A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on September 11, 2005.
Several weeks ago, as many of you know, I went off on a cruise with my wife and my daughter’s family. And you know how it is on a vacation: you run out of things to read and I wound up reading the society pages of the New York Times which someone had brought along. Specifically, I read the wedding pages and I noticed something disconcerting: here were all these wedding notices as usual, but things have changed. It used to be that the pictures were always of the bride; now they’re always of the happy couple. I knew about that. It used to be that they were always of a man and a woman, but sometimes now the happy couple are of the same sex. I also knew about that.
But there was another change I hadn’t noticed before because you have to read the text and pay close attention. There was a day when a substantial number of the weddings announced took place in the Episcopal Church. Not any more. Out of forty or fifty notices, I saw that just two were in the Episcopal Church. Well, we knew church attendance was down but that wasn’t all. Where were these young couples – and some middle-aged couples – getting married? If not the Episcopal Church, where? It wasn’t the Methodist church or the Presbyterian Church or the Baptist Church or Roman Catholic Church or even some sort of Pentecostal place. No, the largest number were being married in hotels and resorts and by a minister of the Universal Life Church – which is not a church at all but an organization that sells ordination certificates for people who want to get married and have no church connection. Often the newspaper notice said the wedding was performed by a brother or sister or friend of the bride or groom “who was ordained for the occasion by the Universal Life Church.” In other words, there was no real church connection of any kind.
Now, that’s an amazing transformation of the religious landscape and social landscape in one generation. No wonder you don’t see bigger crowds on Sunday morning. I went to a meeting yesterday at which we had a report that church attendance at Episcopal Churches in the Diocese of California is down by a third in the last eight years. It’s as if the world has changed in one generation, as if we’ve come into a whole new world where traditional faith is an optional extra.
Maybe when we think about that we can appreciate better the situation of the Hebrew slaves who passed through the Red Sea in this morning’s reading. They passed through the Red Sea into a terrifying new world: a desert stretching endlessly in all directions with no familiar landmarks, with no sense of direction, with no slave masters to tell them what to do. Free at last, free at last, but now what? How do you begin again and build a new society?
I think we may be in the position of the Hebrew slaves who had lived in a familiar society, familiar landscape, for generations, and suddenly they were somewhere else and needed to construct a new society, a new world in which to live. I wonder how people hear that first reading if they live on the Gulf Coast and remember Hurricane Katrina or the New York area and remember Hurricane Sandy. I wonder how it sounds to come to church and hear about passing through walls of water into a new world. I think not only Americans but Japanese and Filipinos and others may come to the story now with a very different perspective. We have watched the walls of water sweep in on the coasts of Japan and Mindanao. We have seen the waves surge through the streets of New Orleans and New York City, and we have been reminded of how powerless we are in the face of water. It gives me a new respect for those Hebrew refugees who went into the Red Sea between the walls of water. Would you have done that?
I wonder whether there has been any turning point in history more critical. Suppose they had turned back. Suppose they had gone back into the old, comfortable familiar slavery. Often in years to come they did wish they had done exactly that. They came to Moses and said, “Have you brought us out into the wilderness to kill us? Were there no graves in Egypt?” At least when you’re a slave you don’t have much to worry about: no bills to pay, no income tax, no elections to vote in. Suppose they had gone back: did God have an alternative plan to bring down the Ten Commandments and create a monotheistic faith and send the Messiah? We’ll never know. But we do know that the Hebrews went into the Red Sea and came out the other side and had a history that changed the world forever.
What’s that got to do with us? Well, where are we? Where are we, the Church of the Incarnation, on September 14, 2014? Are we ready to pass between walls of water and change the world as we prepare to move into our second century? Or are we maybe wishing we could turn the clock back and have things the way they used to be? Moses made a speech at the end of his life in which he explained why they were there, why God had called them. He said: “The LORD did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because you were more in number than any people; for you were the fewest of all people: But because the LORD loved you . . .” And, you know, that’s a pattern: that’s how God works. God took a rag-tag mob of slaves and made them a chosen people and changed the world.
Later, when God asked Gideon to rescue the people, Gideon assembled a powerful army but God winnowed out the troops that responded, deliberately, so Gideon was left with a tiny band that coudn’t possibly have defeated the Midianites, the enemy, by their own power and no one could say, “We did it ourselves.” They couldn’t have done it themselves, but with God’s help they did it.
When God called Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul wrote to the Corinthians to explain how God works: He wrote: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” But God used Paul and his little band of converts, weak and despised and persecuted though they were, to change the world.
So where are we, the Church of the Incarnation, on September 14, 2014? Are we ready to change the world? Or are we maybe wishing we could turn back and have things the way they used to be? Moses’ rabble of slaves knew exactly how things used to be and the security they left behind, but they went ahead between those walls of water with death on both sides and no telling when the wind would stop and the waters might roll back. They went ahead with no clue what lay on the other side. They went ahead.
