September 17, 2017
I ran across a quote this week that really had me thinking. Someone named Craig Hamilton said, “it is possible to come into such profound alignment with the moral and spiritual axis of the universe that every moment of your life is a walk in grace and that you know without any doubt that you are in the right place at the right time.” I wonder how many of us have truly felt what Mr. Hamilton describes, and for those who have felt it, I wonder how deeply you desire to feel it again. I consider myself fortunate to know one person who has always modeled this for me, my step-father Tom Smith. Every day for him is full of gratitude and grace and it is a beautiful thing to witness. It encourages the rest of us.
I also know that life can have this way of taking the wind out of our sails, leaving us in a state of feeling trapped. And when we feel trapped, it seems, we only want what we used to have, no matter how bad that was. It is as though we forget how it really was, and when this happens you can forget even trying to move forward, because the only goal it seems is to just go back to what used to be because at least that was known.
Manchester by the Sea
At the beginning of this summer Amy & I made spending time together a priority and one of the things we did was add a bunch of movies to our Amazon Que so that we could watch them together. Each movie we watched was beautiful in its own way, and I believe all of them left us crying. By the way, if any of you are ever looking for a good cleansing cry then just ask Amy for the titles to some of these movies because they sure did open our floodgates.
Now one movie, Manchester By the Sea, was brutal and beautiful at the same time. It depicts the story of a man who was totally collapsed from trauma and simply could not re-enter life fully again. This man, Lee Chandler, is a broken man to say the least, and rather sadly he never experiences the full redemption that is possible, and while this might upset some people, the fact of the matter is that not everyone in life does experience full redemption, which should upset us. Unfortunately, people live alone, isolated, and beaten down, and sadly most of society is either too busy or too distracted or worse too apathetic to get involved. I, for one, truly believe we would all be better if we got involved.
Now, throughout this entire movie, Lee is hollowed out and collapsed, shoulders hunched, as though he is doing everything he can to protect his heart from further pain. This is a movie of an “everyman” whose tragedy and sorrow are bigger than his ability to cope, especially when he thinks he must cope alone. Lee’s wounds and heartache are all seen through details of his earlier lived trauma which has lead him to this place where he does not want to talk to people. Where he is now, simply, tragically existing, often without emotion and always not wanting to feel anything. This lived trauma happened years earlier, but Lee stop living and stopped experiencing life because of it, even to the point where late in the movie when you might think there is some light breaking through this dim existence, you hear Lee say, “I just can’t beat it!”
Now he is not talking about drugs or alcohol or any other kind of addiction in the way we understand addictions today. When Lee says he can’t beat it he is talking about the haunting memory of the night his house burned to the ground and his children died and his belief that it was all his fault. Lee became enslaved to his memory and his pain and no one and nothing could deliver him from it.
Exodus and its Themes
If you were here last week, or if you happened to read or listen to my sermon from last week, you know that we began talking about the Exodus story and its theme of Deliverance. You may even recall me saying that the Exodus, the great journey of the Hebrew people out of slavery and finally into the Promised Land, is an archetype of the interior spiritual journey from entrapment to liberation. It is, I believe, the universal story.
Today we continue that discussion and as we travel through the Book of Exodus over the next couple of weeks we will continue to discuss ways in which God seeks to Deliver God’s people from bondage, oppression and slavery. So, keeping the theme of deliverance and liberation at the forefront of our minds, I want us to read today’s passage from the mindset of the Israelites. In reading it this way it is my hope that we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for all the ways they were needing God to deliver them. And then maybe, just maybe, we will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for all of the ways we ourselves need to be set free.
Being Set Free?
As Theologian Rob Bell says, “it is stories like these, found in the Bible, that have the power to transform the way you think and feel about everything.” It seems, though, that this power is only unleashed on those who get out of their own way and let stories like the Israelites deliverance wash over them and lead them to better understand themselves and their own need for deliverance. Make no mistake, you may not literally be a slave to an Egyptian Pharaoh, but that doesn’t mean you don’t know what it is like to be enslaved.
Physical bondage was only one aspect of the Israelites lives needing deliverance. You all know this story backwards and forwards I suspect and because you know the story so well, you know their story of deliverance is the same today and will be the same tomorrow. I wonder, though, how many ways you think the Israelites were captive and who was holding them in such a captive, oppressed state? Was their situation only about physical slavery? Was Pharaoh solely responsible for their enslavement?
Before we can answer that question we probably need to look at a few verses before verse 19, so listen now to verses 11-12, “11 They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.”
