Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost 2017 — Preaching Notes

September 17, 2017 (Year A)
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

Season of Creation  |  WIND, SKY, AND SEA
 

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The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night. Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.
(Exodus 14:19-21, NRSV)

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
whether cloudy or calm, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Praise of the Creatures, st. 5-6

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth, and sky, and sea.
We thank you, Lord.
The Book of Common Prayer,
837 “A Litany of Thanksgiving.” Public Domain.

Fire fascinates us, draws us in, and then reduces us to trembling.

Death is at once enemy, and sister.

And today, we join the witness of scripture in joy and terror at the power of wind, and sky, and sea, and with Francis we confess that God is surely praised through them. 

The scripture begins by describing a terrifying scene, terrifying, at least, for the people of Israel. After the passover which had spared their offspring but killed the firstborn of the Egyptians, including the Pharaoh, the Pharaoh at last agreed they could leave to go to the place where their God expected their worship. Then, not long after they began their journey, he sent his army after them to destroy them. They had gotten as far as the Red Sea, and were on its shore, but the Egyptian army had also caught up with them. If they stayed where they were, they would be slaughtered. If they tried to go into the sea, they would be drowned. It appeared the Angel of Death, delayed by their blood-painted lintels in Egypt, had now caught up to them.

Until.

Until “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14:21).

Until wind, and sky, and sea were no longer simply facts of geography, but were put to use as tools of deliverance through the work of the Creator.

Deliverance, at least, for the Israelites. Sky, a “pillar of cloud,” kept the Egyptians from reaching the Israelites, and the Israelites would cross the sea at daybreak on dried land, cleared by winds lasting all night long, with wind-held walls of water heaping up on either side.

SEA
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
To get a sense of just how terrifying the prospect of crossing the Red Sea would have been to the Israelites, it’s important to understand that the whole concept of sea was fundamentally terrifying across the ancient Mediterranean world in the first place. Sea was chaos. Sea was unpredictable. Sea was home of monsters beneath the water, overwhelming waves on the water, and unpredictable and sometimes raging storms over the water that could capsize a fleet of ships in a moment. This is why stories of sailors from the ancient Mediterranean world were so often stories of heroes, even demi-gods. Only heroes would brave the “wine-dark” sea, and not all of them would survive. And this is why, in Revelation 21, the first named sign that heaven and earth had passed away and a new heaven and earth had been created was “the sea was no more.” (Revelation 21:1). 

Wind, sea, and sky in the hands of the Almighty, with the unceasing intercession of Moses, would set them free-- creation conspiring for their lives.

For the soldiers of Egypt, those very same elements would mean death and destruction. When the cloud lifted and they began to see the Israelites crossing the sea, they followed in pursuit. But the wheels of their chariots became mired in the mud, and before they reverse course or escape, God closed up the walls of water and drowned them all, with their horses and chariots, in the sea.

“Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore” (Exodus 14:30).

Wind, and sky, and sea, agents of deliverance and destruction, life and death.

Three years ago, my colleague, Dawn Chesser, wrote this in her sermon notes on this passage.

And this is where I get into trouble…. I want to be able to preach the story of pure victory and God’s favor. I want to preach about God’s promises kept and God’s faithfulness, power and strength. I want to celebrate the oppressed being set free from the enemies of God’s people by the powerful and just hand of the Lord.

Likewise, I want to believe that there is nothing redeeming about those who served in Pharaoh’s army. I want to believe that they were just as evil as he, and had volunteered to go after the Israelite slaves and bring them back to continue to perform hard labor as captives of an evil state.

But it isn’t so clear-cut for me anymore. I have to wonder how many of those Egyptian soldiers who were killed by the waters of the Red Sea were just like any other young soldier. Did they have families at home, partners and children to support, and mothers and fathers who loved them? Were they soldiers who were simply serving their countries in situations over which they had no control and were paid very little? Had they even been given a choice about their service?

Given the brutal images of wars, destruction and human suffering that we are subjected to daily through the power of media, and the ever-increasing difficulty in being able to discern with clarity who is good and who is evil in this world, are we not called, just as the rabbis who came before us, to at least name the tensions, if not live with them? Can we hear the story of victory in this text even while acknowledging that God’s heart is broken whenever one of God’s children suffers, no matter who it is?

Much to ponder, to weigh together, indeed.

If we ponder carefully, we may not look at such stories of deliverance, or the wind, sky, and sea, unequivocally again. We may instead embrace in such stories and in these elements of creation themselves both the hope and the loss, both the courage and the fear, both the joy and the grief.

And Francis’s song may help us do so.

Because in his song, wind and sky and water are not praised for their own intrinsic qualities. Indeed they are not praised at all. Instead, for them, as for all other elements he identifies in his song, God is praised through them.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
whether cloudy or calm, and all weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Praise of the Creatures, st. 5, line 2 translation mine.

Wind, air, cloud, weather… wind and sky together are here invoked as agents of praise to God. The ultimate good wind and sky together bring about within creation is sustenance, or. more literally, “holding things together.” It’s a remarkable insight, perhaps even a bit strange. . The tension here is not in the potentially destructive force of something like wind, in the form of tornado, hurricane, waterspout, or accompanied by thunderstorm. The tension is an apparent cognitive dissonance with gives us pause. Wind, air, clouds holding creatures together? It might seem, instead, that these “invisible” forces are what is held together by something else, not the basis for holding creatures together, sustaining them. If he had spoken of rain or “all weather” first, maybe, but he adds it at the very end, almost an afterthought. The “brothers” through whom God is to be praised are not “all weather” or even “clouds” per se. The brothers are wind and air (sky) themselves. The clouds or calm and all weather accompany but are not identical with wind and sky.

