October 18, 2020: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

We finally made it.  After nine long weeks of wandering in the wilderness, we have arrived—not in the Promised Land mind you*, but at the end of the Exodus readings in the lectionary.  We started all those many weeks ago with Moses’ birth and rescue from the Nile only for him to go on the run and find God in a burning bush.  God called him to be a leader for his people and to tell Pharaoh to let his people go.  Pharaoh kept waffling back and forth as the plagues and signs and locusts would scare him and then strengthen his stubborn resolve until they culminated in the death of the first-born males of Egyptians and animals—the Passover.  So, Moses and his people began their long trek through the wilderness to find the Promised Land.

It was not easy.  Pharaoh had one more change of heart that would lead to one of the most prolific salvation stories ever told—the parting of the Red Sea—it would also lead to Pharaoh’s demise when the waters covered, he and his army and they were drowned in the Red Sea.  Now the Hebrew people were truly free of their oppressors and their sufferings, yet at the first sign of hardship, they complained against Moses and against God—saying they would rather have remained slaves in Egypt because at least there they had their fleshpots to eat from.  And Moses intervened for them and God gave them manna from Heaven.  And yet, they still complained when they became thirsty and Moses intervened and God caused water to gush from a rock.  And still they complained when Moses spent too much time on the mountain where God was establishing rules to govern and grow his relationship with his people and their relationship with one another through the Ten Commandments.  So they made an idol, a golden calf, and worshipped a false god.  And Moses intervenes yet again and convinces God not to destroy this wayward and foolish people.

Now, here we are—our last Sunday in which we tell one of the most significant stories of our salvation experience—it may well be second only to the story of the cross and empty tomb—but it doesn’t end in the Promised Land.  Yes, eventually Moses will get them there but he will not enter the land.  And though the people will, it will not be an easy path nor will it bring peace, stability, or harmony—even to this day.  No, our story ends not with the glorious entrance into a land flowing with milk and honey, but instead with Moses the deliverer, entreating God one more time and intercessing on behalf of the people—the whining, complaining, disloyal, and untrusting people of the Hebrew nation.  God may have agreed not to destroy them after their latest antics with the golden calf, but Moses senses that God may well be distancing himself from them and him.

Moses calls out to God again and asks God to remember that this people who have lost their focus, longed for their past over future possibilities, doubted and betrayed God and Moses, are afraid.  They are afraid not simply of the scarcity that plagues all of us as humans, but they are afraid of abandonment.  They are afraid to live in a world they do not know or understand without the presence of authority.  That is what has made them long for their past—they understood that world, it was well structured and had clear authority even if that authority did not have their best interests at heart.  It is the thing Moses truly understands as the leader of this people—the presence of God, even if it is merely a glimpse of God’s glory, is necessary for this people’s hope and survival.  All the prosperity that has been promised, the freedom that has been established, the commandments that will govern their relationships are not enough without the presence of God.  This is what Moses intercedes for in this last exchange with God—this reminder that this nation is God’s people and that they are distinct from every other people simply because God goes with them.

Jesus reminds us of that in the Temple this morning as well.  “Show me a coin—whose head is this, and whose title?”  “The emperor’s,” they answered.  In this exchange between the priestly class and this rogue prophet named Jesus, we hear the echoes of the fear of abandonment in the malice and argumentative words of the Pharisees—who can we trust in?  Where is our God?  Their fear has led them to do that thing which is not only against the rules, it is in violation of the Ten Commandments—they have brought a graven image into their most holy, most sacred space—the Temple.  A denarius would not be allowed inside these walls—only the shekel.  That is why the money changers exist.  It is against the law to bring a coin with Caesar’s image upon it, and yet this is exactly what they have done.  Their fear of abandonment, their fear of Roman occupation, their fear of loss of identity and scarcity have driven them not simply to reject Jesus but to choose a false god.  And yet, Jesus does not judge, but loves, gently reminding them they are God’s people not the emperor’s.  “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

How easy it is to become distracted by this world.  The Hebrew people of Moses’ day were easily distracted by their fears of scarcity and abandonment.  Instead of trusting in the deliverance of God, they longed for the false security of Pharaoh and the false gods of Egypt.  Likewise, the Hebrew people of Jesus’ day were easily distracted by their fears of scarcity and abandonment.  Instead of trusting that the Messiah might be among them, they allowed their doubt to blind them to any possibilities other than that which existed in their presence—the power and authority of Rome.

