths. Through them we can see where we came from. We can also be liberated from being controlled by them.

Seeing the Bible as a human product is liberating. It is also a loss. The Bible until recently provided for us a cosmic story. It provided a place for us in its cosmic drama. Even though our present may not go as well as we would like at times, there is hope at the end in the celestial city. We mattered. We were all a part of the Divine plan.

Modern science has shown us that the Bible’s cosmic story is not a cosmic story after all. It is a very small story of a particular group of people. The God of the Bible the product of great imagination and irrepressible human creativity.

We feel the loss. We feel hung out there in a 13.7 billion year old universe that appears meaningless and random. We have lost our cosmic bearings. We have lost the story that helped us fit into the universe. That story no longer has the authority it once had. It has lost its credibility.

Our perception of the universe has changed drastically. Compared to the tidy story of the Bible and the Christian creed, we feel lost and insignificant. That is the loss. Liberation and loss are sisters. They are the yin and yang of life.

Preachers are told not to take something away without providing something. That is a tall order. Because it is a tall order, preachers, in my experience, including myself on occasion, just preach the same old stuff because we have found nothing with which to replace it that is meaningful. We continue to preach the Bible as if it still could tell us something about our origins and our end and about who we are.

I think it is good to deconstruct even if you don’t know what you are going to construct. Living in ambiguity is part of living. That said, I am and we are in the process of discovering a bigger story. It is the story that includes the Bible but is much larger. It includes all the sacred stories and is larger than them all.

Yes, we have lost something. We have lost a great deal. But this loss liberates us to find something more grand. This grand story is nothing less than the story of our 13.7 billion year history. It is the story of the Universe. It is our Evolutionary Story.

Our human stories, our sacred stories, our histories and her-stories, science and natural history, are all part of that Great Story, the story of the Universe. The task of religion is to find meaning and joy in what is real. Our evolutionary story is the most real thing we have going. It is a story that needs telling and a story that needs hearing.

In this time of loss, and perhaps not yet liberation, it may be that our sacred texts will point a way forward. In the midst of this big story of the Universe are the smaller stories found in our sacred texts. These give insights to the human psyche and our social relationships. They are stories about meaning which is why they feature God. They are the stories of people who also felt both loss and liberation time and time again.

We come to today to the central story of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is the pivotal story of the Torah. It is the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is the story of liberation from bondage. It is the big screen motion picture story of the ten plagues and the parting of Red Sea. It is no use trying to fit this story into human history or into natural history.
Yet the story is very real in its most important sense. It is about freedom. The forces of life and of the Universe are on the side of freedom. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the Universe itself bends toward justice. Forces of oppression, no matter how strong are unable to quench the human spirit.

The story of the Exodus has been a story of inspiration throughout history. This was especially true in our own country for enslaved African-Americans. The white preachers would quote the Bible and say: “Slaves, be obedient to your masters.” Then the slaves would have their own worship services in secret. They would tell each other of the story of Moses and of freedom from slavery. They would sing spirituals like this one:

Oh freedom, oh freedom,
Oh Freedom over me.
And before I’ll be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord and be free.

The stories from Exodus and the spirituals were the spiritual power throughout the period of slavery in America. Tom Faigin who is a lecturer on American Folk Music wrote:

“Negro Spirituals were the first uniquely American music to come out of this country.”

They provided slaves with the hope to carry on in the midst of overwhelming adversity. God did it before, God would do it again. These spirituals were created in the fields. The white slave owners encouraged singing as it made the slaves more productive. But they didn’t pay attention to the lyrics. As reading was forbidden and most of the slaves were illiterate, they snatched pieces of scripture that they overheard in white worship services and created their own songs:

Well if I could I surely would
Stand on the rock where Moses stood
Pharaoh's army got drownded
O Mary don't you weep
Well Mary wore three links and chains
On every link was Jesus' name
Pharaoh's army got drownded
O Mary don't you weep

The story begins:

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

This means that new king did not honor the deal. During a period of famine, Joseph sold grain for food to the people in exchange for their livestock and eventually their land. They worked then for Pharaoh as slaves on his land. It wasn’t the greatest deal. But when you are starving your choices are limited. All the people became enslaved to Pharaoh. The deal was that four-fifths of the food would be for the people and one-fifth for Pharaoh.

