Over the last couple of summers, we have had a handful of early morning services at TYCOGA Vineyard and Winery. It is a beautiful setting, and the Arndts are generous hosts, and we all enjoy the opportunity—when the weather cooperates—to worship by the vines… vines that members of this congregation planted… vines that members of this congregation tend… vines that continue to grow and produce today.
And on those mornings, I drive out of Davenport going north on US Route 61. I drive past the exit that would normally take me into DeWitt. I leave the path that I can drive on autopilot. And I end up on a path where I have to pay attention.
And there is always this moment… when I start to wonder if I missed the turn and drove right past the winery. There is always this moment when I start to wonder whether I should look for a place to turn around… and start heading back south… and pay more attention to what I’m doing.
A couple of weeks ago, we met Abraham, who God promised to make into a great nation, whose descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And last week, we met Abraham’s great-grandson, Joseph, who was in prison in Egypt.
We didn’t read this part of the story, but Joseph got out of prison. He rose to prominence in Egypt and he became second only to Pharaoh. And when there was a famine in Canaan, his father and his brothers and their families came to Egypt and this family of named protagonists was reunited in a happy ending.
And there is more to the story, but the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were prosperous in Egypt; the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob—the Israelites—became more numerous and more powerful than the Egyptians themselves.
Joseph and his father and his brothers and their families passed away. And a new Pharaoh ascended to the throne. And he looked at these foreigners—who did not follow the ways of the Egyptians and who did not worship the gods of the Egyptians—and he oppressed them. He enslaved them.
And there is more to the story, but God heard the people’s cries, and raised up a leader, and led them out of Egypt.
And now, in our reading today, the Israelites have just robbed the Egyptians blind and are running out of slavery. Right now, in our reading today, the Israelites are standing on the shore of the sea, with nowhere left to go, watching the entire Egyptian army close in on them.
So the Israelites turn to this leader who God raised up up to lead them out of Egypt—the Israelites turn to Moses—and say, more or less,
What? There weren’t enough graves in Egypt? You were worried their cemeteries would overflow? We are about to get slaughtered. And it is all your fault: you and this… God of yours. It would have been better to live as slaves in Egypt than to die on this godforsaken beach!
Over the last couple of years, tensions have been rising in our congregation… and our communities… and our nation.
There have been contentious conversations about how we talk about bodies and how we talk about history. Books have been pulled from classrooms and stolen from the Story Walk in Westbrook Park. There have been high-profile shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, and Highland Park, Illinois… and Ames, Iowa… and Maquoketa Caves State Park… just a little ways up US Route 61.
And those things were just… on top… of everything else.
And I know I am an outspoken pastor. And I know that I keep pushing us to be an outspoken church.
I know that I want people to know us as the church welcomes everyone… and that gives to and volunteers at places that serve the poor and marginalized and outcast in our community, and across our country, and around the world… and that facilitates gracious conversations about difficult topics… and that takes informed positions on contentious issues… and that acts on our deepest convictions.
I know that I want people to know us as the church that is for comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education… that is for looking honestly at our history, claiming the legacy of the best and learning to be better than the worst… that is for reading books and against banning them… and that talks about and takes positions on and advocates for reasonable laws that promote gun safety…
And I know that we’re not all on the same page about everything. And I know that not all of us want people to know us as that church. And I know that there’s a lot more I could say about that. But…
Over the summer, a couple of people came to me, and said, more or less,
Maybe we should tone it down a little? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the entire Egyptian army is out there, and being loud and outspoken—making waves—is risky. It might even be dangerous. But maybe it we are quiet and kept to ourselves—maybe if we don’t make waves—we will be safe. And that army will just… walk right by.
And I need to be careful and I need to be clear. I get it.
It’s a little weird because I can’t really talk about it. But there was a moment this summer when there was a… thing.
