Freedom from the Empire

Sermon

March 05, 2017:   Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon

Sermon

First Sunday of Lent

This week we begin the season of Lent. The 40 day journey toward the most important events in the Christian faith: Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later. Each year, Christians around the world, from different languages and backgrounds, set aside these 40 days of Lent as an intentional time of preparation through sacrifice, prayer, and introspection. This year, at Spring Hill Presbyterian, our season of Lent will focus on who we are and how we are called to live as people of faith in resistance to the empires of the world. We live surrounded by empires of all kinds. Empires of greed and power. Empires of oppression and injustice. Empires of fear and anxiety. Empires of brokenness and sinfulness. Empires of death. An empire tries to rule our life. To take over and take control. To stake a claim on who we are and how our lives matter (or do not matter). The empires of this world operate in ways both seen and unseen. We are constantly surround by them. We wake up each day participating in their systems and values, often without even realizing it.

This week we begin the season of Lent. The 40 day journey toward the most important events in the Christian faith: Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later. Each year, Christians around the world, from different languages and backgrounds, set aside these 40 days of Lent as an intentional time of preparation through sacrifice, prayer, and introspection. This year, at Spring Hill Presbyterian, our season of Lent will focus on who we are and how we are called to live as people of faith in resistance to the empires of the world. We live surrounded by empires of all kinds. Empires of greed and power. Empires of oppression and injustice. Empires of fear and anxiety. Empires of brokenness and sinfulness. Empires of death. An empire tries to rule our life. To take over and take control. To stake a claim on who we are and how our lives matter (or do not matter). The empires of this world operate in ways both seen and unseen. We are constantly surround by them. We wake up each day participating in their systems and values, often without even realizing it.

Standing against the empires of the world is another entity, another power, another source of identity and authority—the Kingdom of God. Throughout the entirety of scripture from the early pages of the book of Genesis through the final scenes in the book of Revelation, the witness of the Bible is filled with stories of people of God resisting the empires of the world. People of faith casting their allegiance with the God who’s rule is shown not through greed and violence and oppression, but through the gift of life and sacrificial love. Jesus’s own death (at the hands of the Roman empire) and his triumphal resurrection on Easter are the ultimate actions of resistance to the empires of the world—conquering even the rule of death itself. Setting us free from any other power that would claim to own us.

And yet, we live in a world where we do not, cannot yet see this final victory. We live in a world where broken powers still have power. Where fear and cruelty still reign. And so, as we prepare to honor Christ’s resurrection, during this season of Lent it is fitting that we spend some honest time talking about empires and acts of resistance.

The ancient Hebrew people knew all about empires. In their early history they were forced into slavery at the hands of the first great super power of the ancient world: the Egyptian Empire. They began as welcomed guests, who crossed Egypt’s boarders in search of food and survival during a severe famine. But in time that luring promise of food grew bitter. After a few generations, these immigrant Hebrews were forced into slavery by the empire. Forced to serve. Forced to toil. Forced from their ways of life and their practice of faith. Forced to build the great cities of the empire and monuments to its leaders. Forced to work day after day with no rest or Sabbath. The empire claimed their labor, but it also claimed their live, the identity, their futures. When the enslaved people grew to large in number the empire instituted policies of genocide to lower their population. The empire turned a deaf ear to the cries of suffering…but their God heard them. Their God, YHWH, the God of their ancestors heard their laments, their cries, the songs of sorrow. And their God, our God, moved swiftly to free this people from enslavement to the empire.

God sent a leader, named Moses, an exile who had fled for his own freedom—God sent him back into the heart of the empire to speak God’s truth, and to reveal God’s kingdom in its full force. Through signs and wonders too marvelous to wrap our heads around, God convinced the slaves that the power of the empire could not stand. Finally, when the time was right, God told the Hebrews to get ready…to eat their last meal as slaves of empire, and it eat it with their walking shoes on and the walking sticks in their hands. To eat their last meal in Egypt as fast as they could, because that very night God was going to pass through the empire and avenge the wrongs that they had suffered, and then they would be set free for their journey to freedom.

