It’s a singular honor for me to be here this morning. In fact, it’s an honor to be anywhere, but especially among you, God’s people, in this House of Prayer for All Peoples called the National Cathedral. I certainly want to express my deep sense of gratitude to the Bishop of this Diocese, Bishop Chane, to the Dean of the Cathedral, to my colleague and dear friend Bishop Alan Scarfe of the Diocese of Iowa, to all of the Iowans who have gathered here, and for the remarkable gift of being in relationship with so many people across this weekend who have either come from Iowa, have been to Iowa, or through Iowa. And I’m certainly grateful for the presence of my family—my wife and parents, aunt, cousin, nieces and friends—who have come here to be here this morning. And most of all, I am deeply in the debt of God and God’s Holy Spirit for any privilege to stand behind the sacred desk and declare the unsearchable riches of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let us pray.
Consecrate me now to thy service, Lord, by the power of grace divine. Let my soul look up with a steadfast hope and my will be lost in thine. Grant, O God, that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts shall indeed find acceptance in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Of the two readings that have been assigned for this day, the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in the book of Exodus and the Gospel reading, punctuated delightfully by this magnificent choral version of Psalm 19, it is the Exodus reading that I find my own spirit most drawn to.
Typically, when we hear this reading, there might be a sigh, an exhaling if you will, inside and outside of ourselves saying, “Oh boy, here we go again.” Another list and litany of rules that we will find so much challenge and difficulty in living up to as individual followers of the Lamb, as communities of faith and as people in general. We get scared off by the rules. The rules frighten us. But I think, as so many commentators have wisely already indicated, that we have it all wrong. We rush too quickly into the lists of the “Thou shalt nots” and do not pause long enough at the backdrop that is set in the First Commandment, where we find these words in the beginning of the twentieth chapter of Exodus, “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
As these people who have been born on eagles’ wings and brought by God to God’s very own self stand at the foot of the smoky and thunderous mountain, the first thing they hear is not so much, “Don’t do this, and don’t do that; don’t live in this way; don’t live in that way; don’t act in this way; don’t act in that way,” but these words which I am sure bring extraordinary delight and comfort and ebullience to their hearts and to their minds: “I am the Lord, your God.” In some traditions of Christian worship, particularly among Protestants in this nation, you could preach a whole series of sermons just on the first two words, “I am.” And I have heard a great many preachers try. They have paused there for great effect and to great edification of God’s people.
But what a word of reassurance! God saying something about God’s self. “I am the Lord your God.” I have cast my lot with you. I’ve cast my lot with you in such a profound and meaningful way that I did not come alongside of you when things were going well, but as it would later more poetically be said in Holy Writ, “When you were no people I came alongside of you and I became your God.” When you were not a nation, I came alongside of you and I brought you into being not only as a covenant community of faith, but as a body politic.
And so these words of assurance must remind us and give us the backdrop for all else that comes in the list, in the litany, in the challenge to live in a particular way. But I am not only your God. I am a particular God who has come alongside of you when you were slaves, when you were in bondage, when you were property, when you were shackled, when you were burdened down by burdens that you did not have the strength to throw off of yourself. I am that God who came in your midst and visited you and made common lot with you.
And so it is, not so much that this sense of enormous impossible demands has been placed upon us in the commandments, but we begin at the place where we ought to begin. We are reminded of this God who loves us so much and has gifted us so much as that God gifted ancient Israel. And that God who casts God’s lot with those people in bondage in Egypt is the same God who casts God’s lot with us now, whatever our bondage is, whatever the burdens we bear, whatever the shackles that bind mind and heart and hand and feet and being and personality. This same God is the God whom we worship week in and week out. And if we do not worship week in and week out, the same God whom we seek along life’s way, who says, “I am your God. And if I’m not yet, I’m willing to be.” And I come to you not when things are all peachy keen, when everything is in apple pie order, when your life is all together, when you’re walking on top of the world and your shoulders are squared back and your head up. But I am the God who also comes alongside of those whose heads are cast down, and I lift up bowed down heads. I am the God who comes alongside of those who are burdened and in bondage. And by my word and my action, I invite you from bondage to freedom, from despondency to hope, from darkness to light.
And so against this backdrop of this God of freedom, this God who comes alongside of those who it seems sometimes have no one to come alongside of them, God asks of us as people of faith, as God spoke in covenant to ancient Israel, and God speaks to us through these words which we have seen fulfilled most fully in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I am still that same God. And I invite you now not to hear the list of these impossible things that surely as mortals with clay feet you can never live up to, but I invite you in the face of all of the challenges of life, when other gods—small “g” mind you—will be coming at you. When other voices will be competing to claim your attention, I invite you to remember that I am your God who has made common lot with you, who has tabernacled with you, who has come among you even as one of you.