I was remembering recently how I used to drive around the northwest corner of Connecticut. Mostly I was alone and going on church business but once in awhile I’d go somewhere with someone else driving and then I would see things at the side of the road I didn’t know were there: a house, a garden, a waterfall. It was interesting, but it was never anything I needed to know to get where I was going. So I didn’t see it when I was driving myself because I had to keep my eyes on the road ahead.
Now, picture those slaves stopping to look at those walls of water: I’ll bet there were things to see they would never have seen any other time: sharks maybe, or shipwrecks, or a rare shell. Suppose they had stopped to pick something up. How long was that wall going to stay in place? What are the walls around us? Have you stopped to look? I have. What is it that so threatens us that we sometimes wonder whether we’ll make it through? When I stop to look around I see some threatening walls of water that make me wonder sometimes whether we can make it through. There’s apathy: that’s the wall on the left. Apathy: all those nominal members who don’t really contribute much. Maybe they come to church whenever they can, but lots of things can get in the way. Maybe they even make a pledge but not enough to affect their life style. I wonder if their neighbors would ever guess that God is calling them to make a difference in this community. Apathy could swamp us; the wall of apathy could just sweep back and we would be sunami victims, refugees on the Gulf Coast.
The wall on the other side might be – well, there are various terms you could use, but let’s try “personality clashes.” Jerry can’t get along with Suzie; Sam can’t stand working with Griselda. I’ll bet some of those fleeing slaves had built up a whole lot of those over the years. “I just can’t work with Caleb because I’m trying to build this pyramid and he’s always talking about what he saw on television last night; drives me crazy.” You can stop and look at those walls if you want and agonize over them, but wouldn’t it be better to keep on walking and get through the Red Sea and find out what’s over there on the other side before the water rolls back and the opportunity is gone? You take time to stop and critique someone else’s performance or non-performance and you may never make it across.
Water is dangerous stuff. People in Japan and New Jersey and the Philippines and New Orleans know that now if they didn’t before. But have you stopped to wonder why people choose to live in places like that anyway? Why would anyone settle down that close to the water when we know what water can do? Well, they live there because water is also a source of life. You can make a living out of fishing and out of commerce. Who would live in the midwest if not for the Mississippi? Who would live in San Francisco, or New York or London if not for the water-borne commerce? The Book of Revelation pictures a stream of water flowing through the new Jerusalem and wherever the water comes it brings life. Rivers bring life. They also bring floods, and bring death.
I like to point out to parents of a baby to be baptized that water is a sign of death. We symbolically sink that child down between the walls of water, bury the child in the water, because that child needs to pass through death as we all do to come to the place of life. Baptism is a symbol of life in the church; it’s what the Hebrews were doing in the Red Sea; passing through death to get to life. But we get there by keeping our eyes on the goal, on the road ahead, not being distracted by what other people around us are doing or not doing; just keeping straight on, doing what needs to be done.
And don’t worry about the Egyptians either. Yes, they have a pretty big army and all the latest equipment: chariots with real wheels on them, horses that can outrun you without trying. Much good it did them. Why are we so fixated on the numbers game? If we need more people, God will know that before we do and provide. But maybe we have all the people we need to do what needs to be done. It’s not about success; it’s about serving God. We Americans have the strongest army in the history of the world but that isn’t going to decide the course of world events. It’s not size and human power that determines the outcome. If you read the Bible, you can’t help getting that message. The Romans had the biggest army in the middle east but the Roman empire crumbled and the Christian church survived. When God calls people to serve the Kingdom, God provides the means to do the job. Not the power we might have liked to have but enough with faith, just barely enough, to do what needs to be done.
And one more thing: did you notice what Moses did by way of leadership? Stretched out his hand. That’s all: just stretched out his hand. Was he the first one through or the last? The Bible doesn’t say. Maybe he just stood there with his hand out and let people do their thing. Sometimes people who want to be leaders can get in the way. Moses maybe knew that and just stood back and watched. It’s not leadership to do things for people; that cripples them. It’s leadership to stand back and let people do what needs doing themselves.
The Chinese sage, Lao-tse once said: A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: “We did it ourselves.”
And indeed that is what God wants you to say. Because you are the people of God in this place. Tsunamis and hurricanes are probably not much of a threat in the Sunset, the Red Sea is a long way off, but our situation is not much different from that of Moses and the Hebrew people or Paul and the people of Corinth. God has given us amazing resources: a wonderful building, deeply committed people, and a job to do. We have much for which to be thankful and if we keep our eyes on the land ahead and keep walking, keep on walking, just keep on walking with confidence that God will get us through God will keep those walls of water right where they are as long as necessary for us to cross over. And we will cross over, and we will give God the praise.
© 2014 by Chistopher L Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Lectionary Readings: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearA_RCL/Pentecost/AProp19_RCL.html (Track 1)