“Free at Last…Now What?”

“Free at Last…Now What?”
Exodus 15:19-24; 20:1-3

A sermon for the closing worship service of
The Covenant Network Conference, November 3-5, 2011

Mary Lynn Tobin, pastor Davis (CA) Community Presbyterian Church
and Co-Moderator, Covenant Network Board of Directors

How do you like that song we just sang –  Canticle of the Free?
All of that singing – full of triumph:

O Pharaoh, your army, they sink like a stone.
To God be praise and glory!
My God, he plunged them in the Red Sea all alone.
To God be praise and glory![i]

Me? I love the tune and it’s got a good beat. But I have had a love/hate relationship with the lyrics ever since we started singing it at our Easter Vigil service. And it’s not because of the gender-exclusive language for God that is simply impossible to modify.

I will sing to the Lord, triumphant is he: the horse and chariot he cast into the sea!

Glee – at people dying? Seems akin to the crowds chanting “USA, USA” when Osama bin Laden was finally killed by US troops. A reaction which I understand, but which also, frankly, made me nauseous.

On the other hand, “I will sing to the Lord, triumphant is he: the horse and chariot he cast into the sea!” was exactly the song phrase that came to me when Amendment 10-A passed, as we finally witnessed language in the Book of Order that had oppressed and enslaved us for years being cast into the sea.

I wonder – as I attempt wrestle with the text “charitably,” as Frances Taylor Gench taught us yesterday – does God want songs like that from us?

I remember a conversation with Del, an evangelical Presbyterian who has become a good friend, not in spite of, but because of our disagreements over ordination. He even attended the last two Covenant Network conferences and relished the theological and biblical meat that is offered here. When I asked if he would be coming to this year’s conference he responded, “If I come, they’re not going to rub in in my face in it, are they?”

If we’re honest, that’s exactly what we want to do. You won’t find anyone admitting it publicly, but c’mon, there is a part of most of us who long to shout “Neener neener neener!!” and imagine God tossing our opponents into the sea. Right? Or is that just me?

We have been liberated. Freed from oppression! Freed to be the people God created us to be! Freed to fully answer God’s call! And so we dance and sing and shake our booties the way only Presbyterians can:

A bit awkwardly.
A tad seriously.
A bit “white guys can’t dance.”

Liberation is FANTASTIC!

So the Hebrews thought. For about 10 minutes.

Until they discovered what they had been liberated to:  a harsh wilderness where food and water was scarce, where without the Egyptians breathing down their necks, they weren’t sure what to do with themselves.  There were enemies to fight.  They were stuck with a leader who seemed unsure as to what to do and who disappeared for long periods of time to “talk with God.” And that “promised land” of milk and honey? It was nowhere in sight. They were not happy campers.

And what about us? Now, after 15 years of labor to achieve freedom; now, standing on the other side of the Red Sea, we have a few minutes to breathe. And we stick our heads up, look around, and discover that while we have been working so diligently, so faithfully, so hard to win this freedom, we have been “liberated” from things we didn’t necessarily want to be liberated from.

You see, we are in our own wilderness.

Cindy Bolbach and Gradye Parsons described it yesterday: we are living in one of the most contentious periods in mainline Christianity in the United States in most of our lifetimes. We may have thought that with the deletion of the oppressive language in the Book of Order, we were finally getting our church back. But do we want it? Do we want what some are calling the “deathly ill” Presbyterian church?

We may have read about how the church is changing, but many of our congregations are only beginning to experience the American tsunami of apathy and hostility toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. We on the west coast are especially blessed, I suppose, because we are getting drenched first.

Like the Hebrews longing for Egypt, we long for the way things used to be, when churches stood at the center of communities’ lives; when the voices of Presbyterians were taken seriously in Washington, D.C.; when our Sunday schools were bursting at the seams with baby boomers and we had more money than we knew what to do with, and our leadership had a road map for exactly what to do each step of the way.

It’s hard not to yearn for that fabulous food in Egypt.

Like the Hebrews looking back with rose-colored glasses, we forget about the other side of life in Egypt. We may not have even noticed it because it was in the air we breathed – but there was a downside:  the gods of status and power and wealth crept stealthily into our decision-making; success was too often valued over faithfulness; numbers were too easily valued over transformation of lives; and contentment with people “just like us” was valued over the challenge Scott Anderson offered Thursday night – to not just tolerate but to seek out and empathize with those who are different than we are, embracing our differences.  In those days, we didn’t have to leave the safety and security of our church buildings.

Heck, we kind of liked that time. We may not want to go back to slavery, but the barbecue was pretty good.

So we have been liberated from things we’re not so sure were all that bad; liberated from the church many of us grew up in and knew and loved every bit as much as Cindy Bolbach knows and loves FOG, and now, none of us are quite sure what to do with ourselves.

Like the Hebrews, we have been thrust, somewhat impoverished and stripped of authority, into a wilderness that is unfamiliar and terrifying. The Hebrews, confused by the place they found themselves, expressed their fear by turning on Moses and turning on each other.

I wonder how we’ll behave?

Well, I have one observation: the first day of this conference, in fact during our very first gathering of this motley crew of people who have worked long and hard to be freed from G-6.0106b, we noted voices of anger and frustration among us:

“Why aren’t we celebrating?”
“Why are we pandering to these people who have treated us so poorly, who are now trying to take off with our congregations and our property?”
“What about the others who are missing?”
“I’m not ready to talk about reconciliation!”
“What about marriage?”

“Where is our water?”
“Where is our food?”
“Where is our promised land????”

Now hear me out. I am NOT saying that any of those questions are inappropriate. I’m not critiquing the content. I’m sensing that – as Linda Lader said in the plenary this morning  – “the issue isn’t the issue,” you know what I mean?

