Sunday 6th September 2020

Call to worship

Hymn: Jesu, tawa pano (Jesus we are here) (Singing the Faith: 27)

Opening prayers

From President of Methodist Conference, Richard Teal:

Seeking One, you are the beginning and the end of our search.

Finding One, you are the alpha and omega of all discovery.

Asking One, you are the voice and the silence of our exploration.

Giving One, you are the fullness and the emptiness of all yearning.

Persistent One, you never abandon your search for us, nor tire of our repetitive to-ings and fro-ings.

Receiving One, you endlessly welcome us home, and spread before us a feast in the face of our constant requests for mere morsels of bread.

Search us, O God, and find within us the secrets we hide.

Ask us, O God, and receive from within us the pain we bear.

Keep knocking at the door of our lives until we open our wills to your purpose, our lives to your life, and our yearning to your hope. Amen

Prayer of confession – pause to think of all we need to bring to God in our shame

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Grant us peace

Reading: Exodus 12: 1-14

Below is a clip from the Disney film, The Prince of Egypt, depicting this plague:

Reading: Romans 13: 8-14

Reflection

Our passage from Exodus should come with a health warning to any vegetarian or pacifist. I wonder if we’ve heard the story of the plagues and the Israelites being freed from slavery too many times and it’s lost some of its shock value. Have we become immune to the gruesome nature of this story? I don’t know about you, but I first heard this tale when I was a child in Sunday School – Moses, the Pharaoh, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea – these are familiar stories to read to our children. I wonder why we’ve chosen these stories out of everything contained within our scriptures, to teach our children? Is it the colourful and dramatic nature of them that we think will hold their interest? Because I’m really not sure they are suitable for young people or those of a sensitive disposition. Somehow we are supposed to find God within slaughter and blood, and it should prompt us to love and praise this God. Hmmm…I’m struggling here.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he speaks of the economy of Jesus – his words are put in financial terms, of not owning debts. We continue to live in a money-based economy built upon debt. It’s how the financial markets operate. Our Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, freed up money for the furlough scheme and at some point that money needs paying back – questions are already being asked about whether to raise taxes or not. Owing money has become the norm – for any of us who have had a mortgage, or a credit card, or a loan. Money is supposed to make the world go round.

Pharaoh considers value only in economic terms. He owns a lot. He’s worth a lot. Production is crucial. Acquisition of wealth is the goal. And so he does what he needs to achieve his aim. We have the equivalent of Pharaoh today. Corporations that seek production as means of generating wealth, disinterested in the trickle-down effect of that wealth, because the workers are a means to an end. As people are being asked to quarantine if they have been in contact with anyone who has tested positive for coronavirus, some workers will not be paid during this period of quarantine. And if that meant your rent not being paid, or your children not having adequate school uniform, or even if that meant you not being able to feed your family, perhaps you would be tempted not to tell anyone you have been asked to quarantine. I completely understand the danger for smaller employers, but for global corporations continuing to make large profits, pay out enormous dividends to shareowners, award eye-watering levels of bonuses, who refuse their workers a living wage, comparisons are easy with the slave-owners in Pharaoh’s Egypt.

The Egyptian system of slavery was built upon sacrifice. People were sacrificed on the altar of consumerism, on the altar of greed, on the altar of production. Plagues had come and gone and nothing had changed, mostly because those in power hadn’t really suffered. Those with wealth were exempt from most the struggles of the people. But this last plague, this one hurt. How often is it that things only really change once the people with power accept that they are affected too? I find it hard to justify why the first-born sons had to die. Why God felt it necessary to be the cause of death and pain, even if we think the people who grieved somehow deserved to feel this grief. Finally, after decades of the slaves grieving over the meaningless loss of life (because the life of slaves is worth less than the life of princes) finally, the wealthy are experiencing what it feels like to be powerless against death.

Despite that, it still feels monstrous that God would choose to kill the sons of the wealthy in order to spare the lives of the chosen people. It doesn’t sit comfortably with us. For the Israelites to win their freedom, the Egyptians have to lose. This story feels about revenge and judgement and destruction and a total reversal of fortunes, and just for a moment I want to push back at God and ask, wasn’t there another way for you to get Moses to rescue your people? Couldn’t you have done this without so much death? So much violence? I thought you were a God whose love was expansive and inclusive.

So I’m grateful that we have the contrast of the letter to the Romans – a rewriting of the hymn of love from 1 Corinthians 13, which focuses on love. This is more the territory of my theology. Why is it I find myself having sympathy to the Pharaoh, when my sympathy should squarely rest with those enslaved? Perhaps it is because I believe that those who do the enslaving are themselves enslaved; enslaved to their love of money, their love of production, their endless quest that results in no rest for anyone. Perhaps God needed to take radical action to free the Pharaoh as much as free the Israelites, to show how life is not about the acquisition of wealth. The previous lessons, the other plagues were not enough, they did not do enough to demonstrate the error of living this way. This required something more terrible to stop the endless cycle of production.

