Her name was Crystal. We never met in person. I was “introduced” to her on Ash Wednesday three years ago. Now that you are really confused, I’ll share some details. After my last Ash Wednesday service three years ago, I received a message and then some phone calls and e-mails. A lady over in Knoxville had been doing down here in TN what we were doing up in Iowa. She was, if my memory serves me well, part of Derria’s group at EndSlaveryTN. The lady had found me through a mutual “virtual” friend in Atlanta. I say virtual because Chris and I had never met in real life. Chris was a college chaplain in the Atlanta area. Christi had contacted him because Crystal had reached out to her. Christi had met and tried to rescue Crystal some weeks or months before. Now, Crystal had contacted Christi. She wanted to be rescued. The problem was that she was in Milwaukee.
Chris told Christi that he knew of a guy in the upper Midwest who was fighting slavery. Milwaukee was not that far from Davenport on a map. Maybe this guy, Brian, could help. So Christi reached out to me asking if I could help.
I did not know anybody in Milwaukee, but I had a hope. Bishop Amos, the local RC bishop, was part of a big church, too. Maybe he would know someone in that area. Did I mention it was Ash Wednesday? Do you have any idea how busy those days are for parish priests? Imagine you are a bishop. To make a long story short, I called bishop Amos, left him a message with the details, and asked him to call me when he got back home from all the services. I reminded him that I would be up past midnight. Then the waiting began. From time to time Chris and Christi would check in. Heard anything yet? Think he will help? Should we be encouraging you to start driving?
Finally, the call came. I gave bishop Amos the details. He told me to try and stay free in the morning, but he would do anything and everything he could. Before leaving to take the kids to school the next morning, I received a call from the head of Catholic Relief Services in the Archdiocese of Chicago. As the Romans organize themselves, Milwaukee was part of the Chicago Archdiocese. The voice on the other end of the phone needed some more details. CRS had been instructed to do all that they could to help this Crystal to freedom. That was my wonderful contribution to the first rescue in which I played a part. Hours and hours of conversations. Hours and hours of sitting at a site. Dozens of offers extended to help those trapped in a life not of their choosing. All that effort, and this was my first rescue. And my only contribution was a few phone calls.
Later that afternoon, I received another call from someone at CRS. She had been asked to call me and tell me that Crystal had, indeed, been rescued. She now had a lawyer, a social worker, a priest, and I think a nun assigned to her. I was politely asked to share this news with Bishop Amos and told that my involvement in the case had ended.
Given my incredibly important role of making a few phone calls, it might not surprise you all that I forgot about the lady in question. In my mind, I was not really integral to Crystal’s freedom. Christi had done the heaving lifting of forging a bond of trust. CRS, at the request of Bishop Amos, had done the real rescue and handled the legal complexities. Yes, the story preached well. The Church, the mystical body and bride of Christ had worked magnificently on Ash Wednesday, a day when tons of people began to give up Facebook because they needed to make a “sacrifice” for Lent. We had reminded ourselves of the dust from which we were created and destined to in death, we had been called to a season of self-examination and reflection, and we had proclaimed freedom to a slave. We had crossed denominational and theological lines. Christi was a non-denom, I think. Chris was a progressive Episcopalian from Atlanta. I was a Neanderthal Episcopalian from Iowa. The Romans were Roman. It was, looking back on it, a wonderful story. God often uses the metaphor of slavery to explain our ties to sin. Israel learned this in Egypt and Babylon. Christians learned it in the Roman empire. Heck, Wilberforce and his Anglican companions learned it during the Atlantic slave trade. Crystal had needed someone to care, a redeemer, a savior. And we had modelled the life and work of the Savior, the Redeemer. We had done our duty and then gotten back to the business of the church.
As I said, I had forgotten about Crystal. Until one day I received a hand written note with no return address on the envelope. I won’t go into all the details of this amazing note, but Crystal had written me and my church to thank us for all that we had done to help rescue her. From my perspective, I had made a few calls. Big deal. From her perspective, of course, it was a huge deal! We had risked much for someone we did not know and on someone who could only offer us a pittance of a thank you. She wrote that the thank you sounded so small in her ears and before her eyes, given all that had been done for her. Father, I will never be able to explain to people’s satisfaction how it happened to me. Heck, I still don’t understand how it happened to me. I do know this, Father. A year ago, I would never have dared to dream that I would ever get to see my girls again. When I went to sleep, I cried over what they must have thought about me. When I woke up, I knew how ashamed they would be if they ever knew what had happened to me. Heck, sometimes, I wondered if they ever allowed that what had happened was not my choice. From their perspective, they must have thought I walked out on them, abandoned them, decided I was through with them. You cannot know the shame, the disappointment, the fear, the pain. That’s why the thank you sounded so small to her.