OF WIND AND GOD
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

In Hebrew, Greek, and a variety of other languages, the word for “wind” (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) is also the word for both breath and spirit. This is why in some forms of Judaism, the personhood of a newborn is identified with the point at which the newborn takes its first breath, because this is when its “spirit” is thought to have entered into it. A similar image is portrayed in the creation account... [continue reading]

We now know Francis’s odd metaphor in this stanza has scientific merit. Mess with the atmosphere, “brothers wind and air,” and calamity comes to all creatures. Put in too much carbon, and it becomes carbolic acid that destroys coral reefs and whole ocean ecosystems, as well as increases the surface temperature of the planet. Ice caps and glaciers melt. Oceans rise. Islands and coastlands become uninhabitable. People and animals are displaced. Food and water supplies are interrupted or lost. Politics become less stable. Put in too many particulate pollutants, and the lungs of many creatures are damaged, disease rates go up, and life expectancy goes down.

Praised be God through brothers Wind and Sky.

What must we do to ensure God’s name is praised, not cursed, by the ways we interact with these good brothers?

How about the sea? How is God to be praised even through it, that harbinger of deliverance and doom all at once? Francis’s song does not address the sea, per se, but does address its most prominent element, water. 

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Praise of the Creatures, st. 6

WHERE IS GOD?
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
As Christians, we affirm that God is omnipresent, a fancy Latin way of saying “everywhere, always.” There is nowhere God is not.

Yet as we look at religious practices across many cultures over the centuries, including those described in the Bible, and including the biblical language for God’s abode, there is generally one clear answer to the question of God’s location in space... [continue reading]

God is praised through sister water not, as we might expect, for giving or sustaining life. As we have seen, that role of sustenance is given to brothers wind and air. Instead, sister water praises God through its usefulness, its humility (etymologically, the word humile in Tuscan in its Latin roots means “close to the earth,” and so, by extension, accessible to all creatures), its value (that would lead us to conserve it or use it respectfully), and its clean or unspoiled nature.

Whether in the sea, or in rivers, or on land, or through rain, or underground, sister water continues to exhibit all of these properties, and so stands as an example for ways we may be more like her and so offer fuller praise to God through our lives.  

Perhaps the key is that we not seek to become like a great sea, for the sea generally evokes terror more than hope (see sidebar, above), but rather more like the water itself. It’s not about us “enlarging our territory” but about us becoming more fully who we have been made to be water and the Spirit.

We may become more useful to God for God’s purposes of deliverance, as were the waters of the Red Sea at the Exodus. We may become more accessible to others, less like “bottled water” and more like a renewing rain. We may become more valuable to others, more “in favor with God and people” (Luke 2:52). And we may become more clean, less sullied by the life-destroying forces all around us, and more an agent of cleaning what soils rather than spreading soil.

So praised be God through brothers wind and sky, and praised be God through sister water. May we treat them all as agents of praise to God, as siblings with us, and so learn greater ways to become agents of God’s praise ourselves. 


 

Of Wind and God

In Hebrew, Greek, and a variety of other languages, the word for “wind” (ruach in Hebrew, pneuma in Greek) is also the word for both breath and spirit. This is why in some forms of Judaism, the personhood of a newborn is identified with the point at which the newborn takes its first breath, because this is when its “spirit” is thought to have entered into it. A similar image is portrayed in the creation account in Genesis 2:7, when God breathes life into the clay God had shaped into human form, and in Ezekiel 37 when God tells Ezekiel to prophesy over the breath so that reformed but lifeless bodies may come to life (Ezekiel 37:9-10).

Jesus plays with the same imagery in John 3, when he tells Nicodemus “The wind  blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it came from or where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5, NRSV). The words “wind” and “Spirit” are the very same word in Greek.

Much can be made of how we have borrowed “wind” as a term for God moving and acting among us. Much, too, can be made of how we have associated wind and breath. I’ll leave you to make the associations you wish for the sake of this week’s theme. It may be enough simply to note that in calling for God to be praised through brother wind, Francis is also pulling at a longer and richer literary and biblical history, including the conclusion of Psalm 150: “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord!”
 

Where is God? 

As Christians, we affirm that God is omnipresent, a fancy Latin way of saying “everywhere, always.” There is nowhere God is not.

Yet as we look at religious practices across many cultures over the centuries, including those described in the Bible, and including the biblical language for God’s abode, there is generally one clear answer to the question of God’s location in space: God is in the sky. Where exactly God is located in the sky may not be specified, but these practices and biblical (and Koranic) language generally affirm this.

Sacrifice is the primary form of human worship practice. And the primary way sacrifice works, across cultures, is by burning/cooking a physical offering so that its smoke goes up (into the sky) and can be received (and it is hoped, enjoyed) by God or the gods.

Likewise the word for where God dwells, in both Hebrew and Greek, is also the word for sky.

We still affirm the omnipresence of God as a principle of theology. Yet we also affirm the more ancient and transcultural and transhistorical idea that God is “up” or “in the sky” through the ways we position our body in prayer or worship. While material sacrifice offered through burning is no longer a part of Jewish or Christian worship, both Jews and Christians often continue the of raising our hands “to the heavens” or simply “to God” in prayer. We may no longer hold the idea that “God lives in the sky” (though the song “I’ll Fly Away” seems to do so rather explicitly!), but we do still, in these gestures, reflect a notion of God being at least “above us.”

 
 

Categories: Year A, Fifteenth Sunday After the Pentecost — September 17, 2017

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