September 10, 2023

Exodus 12:1-14
Romans 13:8-14
Matthew 18:15-20

“We Can Do Hard Things”

Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Christ is present. When we come together like this on Sunday mornings to engage in the rituals of praise, prayer, preaching, and Sacraments, Jesus is here with us. I hope that you know that, and that you feel that, and that you are encouraged and strengthened by that promise.

I know that there are many different reasons why people decide to attend worship on a regular basis. You may come for the music, or for the friendship and community, or because you made it a habit many years ago, and it’s just what you do. But when I’ve asked regular worshippers why they come to church each Sunday, many of them say that it strengthens them for the week ahead.

It’s because life is hard, and we need to be reminded that we are loved and that we belong. We need to be assured that when we mess up, we can be forgiven and try again. We need to hear that God has difficult but important things for us to do in the world, and we need to know that we can do those hard things.

I wonder what hard things you’ve been dealing with lately. Or perhaps there is a hard thing that you need to do soon. I preached at the final service for the Presbyterian congregation that is closing in Swift Current earlier this weekend. That was hard. It was hard on my heart.

But I’m thinking of others who decide to speak at the funeral of a loved one. And those who are serving as caregivers every day for a parent or a spouse. I’m remembering young people who have challenging assignments and exams in school, and immigrants and refugees learning a new language and figuring out how to live in a new culture.

I’m thinking of people who take on big, challenging projects at work, and those who carry heavy responsibilities and accountability. I’m thinking of parents who become responsible for one or more tiny human lives, and teachers and social workers who try to make sure that every child and youth has the support and care that they need. I’m thinking of families coping with the progressing dementia of their loved one, figuring out how to love someone struggling with addiction, or just getting up the courage to work through a conflict between family members or friends.

I could go on and on, and I still might not mention the particular hard things that you are dealing with in your life right now. And that doesn’t even begin to get into the hard things that we share – the challenges of being a church in this time and place, the poverty and homelessness in our city and beyond, the continuing problems of racism, heterosexism, and other injustices that call for our collective response.

This month, we are journeying through the Season of Creation in our worship, and though it is fun just to celebrate the beauty and wonders of the natural environment, this season calls us to the hard work of protecting and renewing the earth in the face of the environmental crisis.

The Rev. Fletcher Harper, who is the Executive Director of GreenFaith, an international, multi-faith climate justice organization, explains that “The most important challenges facing the world today are the urgent need to end new fossil fuel exploration and development, to phase out existing coal, oil and gas production equitably, to ensure universal access to clean, affordable energy, and for wealthy countries and corporations to pay for the climate-induced loss and damage for which they bear responsibility.

“These are matters of moral urgency. They will only come to pass if a massive social movement for climate justice relentlessly pressures the world’s powerful governments, finance institutions, and extractive industries. Each of these parties benefits or profits from the status quo.” And Harper urges that “Religious communities must be a part of the movement that forces them to change.”

“This Sunday’s readings tell us that it is time to wake up, to draw strength from religious rituals, to acknowledge matters of great significance that require our courage and integrity, and to engage together in behaviour that is uncomfortable but morally required.”

I admit that when I first looked at the text from the Book of Exodus, I couldn’t imagine what it might have to do with the Season of Creation or the climate crisis. It’s a detailed text with instructions for the Hebrew people on how to celebrate the Passover festival – a day of remembrance which has been marked every year since the time of Moses. But it couldn’t have felt like a festival or a celebration when the Hebrew people did it for the first time.

You may remember that the Hebrews were suffering under slavery and hard labour in Egypt, and Moses was charged with the task of leading them out. But the Pharaoh didn’t want to let those people go, and he resisted all attempts at reason and encouragement.

God was putting the pressure on, and sending one plague after another to support Moses with the hard thing that he was trying to do in response to God’s call. When the plagues of frogs, lice, flies, boils, hail, darkness, and more didn’t get the job done, the final, most terrible plague was announced – the one in which the firstborn children would die.

