13 September 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“It is a fearful thing, to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:32).
The living God—not the idols of strength and wealth that we too often create—but the true living God—the God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)…the God who drives back the sea with a strong east wind…and turns the sea to dry ground…the God who makes a road in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,” (Isaiah 43:19), turns hard rock into a pool of water…flint stone into a flowing spring (Psalm 114:8)…That God. It is a fearful thing to fall into that God’s hands.
The Israelites are on the run…They’re on the way out of Egypt, but Pharaoh and his army are in hot pursuit.
Just before our Exodus reading today starts, the Israelites “catch sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them.” And they are…the text says…“greatly frightened.” Frightened of the Egyptians. Frightened of what Moses is asking them to do. They cry out… ”Was it for lack of graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness?” (Exodus 14:11, Alter translation) What are you doing? Leave us alone…let us go back…better be enslaved to a despotic power we know than to throw ourselves into the hands of the living God.
But Moses says what angels and all servants of the living God always say…”Have no fear!” Or maybe better…don’t let your fear drive you…don’t let it consume you. Watch, “witness the deliverance which God will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again.” Just wait…and “hold your peace,” Moses says. (Exodus 14:14, Jewish Study Bible).
They wait and they watch, and we heard today what happens…and at the end… “Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared…the Lord (Exodus 14:31)—no longer the Egyptians, they feared God…because they saw God’s power…the sea beholds God’s power and flees…the mountains behold God’s power and skip like rams…the earth trembles at the presence of God. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
We can’t escape fear. We can’t survive without it. Fear will always be with us…but fear should not dominate us…we must not magnify the fear that is in us and around us.
God’s power is fear-full…it’s awe-full (as in full of awe). But we have power ourselves…we have a role and a responsibility in all of this. Mary proclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:46), if our souls are magnifiers…are amplifiers…then we have to ask: what we are magnifying? Is it God, or is it fear?
Something Jesus has said twice in the past month (9/23 and 9/6) is haunting me… “what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and what you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 18:18).
What you bind…is bound…and maybe magnified…What you loose is loosed and maybe amplified…That’s a fearful responsibility.
Suzanne Guthrie, who is a priest in California proposes a thought experiment…”What if this beautiful, biologically diverse and generous earth IS heaven?…What if heaven (like God) isn’t a fixed thing but evolves through time, fashioned by consciousness itself?” What if we create heaven or hell by what we bind and by what we loose…by what we magnify. What kind of heaven…or what kind of hellscape…are we contributing to?
She asks, what if “our polluted, exploited earth begets a barren, poisoned heaven?” What if our war-making, or our peace-making here determines the state of being there?” What if our “exclusion excludes us”? What if our inclusion includes us all? “If so,” she reasons, “our actions, cooperation, sacrifices, and love binds and loosens consequences more far-reaching and vital than imagined.” (source). What if our binding and loosing here are also magnified…amplified —not seven times, but seventy-seven times—like in today’s parable.
Jesus is being outrageously hyperbolic here…but that never quite makes it through translation. “Ten thousand talents” isn’t a real sum of money… it’s more like “ten kajillion dollars!” A hundred denarii is a real sum, and it’s a lot, but the point seems to be that 100 denarii is repayable, but ten thousand talents—an absurd magnification of that—is not. The same is true of jail verses eternal torture…Jesus is drawing a big scary picture to get our attention.*
It is a fearful picture, no doubt. But look what happens…The “king’s” mercy and forgiveness is not magnified by the man. But the man’s own recalcitrance…his own…greed?…his own sense of justice?…we don’t know what his motivation is…but we do see how his behavior…his treatment his fellow human being—what he binds and what he looses in his world—we see how that is magnified on him…grotesquely so.
The Israelites feared God…and the disciples probably feared God and Jesus at this point. But wait. Don’t be afraid…don’t hold onto that fear…don’t magnify that fear…hold onto your peace.
Because we need to ask…What if it had been the other way around? What if he had “held his peace”…what if….in stead of demanding payment, he had shown even a small amount of mercy to the one who owed him this paltry sum? Wouldn’t that have been magnified as well?
If only there was a parable to describe how mercy amplifies mercy…to show how even the smallest acts of kindness and generosity and solidarity with the oppressed can have massive impacts…Oh, wait there is…remember?
‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ (Matthew 13:31-32). That’s more hyperbole, mustard plants don’t grow large enough to house birds…but that’s not the point…the point is the magnification…from the smallest seed an immense thing grows—“from small things, mama, big things one day come.”
Yes, it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Because God’s power is immense…greater than any of us can begin to comprehend. And when we hear of seas being blown back all night…mountains skipping like rams…the earth trembling…and kings exacting grotesque consequences it is frightening…but stop. Hold your peace. Wrap your fear up in that peace for a moment and remember…what God’s power really is. Remember where God’s strength comes from. Remember that God’s entire being is love. God’s power is love, God’s strength is love. The mountains skip, and the earth trembles not because of fear…but because of love. The sea is blown back and a flinty stone turns to flowing water not because of fear, but because of love. The small seeds which we scatter…the seemingly insignificant deeds we perform all along the path of our life…can amplify our own fear, or they can magnify God’s love…not seven times but seventy-seven times…
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but it is a wonderful, and vital thing to magnify God’s love, to hold onto God’s peace, spread those tiny seeds…and watch what God will make happen.
*A favorite quote from Flannery O’Connor: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” This appears to be what Jesus is doing here.