Faithful to tell on ourselves

by Jeff Hunter

This sermon was originally delivered in September 2020.

TEXTS: Exodus 17:1-7, Psalm 78, Philippians 2:1-13

Sermons live in a strange place. On the one hand, a sermon is a deep dive into the past. We dig deep into scripture because we need to know our family stories and to hear the good news about what God has done in Israel and Jesus to set the work of salvation in motion. On the other hand, a sermon is a participation in God’s invitation right now to an innovative, abundant life in Christ that is being birthed in the messy, painful, and exhilarating work of welcoming God’s kingdom. Every good sermon stands with one foot in the historic testimony of the people of God, and with the other foot standing in our present experience as God’s people.

In Exodus 17 we find our foot planted in the past at Massah and Meribah, where the Israelites are experiencing the terrifying reality of deadly thirst and inability to provide water for themselves. Our foot in the present is planted in the North Park and Albany Park neighborhoods of Chicago, as we are experiencing a marked rise in violence and a nation that is freshly grieving the death of Breonna Taylor and the painfully apparent limitations of our criminal justice system.

Prior to this in Exodus 14, we were on the far shore of the Red Sea rejoicing in the awful and awesome liberating power of God unleashed in the world on our behalf. Our people, who had once been enslaved, were now set free. In chapter 16, we were wandering hungry in the wilderness and complaining to God for deliverance. Wild deserts are hard places to survive, and as our family began to experience starvation they were overwhelmed enough to even long for a return to slavery in Egypt. But God miraculously provided the blessing of manna to nourish them. Here in chapter 17 we find ourselves again in a place of intense deprivation. People are pleading for their lives, this time because of thirst. Not the kind of thirst where your throat just feels a little scratchy. This is the kind of thirst where your tongue feels thick; you’re having a hard time standing because of dizziness; it hurts to swallow. In that moment of fear and suffering they come to Moses as God’s representative and cry out, “Give us water to drink!” And God does. When Moses comes before God with the people’s needs, God invites them to Mt. Sinai and says, “I will stand before you,” and the miracle of water from the rock is gifted to God’s people. Moses named the place Massah (meaning “test”) and Meribah (“arguing”) because the people of Israel argued with Moses and tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord here with us or not?”

Why do we have this kind of story in our Bible? What kind of people cultivate memories like this? When it came time to record Holy Scripture, the people of God decided that this story should make the cut. When they remembered the Exodus story, they thought you and I needed to hear this particular story. I can imagine some old guys with beards, stooped over the draft scroll saying, “When North Park Covenant Church reads about God’s deliverance of their foremothers and forefathers from slavery, we need to make sure they remember how afraid we were and how much we complained about God’s chosen method for deliverance.” So, what kind of people carefully cultivates a memory that centers on its own failure?

I think the answer is a faithful people. Only a faithful people who are more concerned with God getting the glory and making sure that the blessing they are receiving is shared with the people around them would have the courage to “tell on themselves” like this. Faithful people have the courage to tell on themselves. And it’s not just here in the Exodus story where we see this pairing of the majestic, powerful Yahweh doing shockingly good things, while the people of God waver, complain, and miss the point. The Bible is shot through with these stories. It takes a faithful people to tell the truth about themselves.

We are not so good at this. I have noticed that at least the church we are part of — the American, Protestant expression of the church that we have here at North Park — isn’t particularly good at telling on ourselves. We’re pretty good at sharing our theology. We love discussing big ideas about God, grounded in scripture. We’re pretty good at application and action steps. We work to sponsor children, support missionaries, join small groups, and encourage one another. We’re pretty darn good at worship. We use art and technology, public speaking, beauty, and collaboration to create powerful experiences of praise. But we very much avoid gathering together to look at our dark stories and understand the ways in which we have created and sustained sin in our lives and in our systems.

Reading Exodus 17:7 while living in this moment brings us a Spirit-filled invitation to start telling on ourselves. Can we become the kind of people that the faithful Israelites were? Can we learn the discipline of telling on ourselves? Can we trust that when we tell the truth that reveals our failings, God will be glorified?

