As Personal As It Gets
“As Personal As It Gets”
Sermon for February 4, 2018
The Rev. Rob Donaldson, Pastor
Feeding Hills Congregational Church, UCC
Based on Exodus 19:1-15 CEV
So – did you catch that last line? What did God tell Moses to tell the people in verse 15? No sex???? I’ve been telling you for years the Bible is really not a kiddie book full of cute stories. Want a little more evidence? Follow up on what happened after Noah’s Ark finally found dry land. It’s in Genesis at the end of chapter 9. I’ll let you flip through that sordid little episode on your own time. For now, we’re still following Moses and his people in the days after their escape from slavery in Egypt, after the Egyptian armies drowned in the sea that the Hebrew people had just crossed without so much as getting their toes wet. Now they’re at the start of a journey – a forty-year trek through the wilderness.
A while back, I pointed out that the trip from Cairo to Jerusalem shouldn’t take forty years even if you’re walking all the way with your eyes closed. It’s about 450 miles, which is following the best roads. It’s shorter as the crow flies. So, to compare, if you were picking up the Appalachian Trail near Springfield, Mass. and headed toward Richmond, Virginia, that would be about the same distance. Shouldn’t take you forty years, should it? If this were Chevy Chase on a National Lampoon vacation, it still wouldn’t take forty years to make this trip. It took our friend Skip – who is in his 70’s – about six months to go even farther than that. So with no marked trail, but following the sun, give it a year at most and you’d get there. One year – maybe. But forty? I don’t think so. So what’s really going on with Moses and the people who are following him? Is this really a documentary about a physical journey? You can take it literally if you want to, but I don’t believe it should be. I do believe that it’s a story about a spiritual journey. And a spiritual journey can – and often does – take a lifetime. Read it that way and forty years makes some sense.
And it’s not just about the spiritual trek Moses is taking as a leader getting experience on the job. It’s about the building of a community of faith, the forging of an identity – or, actually, the transformation of an identity.
These people already had one identity, of course – one sense of who they were. They had spent generations as slaves of the Egyptians; they were a downtrodden people who were unaccustomed to thinking for themselves or providing for themselves or, for that matter, disciplining themselves. They had people for that – Egyptian personal trainers who really knew how to snap the whip.
Now – it’s Moses who leads them, which was apparently a lot like herding cats. No matter what happens – no matter what absolute miracles they experience - Moses has to keep going back to God to bolster his credibility. So here’s his problem in today’s reading; how to get them to pay attention? How to get them to listen? Because God has scheduled a meeting and these people need to be ready.
So Moses tells them - OK – first – it’s cleanup time, ladies and gentlemen. You’re about to meet your Maker. And your Maker doesn’t want to have to hold the Divine Nose while you’re chatting with each other. So – numero uno – clean up your act. Physically? Yes, of course. Wash your clothes, they are told in verse 10.
But wait, there’s more. A lot more. Because second – we’re meeting at the foot of the mountain, but if you so much as set one foot ON that mountain, you’re dead meat. This applies even to your animals. Got that? Respect this space. Learn about boundaries. Blundering across boundaries with each other – or worse, ignoring them – is a sure way to cause damage and even destruction in any relationship. So God is trying to get through to these people. You can learn to watch where you’re setting foot – literally or figuratively - by paying attention right now – or you CAN always learn the hard way – the hardest possible way. Your choice. Learning by listening is so much easier than learning by ruining relationships. But it’s your choice.
And finally – third and last, but just as important – Moses tells them in so many words - I don’t want you being distracted. So, for the three days before this meeting, you’re all shut off. Thou shalt not even touch. Don’t even think about it. Now – how much more personal does it get than that?
What do you notice about these three conditions?