And that’s just what happened. When the morning light dawned, the powers of the empire had been broken, and in wrath and anger and defeat, the empire let the slaves go free. They wandered…boy did they wander. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness following a path that they did not chart until…finally, they arrived at edge of their new homeland. On the other side of the Jordan River was their “Promised Land.” When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside.

And when they these wandering, homeless, escaped slaves finally set foot on the solid ground of freedom they gave thanks. In an act of faithful resistance they remembered. They remembered all that God had done. They remembered that last meal, the rushed and hurried final meal of slavery. They remembered the bitter taste of the empire, but this time they ate the meal as free people, with a home of their own. They ate that Passover meal every single year for thousands of years as a reminder that their God, our God, is the God of freedom, the God of justice, the God of promise, the God who hears our cries and delivers us from slavery to the death-dealing empires of the world.

This story of Moses and the Hebrews freed from slavery into the Promised Land of freedom is a powerful account of resistance—faithful resistance by following God’s path, even when we don’t know where it is heading. Through the ages this story has inspired many other generations of faithful resistors. In our own country, not that many generations ago, the empires of the world enslaved men and women because of the color of their skin. The empire of King Cotton was hungry and ravenous and it developed an appetite for destroying the hopes and dreams of an entire race. Inspired by the stories of the ancient Hebrews, some resisted. Some fled to their own freedom through the waters and wilderness into a different Promised Lan. Some, like the famous Harriet Tubman (who was nicknamed “Moses”) travelled back into the heart of the empire to guide countless enslaved children of God along hidden paths to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

I just finished reading the book called, The Underground Railroad. It was last year’s National Book of the Year. It’s a fictional and highly imaginative account of an escaped slave. The atrocities it describes are hard to read they are so gruesome. But there is one part, one word that I can’t get out of my head. There is a character in the book who is a slave catcher—who makes his living by capturing escaped slaves and returning them to their masters for a price. Wherever this slave catcher is speaking about his prey, about African Americans, he never uses their name. He never even uses the pronouns “he” or “she.” He only refers to them as “it.” It. A thing. An object. Devoid of humanity or identity. An “it” to be caught and sold.

That’s what the empires of the world seek to do—to remove our humanity, our identity, our individuality. To reduce us to objects, commodities, consumers, statistics to be used as the empire needs.

Our lives today are still, in so many ways, ruled over by the empires of the world. Empires that seek to claim us and enslave us. Empires of greed and scarcity (that force us to work ourselves to and others death). Empires of fear and sin (that divide us from one another and from our God). Empires of power and violence (that do not think twice about the suffering and death that they deal out).

Where do you see the forces of the empires at work in your life? What is it that seeks to rule you? What takes over beyond your control? To what are you enslaved? To Anger? To Bitterness? To Addiction? To Prejudice? To Fear—fear of someone else? Fear of not having enough? Fear of not being enough? Fear of losing someone you love? Fear of Death itself? To what are you enslaved in your life?

And what would it look like to be set free? What would it mean to walk away from this slavery? To flee in escape from these forces in our lives? Trusting that God can do what we cannot do on our own, what would it mean to be set free and called out of the empire’s clutching grasp?

Friends, the good news of the gospel is that we do not belong to these empires of the world. We belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to our loving, freeing, God, who calls us out of the bonds of slavery. Our ultimate freedom from the power of sin and death has already been won for us. The Promised Land of grace is already a homeland for each of us.

So, in theses 40 days of preparation for Easter, in this season of Lent, I invite you to journey through the wilderness—to wander and to wonder, following God’s path, God’s plan, God’s call to the Promised Land. Let’s put on our walking shoes and travel together into the freedom made real for us in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord! To God alone be the glory.

Scripture

Exodus 12

 

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household… This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord.

This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.

When you come to the land that the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this observance. And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this observance?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses.” ’ And the people bowed down and worshipped.

The Israelites went and did just as the Lord had commanded Moses and Aaron.

 

 

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