Sunday, January 21, 2018

This Week's Sermon: "Idols of Silver and Gold," Isaiah 31:1-7

Isaiah 31:1-7

Doom to those going down to Egypt for help! They rely on horses, trust in chariots because they are many, and on riders because they are very strong. But they don’t look to the holy one of Israel; they don’t seek the Lord. 2 But God also knows how to bring disaster; he has not taken back his words. God will rise up against the house of evildoers and against the help of those who do wrong.

3 Egypt is human and not divine; their horses are flesh and not spirit. The Lord will extend his hand; the helper will stumble, those helped will fall, and they will all die together. 4 The Lord has said to me: When the lion growls, the young lion, over its prey, though a band of shepherds is summoned against it, isn’t scared off by their noise or frightened by their roar. So the Lord of heavenly forces will go down to fight on Mount Zion and on her hill. 5 Like birds flying aloft, so the Lord of heavenly forces will shield Jerusalem: shielding and saving, sparing and rescuing. 6 People of Israel, return to the one whom you have deeply betrayed! 7 On that day, you will each reject the idols of silver and the idols of gold, which you have sinfully made for yourselves. (Common English Bible)



“From Slave State to Refuge: Ancient Egypt and Contemporary America,” Week Three



Juan Carlos Coronilla Guerrero was, by almost all appearances, living the American dream, so much so that you couldn’t tell him from Adam. He had found work as a carpenter, he and his wife were raising three kids, he had settled down, life was good.



Then he had to appear in court on a misdemeanor possession charge for carrying a quarter-ounce of marijuana on his person. And he had immigrated here illegally from Mexico into Texas after being deported once before. While the county of the courtroom he appeared in had previously not, as a matter of policy, turned over illegal immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nonviolent misdemeanors, things were different last year with Trump’s crackdown on sanctuary cities and counties ordered a year ago yesterday. And there at the courtroom to greet Coronilla were a pair of ICE agents to arrest him for reentry after deportation, a felony. I’ll let Sarah Stillman for the New Yorker pick up Coronilla’s story from here:



Coronilla’s wife begged a federal judge to spare her husband. Gangs had overrun his home town in Mexico, and deportees were prime targets for crime, since they were presumed to have money. Coronilla was deported in June. Three months later (in September), gunmen woke him from the bed where he slept with his young son. According to the Austin American-Statesman, he tried to soothe the boy, saying, “Don’t worry, my love.” His body was found about forty miles away, filled with bullets. When I spoke to Coronilla’s wife shortly after his death, she told me that she’d returned to Mexico to claim his body. She now fears for her own life. “He was a good man,” she said. “Now I have to prepare for his funeral.”



Whatever your beliefs are about marijuana—and I have my own—holding a quarter-ounce of it should not merit a cascade of dominoes that results in your deportation and, three months later, subsequent murder by a cartel while telling your terrified child not to worry. But that is the death we have wrought, all in the name of “they took our jobs,” and all while somehow claiming to be “pro-life.” And the reckoning for such masquerades is fast becoming due.



This is both a new sermon series and a new year for us. This series began on the day after a very special holiday on the liturgical calendar. January 6 is Epiphany, the day that tradition says the Magi finally arrived to present Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Epiphany is the beginning of a very violent, very sorrowful chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that entails the massacre of all the infant boys in Bethlehem on orders of the Israelite king Herod the Great (who was, in turn, a vassal of the Roman emperor Augustus). To prevent Jesus from meeting that same fate, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt and remain there until Herod is dead, at which point they safely return to Israel.



The Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is what fundamentally informs this new sermon series, which will last the entire month of January, because it is a flight that we should be increasingly familiar with by dint of the news cycles circulating around the immigration debate taking place in our country. As we’ll see in later installments of this series, Egypt holds a terrifying legacy of slavery and displacement for ancient Israel. Yet in the moment, it acts as a refuge for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.



There is an obvious parallel for us in the United States today. For instance, how can we be a place of safety and refuge for, say, the courageous people in Iran protesting their regime today, if we have also banned them from entering our country?



Last week, we began this series with the Epiphany story itself in Matthew 2:1-12, and last week, we dug into the person who is the Hebrew Bible parallel to the Epiphany story: Moses. Today, we arrive at a passage from Isaiah 31 that recalls the Israelites’ time in Egypt as chattel slaves.



The Hebrew Bible professor William L. Holladay sums up Isaiah 31 as a “message…of the hopelessness of relying on Egypt,” and it is easy to see why, even just by glancing at the first line of verse one: “Doom to those going down to Egypt for help!” But the prophet goes on to explain why, exactly such doom is to be expected in verse three: “Egypt is human and not divine; their horses are flesh and not spirit.”



Egypt, in other words, may represent a temporary and temporal solution to the question that faced eighth-century BCE prophets like Isaiah of what to do about the perpetual existential threat that an Assyrian conquest of the land represented, but Egypt did not represent a spiritual solution.



Egypt, then, to turn a phrase from Isaiah himself at the end of this passage, represents an idol of silver and gold, such idols that we have made for ourselves and which Isaiah says we must and will eventually reject.



