Sunday, October 2, 2022

Phil Kniss: To be on God’s side

Roots and Tendrils: God Grows a People
Liberated People (World Communion Sunday)
Exodus 14:5-7, 10-14, 21-29

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We’re moving forward in our biblical narrative.
And we’re moving forward in our understanding of God.
Every picture reveals something more of God’s character.

In the story of Noah
    we learned God deeply loves all creation,
    and is committed to see it thrive and experience shalom.
In the story of Abram and Sarai,
    we learned God invests in a particular people,
    so that, through them, God might bless all people and nations.

Today, in the story of the Hebrews escaping Egypt,
    we are shown one of God’s most enduring . . .
        and beloved . . . and troubling character traits—
        God’s preferential treatment of the poor and oppressed.

Yes, God practices preferential treatment.
    God has favorites.
    God is biased.
    God takes a side in human affairs.
    And that sounds like Good News Gospel for one side,
        and maddening religious heresy for the other.

Am I overstating it? You decide, after we explore Exodus.

The story we read this morning,
    is just one pivotal point in a much longer story about
        how the Hebrew people got to Egypt to begin with,
        why they ended up being enslaved,
        how they got out of the death trap they were in,
        how they coped with their sudden unexpected freedom,
        and all the ups and downs and ins and outs
            of becoming a people knit together in covenant with God.

When we read the story of crossing the Red Sea all by itself,
    it’s easy to mistakenly assume the main point of the story
        is to prove how powerful God is,
        that God can and will defy nature
            to part the waters and miraculously bless his people.

Typically, we spend a lot of interpretive energy
    on that one spectacular act—parting the waters.
The details are what people get into arguments about,
    what some people try to argue is a literal, historic event,
    and others try to explain in more academic and rational terms,
        like that it’s not what we know as the Red Sea,
        but a “reed sea,” a more marshy environment.
    Meanwhile, we all have etched in our mind’s eye
        the image of Charleton Hesston holding up his arms
            in the classic movie,
            while 100-foot walls of sea water rise up on either side
                and thousands of Israelites, and their livestock,
                walk miles across,
            before the sea crashes down with a fury
                drowning the Egyptian army and their horses.

To even conjure up that scene is off-putting, especially this week,
    after two hurricanes laid waste to large sections of
    Puerto Rico and Florida and other coastal communities.

Exodus states that Yahweh sent a strong east wind
    to pile up the water and dry off the sea bed,
    and then brought the water back again where it was.

With this Exodus story on my mind
    I watched video of Hurricane Ian,
        where winds north of the eye wall
            drove the water out to sea,
            leaving boats sitting on the dry sea bed;
        and south of the eye wall
            winds pushed a 12-foot wall of water inland,
            flooding homes and vehicles
            and drowning people and animals.

A little surreal.
    But I’ll chalk it up to pure coincidence.
    There’s no meaning or connection behind it, in my mind.
    Wind moving water is just something that happens in our world.

The real story here in Exodus,
    is not God moving a wall of water.
The story is God revealing to the world, for all time,
    God’s strong bias against the oppressor,
        and for the oppressed.
    What is uncovered here,
        is that God has a preference for certain kinds of people.

Now . . . if we have a little gut reaction, a small pang of resistance
    to the idea that God has a preference for certain people,
        or is biased, or takes sides in human affairs . . .
    it probably says something about
    which side of the social balance scale we find ourselves on.

Yes, even while I preach that God is biased toward the oppressed,
    I find myself mostly on the opposite side
        of where God is weighing in.
    I have to face up to my own internal resistance.

But rather than resist or protest, I really should listen more deeply.
Given the racial reckoning of our day,
    given our coming to terms with the persistent harm
    caused by socially ingrained white supremacist ideology,
    we ought to read Exodus with our eyes and ears wide open.

Now is the time and place in our biblical narrative,
    to hand it over to other interpreters of Exodus
    whose own lived history and daily experiences
        more closely resonates with what the Hebrews went through.

White preachers and scholars descended from Western Europeans,
    and trained in the disciplines of classical theology, like myself,
    maybe don’t have the best social location,
        to rightly interpret the God who freed Hebrew slaves.

For many African Americans descended from enslaved people,
    for many Latin American Christians oppressed by dictatorships
        propped up by western governments and corporations,
    for Jews shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust,
    this story of the Exodus
        is not just one of many interesting stories in the Hebrew Bible.
It is THE prominent story they keep returning to—
    it’s their heart story that resonates most deeply with them,
    it’s the story that is most formative
        for their understanding of who God is.

These people of faith see in Yahweh
    a God who is not just bothered, but enraged,
    when human beings oppress other humans.

Oppressing others is the worst way to fail our divine calling.
    It is the worst way to corrupt and obscure the divine image in us.
    When human beings, loved by God,
        abuse other human beings, equally loved by God,
        it’s an insult to God.
        It is saying to God’s face that God’s love is meaningless.
        It is denying God’s love for those persons we oppress,
            and God’s love for us.

This story of the Exodus is the sacred text
    for understanding that God is above all else, a liberator.

James Cone, the influential black liberation theologian, said,
    “a Gospel that doesn’t liberate is no Gospel at all.”

In his book God of the Oppressed about 25 years ago,
    he wrote, and I quote,
“The biblical God is the God whose salvation is liberation.
    God is the God of Jesus Christ who calls the helpless and weak
        into a newly created existence.
    God not only fights for them
        but takes their humiliated condition upon the divine Person
        and thereby breaks open a new future for the poor,
        different from their past and present miseries.”

In other words, James Cone is saying
    God not only became one with all humanity in his incarnation,
        but God became one with the oppressed in Jesus’ crucifixion.
    Through the cross, God not only sided with the oppressed,
        God became the oppressed.

Traditionally, white evangelicalism and western Protestantism
    tend to make God’s salvation entirely personal,
        the aim is to keep us from eternal damnation.

    Well, being saved from damnation might be good motivation
        for us who live in relative comfort.
    But if you are on the underside of society,
        if you are being oppressed,
        you don’t need potential damnation to
            make you respond to God’s salvation.
    You are already in a living hell.
    You are looking for liberation.

I owe those thoughts to Jonny Rashid,
    an Arab-American pastor in Philadelphia,
    author of a book just released through Herald Press, entitled,
        Jesus Takes a Side.

That’s not been my default way of thinking about salvation.
    But it’s what I hear when I listen to
        voices of my sisters and brothers who are
        Black, Indigenous, or People of Color.
    The Gospel message is salvation from oppression and suffering—
        present and future.

I feel it’s my responsibility to keep listening.
    More than responsibility,
        my spiritual life is at stake if I don’t keep listening.
    Because the most challenging question is not
        whose side God is on.
        That’s been well established.
        That question was answered,
            and the cross of Jesus put an exclamation point on it.
        The question of my life is,
            will I choose to be on God’s side?
        Do my passion and commitments line up
            with God’s passion and commitments?

Of course, when we come to the communion table,
    the Lord’s Supper,
    we come remembering our salvation.

Our social location shapes how we see this table.
    Is this a safe little ritual involving a morsel of bread,
        and a sip from a tiny cup?
    Or is this a liberation meal? like the Passover was?

    On this World Communion Sunday,
        in solidarity with all our oppressed sisters and brothers
            around the world,
        in solidarity with the black church,
            the church of indigenous peoples,
            the church of immigrants and refugees,
        I invite us to see the table that’s set before us
            as a meal of liberation.
        To see that the broken body and blood of Jesus
            means God becomes one with all who are oppressed,
                no matter what kind of oppression,
            and God offers to liberate us.

—Phil Kniss, October 2, 2022

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