In the Lectionary we’ve been in Exodus for a few weeks now. This morning is no exception. The alternative was a short passage from Philippians, which is a message about being of one heart and mind, and in Matthew’s gospel we have an exchange between Jesus and his accusers on the subject of authority.
At first the readings don’t appear to have much in common, but I think there’s a lesson in each for us at this time as we simultaneously emerge from lockdown and head perilously close to it again.
So I’ve called this talk: Lessons for the Journey. In Exodus the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness, and this seems rather a good description, I think, of what it’s felt like to be church in the last six months. We’ve had to leave what we knew of as normal, without really knowing what our destination will be. It is certainly difficult to make plans whilst in this in between stage, so do keep praying for the Church Wardens, Christine and myself as we navigate this period, with the help of Tanya and the music leaders and IT gurus amongst us.
The escape from slavery in Egypt is one the foundational stories of the Old Testament, but it’s about a lot more than gaining physical freedom. There must be some human tendency, I think, to forget the gains we have made and the blessings we have received. It seems that as soon as we get what we longed for, we want to go back to what we had before.
The Israelites had longed for freedom; they’d no doubt prayed for it over many generations. And God heard their cry and sent them deliverance in the form of Moses and Aaron, to get them out of Egypt.
But it seems no sooner were they out of Egypt, they wanted to return. ‘The people complained against Moses, and said “why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our livestock and children with thirst?”’ This was one of the first of a catalogue of complaints against Moses that would continue for 40 years.
As Danielle Strickland has pointed out, in her book about Exodus, you can take the people out of Egypt but you can’t take Egypt out of the people. The Israelites’ wanderings in the desert turned into a long lesson that God was trying to teach them: that is, where God leads, he always provides. The wilderness taught them the very hard lesson of trust. I’m not sure they even got it by the end.
And perhaps that’s a good place for us to start in terms of lessons for our journey. Many people feel like they’re in the wilderness at the moment. It’s an in between time – we’re not out of the woods yet as far as Covid goes – but at the same time, we’re in a different place than we were six months ago. I’m not sure if to you it feels worse or better than in March when all this began…
Being in between demands a spirituality that can thrive in a liminal space. Liminal comes from the Latin ‘limen’, meaning a threshold. A liminal space is where you have left the shore of the old place, but have not yet arrived at the new place. You have to let go of what you had before, but before you can embrace what is coming, you are living with neither one thing nor the other. That was me this time last year as I spent exactly two weeks not technically being the minister of either Whitchurch or St John and St Stephen’s! Being in liminal space can be daunting, but it can also be liberating.
In the wilderness the Israelites were free outwardly, but it would take a lot longer to become free inwardly. They had lived in subjugation for so long, they had forgotten how to take responsibility for their own moral actions, and they complain to Moses like children. Instead of trusting God’s provision they feel God has abandoned them to an early grave.
As we are in between what we remember as normal, and what things are beginning to feel like now, we are also in liminal space and need to trust that where God leads, he also provides.
I wonder, what has been your experience of God’s provision? Do you feel that you need to take matters into your own hands when it comes to a crisis, or do you find it easy to trust that God will provide? I don’t know about you, but my experience of God’s provision is that sometimes it feels as though it’s a bit last minute; it doesn’t necessarily look like how I imagined it would be, and it tends to emerge piecemeal rather than ready-made.
But emerge it does, and often when we are listening to one another and sharing what we really need from each other. This is what we’re trying to do as a leadership team as I meet weekly with Christine, Ian and Rosemary.
Our church family is being moulded through this crisis. New IT skills are emerging (painful though it may feel sometimes!); we are making new connections with people who have not felt able to come to church in recent years, and we are thinking about a more diverse worship offering.
I wonder how your spirituality is developing in this time? Maybe you can find someone to talk this through with. On Tuesday a group of us met to be trained as encouragers/mentors so that eventually you will be able to have a one to one conversation with someone who’s mature, about your walk with God, and it might prove quite life changing in this liminal time.
So to briefly look at the other two readings: and here’s one thought from Philippians and then one from Matthew. “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”
Boris Johnson read this passage at a recent Battle of Britain Commemoration Service (slide).
This is basically our country’s mantra at the moment, straight from the bible! Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer has said it is our ‘collective responsibility’ to manage the present Covid upsurge and Boris Johnson has said we must ‘Act now together’. The gift of the church to the world is that we know where the impetus to consider others before ourselves comes from. Its origin is not a begrudging sense of duty, but nothing less than the self-emptying of Jesus Christ – technical term: ‘kenosis’. If Christ, who was divine, emptied himself of power in order to serve others, we can take our example from him.
Which leads us finally to Matthew, and the true nature of authority. Authority is also a hot topic at the moment. It is alluded to in each of the three readings; in fact you could say it’s the thread that ties them together. In complaining at Moses, Exodus makes it clear that the people were really complaining at God, and rejecting his authority. They do the same when later they ask Samuel for a king to be set over them, like the other nations have. And the moral of that story was: be careful what you wish for.
Christ’s authority is predicated on his self-emptying. Only by going down, can he go up, as it were (to use the language of Richard Rohr’s book Falling Upwards). Death precedes resurrection and only Christ’s sacrificial death disarms the principalities and powers. Yes, every knee will bow: this is the wish of all tyrants that every knee would bow to them, but only Christ will legitimately receive universal homage.
In Matthew, Jesus is challenged to defend his authority. “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” is the Pharisees’ question. He answers with another question and a parable. In effect the three readings pose these three questions: Was Moses’ authority from God? Was John the Baptist’s authority from God? Was Jesus’s authority from God? The answer in all three cases is yes. But only those with obedient hearts were able to perceive this. That’s why following God is less about ‘can you answer these questions correctly?’ and more about ‘is your heart in the right place?’
It’s like a man who had two sons, says Jesus: their father asked them for help in the vineyard. The first said okay, but didn’t go. The other initially said no, but later he went. Which one is heading into the kingdom, is the question. The Pharisees didn’t recognize God in John the Baptist and they don’t recognize God in Jesus. And they’re the religious ones! All is not as it seems in the kingdom, and all is not as it seems with regards to authority.
Authority is being tested in our public life as never before. The safeguarding of our common life in this country depends more than ever on people being obedient to political authority. It’s something we may not have given much thought to before Covid, but when our personal and social freedoms are limited by rules pertaining to the virus, the authority of our leaders, and our own obedience, is really tested.
We don’t easily follow leaders who seem, for whatever reason, not to deserve our obedience. That’s why when public trust in leaders is low we’re in trouble. As well as structural authority, we recognize authority based on experience and then inner authority, which is harder to define. The crowds followed Jesus, not because he had authority bestowed upon him by an outward structure, and not even because he had the relevant life experience, but because he had that inner authority – wisdom-authority. The word ‘authority’ in Greek is ‘ex-ousia’ meaning out of one’s being.
We tend to recognize spiritual authority when we see it in someone. It’s often not vested in the loudest person, but in the one listening, the one waiting for the right moment to offer a pearl of wisdom. It’s not something we can manufacture; instead it is born out of lives joyfully submitted to Christ.
So, Lessons for the Journey: Firstly we need a spirituality that is able to deal with liminality. Secondly in our present crisis, it is noteworthy that being unselfish is suddenly very much in vogue. And finally, the kingdom is indeed, as Peter pointed out last week, a topsy-turvy one: like Christ, we have to go down before we can go up. Spiritual authority comes from an inner attitude of humility and obedience to Christ. This is only kind of authority with which we can speak or act as Christians at this time.