Sermon of the Week:
When Your Baby is in Danger
Week four of a nine part sermon series:
I Feel Seen: Ancient Stories and Modern Wisdom
Keywords: Birth of Moses, New Ruler, Oppression, Ungallant Heros, Church. #pcusa
Permission to podcast / stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-733469. All rights reserved.
I was thinking this week about Elsie McCulloch.
Our kids had a birthday this month, and we were talking to them
as you sometimes do around a birthday
about what a gift they are to us
and we reflected a bit about what it was like waiting for them to join our family
and even how we selected their names,
and that made me think of Elsie,
one of the names we considered but didn’t choose, in the end.
Elsie McCulloch was my friend.
She was a Saint of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Saint Louis,
the church that formed me as a teenager
the church where I sat in an old oak pew
and listened to ancient stories
and pondered humanity and our relationship to God
and doodled spaceships on my bulletin to stave off boredom.
Don’t worry kids, I was you once, bored during the sermon.
And I grew up to be a pastor. Its ok.
That small, urban, diverse congregation
led me through confirmation class
and encouraged me to push, to struggle, to ask questions and to wrestle with things,
and, ultimately, when I was ready,
to join them
as an official “adult” member.
At age 14, or something like that.
Elsie wasn’t able to walk with me through any of that, really.
She was already too infirm by that time
to attend church very often
but she lived in an apartment complex down the street from the church
and she’s the one I remember
that first summer I spent in Saint Louis
after moving there from rural Iowa when I was 12.
Elsie was warm and friendly and instantly loved me, like I was family.
Details are fuzzy, as are many memories from childhood,
but I remember spending time with her in an art class
in that lobby where she lived, a retirement community kind of place
and later having lunch in her apartment, where she fed me an avocado salad, I think.
This was way before avocado toast became all the rage.
Elsie was warm, and gentle, and maternal.
She showed me that I was home: home in a new home, home in a new school
home in a new world
home in a new church.
As I think about, I don’t know much about her as a person, really.
I came to know her much too late in her life,
and I was much too young to get the importance of history for a relationship
too young to ask more about her and her family and her past
her loves and her struggles and her failures
and her sense of God’s love through it all.
It didn’t matter, not ultimately.
Elsie was a saint to me.
And even though she died not that many years later
when I was still a child really,
she made an indelible impression on me in those first teenage years,
her gifts of welcome and care
have been with me my whole life.
It might feel like, everywhere you turn,
this church thing we’re doing this morning gets a bad rap.[i]
You don’t need me to recite the survey data
that tells you that more and more people associate “church” with negative experiences.
Too many churches have given up deep conversations
about things that matter,
for flash and spectacle instead.
Too many congregations have adopted code words and phrases
that only insiders understand
words like transubstantiate, hermeneutic, perichoresis
and trust me, as a lover of words, and a lover of theology
I love words like that,
I’d love to sit down over your favorite beverage and talk about what we mean about God
when we dive into those words
but, yeah, if that was all we talk about here
you’d be doodling spaceships on whatever paper is lying about too.
Too many churches put all their focus on upgrading their coffee bar
or the seating or the lights,
that they take their eyes off of the community that God gave them to love
just outside their door…
Too many communities of faith focus on such trivial things to fight about—
whether you should say “merry Christmas”
instead of “happy holidays”
or what have you,
while every day we see a world suffocated by poverty,
and authoritarianism: and in the face of that stuff,
the silence from too many of those merry Christmas churches is deafening.
Too many say that they love everyone
but their love doesn’t really look like love:
not to those who see the way of Jesus a bit differently, or who love differently,
not to those who have rough edges, a few tattoos, who stand up for their Transgender friend,
not to those who are told that they aren’t welcome unless they conform.
I know people who have been hurt by those churches.
You probably do too.
So I thank God every day that Westminster wasn’t a thing like that.
Well, we assumed you needed to dress up a bit on Sunday morning,
they could have done better with that….
but, come to think of it,
no, that’s not true.
There were folk there who couldn’t stand a tie
who couldn’t afford a suit, who were more comfortable in jeans.
There were people who tested the ‘come as you are’ attitude there
and they were loved.
I know this, because I came as I was
and I was loved: by Elsie McCulloch
and the Dablers
and the Shaws
and the Dibolls
and the Williams
and a host of other saints
who countered each and every one
of those modern misconceptions about what a true church should be, could be,
through their genuine love and care,
love not just for me, but of a host of others too.
I thank God that Westminster wasn’t like that.