The Passover celebrates freedom and life and safety for a deeply persecuted people. The focus may be on liberation, but it is also on community. Food is eaten and shared. If a household has too much, it will share it with the neighbours. Estimates are that there were between 20-40,000 Israelites living in Egypt at this time. That’s a lot of people to give instructions about blood on doorposts and what and how to eat. But these were a people preparing to be nomadic; a people prepared to leave at the drop of a hat; a migrant people who would travel light.

There is so much in this story to unpack, so much we could learn from. Who are the people in need of liberation today? Who is suffering at the hands of reckless inhumane production techniques? Who needs a fairer share of the harvest? Can we, as a church, learn from this nomadic people, to travel light, to leave our baggage behind and take a step of faith into a new freedom without the constraints of consumerism?

The German pastor, Martin Niemoeller, protested against the anti-Semitic policies of Hitler. He was eventually arrested and spent time in various concentration camps. You’ll know one of his most famous quotes: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist…” But the quote I came across this past week is the one I really want to share. Despite the pain he experienced, and the hatred he knew the Jews suffered during the Second World War, he said this:  “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.”

So can we balance the plague of the killing of the firstborn sons against the love which is at the heart of the gospel? Can this teach us how to react when confronted with suffering? We might imagine that the Exodus story was the pinnacle of the liberating love of God, that nothing since could match up. But as with all slaves, we are not free until all of us are free. Egypt is all around us, there are Pharaoh’s in our midst. As a faith community, are we ready? Are we prepared to take action, to travel light, to migrate to wherever there is need? Are there things enslaving us? Are we held hostage to our inability to say no? Do we feel compelled to produce more, to work harder, to think that rest equates to laziness? God offers us liberation from all of this, to move us from a place of production to a journey in which all we need to carry is care for each other.

After the Exodus came the commandments – commandments Paul repeats in his letter to the Romans, and reminds us that when we love we are fulfilling the commandments of God. So I started this reflection wondering how I can locate God within a story of slaughter and blood, but of course in my exploration of this passage I discover that God is located in every human experience, drenching it with salvation and love. The God of love and liberation is seeking to liberate the oppressors as much as the oppressed, eager for them to understand that their lifestyles binds them and causes them and others harm, keen for them to understand the currency of relationships and the economy of love. This is the kingdom of God our Christian journey of faith leads us; to the place where everyone is free and everyone is loved. Amen

All-Age Prayer

Living God here is a big story for us

of a long ago time

when you freed people who were slaves

and called them your own people.

You seem to want to change things:

to move from what hurts to what heals,

from what traps to what gives us freedom.

Help us live like that too:

moving from dislike to love.

That’s the way you do things,

that’s the way you change the world,

that’s the way you ask us to live.

And we can make our own big story

working with you to help everyone live fully, freely, fairly together.

Hear us as we pray together. Amen

Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love

Points you might like to consider:

  • Are oppressors and the oppressed in equal need of liberation?
  • Do you agree with Niemolloer: “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of His enemies.”
  • Do you think the church needs to travel light?

Prayers of intercession

Join me in a moment of silence to consider how you can breathe life into the hopes of those around you.

Silence

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God, our hope is in you.

Breathe on us and our world. Bring life into our weariness, and joy into our despair.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those living with only the bare bones of resources…

for those with no fresh water, for those who have lost their homes and their livelihood.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who feel entombed by their circumstances…

for the children of alcoholics and drug addicts, for our young people unable to find meaningful employment.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

We pray for those who are tempted to despair…

For the people of lands in strife, for the refugee, for the hungry.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God of hope, draw close to them.

Bless them with the promise of hope that no despair can overcome.

Raise them into the light of new possibilities.

Breathe life into their weakness and bless them with fresh strength.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.

God of life, breathe on us now, confirming your presence within us,

empowering us to go forth as your people, spreading your hope into our world.

Use us to help others, and bring them, and us all, to a place of hope in the fullness of life.

Breath of Life, hear our prayer.  Amen.

The Lord’s Prayer

          Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done,

on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins

as we forgive those who sin against us.

Lead us not into temptation

but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power,

and the glory are yours

now and for ever.

Amen.

Hymn: Best of all is God is with us (Singing the Faith 610)

Blessing

May the One who adorns the poor,

binds the rulers,

and causes the people to rejoice,

adorn you with love,

bind all that seeks evil,

and give you cause to rejoice.

And the blessing of God,

Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer,

be with you, and all whom you love,

now and ever more. Amen

Some material taken from The Church of Scotland & ©2011 Spill the Beans Resource Team

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