I share that story by way of introduction to the Gospel found in Joshua this week and to the Gospel that should be in all our lives each and every day we draw breath. I know. You wanted a sermon on the Prodigal Son, the Loving Father, or the Ungracious Older Brother. I give that one a lot in the Parenting Adult Children class, so join us on the third Tuesday if you really want to hear that series. I also know most of us at Advent are not big students of the Old Testament. We are slowly trying to change that. But to take you back in Israel’s history recounted in Joshua, a lot has happened in the first five chapters. Joshua has taken over the mantle of leadership from Moses. Israel has crossed over into the Promised Land. The stones have been erected so that, in the generations to come, when children see them, they will ask parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles about the stones. Then, those older and wiser will tell of the saving grace of God in His people. The spies have been sent to look at Jericho, and they have met a prostitute named Rahab.
Theologically speaking, there has been a significant omission in their life. What had happened the evening before Israel’s departure. You all have seen Charlton Heston, right? They celebrated the Passover Meal. They took the blood of the lambs and painted the lintels so that the destroyer would pass over them. All of Egypt suffered at this curse, but Israel was spared and told to remember always that the Lord has passed over them. Now, for the first time since that first Passover, and in the beginning of God’s final fulfillment of His promise to Abraham and Sarah, Israel is celebrating a Passover Meal in the land of Canaan!
Of more interest to us ought to be the curious introduction of this pericope. Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt. What disgrace has God rolled away? And why is His willingness to roll away disgrace important to us? What possible disgrace could we share with Israel, and why would we need to know that God has rolled it away?
I know few of us here study the Old Testament. All of us will today for a bit. How does Israel respond to their freedom? Those of us who watch Charlton Heston’s movie assume that, for the most part, Israel was excited and thrilled to be leaving Egypt. It makes sense that those who had a share in Egypt’s authority might be upset, but we stubbornly cling to the idea that Israel was overjoyed at their freedom. A cursory reading of the Scriptures, upon which the movie was loosely based, tells a different story.
When Israel finds itself up against the sea and hemmed in by Pharaoh’s army, how do they respond? They accuse Moses, and not for the only time, of leading them out into the desert because there was not enough gravesites for them in Egypt. Their cry is you brought us out here to die. You and I might be quick to dismiss their distrust of God and His power, after all He ignored their cries for freedom for generations, but they have witnessed the ten plagues. Prior to Egypt disgorging them, God had battled all the Egyptian gods and their priests in their strongholds! And He had won! Not only had He won, but Israel was spared the various curses. God was not just omnipotent and punished everyone. Even as He was punishing Pharaoh and the Egyptians, He was protecting His people. But, like so many of us, their memory is far too short. God might be powerful enough to face down Osiris or Ra or some other minor god in Egypt, but He lacked the troops and defenses to handle the Egyptians and their chariots.
In case you have not read the story in the Bible, no one from Israel raises a hand in their defense. God, once again, protects and shepherds His people, even as He punishes His enemies.
Of course, having walked on dry land between two walls of water in the sea, Israel now trusts in God, right? Those laughing have read the story. Israel, once again, hungers and thirsts. Once again, they accuse Moses of leading them into the wilderness to die. Moses realizes that he cannot water and feed this many people, so he complains to God. These people that You gave me are upset. How can I water them? How can I feed them? Once again, God provides. He tells Moses that when the dew dries in the mornings, the people are to gather enough of the flaky residue to make bread for the day. He also warns Moses and tells him to instruct the people not to gather more than they can use in a day. Naturally, the people of Israel heed God’s instruction and are thrilled with His provision, right? Nope.
The people are baffled by this bread of heaven they call manna. But, it seems to work like flour, so they make bread. Some people refuse to believe that manna will be there the next day, so they gather more than they need for a day. What happens to that extra manna? It gets moldy and wormy. Again, God has provided, protected, and instructed, but His people still do not trust Him. They have all the water and bread they need, but are they happy?
If only we were still sitting by our fleshpots. There we had stews with vegetables and meats. That was the good old days. That quickly they have forgotten that the fleshpots were there for minimally nourishing them so they could build Pharaoh’s building, work Pharaoh’s lands, and serve their masters as they were instructed. In short, the fleshpots were a reminder of their slavery. How quickly they have forgotten! They, the people who had cried their wholes lives to be free, now preferred slavery at the hand of Egypt to the freedom at the hand of Yahweh.
