Fight, flight, sloth or still
LNPC is moving through the Old Testament via the Narrative Lectionary. Last week's sermon was a retelling of the Joseph story (Genesis 37-50), interspersed with the personal stories of people in the congregation, as we pondered together, How do we hang on in times of darkness? How do we know God is hanging onto us? What does faith look like in the midst of struggle? How does God meet us inside these experiences, and how do we learn to trust God?
People's stories were gathered throughout the week and shared with the congregation with permission. I will not be posting them online, however, to honor privacy, but I am so grateful to those who were brave and vulnerable enough to let their stories be shared in community, that we all might search for God in our own stories.
Since the Joseph story, Jacob’s family – whose name was changed by God to “Israel,” so the Israelites- settled in Egypt and prospered. But time goes by, and down the road the latest Pharaoh didn’t remember Joseph and what he had done, and only noticed the huge population of Israelites thriving in their land, and he became concerned, that one day in the event of war, they could rise up and fight with Egypt’s enemies. So the Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites and put taskmasters over them and used them to build mighty cities, but still, the Israelite population grew.
Distressed, Pharaoh told the Israelite midwifes Shiphrah and Puah, to kill any baby boys that were born. But they feared God and wouldn’t do it, claiming that Israelite women were so “vigorous” that they delivered before the midwives could arrive. So Pharaoh told the Egyptians to drown any Israelite boy they found – and then we have the story of Moses, and the basket in the Nile, and the princess rescuing him, and Moses growing up in Pharaoh’s own house, right under his nose…
Again and again we see the power of the empire threatened and thwarted by the subversive and upside down power of God, coming through the unexpected, the unprepared, the unacknowledged, the unimpressive. And the tension builds in the standoff between Pharaoh and God. It escalates with the seven Plagues – when Moses stands before Pharaoh and demands that he let God’s people go- and Pharaoh refuses, and all sorts of gruesome terrible things happen until he finally relents and lets them leave, and they do, in the middle of the night, all of them, with their cattle and everything, and our story picks up here, at the climax to the brewing battle between Pharaoh and God – who will have the souls of the people? Who will own them? To whom do they belong? Who will win?
And the very newly delivered Israelites have already begun their grumbling to Moses, and say aloud what very many of us think on the brink of something new, transformative and terrifying: they wish they were back in slavery – why couldn’t we have just kept serving the Egyptians? We’d rather have died there. At least we would have known what to expect. At least we know who is in charge. At least we understood that our lives, such as they were, had some kind of purpose. Anything but this surely impending death!
And here they find themselves, as our story picks up, in a cacophony of chaos - roaring, churning water on either side, Egyptian army bearing down on them with hooves and flying dirt and shouts of rage, cries of fear, and they are in prime fight or flight position – in fact, it seems like just the situation that the fight or flight instinct was designed for, and the word to them is: Be Still. The Lord will fight your battle.
Be still. The Lord will fight your battle.
Aouple of things occur to me here.
One- I suck at being still. I like to think of myself as good in a crisis. I hate to admit it, but every time I pack for a trip, I imagine that one of my kids gets injured, or a minor accident occurs – not a bad one, just a dramatic one, and I have EXACTLY the right first aid supplies and know how to cope perfectly in the moment. It gives me a special thrill to have a band-aid at the ready, or to know just what to do when the power goes out. I am a woman of action. Plunk me between walls of water and enemy soldiers and I’d want us to MacGuyver our way out of it- there has to be something we can rig up to escape, or fight back. I’m the type to go down swinging. And I like having the last word. If you can’t win, you can at least come out as the righteous loser, the one who should have won, and if you can get the other guy to acknowledge it, all the better.
The very last thing I would want to do in this situation is to be still. The very hardest thing in a moment of chaos, in unknown or fear, is to stop and let God fight for me.
The second thing that occurs to me is how it's easier not to care, not to be in it at all. It is said that one of the seven deadly sins is sloth, which is an only slightly more modern way of saying what the early monastics called, acedia. Spiritual carelessness. A state of listless weariness and indifference, which manifests often as laziness. Acedia is a state of disconnection from the life you are living in. In today’s day and age, it more often manifests as frenzied, disconnected, pointless activity. Souls asleep, body going through the motions – lots and lots of motions.
How are you?
So busy! You?
In the midst of a crisis, I suspect we ramp up in to high gear the state we are already existing in, which for many of us, much of the time, is a state of acedia. The Israelites demand to return to slavery where they don’t have to care, don’t have to hope, don’t have to risk that their lives could be lost dramatically when their lives can slip away slowly instead, against their will, Oh well, what can be done?
For you and me, when things get hard or the way ahead is unclear and frightening, we too ramp up into high gear: WebMD is great for obsessing about every symptom, testimonial and side effect to pretend we can fix things until we give up, and when we do there are millions of ways to be busy and distracted. How about food, alcohol, and hours and hours of TV? Maybe we go wheels churning, battle raging, or maybe we go numb, but whether it’s shut down or amped up, we end up more disconnected from ourselves and our reality and our God.