What is wrong with you Moses, can’t you see that we can’t beat this?
I have Mark Ashworth to thank for pointing something out to me about this story. This past Wednesday evening he and I were discussing where I was headed with my sermon and he said, “isn’t it amazing to think that by this point in their journey, they were no longer slaves in Egypt, yet they remained enslaved.” You see, physical slavery was only part of their enslaved life, for no longer were they physical slaves to Pharaoh, yet they wanted to go back to that life. How can that be? Why would anyone, once a slave and now free, desire to return to being a slave? Now I do not profess to know all of the reasons why, but I do believe the mind of a human being can serve to oppress and enslave us just like an actual slave master does.
At this point in the story, the Israelites no longer needed physical freedom, they needed freedom from the oppression of their minds. They needed to be delivered from the stronghold known as fear because fear had overtaken them as they journeyed in the wilderness. They needed to be delivered from their desire to return to the life they knew, because theirs was a desire for the familiar, not for freedom. Where their minds desired to trap them in the past, God desired to deliver them into a free future.
Father Richard Rohr says, “We get trapped in chains of guilt and low self-esteem…” and I believe he is right. It seems we get trapped there instead of reaching forward and embracing our own deliverance. We need always to remember that our job is to love others the way God has loved us. I believe most of us here have experienced God’s unearned love again and again. I believe most of us can say that God has persistently broken the rules to love us at the level we needed. God has persistently broken the rules to love us in a way we could receive. God has persistently broken the rules to love us in a way that we could understand. This is the reason each and every one of us can say the generous selfless nature of divine love keeps liberating us at deeper levels where we find ourselves still trapped.
FBC Jamestown’s History
Over the past few months, but especially this past week, I’ve taken some time to read about the history of our church, and this week in particular something stood out to me. Almost twenty years ago the wonderful people of this Church dedicated time to begin brainstorming about the church and what they would like to see. I want you to hear some of the things said:
Taking this small amount of time and dedicating it to reading about a portion of our Church’s history opened my eyes to many things, but one thing stuck out to me more than anything else this Church has been talking about the same issues for approximately twenty years. Now I’m not exactly sure why these issues have stayed around for so long, but isn’t it telling to discover that they have? At what point will we work through these issues and come out on the other side? Is there more that needs to be discussed about any of these issues before action can be taken? The kind of action that moves the church forward.
These are serious questions which deserve serious discussion and resolution, if this Church no longer desires to be enslaved to its past. Do you see that? For almost twenty years when it comes to certain issues the past has defined our present. I for one say no more. Today needs to be a new day. Today needs to be the first day of the new First Baptist Church of Jamestown, a church delivered from its slavery. A church liberated to become a community living out of its imagination.
Do any of us know for sure where we will go once we are freed from the bondage? The short answer is no, but don’t let our inability to know beforehand continue starve us from the mystery that is life.
Don’t let our inability to know everything about the future enslave us to the past.
Don’t let our inability to know beforehand lead us to only desire returning to our past.
Don’t let our inability to know all the details of the future deprive us from the joy that always comes when we experience the Grace & Mercy inherent in Deliverance.
Not knowing where we are going is not a death sentence, but continuing to be slaves to the ways things used to be done, or choosing not to participate in moving forward; or believing your only option is to return to your former enslavement, can be. The Israelites were furious with Moses as they journeyed through the wilderness. [vv. 11-12] “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? 12 Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians.” The Israelites didn’t need God to deliver them from physical slavery, they needed God to deliver them from their own mental enslavement, and there are times we do to.
So, the question for us is this, how are we going to get out of Egypt this year? God’s Grace and Mercy can deliver us. It is part of the universal story. No one ever said it would be easy, no one ever promised that we would know exactly what the future looked like before we arrived, but that should not keep us trapped. The Good news is that we don’t have to face it alone. We have each other, and unlike Lee Chandler, I truly believe we can beat today’s entrapment that has been caused by yesterday’s memories. In a recent article, my friend Dr. Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches asked churches this question, “will your life together be primarily shaped by your MEMORIES or by your IMAGINATION? ... Neither can exist in an appropriate way without the other.
However, the default position of the vast majority of congregations and parishes is to lean most heavily upon the familiar, the known, the former. Our imaginations grow weak from lack of use as we loop repeatedly back to what is comfortable and predictable.”
It is my prayer that we stop looping, so:
May we start living primarily out of our imagination;
May we pay homage to the memories and traditions without being trapped and enslaved by them; and
May we start the journey toward freedom knowing that God’s Grace & Mercy will be there to deliver us each and every step of the way!