Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 14, 2014
My family did not go to church when I was a kid. When we did go to church, it was to the Episcopal church. But honestly, we only came for the holy days. We were those people who sat in your pew on your Christmas and Easter. In my entire life, I remember going to children’s Sunday School once. I didn’t crack open a bible until I was sixteen. We didn’t pray, not even before meals. And now here I am. God indeed works miracles.
What this also meant was that I was playing catch up in my spiritual life for a long time. Indeed, I probably still am. I walked into my Old Testament class at the University of Texas, and the professor was stunned that I had never read the story in which the prophet Elijah kills off seven hundred and fifty priests of other gods. I was stunned that there was even such a story in the bible. Who knew?
But I want to share a feeling with you that I struggle with. I bet you struggle with it too. Sometimes I reach a plateau in my spiritual life, and I just don’t want to move. I’ve worked hard to get there, I don’t want to turn back, but I don’t necessarily want to go forward either. It took me a long time to get into the habit of really diligently saying my morning prayers. And I’m happy with that. I know that God wants more of me, but I don’t really want to go forward. Maybe you’re just now at the point in your life when you have made church on Sunday a priority, made it into a habit. And you know there’s more out there, that a deeper spiritual life beckons you, but you’re stuck in the middle. You like where you are. You don’t want to go back. Maybe it’s laziness, maybe it’s because you don’t know what to do, maybe it’s a thousand other things. But there you are – God is calling you into a deeper relationship, but you don’t want to move forward. And you surely don’t want to go backwards because you’ve already come so far.
This is precisely where the Israelites are in their exodus from Egypt. The Lord has sent the Israelites out of Egypt and they are standing on the banks of the Red Sea. The Egyptian army is bearing down on them. In the passage just before what we read this morning, the people of Israel cry out to Moses, “was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” But here are the Egyptians with their army and chariots bearing down on them. There is no turning back.
Yet what stands ahead is probably even more frightening. The Lord has parted the Red Sea, the waters have stood up, and Moses beckons them forward. Through the water. Imagine you are there. Picture yourself, with your family. And there you stand, caught between a rock and a hard place. You can’t turn back, because that’s return to slavery and certain death. And you don’t want to go forward, because that’s into the unknown. You know the story, or at least I hope you do. The Israelites go forward. It’s really the only option. One way leads to slavery and death. The other is their only shot at freedom and life. It’s the most difficult non-choice they have ever made.
And that is our image of the spiritual life. We have come this far. We are in church. God has delivered us from slavery to sin and death. But the way ahead is frightening. It’s frightening because it requires trust in God. The Israelites had to trust that the Lord would deliver them. And we have to trust that the Lord will do the same for us. But the only way forward, is the way forward. It’s not an easy journey that the Lord is calling us to make.
But the Church is here to shine light on the way forward. Or, in a way, perhaps the Church is like the hand of Moses. Through the hand of Moses, the Lord parted the sea and delivered the Israelites. Through the Church, we are shown the way to follow Jesus and be formed as his disciples.
The Church, in all its ancient wisdom, has something for you. It has a way for you to move forward into a deeper spiritual life. If you want to learn how to pray, take home a “Book of Common Prayer.” Read it. Pray with it. Use it. Or, because it’s the twenty-first century, download the app for your phone. Take home a hymnal and sing. I do. I sing hymns to my daughter as I feed her breakfast. Practice meditation. If you want to learn how, ask me or Deacon Bob. Attend a bible study. Starting this week, we will have three options, plus some parishioners host bible studies in their homes. And four concurrent Sunday School classes. The Church provides a rich variety of ways to pray, ways to worship, ways to move forward into a deeper relationship with God. I know – it’s frightening – because you’re never done it before. But trust me, the Lord will part the seas of doubt and excuses that hold you back.
So let’s stop for a moment. You might be saying to yourself, “so this entire sermon is one long advertisement for Sunday School.” Uh, no. Here’s the crux of the issue. At our confirmation into the Episcopal Church, we take solemn vows. One of those vows is to “follow in the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” When the church revises the Prayer Book, I’m going to fight to make the vow go like this: “to go to bible study, to go to church, and to pray every day.” Because don’t be fooled by the poetic language, each of us who have been confirmed made a solemn vow to the Lord God Almighty that we will go to bible study, go to church, and pray every day. So look, when you feel obligated to come to Church every Sunday, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself. You’re the one who took the vow. You got yourself into this mess. Don’t point the finger at me.
And for parents, myself very much included, we’ve taken two vows. One for ourselves, and one for our children. At the baptism of our children, we promise to raise them into the full stature of Christ. That means that we have made solemn vows to the Lord God the Almighty that not only we make it to church, to Christian formation, and to pray every day, but also to do so with our children. Perhaps some of you may want to rethink baptizing your children. And to rethink our priorities. Have we taken solemn vows about Sunday morning baseball practice, or have we taken solemn vows about Christian worship?
But just because you’re not a parent, doesn’t mean that you get off easy either. Because I know that you think you just dodged a bullet. Sorry, you didn’t. At baptism, the entire church promises to support the newly baptized in their life in Christ. We have actually obligated ourselves to raise up children, who are not kin to us, to be disciples of Jesus. Looks like we all just put ourselves into a bind.
You all know that I like to laugh and play around, but I am very serious about this. I do not mess around with vows made to the Lord God. That’s generally a poor idea. Because the way backward leads to certain slavery and death. It’s only the way forward, the way that God is showing you, that offers life and peace and freedom.
But you know, it’s not all dour. Will bible study this year be fun? You bet. We might even read about a king who is eaten by worms and children who are eaten by bears. Yes, both those stories are in the bible. And remember, there is more to the story of the Israelites. Sure, they make it through the Red Sea safely. But the next forty years are kind of rough, wandering around in the wilderness. It takes a long time, a very long time, for them to reap the reward of their deliverance. So don’t expect miracles overnight. Do not expect to sit down, open the bible, and read it straight through. It takes a long time to get there. And God has all the time in the world. Whether you move fast, or whether you move slow doesn’t matter. What matters is that you are moving forward.