What we don’t do, most of us, is be still.
Awake, attentive, aware and still.
This is not the first of the counterintuitive commands, and it wont be the last. What God is after all along is a relationship where the children of God trust God to care for them, and live in cooperation with one another and the world around them. And moving from slavery to freedom, they are going to have to do that in a whole new way, in uncharted, undesired, unknown territory. What happens when they get to the other side, when Egypt recedes in the distance with the waters? Then what?
The trust is just beginning.
Be still, and the Lord will fight for you.
This is what they are told to do.
And so they do.
And then God does.
And they get to see God fight for them.
In front of their eyes, the pillar of fire and cloud of smoke, the enemy falling behind them and the spray of the ocean on their cheeks as they shuffle quickly through the valley of the shadow of death.
The battle between Pharaoh and God for the Israelites is won decisively and indisputably by God. And as much as they may have wanted to, they didn’t need to know what was coming, to have faith in the final plan, or in their own wisdom and strength.
All they had to do to obey, to wake up, to be human and to be in shalom – in total relationship with God, in that moment, was to be still. All they had to do was pay attention and watch God fight for them.
And when they do, they become people moving toward a future which God will make known to them. They become the generation that all future generations will remember in awe. And these women and men became people that day – they stopped belonging to the empire to be used up and discarded, and their lives became precious, worth fighting for, worth moving heaven and earth and sea for, valuable and involved.
This is the defining story in all Jewish history and scripture, and everything that is about to come after this begins here – at their impossible deliverance, at the decisive victory, the sweeping triumph over their enemies and oppressors.
Who are we to trust? The God who delivered us out of Egypt. Why can we trust God? Because God parted the waters, defeated the Egyptians, rescued us from our enemies, who delivered us from slavery.
And I’d like to point out the water.
The water that the Spirit hovered over at Creation, dividing the watery chaos and drawing out from it the settled order of dry land. The water that again crashed down and filled up the earth when God uncreated, and Noah’s family bobbed on top of it in the ark, the water the baby boys were to be drowned in in Egypt and that Moses was saved out of, and that Jesus will later be baptized in and walk on and fish from, and the water that you and I have poured over us to tell us who we are and whose we are. The ordinary, life sustaining, cleansing and filling and earth-defining water that the Israelites must pass through in order to move from slavery to freedom.
We must pass through the waters of chaos, the waters of trust, the waters that ask us who is more powerful, Pharaoh or God? We must be still, sometimes, and let God fight for us. Sometimes we must be still and watch what God will do.
And then when God says, move. We must move. We must walk forward. Take one step in front of the other – while the roaring sea rises on either side in deference to your path, and the enemy is barreling down upon you, walk, don’t run, to the nearest exit, and trust God to deal with the elements and the evil.
What a panicked, anxiety-filled, fear-driven world we live in. (What a panicked, anxiety-filled, fear-driven time in the church!) Death lurks around every corner, threat and competition and alarm, Isn’t it all going down in flames?
What an acedia-saturated culture we’re part of, lulling us to apathy, inviting us to disconnect, tempting us with toys and technology to separate soul from body, to go through the motions, to move faster and faster, or to stop moving at all, and just give up. It’s too overwhelming to care.
Hear this story, let it tremble the water under your skin, because it lurks inside all the rest of scripture from here on out, which is to say, this story lives inside everyone who comes along after this crowd, whose story is told in this book, whose faith is tested or born, whose relationship to God is opened up for us to see, this story in some way defines who God is and who we are, for all the generations to follow, including Jesus Christ, raised from birth on the promises of “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” (Exodus 20:2-3).
In the struggle between Pharaoh and God, between slavery and freedom, between acedia and fullness of life – who will have the souls of the people? Who will own them? To whom do they belong? Who will win?
Be still. The Lord will fight for you.
When the whole world seems to be convinced that we are about to be destroyed, Be still. When we seem to be convinced that soulless mindnumbing is preferable to the risk of being truly, painfully, joyfully awake to what God might do, Be still.
What happens when we are still? Perspective happens.
When we’re still, we are forced to acknowledge reality. The good and the bad. And we stop overestimating our own power to fix, change or escape things. We recognize that we are not God.
When we’re still, our selves to settle back into ourselves. It wakes us up to everything we’ve been numbing or rushing past. Our feelings catch up with us and at first we’re raw: Fear, sadness, grief, guilt, frustration, we have to face them. And when we do we discover they can’t smother us, and we’re stronger for coming out the other side; we're rinsed out and ready.
And when we are still, the way forward is made clear, even if it’s just the very little next step to take.
Sometimes, all you and I have to do to obey, to wake up, to be human and to be in shalom – total relationship with God, in that moment, is to be still. All we have to do was pay attention and watch God fight for us.
When we’re still, that’s where God can meet us. That’s where we can discover we are not alone. Because sisters and brothers, we too are people of the water.
May we be still and know who is God.
Today, set a time for ten minutes, and be still.
What do you notice when you do this?
Restlessness? Calm? Frustration? Sadness? Gratitude?
Give what you notice to God.