Nor was First Presbyterian Church of Grinnell
or First United church of Oak Park
or any of the churches that were formative, life giving, healing for me.
I thank God that our church, The Kirk, strives to be a genuine, honest to goodness
community that seeks after God on the way of Jesus.
In other words, there are actual churches out there being the real deal,
even as it pains me to see others that are not.
And while I fear that far too many churches are more about the coffee bar
than they are truly seeking out Jesus,
what are WE to do about it, other than live differently,
lean into the life of sacrificial, abundant,
overflowing love Jesus wants us to live?
Yes, “church” may get a bad rap, but
our job isn’t to worry so much about that, about those places,
as it is to be the Kirk God wants us to be
and thus to take our place among the unheralded communities of God
that are oases of hope, of caring, of living water
in the parched desert of this community, wherever we might happen to be.
So today we’re transitioning from Genesis to Exodus
from the story of God’s relationship with the family of Abraham,
Isaac, Jacob and Joseph,
to the story of how Israel becomes a Nation
a people centered around a purpose.
We, as the Kirk, seek to be a people centered around a purpose.
Claiming to be part of a church is a funny thing, these days.
It is a public expression of faith, of trust,
in God, in Christ
in us, as people who are gentle and responsible enough
to form relationships, friendships worthy of the name…
It is a statement that, somehow, God is moving and shaking around here
in ways we see, and ways we don’t yet understand
to inspire love and mercy and service among us.
When you join a church like The Kirk,
you decide that you have a formal concern about our being-together
the quality of our relationships, of the time we spend together,
even virtually, with thanks to Zoom and Facebook and the internet.
It means tending to the call to support our work through volunteering and contributions,
cooking casseroles for shut ins,
praying for those who are hurting,
and helping dream of ways we can love, just love,
the local school kids or the homeless at Cherith Brook
or whomever it will be God gives us to love next.
I’ve been thinking this week about what it means to claim all of this
during a time like this, a time of pandemics and national political conventions and protests,
and how we might lean into a true community of faith
one that helps you orient yourself to God’s values
so that you can bear God’s love with you out into the world
and make a difference, no matter how small,
so that others can have hope for the future.
David Maudlin wrote a meditation about this passage in Exodus
that has helped me think a bit about all of this.
In that meditation, Maudlin explored the importance of
“God’s Ungallant Heroes.”[ii]
We all know about God’s gallant heroes, Maudlin says,
those people who seemed to harness bravery or gumption at just the right time
or who were recognized while they were trying to do the right thing.
For example, if you have a good grasp of these biblical stories
you might think Peter and John,
two of Jesus’ disciples before the council called the Sanhedrin;
they risked their lives for their faith.
Or, Maudlin says,
we might think of the selfless martyrs from our history,
a Polycarp, say, who refused to renounce his faith before his governor
or a Sir Thomas Moore, who died a traitor’s death
because his conscience
would not let him sign the Supremacy Act that made
Henry VIII the head of the church in England.
Right, those might not resonate so personally with you either,
I had to go dust off a book to remind myself who Polycarp was,
but then Maudlin mentions Martin Luther King, Junior,
and Rosa Parks
two saints who stood tall in the face of injustice and evil and systemic racism.
And yeah, those examples resonate.
I’ve thought a lot about THEM these last two months.
These are Gallant heroes of the faith, Maudlin says.
By Gallant, he means overt, brave, standing-out.
Big personalities who made big stands and got BIG press while doing it.
Being known for it was the point.
Then, Maudlin argues, there are ungallant heroes,
those who work quietly, behind the scenes,
through subtlety, or pretext,
to do something deeply important.
“One that comes to mind” he writes
“is Oscar Schindler.”
Some of you here might remember the movie about him, and his list.
Schindler’s “efforts to save Jews from the Holocaust were both noble and good.
Outwardly, though, he made a pretext of supporting the Nazi war effort.
He had to, of course.
If he had taken a public stand and denounced the evils he saw,
he would have simply disappeared and saved no one.”
“We meet more such heroes in our biblical story” Maudlin argues.
“First, we meet Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives
who disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to kill newborn [Hebrew boys].
They did what was right.
No one can deny their courage,
for they put themselves in danger by their actions.
When questioned, though, they offered a lame excuse
one Pharaoh may have seen through.
They were in no position to stand up to Pharaoh.
That would not have saved lives.
So they kept a low profile…and did what was right…
[and] God rewarded them.
[Next], we meet Jochebed and Miriam, the mother and sister of Moses.