Here’s what you should notice – the same rules apply to everybody. Not just to leadership, not just to a certain age group. Everybody, everybody, everybody. Because when a group of people go through a challenging experience together, something they have to prepare for, something they have to sacrifice for, something they have to put as their first priority, something they have to control their own behavior for – when it’s over, you don’t have a bunch of people who happen to be in the same place. You have the beginnings of a community with a distinct identity forged by intense and focused experiences together. Group loyalty comes out of that. A willingness, even a desire to put the needs of the group above your own personal inclinations comes out of that. So the big word here is “together.” God is not looking for a bunch of individuals who will go off and pray in private at their own convenience. Of course, you should pray at all times no matter where you are or whom you’re with. But what God has in mind here requires a sense of commitment, a sense of community, a level of buy-in that is far from casual. God’s message here is this: I’m looking for a holy nation who will be my people, not a random collection of iconoclasts who are in it only for their own fulfillment. Understand the difference?
Why? Why would God want such a thing from these people?
Group identity by itself has no virtue. Think of Jonestown. Remember the Kool-Aid they gave their kids then drank up themselves? Think of Nazis, either the 1940’s German version or the current yahoos trying to destroy the unity of our own country in our own time. There’s nothing inherently good about having a group identity if what it leads to is nothing better than us against them. That doesn’t seem to be what God had in mind here.
But what if it’s NOT us AGAINST them, but instead, us SHOWING them? This is how it’s done. This is how to live together in community. This is what it takes, the level of commitment to God and to each other, this is what it sometimes costs to get this right – there’s always a cost to everything. Might as well be something worth having. A community that understands that God wants us – 1) to take care of each other, and then 2) to reach out to those around us saying, you can have this, too.
Centuries later, Jesus would have the same message for people in his time and place. What’s the most important commandment?, he was asked. What is it? Love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And equally important, love your neighbor as yourself. No church that loves God neglects to love their neighbor. And that Good Samaritan story was all about pointing out the identity of our neighbor. It includes the people who most differ from us. If you’re telling me your church loves God, but doesn’t do mission, you really don’t have a church. Because people in a church know that no matter who you are, you’re just as much created by God as we are. You’re just as much loved by God as we are. So come INTO the house of the Lord (thank you Marty Stuart for that song!). Experience life as God wants us all to be able to experience it – not putting others down, but sticking up for each other. Not taking advantage of each other, but taking care of each other. Not holding each other back, but bringing out the best in each other. What if that’s what’s going on here? Because I believe that’s what’s going on in this Scripture. And I believe that’s what’s going on in this church.
Almost 400 years ago, some colonists showed up in what would become known as Salem Harbor – this is a few years later than the Pilgrims. This group would start what became known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony. There were eleven ships in the fleet, with its flagship the Arbella under the leadership of John Winthrop. A thousand colonists accompanied him in setting up their capital city in Boston, what Winthrop urged the colonists to envision as a City upon a hill, a model of Christian charity, an example for all the world to see about how to translate Jesus’ sermon on the Mount into a real-life political endeavor. It was a six-week journey from England to Salem, starting April 8, 1630 and making landfall on June 12. Unlike the Pilgrims in Plimoth before them, the Arbella and the rest of the fleet stayed on course, made good time, and had months to get ready for their first New England winter. All this despite – or, who knows? Maybe because – they had on board 10,000 gallons of wine, most of which they consumed over the course of the six-week trans-Atlantic trek. Is that enough to make you re-think the Puritans? Because that’s who they were. Unlike the Pilgrims, they were not Separatists, breaking from the Church of England entirely. They just wanted to be free to run things as they saw fit, working within the system to reform it, to purify it, according to their understanding of what God was calling them to be and to do. You do your best with what God has seen fit to place in your hands and trust you with.
So, in a time when there was no Face-Time with the grandchildren, no six hour flights back to London, they set out to build a new community, marked by courage, self-reliance, and sobriety – despite those 10,000 gallons of wine.
Today, we don’t face the challenges of Moses. We have no Egyptians chasing us as we escape slavery. We don’t even face the tests the Puritans encountered in setting up the Mass. Bay colony. So is there anything that keeps us from committing to God and to each other as intensely as our ancestors in the faith? Is that too personal a question? Well, faith doesn’t make any sense if you’re trying to hold God at arm’s length and not let it touch your heart or change your life. God does, after all, get pretty personal. The Bible tells me so. Amen.