Baptist, Sermon

In the Line

Justin Thornburgh
Community Church of Wilmette
Proper 21A
Psalm 78: 1-4, 12-16
25 September, 2011


In the Line

(Scene 1: In the Night)

The sun was setting behind the mountains. The shadows on the ground were growing as the light began to fade. The cloud in front of the child began to glow – like fire – as it had every night of her young life. She always went to the edge of the camp to watch the transformation. She would stand there in awe. Hands outstretched – palms out. She would closer her eyes and feel the wind that always accompanied the change blow through her hair. A smile would come to her face as she stood in the midst of the transformation. She could stand in that place or transformation forever. It was so peaceful.

Her bliss, though, was interrupted by her little brother running up to her – tugging on her sleeve, “Rachel, Rachel, the sun has set. Sabbath is over. Momma has food ready.” “I’ll be there in minute, Yishi.” Yishi ran back to the place their family has settled for the time being.There was a campfire going. The landscape was dotted with these orange beads. Families all around had begun to break the Sabbath prohibition of work as they began to prepare the quail that never seemed to run out. The sweet bread of morning had satiated Yishi for most of the day, but now – as the darkness was growing- and the smell of roasting quail began to fill the air, Yishi realized how hungry he was. Running up to his mother, he began to prance around her, “Eemaa, how much longer? I am starving.”

“Yishi, my boy, relax. It will be ready soon. Where is your sister?”

“At the cloud – again.”

“Go get her.”

“I did. But she didn’t want to come. She said she would be here in a minute.”

Just then, Rachel arrived at the campsite. “I am sorry, eemaa. There is just something about watching the could change that…well, I don’t know…I can’t move as it happens. It is like I hear a voice calling out to me to stay. Sh’ma Rachel. Listen to the story. I don’t know what it means. But I stand there waiting. Waiting to hear something.”

“Uhh…Rachel. Get your head out of the could and help eemaa. I am starving.”

Yishi’s 7 year old impatience snapped her out of her vision, and she gathered the plates from the cart that carried their belongings. Everything was so old. Eemaa said that when here eemaa and avi left Egypt – where ever that was – they had to do it in a hurry, and they just grabbed things that were solid and would not break. Rachel began to set places around the campfire. Avi, eemaa, Yishi, and herself. She laid out the blankest they sat on around the fire. Plates arranged in a semi-circle…all facing the fire. Her spot was on the end, opposite her father – but closest to the cloud. Often as the family ate, she would turn around and just stare at the cloud. Countless times she had asked her parents about it. She was 12 and it had been around as long as she had. The would never answer her satisfactorily, though. It was as if they had forgotten something.

She had finished setting places when her mother told her to set two more places. They were having guests at their camp tonight. Moshe and Zipporah were coming over. Rachel began to sweat. Moshe was the leader of her people, but she had never met him. There were thousands of people around, and she was just a little girl. “Eemaa, why is Moshe come to eat with us?”

“He wants to talk to you.”

Rachel began to panic. “What did I do?” Her mind was racing, but she couldn’t think of anything. Surely it couldn’t be about when she picked some flowers on the Sabbath. They were beginning to die, so she dug them out at the roots and put them in a bowl so she could take care of them. Did she really do something that bad? She didn’t think that that was work. “Momma, why does he want to talk to me?” She asked with a quiver in her voice.

“I don’t know. But he saw your avi this morning and said he would like to talk with you.”

Rachel didn’t know what to do. She set the two more places and then retreated to their tent. She sat down outside the tent. Leaning against one of the support posts. She stared at the could and as she did – tears came to her eyes. She talked to the cloud like she would do when she was feeling afraid or when she had something to say her parents would not understand. “Did I do something wrong? Why is Moshe coming to talk to me?” Then as clear as anything she heard it again, “Sh’ma Rachel. Give ear, Rachel. Listen.”

“To what? Why won’t you tell me?” There was nothing more. She sat in silence. Tears coming down her face. Staring at the cloud. It was as though time had stopped. She looked at the other families wondering if Moshe came and talked to their kids. Then hand on her shoulder and the familiar voice – the one she had heard many times speaking to the assembly, but this time there wasn’t power in the voice – volume, but compassion, “Rachel bat Elohim. Daughter of God.” She jumped. Startled she began to get up, but Moshe leaning on his walking staff made his way to the ground next to her.

“Staring at the could again, I see.”

“Ummm…yes rabbi.”

“I, too, often watch the cloud. Sometimes for hours, Aaron and Yeshua get concerned. They think I am neglecting my duties. They thing I am loosing my mind. Especially when I tell them it is talking to me.”

“It talks to you?”

“Oh yes, my child. It has spoken to me many times.”

“I hear it, too. It keeps telling me to listen. But then it doesn’t say anything else. It doesn’t tell me who to listen to. I don’t know. I think I may be loosing my mind.”

“Daughter, you are not loosing your mind. What you are hearing is the voice of Ha Shem. You are hearing the voice of the God who led us out of Egypt. Do you know that story?”

“Yes, we tell it every year at Pesach.”

“So you know how the LORD our God led us from the hand of Pharaoh.”

“Yes, but eemaa and avi say that it is just a story. They don’t remember a place called Egypt. They say that is a story we tell in order to keep us tied to our ancestors. They are old – in their 30’s – they say they have been wandering this desert as long as they have been alive.”

“I can tell you, Rachel, we were delivered. I was there. They have forgotten the story. Open your ears child, for Ha Shem, the LORD our God wants you to hear the stories of how our God is always with us. God has done great things for us. God split the sea in two so we could flee. God gives us quail and manna. God opens the rock to give us water. Sweet child, God is in front of us day and night. God is in the cloud. Open your ears to the stories. Open your heart to their truth. Sh’ma Rachel. Sh’ma.”