You see, someone told me… loudly… unexpectedly… for a couple of hours… exactly what kind of pastor they thought I was. They questioned everything that I do. They told me that I am not preaching the word of God. They asked me why I am dragging this church down with all of this disgusting political social justice bull—
And I… backed off. I did not hang the pride flags that a stranger sent us to replace our stolen banner. I did not preach on controversial issues for a while. I kept an eye on the doors… and paid attention to the slams of car doors outside of the house… and made sure that other people were around at the church.
I got nervous. I got anxious. I got scared. And I started looking for a place to turn around.
And then, let’s be honest, I got over it.
But I have colleagues who have lived that way. I have friends who have left their churches and moved away from their communities and walked away from ministry altogether. I know people who keep their local police informed about what is going on at their churches and around their homes. All because someone decided that they said the wrong thing in a sermon; all because someone decided that they were the wrong kind of pastor.
So I get it. I really do.
It seems safe to be the church that listens to the shoutiest voices, and stays quietly in its narrow little lane, and does not make waves. It seems safe to be the church that is different, but just a little bit… or that is the same as every other church, exactly… or that no one notices, at all.
It seems safe. It is not safe. It is just… acclimating to fear.
When those Israelites turn to Moses, they are afraid.
They have good reasons to be afraid. They have just robbed the Egyptians blind and are running out of slavery. They are standing on the shore of the sea, with nowhere left to run, watching the entire Egyptian army close in on them. They can see the chariots and the horses and the soldiers and the spears. They are between the devil and the deep blue sea.
And when those Israelites turn to Moses, they tell him, more or less, “A life in slavery would have been better than a death in freedom.”
And then Moses turns to the Israelites and tells them, more or less, “You forgot about the other option.”
And this pillar of cloud puts itself between the Israelites and the Egyptians… and Moses stretches his staff out over the sea… and the winds rise… and the waters part… and the Israelites run across the dry land to the other side… to the option that they had forgotten about… to life in freedom.
And I don’t like the next part of the story—I would prefer it if the Egyptian army just stood dumbfounded on the far shore—but the cloud lifts… and the Egyptians pursue… and the wind calms… and the waters crash down… and the entire Egyptian army drowns.
I have heard—and this might be true—that the most common command in the Bible is, “Do not be afraid.”
And I know—and this is absolutely true—that the good news is that we have been brought out from slavery to sin to freedom in Christ.
And I think that might mean that we should not be afraid… of welcoming everyone… of being generous with our time and talent and treasure… of having gracious conversations and taking informed positions and acting on our deepest convictions… of speaking up and speaking out…
…maybe even for comprehensive, medically accurate, age-appropriate sex education… and for looking honestly at our history, claiming the legacy of the best and learning to be better than the worst… and for reading books and against banning them… and for reasonable laws that promote gun safety… and more…
…even when we have good reasons to be afraid.
And I know that—if we live without fear—that is going to mean leaving the path that we can walk on autopilot and ending up on a path where we have to pay attention. And I know that there will be moments when we start to wonder whether we should look for a place to turn around.
Over the last couple of years, tensions have been rising in our congregation… and our communities… and our nation. And I know that all it takes for the worst impulses of humanity to triumph, is the silence of the best impulses of humanity.
And I know that a life lived in slavery to fear is no life at all.
We have not robbed the bullies blind. We are not running away from oppression. There is no army behind us. We are not walking along the dry land at the bottom of the sea, hoping that the wind will keep up, praying that the waters will not come crashing down.
We have the privilege of being mostly safe and mostly secure. And that means that we have the privilege of standing up for—and speaking out on behalf of—those who are not.
And I know that it might be a little wild. And it might even look a little dangerous. And there might even be moments when we are absolutely uncertain about what we are doing.
But I also believe… I believe… I really believe… this is not some rhetorical device… I really believe that the still-speaking God who has accomplished our deliverance and the deliverance of this whole world from the power of sin is calling us a life of freedom in Christ:
The freedom to welcome extravagantly, and give foolishly, and love recklessly. The freedom to build a world where there is no fear at all. The freedom to live lives that are full of grace.