And I offer you this template, for a way to live in right and holy and pure relationship with me, for a way to care for yourselves and for the earth which I have given you, and for a way to live in right relationship with all of your neighbors, and especially those whose heads are or have been bowed down, who find themselves in bondage and in slavery. And I say to you, as this God, I do not give you this impossible standard that you cannot live up to, but I give you the courage and the hope and the script to say, “I can live like this, according to this template, individually and in community. Because I have been delivered.”
Have you ever felt yourself overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices of all of the little gods and “isms” of our age—and surely others have felt them in their age—saying, “Try me. Live in this way. Surrender and bow at this altar. Depend not upon some God that you cannot see, but depend upon this device, or this material resource, or this might and power.” And the voice within you wants so much to speak.
And I’ve come to remind you this morning that you can have the courage and the capacity to speak it personally and corporately, to say, “No. I will not bow at those other altars.” Why? Because I’ve been delivered. Because God has come alongside of me. Because God has cast God’s lot with me. Because God is for me, and not against me. God is for life, and not in favor of death.
We stand here against an awesome backdrop in our own age, in this Cathedral, in this nation’s capital. It would be true in Des Moines as well, and in all of the other capitals of the states of this nation. Remember God is speaking to those people who have begun the process of coming out of the land of bondage to the land of freedom. They’re still finding their way, making decisions as they go, leaning and depending daily upon God’s love, God’s care, God’s supply, and God’s providence.
And so as they are making their way against this backdrop, of running out of Egypt, led only by the strong arm of God and watching the fall that God brings about—not that they bring about—of those who have held them in chattel slavery, these words come to them not in a way in which I hope we cannot hear them in our own age, for there is smoke on the mountains of this earth as well. And God desires to bear us up on eagles’ wings and bring us to God’s self and invite us to a different way of being in covenant with God and with neighbor.
In our age it is the challenge to resist the gods of consumerism and militarism. It is the challenge to resist the gods of our tribalism which tears us apart, not only in this nation but throughout the nations of the world and between the nations. And you say, “That is nice stuff, preacher. It’s pie in the sky. It’s an ideal. But I’m not sure that it’s very realistic.” It is only made realistic as we find the moral courage to live in this peculiar way in covenant with God, trusting in the same God who says, “I am your God who brought you out of the house of bondage and of slavery.”
To say “no” to all of the “isms” of our age, be they local or in distant lands, and to say, “No, I choose, I prefer, I claim to live in this way, because I’ve been delivered.” Delivered from the inevitability of war and violence. Delivered from the inevitability of believing that I never have enough and therefore I must covet what is my neighbor’s. Believing somehow or other that the grass is not always greener on some proverbial other side. Because I have seen green grass like never before because of the God who has brought me out of the house of bondage, where the grass may have been green but my bondage prevented me from seeing it. And because I’ve been delivered, I can live in a particular and peculiar way.
When Jesus was confronted with the question, “What is the greatest of the commandments?” You will recall from the Gospel renderings of this that he did not give a long litany, but quoted the Scriptures that he knew, that he read, that he studied, that were embedded deeply in his heart. “Hear, O Israel, that the Lord our God is one God.” And that the greatest commandment is that we would love God with all of our heart, and with all of our mind, and with all of our soul and with all of our strength, and oh, by the way—and not at all unimportantly—we shall love our neighbor as ourselves.
Why? Because we’ve been delivered. And all else in the list, in the litany, is made possible in the light of this freedom-giving God who says to us, “Never go back into bondage again of any kind, not even bondage to a series of rules.” But know that at any time, anywhere, individually and in community with others of like mind, you have the capacity and the call to say, as you bring it to remembrance in your own heart and mind, that God who brought us out of the house of bondage, out of the land of Egypt, delivered us from all of the little altars at which we have bowed, is the God who still makes common lot with us, and asks that we would remember only that that one is God. And that’s enough, enough for us to love God in the ways that God has loved us without abandon, generously and unfailingly. And to say whatever challenges come our way—as states, as nations, as individuals, as communities, as tribes—we can live after God’s own heart because we’ve been delivered.
Let us pray.
We thank thee, O God, that we are a people saved and delivered, held close to your very own heart. As we live our lives as free people in the world and in the Church and in communities of faith, we pray that our song will be “I never shall forget what he’s done for me.”