Here’s the issue: We’ve won our freedom and inherited a church that is falling apart at the seams.

Oh joy. Oh bliss. Oh sublime ecstasy.
Do you see? Sometimes liberation sucks.
It’s just not what we thought it would be.

And we take our disappointment out on each other.

We’re not the first to find ourselves in this place. In 1989, Romania’s President Nicolae Ceausescu, was executed. As we’ve seen in more recent developments in other countries, suddenly no one was in charge, and the country was in turmoil. Western reporters found someone to interview who could speak English, and she said, “We have freedom, but we don’t know what to do with it.”[ii]

It was to people like us, like the Romanians: the Hebrews – newly liberated, perhaps even begrudgingly liberated – that God gave a gift.  Do you remember what it was? Hint – it was given to the people through Moses – on Mt. Sinai – on tablets of stone?

Yes – God gave them the gift, the gift, mind you, of the law.   Didn’t think I was going there, did you?

Perry Yoder, a Mennonite and Old Testament scholar, writes that the gift of the “… law is necessary for liberation, because it is law that allows the liberated to become liberating. …In response to liberation, the law sketches out the way by which God’s people live liberation.”[iii]

Poet and author Wendell Berry adds that the 10 commandments tell us “what to do with our freedom”… They spell out “the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long.”[iv]  They are a gift. A gift of grace.

In her sermon last night, Mary McClintock-Fulkerson reminded us that Jesus summed up the commandments with two rules: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind,” and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Well, I don’t mean to one-up Mary OR Jesus, but I think I can name that tune in just one commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

We can’t move from being a liberated people to a liberating people if we are following other gods.

And we are all following other gods. We just are. We humans do that.

This commandment reminds us that only God can and should take all our best energies; God should be, as Tillich would say, our “ultimate concern.” …because the truth is that only God frees us and sustains us in that freedom. Only God does that. No other gods live up to that.


Yoder claims that the first commandment is “number one” because if we are able to avoid the temptation of all the other gods clamoring for our attention, it actually becomes easier to keep the other commandments. For example:

  • “It is good for my neighbor for me not to make money or power my god;  it is good for my neighbor for me to make the gracious, forgiving God of liberation my God;”[v]
  • If I honor no other gods, I have no reason to steal or lie or covet or commit adultery.
  • I will not kill my neighbor, not just because my neighbor wouldn’t like it, but because God is the giver of my neighbor’s life.” And I wouldn’t think of destroying God’s creation – either human beings or the environment.

So who is our god at this time?

In this wilderness time – and if we stay true to our history, we are in the wilderness for much longer than we expect – much longer than we’d like; in this wilderness time when tensions are high and freedom is very new; in this wilderness time when it takes incredible commitment and hard work to sustain that freedom for ourselves and for others; perhaps we’d best concentrate on and discipline ourselves to obey the law that was God’s gift to the newly liberated everywhere.

How might we do that? Well, there are many questions we could ask to detect our personal gods, but I’m thinking about “we,” “us.” How might we, in the context of our continuing work as part of the Covenant Network gang, how might we detect the gods that we are in danger of swapping for GOD?

Perhaps we could ask, as we engage in every conversation, in every action, decision, or statement: “Who is my god, who is our god now? In this moment?”

Is our god the church as it once was?
Is our god success? Is it power?
Is my god personal status in this denomination?
Is it winning?
Is it being able to tell my grandchildren that I was actively a part of this generation’s civil rights movement?

If we want to be a community that is not only liberated, but is also a joyful liberating force, we must be brave enough to examine our hearts to discover what and who our actual gods might be.

In addition, by ruthlessly repeating the question, “Who is my god NOW?” we have a better shot at living the four reformed virtues that James Calvin Davis named Thursday afternoon:

  • humility (because I will become better at admitting that there is a God – and it’s not me),
  • patience (because I will begin to trust that all things are in God’s sovereign care, I will take the time that is necessary to discern God’s plan),
  • kinship – (because humanity is created in the image of the God who is my God, I will view and treat even those with whom I deeply disagree as worthy of respect), and
  • forbearance – (I will accept that the physical church will always be a weedy garden – but it’s God’s garden, not mine.)

If along the way, we can practice being aware of and honest about who and what our gods are, when we look in the mirror, we will see in our reflection traces of our Egyptian genes.

When we admit the possibility that we are of mixed heritage, that as much as we long to be faithful, we are all too often guilty of aligning ourselves with the armies of this world that cling to power and pleasure and lust and wealth and our ease at the expense of the rest of the world and at the expense of each other, perhaps then we will see how our wheels are becoming mired in the mud of the Red Sea – how our chariots are breaking apart and we are drowning.

And with that honest look at ourselves, perhaps we can try singing that song again.

Check out the last verse:

In saving waters we sink like a stone, To God be praise and glory!
From death into living we each must go alone, To God be praise and glory.
But stand in the light of this great family, To God be praise and glory.
God’s love will unite us and make us all free. To God be praise and glory. I am free!

Perhaps the refrain of that song should be sung in this way: “I will sing to the Lord, triumphant  is he: my horse and chariot he cast into the sea!”

If we can be courageous enough to observe the ways we rush into the waters of the Red Sea on our Egyptian horses and in our Egyptian chariots, we will find ourselves rescued from the chaos of what really are baptismal waters. When we realize that, we will be able to step up on to dry land as liberated, yet drenched Hebrews in bright white robes.

God will save us from ourselves. And then we will have something to cheer about!

[i] Canticle of the Free, Janét Sullivan Walker, OCP

[ii] “God Spoke These Words,” in The Christian Century, March 15, 2000 p. 301.

[iii] “Liberated by Law,” by Perry Yoder, in Sojourners, September-October 1999

[iv] Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays,” Wendell Berry, p. 150, 1992-93

[v] Yoder

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