Such idols can be made of silver and gold, but not necessarily. The key ingredient is that they are made by us, not by God, just like the original idol of silver and gold: the golden calf formed by Aaron at the peoples’ behest at Mount Sinai.



And ultimately, that is what things like our borders are. We drew them. Humans drew them. Not God. Our border with Mexico was drawn via the Gadsden Purchase and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War.



To treat those borders as idols, as gods, is not what God expects or demands. We can argue for border security, but not in the name of God, or God as revealed through Jesus Christ. And we cannot use our love of borders to say that God wants us to act with such cruelty and wanton indifference to Dreamers brought here as children for whom the United States is home.



What other things of ours that we have made, what idols of silver of gold, have we elevated to graven image status, to godhood in our own selfish spheres of existence?



In what ways have we—and you—become like the ancient Egypt of old, the ancient Egypt that cannot be relied upon except for its own selfishness and self-centeredness?



And what can you then do to melt those idols of silver and gold into something different, something that can be a gift rather than an empty gesture, a blessing rather than a curse, and a God-image rather than a graven image?



This past Friday marked the March for Life on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. But it also marked the day of a willingness to shut down the government over the lives of people who want and need only what we already have and are far too stingy with—the identity of being American.



In the face of life, in the face of identity, our own objections to them become idols, and that is not pro-life.



Those objections, those idols, create and cause death, like that of Juan Carlos Coronilla Guerrero, murdered as he was desperately trying to comfort his terrified son, because we have decided over the past decade that being American means being white, and that is the most sinful of graven images.



That is what Isaiah, and Jesus, would condemn today—our unreliability to people who aren’t us.



Jesus, on the other hand, was the rock not just for His Jewish followers, but for His Gentile followers. Beseeched by Romans and Canaanites alike, He performed miracles. Confronted with a Samaritan woman held in disgrace, He exalted her, so much so that she returned home singing His praises and bringing other Samaritans into the fold.



We can be the imago Christi—the image of Christ—or we can be the graven image of idols in the world.



Which will it be?



What way will we choose?



And what will that choice say to others about our ultimate priorities?



May we choose wisely and compassionately, then, as God would have us do, so that we may do what is right not by our idols, but by our God.



May it be so. Amen.



Rev. Eric Atcheson

Longview, Washington 
January 21, 2018

Sunday, January 14, 2018

This Week's Sermon: "Out of Egypt, Bring My People," Exodus 3:1-10

Exodus 3:1-10

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up.

4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” 5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” (Common English Bible)



“From Slave State to Refuge: Ancient Egypt and Contemporary America,” Week Two

The daguerreotype of the young man was remarkably moving, not just for the striking nature of his portrait, but for the scenes of his short but extraordinary life that surrounded the portrait. And for Anthony Burns, a black Christian preacher and escaped slave sold back into slavery, it was a life that ought to have been taught to every single child in the United States.

One of the most under-taught aspects of United States history, to our discredit, is the extent to which black slaves who were introduced to Christianity by white slaveholders in bad faith—the slaveholders did not actually care about life and liberty for their slaves, but simply saw Christianity as a way of making their slaves more subservient—and then took that racist brand of Christianity and turned it into a worldview of freedom and liberation. Absalom Jones was a slave who became the first black Episcopal priest in the United States and went on to campaign vigorously against the slave trade. Harriet Tubman, the famed conductor of the Underground Railroad, was a devout Christian.

And Anthony Burns escaped slavery in Richmond to Boston before being arrested, tried, convicted, and extradited back to Virginia under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which mandated that escaped slaves be sent back to a state of slavery with only perfunctory due process, if any at all.

Abolitionists in Boston rallied and protested for his freedom to no avail, even going so far as to raise the funds to buy Burns’s freedom from the slaveholder, who refused to do business with anyone who wanted Burns emancipated. It took another black pastor, Leonard Grimes, to surreptitiously buy Burns’s freedom from the next slaveholder. This time, Burns stayed free, wrote his memoir, earned a scholarship to Oberlin College, and became the minister of a church in Canada before his life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis at age 28.

Of the significance of Burns and his plight, the abolitionist Amos Adams Lawrence said, “We went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, compromise Union Whigs, and woke up stark mad abolitionists.”

It is the sort of transformation I see as well in the Biblical figure of Moses, and it is one I hope we are able to draw from and hearken back to in present-day America, especially today, on the weekend of Martin Luther King Day.

This is both a new sermon series and a new year for us. This series began on the day after a very special holiday on the liturgical calendar. January 6 is Epiphany, the day that tradition says the Magi finally arrived to present Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Epiphany is the beginning of a very violent, very sorrowful chapter of Matthew’s Gospel that entails the massacre of all the infant boys in Bethlehem on orders of the Israelite king Herod the Great (who was, in turn, a vassal of the Roman emperor Augustus). To prevent Jesus from meeting that same fate, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt and remain there until Herod is dead, at which point they safely return to Israel.