We must acknowledge that this is a horrific and upsetting story. The idea that our God would murder the little children of one ethnic group (even an ethnic group with a powerful and oppressive leader) in order to save another ethnic group from that oppression does not fit with the image of God that we meet in Jesus Christ.

We have come to know a God who brings salvation, not through violence, but through sacrifice. We have come to know a God who makes things right, not through vengeance, but through forgiveness. Later Jewish interpretations of the Exodus challenge the idea that God was content with transferring the suffering from the Hebrews to the Egyptians. One story in the Midrash has God interrupting the Hebrews as they celebrated with tambourines and dancing while the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea: “How can you sing and dance while my children are dying?” God asks them.

But even if we have our doubts about God’s intention to hurt and kill the Egyptians, we need not doubt God’s intention to help and save the Hebrews, as well as all those who suffer under injustice, oppression, or slavery. As the plague of dying children swept across the land, God gave Moses instructions for how to protect the Hebrews and get them ready for their imminent escape. They would eat together in their households, with enough food cooked for everyone, but none left over. After all, they were leaving very soon.

Blood from the slaughtered animals would mark their doorposts, and the plague would pass over them, leaving their children unharmed. They would eat unleavened bread, because there was no time to wait for bread to rise. Bitter herbs would represent the pain and suffering of their slavery. And they would eat hurriedly, dressed and ready to head out the door because the Exodus was about to begin.

The first Passover meal was a ritual of preparation and strengthening for the journey they were about to take. Not a nice holiday, but a dangerous and gruelling hike that would not end for two generations. As much as their lives in Egypt were terrible and difficult, the Hebrews were about to do a hard thing, a really hard thing in order to get away, to get out – all based on the hope and promise of God for a land of freedom and abundance.

Faithful Jews have continued to celebrate the Passover each year as a festival to the Lord throughout their generations, observing it as a perpetual ordinance and as a day of remembrance. And the meal continues to prepare the people, reminding them of their identity as God’s people, of God’s protection and promise and faithfulness, and strengthening them to face the hard things in their lives today.

A couple of times this week, I asked people in our Christian community what rituals and practices of faith serve to strengthen and prepare us for the hard things that we are called to do. Many people said, “prayer” and talked about both the individual prayers they expressed in crisis moments, and the prayers of others that gave them a sense of being surrounded by God’s love.

And I remembered what it felt like to participate in a smudging ceremony before the final session of the General Assembly that I moderated back in 2019. It was a hard thing I was about to do, moderating through a difficult and divisive decision-making process within a very short time frame. But the prayers of one of our Indigenous leaders, combined with the very strong sense of the Spirit’s presence gave me courage.

Earlier this week, I was listening to an episode of “Ideas” on the CBC podcast app. The topic was wildfires, with a focus on recent Canadian ones, the alarming increase due to climate change, and the challenge of controlling them. At one point in the podcast, I heard the sound of men and women singing and drumming in a lively African style. And then they explained that it was early morning in Western Canada, somewhere in the vicinity of a wildfire. These were international firefighters who came to assist with the crisis in our northern forests, and there was a large group from South Africa.

Before beginning their intense and dangerous work, these firefighters gathered early in the morning to sing. This was their ritual of preparation and strengthening for the hard things that they were called upon to do. They said that singing increased their unity and gave them courage.

This morning we will share in one of the most central and important rituals of our Christian faith. We are invited to the Lord’s Supper where all are welcome and each one of us belongs. Through this Sacrament we experience Holy Communion with God and unity with our Christian siblings who are One Body in Christ.

This is our ritual of strengthening and preparation for all the hard things that God is calling us to do. That includes the particular hard things of our individual lives, families, and community. And it also includes the hard things that we are called to do together.

During this Season of Creation, may this Sacrament strengthen us to learn, to change, and to advocate for the well-being of the earth and all its creatures. It seems like a lot. It seems like too much! But with God’s direction, following in the footsteps of Jesus, strengthened by the Spirit within us, between us, and among us, we can do hard things.