In nomine Jesu!
Most biblical scholars, including anyone who's ever attended a Wednesday Evening Bible study at Saint Peter's, know that every story in the Bible was written well after the event it reports. These are not eyewitness accounts. These are not like Carolyn Wagner's meeting minutes nor Kathy Hanson's travel journals; and certainly nothing like Christopher Vergara's Facebook posts. Every story in the Bible, whether in the First or "Old" Testament or the New, was written decades after the event they purport to report. They were not written for posterity, but for a specific audience facing specific concerns in a specific context. By telling a story about what God did then, the biblical authors were trying to help their audience understand what God is doing now as they faced life in their time. There are no better examples of this than today's first reading and Gospel. For the sake of brevity and for this specific audience in our specific context with our specific concerns, I want to limit this sermon to our first reading from the Book of Exodus.
For generations, and in much of the popular mind today, the Book of Exodus as well as the books of Genesis, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy
(our Jewish sisters and brothers call these the "Torah") were written by Moses and, with the exception of Genesis, are eyewitness accounts by Moses of what happened in the 15th and 14th century BCE. Today we know better. Today we know that the whole of Torah, including the Book of Exodus, was compiled and much of it was written 1000 years later, closer to 500 BCE. Why is that important? Because the audience, context and issues in 500 BCE were a lot different than those in 1500 BCE.
Read literally as a firsthand account, Moses and the tribes of Israel have arrived at Rephidim at the base of Mount Sinai after successfully escaping from Egypt and almost immediately after God's spectacular triumph over the Egyptian army at the Red (or Reed) Sea. They are flush with victory, with a sense of direction and purpose. They are excited and ready to become a people -- a nation -- as our reading announces, "a kingdom of priests." Upbeat, triumphant and excited, they eagerly await the covenant God is about to make with them and receive the Torah with the Ten Commandments that will bind them as a holy, chosen people. By this account they were much like we in the USA were immediately after the end of the Cold War.
In 500 BCE, when Exodus was actually written, the people, their context and their problems were significantly different. Exodus was written for an audience of has-beens; at least that's how they felt. They had been a nation with kings descended from David's royal family. They had had a great capital city, Jerusalem, with a magnificent Temple, an awesome priesthood and enviable law. But the operative words here are all in the past tense. Their city and its Temple had been leveled and their priests and kings with them had lived in exile, in Babylon, for at least a generation. They no longer believed they were one people, let alone a chosen people. They no longer felt that they had a purpose. They were absolutely convinced there was nothing they could do about anything; they were totally sure that they either had no God, or had had the wrong God, or that the stories about their God were nothing but myths after all.
And now, by order of yet another empire and yet another foreign king, they were being "freed" from Babylonian exile and sent back, as one people, to rebuild ruined Jerusalem, to restore their burnt-out Temple, to have a purpose and to trust their God. Why bother? Who were they? What could they really do? I don't know about
you, but, these days, I hear that kind of talk all every.
Can you see the difference hearing Bible stories in their own context makes?
The Book of Exodus, the story we heard in our first reading this morning, was written for this audience; not upbeat, triumphant and excited; but the exact, polar opposite. In such a time as that, to challenged hearers like them -- challenged hearers like us -- the author of Exodus addresses these words from God:
You see...how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.
Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my treasured people....
you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
Those words of God are addressed to them at such a time as that. They are addressed to us at such a time as this. They proclaim that God is at work in this mess of a world; that God has need of and work for us; that we are not irrelevant but treasured; that when we have the opportunity to do something good, rebuild Jerusalem for them or
join the thousands who will, on September 21, march for a global response to climate change, we are called and needed to do it. That, in such a time as this, we are, not exiles, but treasured people who, with purpose and direction, are a holy people on God's way to build a better home.
How do we know that? Where can we hear this? How can we experience a God present, active, working, serving, being here with us? How do we share this sense of hope, this sense of God's presence, this commitment to a better world with others? Three little words are our message, invitation and answer: "Come and see." Come and see Jesus here, at work, serving and leading, who welcomes us, nourishes us, treasures us and goes with us to make God's way.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peter's Church
in the City of New York