“The Unraveling of Hardened Hearts”
Rev. Tanya N. Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
12 July, 2020
Sermon 5 in “Unraveled” Series
Exodus 5:1-2; 7:8-23

Some of you are familiar with Walter Brueggemann: a U.C.C. clergyman, renowned Biblical scholar, professor of Old Testament, teacher of preachers, and writer of many excellent books, some of which we’ve studied together.  In a spiritually challenging but deeply insightful and hopeful article he wrote in 1999, he takes stock of American culture at the turn of the 21st century, noting that despite our good intentions, ours is a society and economy structured around consumption.  And, he observes, “Though many of us are well intentioned, we have invested our lives in consumerism.  We have a love affair with ‘more’ – and we will never have enough.  Consumerism,” he suggests, “… has become a demonic spiritual force among us…”  “As we Americans grow more and more wealthy, money is becoming a kind of narcotic for us.  We hardly notice our own prosperity/ or the poverty of so many others. The great contradiction is that we have more and more money and less and less generosity – less and less public money for the needy, less charity for the neighbor.”[1]

Scripture shows how a hardening of the heart can happen as we, whether individually or collectively as a people, acquire great wealth and our efforts shift from easily sharing the resources that are amply available, to jealously guarding what’s in our power and possession.  Our lesson this morning may be the first example of this reality recorded in Scripture.  More on that in a moment.

The Bible, Brueggemann points out, “starts out with a liturgy of abundance.  Genesis 1 is a song of praise for God’s generosity.  It tells how well the world is ordered.  It keeps saying, ‘It is good, it is good, it is good, it is very good.’ It declares that God blesses – that is, endows with vitality – the plants and the animals and the fish and the birds and humankind. And it pictures the creator as saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ In an orgy of fruitfulness, everything in its kind is to multiply the overflowing goodness that pours from God’s creator spirit. And as you know, the creation ends in Sabbath.  God is so overrun with fruitfulness that God says, ‘I’ve got to take a break from all this. I’ve got to get out of the office.’”

That’s why, as those created in God’s image, we’re instructed also to take a break, so that we might delight in and appreciate the abundance all around us.

As the Genesis story continues, God blesses Abraham and Sarah and their family—and instructs them to be a blessing.  “Blessing,” Brueggemann says, “is the force of well-being active in the world, and faith is the awareness that creation is the gift that keeps on giving.”

And it’s the awareness of blessing, even in the midst of family conflict and strife, that dominates the entire book of Genesis . . . until its 47th chapter.  In that chapter, Pharaoh dreams that there will be a famine in the land.  And in that moment, as he organizes to administer, control, and monopolize the food supply, Pharaoh introduces the principle of scarcity into the world economy.

“For the first time in the Bible,” observes Brueggemann, “someone says, ‘There’s not enough. Let’s get everything.’”  Because he’s afraid that there aren’t enough good things to go around, Pharaoh decides to get as much as he can for himself.  Because he is fearful, he is ruthless.  He monopolizes the food stores.  He designs a system by which hungry people first offer up their land as collateral, then their cattle.  Finally, in the third year of the famine, having no other collateral to offer, they’re forced to offer themselves.  They enter into agreements of indentured servitude, which – with the passage of time and increasingly ruthless leaders – leads to full enslavement.  “And that,” Brueggemann sums up, “is how the children of Israel become slaves—through an economic transaction.”

“By the end of Genesis 47,” he explains, “Pharaoh has all the land except that belonging to the priests, which he never touches because he needs somebody to bless him.  The notion of scarcity has been introduced into biblical faith.  The Book of Exodus records the contest between the liturgy of generosity and the myth of scarcity—a contest that still tears us apart today.”

It’s a contest that has everything to do with the perspective we live by; with which one of the two narratives we invest in and support with the bulk of our life.