The Holy Family’s flight into Egypt is what fundamentally informs this new sermon series, which will last the entire month of January, because it is a flight that we should be increasingly familiar with by dint of the news cycles circulating around the immigration debate taking place in our country. As we’ll see in later installments of this series, Egypt holds a terrifying legacy of slavery and displacement for ancient Israel. Yet in the moment, it acts as a refuge for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

There is an obvious parallel for us in the United States today. How can we be a place of safety and refuge for, say, the courageous people in Iran protesting their regime today, if we have also banned them from entering our country?

Last week, we began this series with the Epiphany story itself in Matthew 2:1-12, and today, we’ll dig into the person who is the Hebrew Bible parallel to the Epiphany story: Moses.

The story of Moses at the burning bush is one of my absolute favorites in all of Scripture. A passage from it was read at my ordination, I did a sermon series on it here exactly six years ago, only months after I arrived out of seminary, and I still get goosebumps listening to Val Kilmer voice that scene in The Prince of Egypt.

Exodus 3 represents the start of that story, after Moses was born to a Hebrew slave mother and, to save him from the purges ordered by Pharaoh, set adrift the Nile River in a basket. Moses was found and, ironically, subsequently raised as a member of the royal family before killing an Egyptian guard, burying him in the sand, and going into exile. In exile, he marries Tziporah and enters into the service of her father, Jethro, the priest of Midian, as a shepherd, which is quite a downgrade from being a member of the royal family of one of the most powerful nations of the ancient world—from prince to, quite literally, peasant. And that’s where today’s story opens.

Moses is, in short, presented to us the sort of old-fashioned, keep-your-head-down-and-do-the-work chap. But upon encountering the voice of God at the burning bush, and hearing God say that God has seen the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, and has heard their cries, Moses is woken up as, to use Amos Adams Lawrence’s term, a stark mad abolitionist!

Sometimes it takes a specific injustice to get a person up from their workaday existence and into the realm of a prophetic, like with the plight of Anthony Burns. Other times, it takes a direct wake-up call from Almighty God, as was the case for Moses, who, after some wheedling and pleading, agrees to take up the cause of God’s people to the Pharaoh of Egypt.

What that divine spark is that ignites our own passion for faith, and of doing right through that faith, thus varies. Maybe you haven’t seen a tree catch alight and hear a booming voice crashing straight down from heaven into your ears. That’s fine.

But God still expects us to be moved by one another, if not also by extemporaneous pyrotechnics.

It is easy to forget that this happened this week after the president referred to “these people” from “sh*thole countries” and expressed a desire for more actual, real-life Aryans to immigrate to the United States, but it was also announced that the government would be ending the protections for some 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants who had been living here as economic refugees, after similar moves had been made last year against Haitians who have been living in the United States as well.

Like ancient Egypt, the United States has a painful and horrible history of slavery in its past (and present, truthfully—slavery was still alive and well in ancient Egypt under Roman rule, and human trafficking still exists to a larger scale than we probably think today). And, like ancient Egypt, the United States is still capable of being a sanctuary for those outsiders who need us to be that. But to do that, we must hear the cries of those hurt by our racism, and see the harm that we have done.

For God never stopped hearing the cries of the people. God never stopped seeing their suffering. God may not be parting Red Seas at present, but that does not mean that we escape culpability.

Nor do we do not get to excuse ourselves from being moved by what others experience to be able to live in what we call the Land of Opportunity, not the least of which is because we call it that. We do not get to brag about being the best country in the world (because there’s a gold medal to be had in that category…) only to then resent the fact that other people want to be in said best country in the world. If we’re being made great again (debatable), and other countries are sh*tholes (even more debatable), we don’t get to tell people to stay in their holes if we really care about their flourishing.

But more to the point, Moses was a murderer in exile. God still charged him with a tremendous responsibility—to seek the liberation of a people enslaved. That may seem above your particular pay grade, but it is not as though Moses had a perfect past and a sterling resume with which to begin.

The United States, and the Christian Church, may not have a perfect past either. Far from it, in fact. It is a truly brutal past. But God still charges us with a colossal responsibility to love our neighbors as ourselves, and those neighbors include the people being made to stand up and be cast out.

We can acknowledge our sinful collective past and begin to make things right by resolving not to repeat the sins of our forebears. We can begin our communal repentance by recognizing that no matter how difficult it is or how uncomfortable it may make us, that we have an institutional advantage in this country.

Jesus, when presented with such disparities in the Gospels, is always unequivocal: you can give up unfair and ill-gotten advantages, or you can end up being condemned by them.

So may God bring us out of them. “Out of Egypt, bring my people.” Out of Egypt and the slavery it represents, and into something new to be: a refuge and a sanctuary for all. Out of slavery, including slavery to sin, may we be brought by the liberating Christ of whom the Gospels speak.

May we, then, as a church and a nation stand, then, not on the side of condemnation, but on the side of the Samaritan, of the neighbor whom we are called to love as ourselves, of the slave, and, ultimately, of God as revealed by Jesus Christ.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
January 14, 2018