Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sermon for November 13, 2005

Out of Egypt: Deliverance
Exodus 14:15-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58

For me, one of the most powerful prayers in all of Scripture has no words, no vocal sounds. It’s actually nothing more than the sound of a footstep. The prayer is the amen of action – our inspired response to an encounter with God.

We hear it in the reading from Exodus. The text before us fairly bursts with descriptive power. The Angel of Death has slain all the firstborn children. You can almost hear the Egyptian parents, even Pharaoh and his family, howling in grief over their lost children. The race against time begins. Moses and his lieutenants jostle the people “This is it! Let’s go! Let’ go! Faster!” They have one night the escape the vise of slavery that held them for almost four hundred years -- one night to escape a prison so familiar that it had become like home to them. It was now or never. Everybody knew that by tomorrow Pharaoh would change his mind. Tomorrow Pharaoh would come to his senses and realize what he had done. Tomorrow would be too late. Tonight was the night. You can almost see the people running breathlessly, grabbing whatever they can, without even glancing backwards.

They dash to the sea. They can’t take the highway to the Promised Land. It’s faster to take the road, but they have to get past six, heavily armed Egyptian outposts. The road was built to withstand the pounding of Egyptian chariots. No – they can’t take the road. They will be run down like animals. Their only hope of survival is in the wilderness of Sinai, and to get there means going through the sea. After a night of running in the dark, thousands of Israelites come to an abrupt halt. The end is right in front of them. The dust of Pharaoh’s chariots is behind them. Terrified, they cling to the banks while Moses urges them on. “Come on! Into the water! Into the water! God will lead the way!” The helpless people stand before Moses, cowering in terror. Finally, with the sound of the Egyptians coming closer and closer, God speaks to Moses -- three Hebrew words: “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.”

That’s it. That’s the answer to their prayers. God says, “Go ahead – you take the first step.” The people are expecting God to respond to their prayers by acting on their behalf. They want God to take out Pharaoh and the army, or do something supernatural. And when it doesn’t happen, they complain. “Why did you bring us out here, Moses. We liked it better when we were slaves in Egypt. It would be better to be slaves rather than die in the desert. They cry out to the Lord and hear, “Mah Tizak Alai. Why do you cry out to me. You take the first step.” In that moment, the people respond to their own prayers for salvation. The sound of their first step into the water of the Sea of Reeds is the amen of action.

Sometimes, we think that a prayer is merely a verbal exercise. We offer God praise as an introduction to our wish list for the week: God, You are good God, You are great God, You are powerful You are awesome Now let’s talk about me for a little while … Think of the last time you offered a prayer. Did it inspire you to take action? Or, was it nothing more than a liturgical lottery ticket offered in the hope that maybe this time your number will come up. Maybe this time your prayer will be heard and merit Divine action.

You know what I think God says to us, sometimes? “Mah Tizak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Go and respond to your own prayer, take a step into the unknown, take a risk and see what will happen.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel suggested that we take not leaps of faith, but rather leaps of action. The record of humankind is divided by those who sat like spectators waiting for their salvation to come from elsewhere, and those who had the faith and the courage to respond to God’s call with the sound of a single step. When we respond to our own prayers with the amen of action, it can change everything.

The situations that we face are no less grave than that of Moses and the Children of Israel standing at the shore of the sea with water on one side and the Egyptian army on the other. Who among us has not felt overwhelmed by the challenges that threaten to wash over us. They may be personal issues: matters of health, finance, or family. They may be more global concerns, hunger, war, natural disasters, or evil in the world. The only question is whether we can hear the answer to our prayers by taking the first step of action, with the faith and confidence that God will be at our side. Wondrous things can happen -- seas can split open -- when people are willing to take a step, to act as the amen to their own prayers.

This morning, as we celebrate 275 years of ministry in Trumbull, I like to think that our spiritual ancestors acted as the amen to their own prayers. Back in England in the 1600’s, every citizen of the kingdom was a member of the Church. A group of Christians gathered, believing that God called them out of the national church. They dreamed of transforming the church from within. They were called Puritans. They thought that if they practiced their disciplines faithfully, the government would bring about renewal. Some reformers were not content to wait. They were called Separatists. The kind of church they believed God wanted, they wanted immediately. They were willing to separate themselves from the state church and establish congregations of their own where they could worship freely. The first separatists made their way to the new world. They were the Pilgrims who eventually landed at Plymouth Rock. A few years later, the flood tide of English Puritans flowed toward America and became the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Pilgrims and Puritans eventually united into what we now call congregational churches. Those Separatists knew the promises of Scripture, and they were ready to die to make their point. If Christ promised to be present to ordinary believers, then that was the kind of church they were determined to be. We are here today because some people acted as the amen to their prayers – they took the first step of action and changed the world.

I think we are ready for our own reformation. We get so busy funding programs and maintaining traditions. But, tradition serves no purpose unless we are also willing to step outside of that tradition to think about what kind of church we can be what kind of church we should be. We are a vibrant family of faith that is beginning to dare to dream of new possibilities with God’s guidance.

Let’s dream of a church in which all who enter in know of God’s consuming love that will never let us go . . . a place where we can come and be reminded that God knows us each by name. Let’s dream of a church where the real presence of the Holy Spirit is renewing and refreshing us. Let’s dream of a church that doesn’t have all the answers but asks the right questions–a church so deeply rooted in the gospel that it can’t be quenched by the rain-driven storms of life.

Let’s dream of a church where worship is joyful, exciting, and expectant, as well as reverent . . . a place where we can come as we are and know we will be accepted and wanted in this place. It’s a church that suffers when you are not here with us. It’s a church where people gather to encourage and be encouraged, to love and be loved, to forgive and be forgiven.

Imagine a church that’s not afraid of change, but a church that is able to see where God is moving and knows how to join Him. It’s a church that calls forth men and women, parents and grandparents, single people, youth, and children who are equipped and sent out to revitalize our families and our community for Jesus Christ. Let’s work for a church where people have the tools to raise their families in a godly way. . . where people are encouraged to reflect God’ s Spirit at school, work, and home. . .where we are all sent out to add value to the lives of other people. It’s a church where there are no status symbols, where the pastor works alongside the people so that we can all be the holy people of God together.

Let’s dream of a church that is so vital to the community that it would be missed if it was no longer around . . . a church so blazing in its worship, its quality of caring, it’s eagerness to reach out to those in need, that it can be seen by all and not contained

Dream, with me, of a church at brink of the sea. Behind us is a world that cares less and less about the institutional church. On the other side of the sea is deliverance. New life. A place where the sting of death is swallowed up in victory. On the other side, our divisions are healed and the church is made whole.

Today we stand on the shore, the waves of the sea lapping at our toes. And a voice is speaking. Can you hear it? The Voice says three words: “Mah Tizhak Alai, Why do you cry out to me? Tell the people to walk forward.” Let us muster the same courage, the same faith and the same vision as did Moses’ generation and walk forward, as individuals and as a church. God walks at our side as we participate in our destiny. With God, we help to form the amen of action.

Sermon for January 21, 2018

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