It is no small wonder that God threatens to start all over with Moses sometimes. I know I would be beyond wrathful. But God acts amazingly once again. In the evenings, he drives flocks of quail into the camp of the Israelites. Those of us living in 21st century Brentwood cannot understand the rarity of meat in these days. We can buy steaks or chicken or seafood any day we want it, but meat was reserved for the truly wealthy in the ANE. If one ate meat more than a couple times a year, the one was either in a rich family or had quite a hunter among one’s ranks. That scarcity of meat is what makes Scripture’s description of Israel’s condition incredible and ironic. They had so much quail that the meat was coming out their noses. They were just getting a few bites. They were literally stuffed with bird. Imagine. Every night they were as full as you and I on Thanksgiving day. God provided, and did so abundantly. Now they get it, right? Nope. Israel gets sick of the meat. Like those of us who get tired of our champagne and caviar, Israel is sick of quail and manna. They long for the fleshpots. They long for the normal bread baked in the ovens or the sun. They long for the wonderfully stale Egyptian beer. Far more complain bitterly, we are told, than give thanks and praise to God who is keeping His promises to Abraham & Sarah.
It is not surprising, perhaps, that Israel must spend a generation wandering in the wilderness. The slaves must die out before the people of God can enter the Promised Land. It may sound harsh to our ears, but think of their response in the face of God’s provision and protection. At every moment, the slaves return to the comfort of what they know rather than face the newness of the unknown freedom. Even in spite of all of God’s actions before their own eyes, they would prefer to languish in servitude. Slavery, for them, has become like Linus’ blanket. They cling to their disgrace, much like we cling to our own sins.
Part of the reason I shared that story this morning was to get us all thinking how we relate to slaves in Scripture. God often uses slavery as a metaphor to our relationship to sin. There’s a reason that Christians generally lead the fights for freedom; we understand how each of us is chained to our own sins or to the consequences of our own sins. Some of us aspire to be better, but we do not know how to change. Some of us long to be forgiven, but we wonder if it is even possible. Some of us become so comfortable with our own sins that we begin to think that Jesus winks at ours while wagging the stern finger at the sins of others. In truth, we are very much all like Israel, we are all very much like Crystal. In fact, at one point or another, most of us were exactly like Crystal, never daring to dream, never daring to consider that we could be loved in spite of ourselves. We all, at one point or another in our lives, were the prodigal son or prodigal father, working with the pigs. If people knew me, they’d never let me hang out at Advent. If Brian really knew me, he’d never make that claim that Jesus really loves me.
But a curious thing happened along the way. At some point, the Loving Father reached into your life, and your life, and your life, and my life. At some point, the Father reached into our lives and asked us to trust Him. He wanted to lead us into perfect freedom. Perhaps, in a season of self-examination, we thought ourselves too unworthy of such glory. Perhaps, cognizant of the harm we had done others through our sins of commission and omission, we realized that we did not deserve such a relationship with Him. We deserved to be slaves because we had done bad things, horrible things, things that we desperately try and keep secret, things we don’t want anyone else to know. Yet God knew even those secret sins, and still He reached out for us. God knew the consequences and harms of all those sins, and still He offered us that embrace of love.
Time and time again in our lives, just as He did in the lives of the Israelites, He protected us, provided for us, comforted us, cared for us, and loved us. All He asked for was our trust. And we who know so much balked at the idea that He could possible want us to follow Him and to trust Him. Brothers and sisters, the shame of Israel is the same as the shame you and I often carry. Far too often you and I would rather go back into our slavery, because we know what to expect, than we want to serve Him in perfect freedom. We choose the chains when He offers us the robe and ring of an heir. We so often choose shame and its consequence, death, when each of us ought to be grasping, yearning for, stretching towards the life that He offers.
Is there a consequence of our sin? Absolutely. In those self-evaluations you and I rightly realize that we are not worthy to be called His son or His daughter. In truth we have each dishonored Him, besmirched His name, and acted like hypocrites. But like Israel, our shame has been rolled away! That shame which you and I deserved for our love of sin and distrust of our Lord, was rolled away on Easter morning. He who knew no sin became sin. When we could not free ourselves, when we could not remove the stain, our Lord came down from heaven and bore all that for us. And that first Easter morning He demonstrated His power and why we should trust and glory in Him when He rolled away that stone on His tomb! We who did not deserve our Father’s love, were shown once and for all the love He has for each one of us, and the power He has to redeem each and every one of us, and each and every one of those whom we meet in our daily lives and work! Like Crystal, we can dare to dream. Like her, we can dare to hope. Like her, we can give thanks and approach that altar as one who was starving and dying of thirst in the wilderness, and feast abundantly on His love, His care, and His provision for us. Far more amazingly, as Paul reminds us this morning, once nourished, we are instructed to head back out into the wildernesses of the world and the lives of others, sharing that hope, sharing that love, that our Lord would give to each one He has created, prying them from the fleshpots of their lives and into the arms of their loving Father and Savior.