CMC Worship in Place | September 6 | Exodus Series

Sermon | Free to give

Scripture | Exodus 5:1-23; 23:19

Sermon: Joel Miller

Mitzrayim.  That’s the Hebrew word for Egypt.  And, it’s almost indistinguishable from the word meaning a narrow place, or a strait.  A place of constriction.  The rabbis have long made the connection between the two, sometimes using the words interchangeably: “Egypt,” and “the narrow place.”  Mitzrayim.  To be in Egypt, is to be confined to the narrow place.  To be delivered out of Egypt is to be delivered out of the narrow place. 

Last week, when we read about Moses talking with the burning bush/divine voice, it included these words from God: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt, Mitzrayim, The Narrow Place…and I have come down to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”  Exodus is a story that moves from Order, to Disorder, to Re-Order.  It’s also a story that moves from narrowness to spaciousness.   

For those of us who have never lived in Egypt but find ourselves often stuck in the narrow place, it’s a way of finding ourselves more directly in this story of Exodus.  The narrow place can be anywhere.  And during this pandemic we’ve gotten a dose of this as our physical world has narrowed.  For those who have been working from home, it can just as easily feel like we are living at work.  Even as the places we go have narrowed, we have tried to not let the same thing happen to our minds, to our hearts.  The spacious place, the open and broad good land, can also be anywhere, outside, or within us.   

Exodus is a narrative, so there’s a pretty big gap between the two readings for today.  Exodus chapter 5, and Exodus 23:19.

In chapter 5 the Hebrew people are in the narrow place, and it keeps getting more and more narrow. 

After his plant revelation in the wilderness, Moses reluctantly returns to Mitzrayim.  He – and his brother Aaron – have been charged with being Yahweh’s agents to bring the people out of the narrow place. 

Moses makes his initial offer to Pharaoh.  He requests that the people be allowed to make a three day’s journey into the wilderness to make sacrifices to their God – A kind of group Sabbatical from the demands of non-stop production imposed by Pharaoh and his officials. 

But Pharaoh is having not of it. This kind of brief pilgrimage doesn’t even register within the realm of possibilities for Pharaoh.  “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work?  Get to your labors!”  Pharaoh has plans for these Hebrews, and they do not involve labor negotiations, and certainly not a Sabbatical for anyone. 

To borrow from Walter Brueggemann, Pharaoh is running a pyramid scheme. 

And in a pyramid scheme, there’s not a whole lot of room at the top for sharing the wealth.  It might feel spacious for whoever is up there, but for everyone else it’s as narrow as can be.  And it’s crushing to be on the bottom of the pyramid. 

Pharaoh’s response is to go on the offensive.  He makes it even harder on the Hebrews by no longer supplying the straw for their bricks, thus adding “search for straw” to their job description, while demanding the same amount of bricks each day.  Now, not only do the Hebrews need to work the assembly line, but they need to run back and forth from the factory to gather the things they need to assemble. 

Which leads to a response that makes Pharaoh’s position even stronger.  When the Hebrews learn about this they get upset not at Pharaoh, but at Moses and Aaron for agitating the one guy who holds power over them.  Which leads to Moses taking all his frustrations out on Yahweh whose big idea this was in the first place and is suddenly strangely absent from any burning bush motivational speeches.  

Sometimes when you’re in the narrow place and you try to escape, the place will press in even tighter to keep you from leaving. 

This story has special relevance on Labor Day weekend.

It was on a Tuesday in September that 1000’s of people didn’t show up to work and instead brought their families, including young children to a public gathering – 10,000 people in all.  They marched in the street, they listened to live music, they brought a picnic.  They carried signs.  One of them read: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest.  Eight hours for what we will.”  Another read “Labor creates all wealth.”  It was Tuesday, September 5, 1882, in New York City – what has been called the first labor day in the US, a dozen years before the declaration of a national holiday.  It took many more years and more organization for labor in the US to gain wide acceptance of things like the eight hour work day and greater work place safety.    

But in the last 50 years there has been a pushing back against the more spacious land the labor movement created.  Sometimes when you’re in the narrow place and you try to escape, the place will press in even tighter to keep you from leaving. 

Exodus 23:19, our other reading, says: “The choicest of the first fruits of your ground you shall bring into the house of the Lord your God.” 

In all those chapters in that big gap between five and 23, the Hebrews do make their way out of the narrow place.  Pharaoh may have built a mighty pyramid scheme, but it was no match for the relentless plagues that brought the whole edifice crashing down.  After safely passing through the Red Sea, with the narrow place and its ten plagues now behind them, the people are given ten of something else.  Ten commandments.  The laws and regulations that follow those are designed to build a different kind of community that is not shaped like a pyramid.

This first fruits ordinance is a case in point.  When you’re in the narrow place, everything belongs to Pharaoh — Your first fruits, your last fruits, your in between fruits.  You can’t give away what’s taken from you.  But when you’re in the spacious place, you are free.  Everything belongs to God.  You labor, and you receive the fruits of your labor.  First fruits giving is an expression of that freedom.  You now have the wondrous ability to give something away. 

The sharing of first fruits is the foundation of a new kind of economy.  The first of what you harvest, the best of what you harvest, is yours to give away. 

This past spring we had a small opportunity for first fruits giving.  We finally got our chicken coop built and got chickens from my parents.  Our first half dozen eggs went to our neighbors with who we share a driveway, Anne and Larry.  They’d been watching the progress on the coop and we knew they liked eggs.  We left the eggs on their front porch with a note that these first fruits were for them.  A little later in the day, I got a text from Anne: “I just returned…and found the first fruits gift.  The most wonderful gift of the spring season.  Thank you.” 

There is a place for sacrificial giving, but this was not an example of that.  The very next day there were six or seven more eggs in the coop waiting for us, and the same every day to follow – more than we can consume ourselves.  But the giving, and the receiving, and the receiving of the thanks from the receiver, far outweighed market value.  It was a consecration.     

Here’s another way of having a first fruits mindset.  Mondays get a lot of negative press because the freedom of the weekend has ended and the daily grind starts all over.  But if you tithe your income, give 10% of it away, that means the first four hours of a 40 hour workweek is your first fruits offering.  Everything you earn during that time goes toward furthering the causes and values you hold most dear.  8am to Noon Monday, rather than being the most dreaded time of the week redeemable only by coffee, is consecrated, because you are free to give.  This may not replace coffee, but it might make for a more spacious way of approaching the first work hours of the week, whatever that day of those hours might be.

First fruits giving is just as much for the giver as it is for the receiver.  When I give money away, I experience money having less power over me.  When I give a first fruit, I share in the joy of the receiver.  And it often comes back in the form of another gift.  Our neighbors are now faithful collectors of egg cartons for us, so we have never lacked for those.

First fruits is the language we use for our annual church pledge drive.  It’s also a way of approaching life. 

First fruits giving is God’s anti-pyramid scheme.  It’s God’s way of giving us a practice to keep Pharaoh out of our finances, to form a new kind of community based on generosity and abundance.

Mitzrayim can show up anywhere.  The narrow place is never too far around the corner.  It is the mission of God in this world to deliver us and all people from the narrow place.  To bring us into a good and spacious land.  To offer us practices and habits to keep us there.