Last week, we heard the story of Zacchaeus – a man whose perspective, whose concepts of scarcity and abundance were forever changed when he first experienced God’s acceptance of him.  That happened when Jesus noticed him and invited him into community when he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house.  Spending time with Jesus, paying attention to his life story of blessing and abundance, the man who previously had lived his life grabbing and hoarding all he could for himself and those he cared most about, suddenly saw the world through the lenses of faith in a Creator who has endowed this creation with abundance.  The tax collector’s heart softened as his fears melted.  His fears of what others thought of him (the scorn of fellow human beings mattered little now that he’d felt truly seen and loved by God).  His fears of sacrifice (he saw how centered and satisfied Jesus was, whose entire life was about dauntless sacrifice).  His fears of not having enough (after all, the abundance he’d been trying to accumulate materially had never delivered the security he longed truly for).  When God – when Love – claimed priority of place in his life, the formerly miserable man’s perspective changed.  Having experienced the disappointing futility of the myth of scarcity—the narrative by which he had previously pursued meaning and purpose in his life—Zacchaeus’ heart softened as he recognized the truth of what Jesus taught and lived, which was a liturgy of abundance: the perspective that there is enough to go around in this world, and there is great joy in sharing the abundance apportioned to us or in our possession or ability to administer.

The myth of scarcity leads to hardened hearts.  It happens partly out of self-protection, because it hurts to be afraid all the time.  Fearful of what we might miss, fearful of what we’ll be asked to sacrifice, fearful of renouncing powers or privileges or entitlements we’ve grown accustomed to but we know that others lack equal access to, fearful of having to think about the world in new ways.  So, we build an emotional shield around our core to protect ourselves from feeling the fear or the pain or the threat.  But we wind up also not experiencing a lot of other more rewarding feelings like compassion, lasting joy, or genuine connection with God and others.  And so, consciously or not, we wind up unraveling God’s intentions for our own flourishing as well as that of the rest of the world.

As we heard, because his magicians could conjure tricks that offered up similar results to the signs and wonders that Moses and Aaron were accomplishing in the name of the LORD, Pharaoh remained unmoved.  His hardened heart refused to see anything except that his power was on par with God’s own.  Even when the rivers and pools of water turned to blood, we heard, “Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened, and he would not listen to them… [he] turned and went into his house, and he did not take even this to heart.”[2]

But the book is called Exodus because ultimately, God’s will did prevail and the Israelites were liberated from their Egyptian slavery.  Unfortunately, they had appropriated the myth of scarcity from the Pharaohs, along with the accompanying economy and worldview, and they carried it with them into the wilderness.

Again, Brueggemann helps to interpret the story: “When the children of Israel are in the wilderness, beyond the reach of Egypt, they still look back and think, ‘Should we really go?  All the world’s glory is in Egypt and with Pharaoh.’”  Unlike their ancestors Abraham and Sarah, who ventured into God’s future with faith and hope, but similar to so many people since then and even today, the newly-liberated Israelites were afraid of the unknown, mistrusting the One who had led them from their prior place of bondage, fearful that they would not discover God’s blessing in the future. “But,” Brueggemann notes, “when they finally turn around and look into the wilderness, where there are no monopolies, they see the glory of Yahweh.”

He continues, “In answer to the people’s fears and complaints, something extraordinary happens.  God’s love comes trickling down in the form of bread.  They say, ‘Manhue?’ – Hebrew for ‘What is it?’ – and the word ‘manna’ is born.  They had never before received bread as a free gift that they couldn’t control, predict, plan for, or own. The meaning of this strange narrative is that the gifts of life are indeed given by a generous God.  It’s a wonder, it’s a miracle, it’s an embarrassment, it’s irrational, but God’s abundance transcends the market economy.”

The narrative of the world, the scarcity myth, is the one that insists that whoever has the most toys when they die wins.  It’s a story that suggests there are no gifts to be given because there’s no giver—we end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves.  “This story,” Brueggemann says, “ends in despair.  It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed, and brutality. It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor, the buildup of armaments, divisions between people, and environmental racism.  It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves – and,” he asserts, “it is the prevailing creed of American society.”

You may or may not agree with Brueggemann’s assessment regarding our culture.  But it’s hard to argue with his assertion that Jesus taught and lived by a very different storyline.  His liturgy of abundance was woven through the parables he told, and through the miracles he wrought: feeding 5,000 people five loaves and a couple fish; saving a wedding celebration when he turned water into wine; giving sight to a man born blind, empowering a crippled man to get up and walk, introducing a Samaritan woman to living water.  And, in contrast to a value system that suggests we’ll never have or be enough, Jesus says, “Don’t be anxious, because everything you need will be given to you.”  It’s not the only revolutionary idea he put out there.  “Jesus talks a great deal about the kingdom of God – and what he means by that is a public life reorganized toward neighborliness.”[3]  A fundamental concern for our neighbor being at least on a par with self-interest.

“Telling parables was one of Jesus’ revolutionary activities,” Brueggemann points out, “for parables are subversive re-imaginings of reality. The ideology devoted to encouraging consumption wants to shrivel our imaginations so that we cannot conceive of living in any way that would be less profitable for the dominant corporate structures.  But Jesus tells us that we can change the world.  The Christian community performs a vital service by keeping the parables alive.  These stories haunt us and push us in directions we never thought we would go.”  One could even say that Jesus’ parables invite an unraveling of commonly-held assumptions regarding social order.  And many of the lessons apply to patterns of human behavior that are as entrenched today as they were when Jesus first told the stories.

Our Scripture lesson this morning invites us to reflect on the power brokers of this world – including our own possibly-unnoticed or unrealized status among them.  In this moment of various kinds of social unraveling happening over issues spanning from systemic racism to militarism to environmental callousness, it’s really important that we who strive to follow Jesus’ example must listen.  Instead of responding as Pharaoh did, by turning and going into our comfortable homes without listening, or by simply denying pleas for liberation with a hard-hearted “No!”, we need to pay attention.  With humility and courage, we need to listen for what God might be saying about how we’re not yet fulfilling God’s vision for the flourishing of all creation.  We need to embrace with confidence and faith the truth that Creator of abundance has endowed us with all we’ll need to do the work entrusted to us.

As I’ve done before in this series, I introduced the theme with the image and accompanying words from an artist who was inspired by our Scripture text.  And this morning I’m going to once again conclude by sharing that image along with the artist’s remarks.  [Share screen.]

Lauren Wright Pittman wrote about this image and the passage from Exodus that inspired it:

As a society, we are actively undoing God’s creation through our consumption while clinging to ease, convenience, and our power over our environment. We harden our hearts to the ways our actions cause harm. We value our comfort over the health of our coastlines while the first climate refugees flee their homes due to rising tides and sinking land. As water becomes scarce, violence will increase. Many will have to fight for their basic needs. I believe Pharaoh’s hardening heart is prophetic. This narrative reveals to us how a person’s clinging to power can literally unravel creation. We often undo the threads of creation, while God entreats us to become co-creators. We have seam rippers in our hands when God wants us to have needle and thread.

And then she concludes:
“There is a difficult hope in the narrative, however. Our own unraveling of God’s dream for creation is not strong enough to thwart God’s plan. Ultimately the Israelites find liberation. In this image, the waters of the parted Red Sea frame the chaos of the plagues. We will succeed, with God’s help, in healing the earth. We just need to allow God to soften our hearts, to take initiative in changing our perspective, and to welcome the challenge of restoring creation.”  So may it be!  Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity”, Christian Century, March 24-31, 1999. All forthcoming quotes and glosses from Brueggemann are from this article.
Link: https://www.religion-online.org/article/the-liturgy-of-abundance-the-myth-of-scarcity/?fbclid=IwAR1fxG2e4kITWshJDp4EfW5jd0pTZ88Dw6bSAbTzDCwXp7df_v1sDSq7oRo#content

[2] Exodus 7:22-23

[3] Brueggemann.

 

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