There is a story I have been carrying as a weight for years but have never before managed to find the courage to preach on. I know this story because of faithful seminary professors at North Park and the Christian historian Jemar Tisby, and I am grateful they had the courage to help the church remember it. In the mid-1600s, the colony of Virginia was experiencing a dilemma. Christian identity and commitment was an essential part of our social structure and community life. Slavery, too, was becoming an ever important part of our social structure and community life. The gospel was being shared with enslaved Africans, and they were responding to Christ’s call to “follow me.” Naturally, these enslaved people requested to be included in the church and into Christian discipleship. So Christian men, our forebears, stood up in the Virginia General Assembly in 1667 and asked one another what should be done with these African people who wanted to be reconciled to God and to one another and to them. After discussion and deliberation they voted to make it a law that following Jesus, being baptized into the communion of saints, and sharing status as fellow members in the household of God would have no impact on a person’s status as a slave. That decision, and multiple others like it in American colonies, made largely by Christian lawmakers, then even made its way into baptismal vows that slaves were required to take at their baptism.

Today, in the Covenant Church when we invite someone to make vows at their baptism, we ask them questions like this: “Proclaiming this covenant with Jesus Christ, do you renounce all the powers of evil and declare your opposition to a way of life in contradiction to the gospel? Do you repent of your sins, confessing Christ as your Savior and Lord and living as his faithful disciple? Empowered by the Holy Spirit, will you do all in your power to participate fully in the life of this congregation, to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” These are some of our most hopeful and powerful promises that we invite people to make before God and one another.

By contrast, in colonial South Carolina, baptismal vows included these words for enslaved Africans who were joining the family of God in baptism: “[Do] you declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for Holy Baptism out of any design to free yourself from the Duty and Obedience you owe to your master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the Grace and Blessings promised to the Members of the Church of Jesus Christ?” In that historical moment our ancestors in faith decided that economic success and raw power over other humans was more important than the reconciling work of our Lord Jesus Christ. And they built laws to protect their faithlessness.

I am undone by this story. And it is the same feeling I have as I have tried to process the grand jury’s finding in the Breonna Taylor case. As I have tried to wrap my mind and my heart around what happened and what is happening, I have found myself grieving the legal realities that frame the world we live in. Another black woman has been killed, and her family and our nation is grieving. And the justice that we have designed in our country is not justice. To be honest, I find myself unable to imagine what justice could look like in this moment.

But if we could cultivate the moral courage to tell on ourselves, if we could remember our tragic stories and how we have made peace with sin as a church and as a nation, I think we could begin to see the way forward. This way relies on the biblical pattern of proclaiming God’s glory and proclaiming the truth about ourselves. What glory would God receive if we did not attempt to whitewash the truth about our own faithless failings in the path? When our family stood at Massah and Meribah they were overwhelmed by thirst and fear of death and their faith wavered. When our family stood on the East Coast of what would become the United States they were overcome by greed and the desire for power and safety and so their faith wavered. When we in our day have had the opportunity to champion justice and anti-racism we have too often given in to fear and a love of economic advantage and our faith has wavered.

We serve the liberating God of Exodus. We serve the humble God of the cross. We serve the reconciling God of the resurrection. We are invited—required even—to have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, “[who because] he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:6-11).

It is quite an example to live up to, isn’t it? Be like Jesus! Not by winning and defeating enemies and living in triumph, but by humbling ourselves, by pouring out our power and privilege, and by finding our vocations in service and obedience. It is a hard calling to be a follower of Jesus. If we can trust the testimony of Exodus, the prophets, and the first disciples it is a calling we will often fail to heed. But the amazing grace in our story is that God’s work does not depend on us. It depends on God being awesome, and on us just being honest and humble. This is why we as Christians have made confession a central part of our life together. Individually and corporately we will falter, fail, and sin. But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And God will be glorified.

Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as we continue walking through our family stories of promise, slavery, and deliverance, help us to so fall in love with your vision for liberation that we are empowered to join you in the work of tearing down sin and laboring for shalom in our lives, in our families, and in our communities. Amen.