As more and more and more wealth became concentrated in Pharaoh’s kingdom, be began to have big dreams. Paranoid that the Hebrew people would eventually seek their freedom he orders them into forced labor. Pharaoh does not honor the deal. However, the more the people are oppressed, the more they multiply. Finally, in an act of extreme paranoia, Pharaoh orders the deaths of all male children.

He tells the two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill the children if they are male. The midwives refuse his order. They do a little Shuck and Jive. Do you know what the phrase “Shuck and Jive” means?

"To shuck and jive" originally referred to the intentionally misleading words and actions that African-Americans would employ in order to deceive racist Euro-Americans in power, both during the period of slavery and afterwards.

"Shucking and jiving" was a tactic of both survival and resistance. A slave, for instance, could say eagerly, "Oh, yes, Master," and have no real intention to obey. Or an African-American man could pretend to be working hard at a task he was ordered to do, but might put up this pretense only when under observation. Both would be instances of "doin' the old shuck 'n jive."

From the text:

17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’

God, according to the text, is pleased with the midwives and with their shuckin’ and jivin’.

The story of liberation begins with two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who disobey the authority of Pharaoh, the authority of death and choose life. Before YHWH even comes on the scene, these two women make a choice. Their choice is not to participate in the injustice of Pharaoh. Shiphrah and Puah are the models of civil disobedience.

They feared God, says the text. They followed a higher calling than that of the oppressors in power. The first step toward liberation is to decide which side you are on. Freedom and human dignity is a good side to take.

This past week marked the 6th anniversary since the first prisoners arrived at Guantanamo Bay. Over 800 men and boys have been held without trial and without charge. They are denied Habeas Corpus. Many have been exposed to interrogation techniques that amount to nothing less than torture.

This past Friday, Amy Goodman of DemocracyNow interviewed Michael Ratner, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights. Ratner said in the interview:

We’ve been in the Supreme Court now for the third time and awaiting a decision on whether there’s even the fundamental right to go to court for Guantanamo detainees. So think about that: six years, January 11, 2002, we have not yet had one federal court hearing for a Guantanamo detainee. Supreme Court twice has said you can have it. Twice, Congress, and many Democrats, sadly, going along with it, have said we’ll take away that right. And now we’re again waiting it.

So Guantanamo really stands for, in my view, everything—almost everything that’s wrong in this so-called war on terror: indefinite detentions without trial, torture, disappearances. And I say “stands for” because we understand it’s not the only institution that the protests are trying to close today. Bagram has 650 people, no lawyers visiting, torture going on. Secret sites all over the world.

And yet, this country continues on its way…. I think the American people have their usual ostrich—or at least a lot of them—their ostrich-like mentality where what the rest of the world thinks does not affect them. But, of course, it should, and it does, because this has really painted America as iconic in the Muslim world, particularly, but in the whole world of human rights, as essentially a Pinochet-like dictatorship. Let’s remember, that’s what Pinochet did. He ran Operation Condor, picked up people all over the world, took them into penal sites, tortured them and killed them. What is the difference, I would ask the American people, between us and Pinochet on this?

I began this sermon talking about the Bible and the Universe Story. Many folks insist that we believe the Bible as written. Well, I believe the Bible, too. But the Bible does not tell us how the Universe was created. It doesn’t make us any more faithful to think that God created the world in six days or that Moses parted the Red Sea.

I don’t believe that. But I do believe the Bible.

The Bible does tell us if we will listen about enduring principles of justice and human dignity. It tells us again and again and again that the Pharaohs of this world who oppress others end badly.

It tells us that oppression, imprisonment, torture, and lies will be exposed.

The Bible tells us that it is the people, the midwives, the Shiphrahs and the Puahs of this world, who are the ones who begin to make the changes.

They make the changes because they begin with a simple question.

What is right and what is wrong?
Who will we obey?
Once they know the difference between justice and injustice…
Once they realize whose side they are on…
they refuse to participate in injustice.
and once they make that choice, we read:

So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong.