A sermon preached on
The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity (The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost)
in an online Zoom service sponsored by
The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete,
September 6, 2020 11:00 am
When I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt..” Exodus 12:1
For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. Matthew 18:20
God, Rulers, and Plagues
Why does God kill all the firstborn of the Egyptians? Surely they have no part in the enslavement of the Israelites?
Two principles need to be kept in mind. First, in the Hebrew scriptures God is usually seen as the one who causes all things. If good things happen, it is because of God. If bad things happen, it is because of God. This is especially true in the so-called Deuteronomic history, but also in the Torah. And yet, even though God seems to be the cause of all things, human beings seem to have free will; people have the choice to follow God’s ways. This contradiction is never really worked out logically, but is a tension throughout scripture. Thus, when the ten plagues come upon Egypt, it is not merely by chance, but the action of God.
As well, in the Old Testament the people and a king are one. If the ruler does evil, the people suffer. If the monarch does good, the people benefit. This may seem alien to our sense of understanding, but, again, it is what we find in most of the Tanach.
These are not so much explanations but descriptions. In the OT story this morning the Egyptian people suffer because of the hardness of heart of Pharaoh, who will not release the Israelites. God causes Pharaoh to be cruel, but he would have chosen to be that way anyway. Pharaoh on one side opposes God and Moses and Aaron on the other, and so the people of Egypt all suffer. Indeed, were it not for the sign of the Passover, the blood placed upon the doorway, even the Israelites, slaves that they were, would suffer. This may not be fair, but it seems to be the way of the world.
Today people across the world are in the midst of a plague. In some places, such as here in Greece, the leadership has been very effective, and the numbers of infections and deaths have been very low. In other places the leadership has not been so effective. There the numbers of infections have been high and the number of deaths comparatively high – thirty times more so than here. Is that fair? No, not at all. But it is as true for us as it was for the Egyptians.
God, Democracies, and the Pandemic
So what message is God trying to tell the leaders of the present? In Exodus the authors, writing many centuries after the events they were describing, believed that in God’s eyes that the enslavement of Israel in Egypt was wrong. What is God calling us to in this worldwide pandemic?
For today’s world perhaps we can take several lessons.
- First, perhaps an economic one. We are a globalized economy and people travel far and wide very quickly. Along with that globalization comes the possibility of some bad things – perhaps in the past it was radicalized religious terrorists, but today it is a simple virus. What are the most effective ways to ensure health and safety?
- Perhaps, when looking at the decline in our economies, we need to build in greater resiliency. In our efforts at just-in-time manufacturing, in cost-cutting and share-holder value, we have created a fragile system. Do we need to build something more robust?
- Or, when we look at the internet and social media, we see a world that is increasingly fractured, inside the so-called echo chambers, and where facts are ignored and conspiracy theories abound. How do we raise citizens so that they have critical thinking? The failure to regulate what is called surveillance capitalism has led to polarization. How do we get people to listen to each other more carefully?
- Finally, times of stress usually affect the poor, the sick, and the marginalized more so than others. Not surprisingly, just as the ten plagues of Egypt were coincident with the call to free the Israelites, so the current pandemic has come with a new civil rights movement. How do we ensure that the most vulnerable in our society receive justice and empowerment?
Of course, all of this goes with conflict. On the local level, in the gospel reading, Jesus gives us a way to go forward to resolve conflict. One starts small – one to one, then two to one, and so forth. One builds up the community in an attempt to point out someone’s fault. If it doesn’t work we are required to bring in a third person, and in working with that other person we move towards a resolution. Sometimes that person will help us see what we contributed to the problem. Ideally one keeps the level of tension low, but that is not always possible.
As Christians we rely on each other. We believe that it is community that we find truth, the word of God speaking to us. Let us listen to one another in love and care.
On the larger level, we live in an unusual time, where we can always vote out the leaders who do not rule well. I am not so cynical that I believe it makes no difference who is in charge. I am not so naïve to believe that simply calling oneself a Christian means that one follows Christ-like ways. There are many toxic theologies out that that uphold corrupt politicians and voters.
That said, a robust democracy, with a free press, wide enfranchisement, freedom to associate, free speech, a well-educated citizenry, empowered minority voices, and ease of voting, is always to be preferred to a dictatorship. The country we live in, Greece, has in the past century suffered under two right-wing dictatorships and a Nazi occupation, so most people here are aware of the dangers of right-wing demagoguery. It also has hesitated to run towards a left-wing dictatorship; ever since the Communist Party was made legal in 1974 it never received much more than 9% of the vote, and these days usually gets around 5%. Democracy is never perfect (although the Swiss might claim theirs is really good), but it is the best system we have found to deal with political differences, and to serve the people. The Christian faith has co-existed with many types of governments – to the point of being co-opted and compromised – but it is probably least uncomfortable and comprised in a democracy. In being called to love our neighbour, to feed the hungry, give water to the poor, visit the sick, clothe the naked, care for the sick, we are also called to be involved in the politics that affect them and us.
Signs of the Times
Of course, I may be quite wrong in all of this. That said, we do live in a time of plague – perhaps not as awful as that visited upon the Egyptians, but still pretty awful.
- What are the signs of the times?
- Who is it that God is calling on us to liberate?
- How have the leaders led us astray?
May God give us the vision and the hearing to do God’s will on earth, as it is in heaven.