We too are challenged by the distractions that keep us from embracing the possibilities of the future because our fears have us longing for a fairy tale past that only exists in our imaginations.  Add to that the anomaly of this past year in which pandemics and politics and social uprisings have littered our landscape.  2020 is the proverbial cherry on top of a world and its history that has slowly but surely spiraled into an abyss of brokenness and brutality that undermines social relationships, diminishes human dignity, encourages fear, and all but destroys creation as a life-giving system.

That suffering has distracted us from the core of who we are and what we believe.  It has elicited responses of fear and bullying, encouraging us to act in ways in which we double down on our brokenness—looking for sources of blame rather than repenting and returning to the Lord.  We complain, we doubt, we get distracted with the life in front of us that is mean and miserable instead of turning our attention to the life that awaits us and searching for the glimpses of God’s glory even amongst the darkness and despair.

The journey we have taken with Moses and the Hebrew nation these last several weeks culminates not with the entry into the Promised Land but with an experience of God’s glory—a glory so marvelous not even Moses can see it and live.  This ending reorients us to what the experience of hope and faithfulness really is.  Life is not about living in a land of plenty—anyone who has known suffering knows that.  Life is about living in a place of hope and witnessing to God’s Presence all around us.  Even a daisy bloomed at Auschwitz. If we allow our focus to be distracted by elections or pandemics, politics or fear, then we will not glimpse the glory of God that appears even in the midst of suffering.

The joy in this time is the glory God has revealed to his people, especially here at Ascension.  Instead of a church that closed its doors or lost contact with one another in the Great Pause, we have found ways to gather—online at first and now outdoors as well—in safe ways that valued our experience of love and grace that we seek with God and one another.  We instituted Care Circles to maintain contact with one another and ensure no one was alone in this time of social distancing.  We fed the hungry, provided resources for students and teachers, offered compassion and support to our Jewish friends decrying those who attacked them and reaching out with words of encouragement and love.  We sold and cooked a whole lot of lobsters to help support our day school as well as the respite program.  We have been a vital and life-giving congregation because we continue to live into the mission of the church—to partner with God and one another—and build God’s kingdom even under present conditions.

We are the Good News of Jesus Christ in this world.  And all that we do and witness too spreads that light of love and grace to this dark and broken world.  We celebrate that work we do in partnership with God and one another by setting aside this day as Consecration Sunday.  We, like Moses, ask God to be present with us; to find favor in God’s sight.  We will take this time to offer to God that which we have pledged to the work of kingdom building that God has called us too in the year to come.  We will ask God’s blessing and offer God praise and gratitude for all that he has given us.  We will not see the fullness of God’s glory—because no one shall see God and live—but we will see the works of God’s mercy if only we do not allow ourselves to be distracted by our own fears of sacristy and abandonment.

In this journey through Exodus, whenever things got bad, God provided.  It may have taken some complaining, it may have been fear driven, it may even have been a little unfaithful—because that is who we are.  But God doesn’t respond to us by giving us what we deserve in the face of our fears; God gives us what we can be when we are faithful and in return we offer a little bit of that back to God to help us remember.  To remember what it is like to wander in the wilderness amongst fear and uncertainty.  To remember that before we knew God, we were not free.  To remember that there is always more to this world than what our experience tells us or the nagging bit of doubt that plagues us.  We are God’s beloved children—created by him, loved by him—and nothing can separate us from the love of God:  not pandemics, not presidential elections, not Supreme Court nominations, not FOX News or CNN, not people who wear facemasks or those who don’t, not Republicans or Democrats or Q-Anon or hate groups, not social unrest or recessions, not even whether or not you turned in a pledge card today.  Absolutely nothing can separate you or me or anyone else from the love of God.  Jesus knew that.  Moses demanded that.  All you and I have to do is believe that.  Amen.

20 Pentecost 24A: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; I Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22

The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, Alabama

The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

Sunday, October 18, 2020

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