Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Losing sight of Jethro's sheep: Moses in Midian

The 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 17 - Year A
Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was doing his best to lose the Egyptian accent that people had remarked on when he first landed in Midian (Exodus 2:18-19).

It was an accent worth losing.  First, it was a lie: he wasn’t Egyptian.  He’d been a Hebrew child raised like a dirty secret in the heart of the Egyptian court.  Second, it provided a clue to his past misdeeds.  The child became a man back in Egypt.  His identity crisis sharpened and caused him to snap.  He’d killed an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and thus became a fugitive from Egyptian justice. 

But Moses dodged the murder charge.   He walked the width of the desert and crossed the border into Midian.  He married the daughter of a prominent local family and began to work on his pension.   

Did he have nightmares?  Did the ghosts of Egypt haunt his sleep?  There’s no evidence of this.  This Sunday’s reading show Moses following the flocks as he would have done seasonally - a perfectly ordinary Midianite shepherd on a perfectly regular day with only the barest trace of an accent.  Everything is on track.

The recipe for what Moses needed to do next is exactly what every new parolee needs to do upon his release from prison.  He needs to keep his eyes forward and to follow the path and to seize the opportunity at hand.  When you’re given a fresh start and limited time, you stick to the straight and narrow.  It’s the same at the tail-end of the world’s worst divorce or a personal bankruptcy or a war or a natural disaster.   One foot goes in front of the other.   Direct those fat sheep to market down the straight path. That’s all.  Nothing else.

But that's not how our story ends, is it?  Moses’ eyes stray.  The commissioning of Moses and the whole story of the Exodus doesn’t begin with God’s words from the burning bush.  It begins a few lines earlier when Moses, still comfortably at the tail end of Jethro’s flocks and with everything to gain by staying the course, says to himself:

"I must turn aside and look at this great sight, 
and see why the bush is not burned up."

Curiosity may kill the cat and displease the parole officer but it also ushers in new epochs in history.  From one cover of your Bible to the other, and throughout the history of the Church, God upsets the settled and recommended paths of prophets, patriarchs, disciples and saints.  Before they were ever useful to God and to his Kingdom by being resolute and unshakable, they proved their worth because they were quite the opposite - capable of being distracted from their day jobs and unstuck from all their several necessary trajectories.  

God could depend on them to shift their gaze from their desks and direct it out the window.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Stay tuned! God is faithful.

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:8-2:10

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

How quickly we forget.  Unlike other members of the animal kingdom, human beings carry around nearly all the information necessary to be a member of their species in their stories and not in their genes.  Activities which we perform by reflex or at the bidding of our hormones are precious few.   Instead, our children go to school.  They learn at their parents’ or grandparents’ knee.  They read from books.  Stories may be supple or rigid.  Stories can evolve and merge with the stories of neighbours.  They can be transformed in the retelling.  Rigid stories tend to be fragile.  National myths can be destructive.  And yet, civilizations can and do collapse when the cultural contents of the human story are forgotten.  Skip a generation and you will take a step way back into time.

The scenario described at the beginning of the stories concerns the new Egyptian king who, by malevolence or ignorance, “forgets” the role which God, Joseph and the Hebrews had played in the preservation of Egypt during the years of famine.  By intention or accident, the story of Egypt has a chapter ripped from its book.   Fellow citizens – artisans and laborers – established residents of great Egyptian cities became, in a moment, a despised minority.  We don’t need to look much beyond the 20th and 21st centuries to find analogs for this process within living memory. 

For the readers of the Book of Exodus, be they Christian or Jewish, there can be no question as to the outcome.  The descendants of Abraham living in Egypt have a purpose and a destiny that will not be cut off.   They are part of a larger and more important narrative than the one by which Pharaoh hopes to purify his kingdom.  At issue, here again, is the overarching question:

How will God remain faithful to his promises to Abraham
to bless his descendants and, through them, the entire world?

There is no other question in Exodus.   Frankly, there is no other question in the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles.  We remain glued to the page because the risks are many and, as is the case throughout the Old and New Testaments, human agents are used to propel the Promise through the ages.  Patriarchs, prophets and saints need to say “yes” and we don’t know if they will.  The promise may even need to be placed within a little basket of reeds daubed with pitch and bitumen and set out into the reedy edges of a great river.  And yes – it all must matter to you, who are praying for your little churches and saying “yes” to your part in the story, who pray that your children remain part of the same narrative, who wonder how God’s people will ever find their voice in a world grown suddenly more unstable and chaotic.  

Stay tuned!  Hold on to the handrails!  You are part of this story.  It's never been one for the faint-hearted.  

Saturday, 12 August 2017

It's not over until......

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 14 - Year A
Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

A book called The Joseph Cycle was written by Simon Sim in 2004 and used Joseph’s dream (Genesis 41:25-30), as recounted to Pharaoh, as the basis for a theory about markets waxing and waning in seven-year increments.  People buy Sim’s book because they want to make money.   Spoiler alert:  If you want to make money, then it’s off to Amazon with you.  Buy Simon Sim’s book. You’re not going to make any money reading this. 

For a student of the Scriptures, the Joseph Cycle is a series of stories from the Book of Genesis about Joseph.  That it is referred to as a Cycle and not merely a Story means that the whole narrative has bits to it, ups and downs, highs and lows.  It doesn’t begin and end in a single chapter or reach its conclusion in a single episode.

Your bicycle has wheels.  When you run your finger along the end of them you come back to your starting point.  Joseph stands blessed amongst his brothers at the beginning of the story (Genesis 37) in this Sunday’s Old Testament reading, and he will stand blessed in the midst of those same brothers at the end of the story (Genesis 45).  Between these two points many events have taken place – many of them points of utter collapse and desolation.  If Joseph prayed to God to be protected by him -

·        So that his brothers might not throw him in to a pit and tell his father Jacob that he had been savaged by a wild beast and killed;
·        So that he might not be sold to a band of wandering Midianites;
·        So that he might not be resold as a slave by them to the Ishmaelites;
·        That he might be protected from the wandering eye of his master Potiphar’s wife, and;
·        So that he would not be cast into prison.

- the answer from God would have appeared to him as an unequivocal “No”.   Let that sink in for a moment. 

Do you have a sense of your own vocation, and of the fact that God loves you and that nothing transpires outside of his will and care?    Joseph did.  God gave him dreams.  He knows that God has a use for him and yet, when he prays to God for what seems like the most basic matters of freedom from peril, even these are denied.

Herein is the difference between a cycle and a simple story.  You need to wait until the end.  You will not see the sense of things until the circle is complete.   The episodes by which you judge yourself, by which you judge God’s faithfulness – this or that failure or success, this or that child’s misadventure or your failure in relationships or ventures – no matter how it feels in the moment – needs to be seen in the light of the story which God is telling over decades.  Be faithful enough to actively wait it out – patient enough (with yourself and with God) to see things to their yet-unknown conclusion.