We come to the end of the congregational study of Exodus. I believe over 70 of our congregation participated in this Kerygma series. I tip my stole to Clover and to the leadership of Adult Education who are equipping us to be serious biblical scholars and learning our story. And, in so doing, to approach life with deeper knowledge and discernment. Well done.
President Reagan once said: “If you lose your memory, you have lost your identity.” This is true for each person and for all peoples. Being a Christian is not so much being tied to a particular way of acting as it is being bound by a particular story. A lot of people do good things – some call themselves Christians.
I have a good friend, as many of you know, whose name is Amos. We have been friends for over 35 years. And as Deanne and the family can attest, when we get together we end up telling the same old stories (with added coloring for emphasis; don’t ever let the facts get in the way of a good story!) over and over and over again. There is the Jack Forgraves story. And the Phoebe Brown story, OH the Phoebe Brown story! And there is the much-elaborated-upon stories of athletic heroics, and we laugh and we laugh and we laugh. We have been through much together. We are so different in so many ways: A Christian pastor and a secular Jew. If we were just meeting today – who knows if we would become friends. But – we have narrative, memory, a story. We are bound together.
I am sure over the Thanksgiving dinner table you shared lots of stories. Perhaps you were very aware of the absence of particular stories and people. It is our stories that identify us: as a Lentz, as a Christian, as an American. Each of these narratives name and claim me. You can tell a lot about a person by their stories.
Exodus is a story of a people and a God who hears, redeems, saves, liberates, instructs, leads. Consider what you have learned. “God”, in the Hebrew story, is more than a nice idea, a philosophical notion. God is passionate, powerful, able to be hurt, changes his mind, always hovering over the chaos that we bring and adapting.
God is about justice -the saving kind, equity kind – spreading the abundance, providing enough for everyone – no one is left out. God is the 99% – among the people, occupying not only Wall Street and Public Square – but occupying all of earth and all of life – demanding fairness. But as the story unfolds God’s love also embraces the 1%, even the .01% – holding us all accountable. Personally, I like that in a God.
And yet, the inspired genius of the first memory keepers and story tellers doesn’t let God just become an extension of our imagination. God who, at times, is embarrassingly vulnerable is also totally “other,” cannot be boxed in, cannot be limited – always living into the divine name YHWH – like a breath – YHWH – “I am who I will be.”
God is described as a cloud of presence – perhaps like the condensation of breath on a cold day. The very metaphor we use often for confusion or uncertainty – “it’s cloudy” becomes the way to describe God’s presence at the end of Exodus. Sometimes God is so close, and sometimes God feels so far away. Sometimes God makes sense of everything….and sometimes it makes no sense at all.
If you don’t like stories with ambiguity, twists and turns, teases, starts and stops, horrors, death, mayhem, mystery, metaphor, intrigue, intimacy – well, then, maybe you are too literal, too critical and frankly, a little too boring!
And here, in the last scene of the last story of Exodus : the completion of the set up of the tabernacle of the tent of meeting (bulletin cover!) “Moses did everything that the Lord had commanded him. Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; he spread the tent over the tabernacle. He took the covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above the ark… and set up the screening… he put the table in the tent of meeting, on the north side of the tabernacle, outside the curtain… he set the basin between the tent of meeting and the altar… so Moses finished the work.”(40: 16-33) and I only read about 4 verses out of 17!
Then the divine presence of God descends in a cloud and “the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” God is in the midst of his people, dwelling with them. It is the same kind of vision with which our Bible ends in Revelation, chapter 21: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth… See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.”
It is the same story that we are preparing for now as church with our Jesse Tree – Emmanuel, God with us – INCARNATION – God in flesh and breath and blood, dwelling with us, becoming one of us but always in freedom – bound to us but not bound by us.
Terence Fretheim, who wrote a wonderful commentary on Exodus, sub-titles his last chapter “Israel in an Advent Mode.” How coincidental that we find ourselves at the first Sunday of Advent. Fretheim reminds me that these stories in Exodus were gathered most likely during Israel’s exile in Babylon – a thousand years later. The people need to remember their story, remember their identity so that they could prepare themselves for a return. Those in the fog of exile, needed to remember that God was present still and had not forgotten them.
We share our story of Advent at this present time of wandering – of distress, of wondering, of political partisanship, of economic hardship, of Arab Springs, and warm autumns, polls tell us that we are not feeling good about ourselves. Both the Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movements indicate deeper yearnings – we want the clouds to disperse – BUT the faith story is that the presence of God is in the midst of the mist – God is not outside of the cloud of divorce, or unemployment, or disaster… or the love, or the tenderness, or the tears, or the laughter… God among us, dwelling among us – descending and ascending – finding a home, moving beyond, providing the manna, and leading us on. Neither the journey nor the story is over.
I want you to think about what your story is – be honest – what narratives shape your life. Who you are right now, what you are going through, right now – In exile? In the wilderness? In the promised land?
How might this story of a God who moves like a cloud, or is born like a baby, or is nailed to a cross, shape your story, comfort your affliction or afflict your comfort?
As we enter now the winter season…The forecast may be cloudy – but we do not despair! For we have stories to share. We have a story of bread broken and cup poured out – of a divine love so rich and merciful that God offers his own body and her own blood – Emmanuel, to show us how deep and wide – that there is no longer any gulf. God really is occupying our space, our place, our time – at each stage of the journey – moving us onward.
That is my story.
And I’m sticking with it!