When Jochebed could no longer hide her baby,
she placed him a specially prepared basket and floated it on the river—
surely an act of desperation.
When the baby was found,
she became the nanny for her own son through deception….and she, too, was rewarded.”
“These women” David Maudlin rightly says,
“are heroes—God’s heroes.
They did not make a grand scene…
They [simply] did what was right, despite everything….”
And here’s what Maudlin learns from all of this:
“Our goal, our calling, is to …stand for what is right [too]”
What do you do, when the people in charge
want you to betray your conscience and cause harm to the vulnerable people in society?
What do you do when the laws, the power, the structures of society,
are all reshaped to protect one people at the expense of another?
What do you do when a new leader
forgets the bonds of friendship and common humanity,
and starts using their power to sow division and conflict?
What do you do when even the children are put in danger?
Well, Shiphrah and Puah—the Hebrew midwives,
were moved with compassion—for children!
For helpless, endangered children!
They were brave. They were impassioned. They were called to act with purpose.
Their hearts broke for where God’s heart breaks,
and they moved to do something about it.
God moved them to mercy. And through them, Moses lived!
Moses lived, and as we will come to find out,
it is because Moses lived
that God helps liberate a people
from bondage and suffering and heartache
and set them on a path towards hope and healing and possibility.
What are we called to do,
when we see the need for mercy and compassion and action
in our own day?
These ancient stories.
They nurture not only us individually, but together as a community.
They inspire us through the power of God’s movement among the Hebrew people,
and in the way they formed Jesus Christ, the one who inspires us to serve.
Paul reminds us that we all have our own calling,
and that we each have skills and talents and interests and strengths
that will find their own unique use.
The way I might be called to respond to all this angst in our world
is certainly not the same as how you might respond.
But, let’s be clear: I’m not sure I know a better calling
than to be a part of a community of people
who are moved to experience God’s breaking heart,
people who are moved to love and to serve as Christ did.
That calling can be informal, loose, exploratory
or it can be formalized, celebrated, ritualized
the stuff of covenant and promise and public commitment.
Either way, it is a pretty awesome calling.
“Church” may get a bad rap, but I get so excited about it,
by the possibilities, by the potential.
I learned that from Elsie McCulloch, one of many
who loved me into community.
Who have you learned that from?
Who were the people who saw you and were moved by God
to show you mercy,
to show you love, to show you acceptance?
(If you don’t have an answer to that,
maybe I can be that person for you,
or maybe there are people who are doing that for you
but in an unheralded, ungallant sort of way…)
More importantly, perhaps,
how might we be asked by God to do something similar?
Who is the next person God is asking us to love?
What is the next hurt that breaks God’s heart that God wants us to address?
I thank God that for this chapter of my life,
all of you are people who are in relationship with me,
so that I can grow in faith and love with you
and that you can grow in faith and love with me.
And, at its best, that’s what being part of a true church is all about.
Someone tweeted this week,
something that stuck with me for hours and hours:
“I used to believe that prayer changes things,
but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”[iii]
I think that’s a good description of what happens in church when it works right
what we pray will happen here among us,
as we build a Kirk that is loving, genuinely loving
that is serving, through word and deed
not serving the trivial, but serving things that matter
that is community minded, building our community by
welcoming all, particularly those who don’t often get a welcome,
a community that worships deeply, that studies faithfully
that stands tall for those who cannot,
that engages head and heart and mind
so that we can be the change we wish to see,
a church whose prayer changes us, for the better,
into people who love with prodigal abandon.
I want to be a part of a group of people who focus on that
transformed by the renewing of our minds in Christ Jesus.
I’m glad that you are seeking that purpose with me, my friends.
Let us build a church community minded; loving and serving
a church that seeks to pay forward God’s amazing love
a Kirk that welcomes all to God’s story
so that it can become our story
and we can help God change the world
for peace, for love.
There’s a place for you in that sort of church.
And there’ll be that sort of church so long as we each do our part
in responding to God’s gifts in our lives
through prayer that changes us
and love that changes the world.
May it be so.
[i] See for instance John Pavlovitz and his blog post “Church, Here’s Why People are Leaving You. Part 1.” at http://johnpavlovitz.com/2014/08/15/church-heres-why-people-are-leaving-you-part-1/ (accessed 8/22/20)
[ii] Charles Bugg, Ed. The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2002, August 25, 2002 “God’s Ungallant Heroes.” (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2001) 295-297.
[iii] Attributed to Mother Teresa, but origin unclear.