Tears again appeared on Rachel’s cheeks. This time though, the fear has transformed into joy. She looked at Moshe. Grabbed him and pulled her head to his chest. Looking up at him with tears in her eyes she said, “I hear.” He embraced her and held her. Rocking her gently – the cloud watching over them.

(Scene 2: In the Dark)

We are the inheritors of stories. We get them from our parents. From our culture. From friends, family, and of course t.v. and the internet. Stories have the power to transform and change us. They have the ability to bring new light to stagnant situations. Stories are what make us human. We are gifted with the ability to remember and to share. To communicate. To tell stories of how things are made or how things can hurt us. We hear stories and they become a part of us.

But sometimes, thought, the pages become dusty and we can’t quite see the story. Things get in the way of the stories.

I always am curious about the stories of places I walk or drive by. When I was working in the Bronzeville neighborhood last summer, I would ride my bike up Cottage Grove and see all of the small shops, barber shops, and boarded up windows. I wanted to hear the stories about all those places. Some once were places of vibrancy that carried on the story of this former jazz center of the city, but there were abandoned buildings that told another story. A story all to familiar in cities and suburbs around the county. Some of these boarded up windows belonged to shuttered businesses. Forced to close due to the economic condition. As these stores would close, people would move out of the neighborhood seeking new places to work. As they left – their apartments would remain empty until the landlord was forced to sell to a new developer – and they gut the affordable apartments and turn them into luxury condos. New residents would move in, bringing with them the stories they heard about how dangerous the south side of Chicago is – so they would take their business to the “safer” south loop. The new people coming in could not read the story of how Bronzeville was once one of the most important neighborhoods in the city. Instead they heard stories that scared them.

New stories are being written in which the new narrative lacks the promise and back story of the neighborhood. And the kids I worked with were caught up in this new story telling them they were not part of the future. That they would be stuck in their projects. That if they wanted to be part of the story it would be as another victim. The new story removed any hope. Like Rachel’s parents – wandering lost for years, the stories of the past history of Bronzeville just become a place of fairy tales.

Stories are not just forgotten in Bronzeville. No, we forget them, too. When we are caught in the distractions of keeping our kids busy, so they can keep up with the Jones’, or when we keep at work for 60 hours a week because we need to keep food on the table, or when we are just caught in a cycle of hopelessness and uncertainty. We forget our stories. Blinded by the all to real situations going on around. We are just trying to get by. We are more concerned with just getting out of the desert and into the promised land that we hear the stories, but we don’t listen. We don’t remember.

We forget the stories of how God is working with us. In us. Through us. We are lost in the dark. Forgetting that we are part of the story.

(Scene 3: In the Light)

But the people of Israel were not all lost in the desert. There were many, like Rachel, who remembered the stories. Who took them to heart. Learned them. Loved them. Shared them.

Through them, we hear of how God not only rescued the people from Egypt, but did provide food and water and a land of their own.

We hear stories about how a mother’s love for her daughter-in-law led her to a new life with a man who loved her – and how that mother became the great-grandmother of a king.

We stories of how the child of a rape victim would grow to become the wisest ruler the world has ever known.

Stories pass on the ongoing work of God. God’s presence in these stories is the tie that binds them together.

It is God’s story that tells us of a boy born in a barn. A boy that would tell God’s story. A story that changes the stories we have created. It is the story of a love that abounds beyond any of our understanding. It is the story of God’s son crucified – publicly executed by the state. It tells the story of how that crucified son had changed the stories of the disinherited. How he changed the story of the blind man. How he changed the story of the leper. How he changed the story of a hemorrhaging woman. How he changed the story by defeating the grave.

Sisters and brothers the story of the crucified son is not the end. It is a necessary point, for without it we would never know that because he was dead, Jesus must rise. The story of hopelessness has been changed. The dust was blown off the pages when God breathed across the pages of history that Sunday morning. God said that there is more to the story.

(Scene 4: In the Line)

God say, “Sh’ma, Community Church. You are part of my story. The story that I need to tell has you as a crucial character. You are in the line of the Children of Israel who were lead out of Egypt. You are children of Ruth. You are in the line of Solomon. You are my beloved children, Sh’ma. Listen. The story has changed and you are part of it.”

Sisters and brothers the story God is telling is bigger than any of our problems. The story is greater than our deepest hurt. We are part of the story – our hurts and pains. They are important parts, but God has a bigger role for us – individually and corporately. Community Church’s story is bigger than Wilmette. Today it is being told in LaCrosse, WI. You see, the robe I am wearing was given to me by your own Jan. It belonged to her father. She is not here today because she is listening to the story of God’s work at her dad’s former church in LaCrosse. The story of how you have been a part of her life is being shared this day. The story of God’s work through you is being shared. The story of how you care for you own is being shared. God has a page in the story of you.

God’s story is bigger that any of our problems. Like Rachel was guided by the cloud of Ha Shem, we are led by the cross. The cross that tells us – the story ain’t over. Sh’ma. Listen. Give ear, O God’s children. Incline your ears. Share the story of God’s great work. Share the story of God’s deeds. Share the story. But remember it isn’t over. Something greater is in store. For God’s great faithfulness has no ending. God’s great story is a work in progress and we are all important character. Sh’ma, Community Church. Sh’ma.

Rest in the bosom of God. Bear each others burdens. Share each others stories, and you will hear, O God’s children, how God is writing the story. You will hear how you fit in. And you will hear God’s word even when you seem lost in the desert. Sh’ma. Listen.


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