Saturday, April 30, 2011
Kadimah! Go Forward!
1 May 2011
Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
In the Jewish tradition the interpretation of Scripture takes many forms. One of these forms is called midrash. Midrash is an imaginative interpretation of Scripture that often delves beneath the surface of one verse or explores one of the minor characters in a scriptural tale. Midrash is never to be taken as a substitute for the scriptural text itself nor should the reader or listener understand the midrash to be anything other than an interpretation of the text.
One such midrash concerns the events associated with today’s reading from Exodus 15. This portion of Exodus is sometimes called ‘The Song of Moses’ and, in recent Anglican liturgies, is included as a canticle to be used in morning prayer. Here Moses celebrates the victory of God over the Egyptian army and the passage of the people of Israel through the waters of the Sea of Reeds. But it is the midrash on the crossing of the Sea of Reeds that I want to share with you this morning.
The midrash concerns the following verse from chapter 14: “Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided.” (Exodus 14.21) I am grateful to my colleague and friend, Rabbi Philip Bregman of Temple Sholom, for helping me remember the midrash. Here is how it goes.
When Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, it did not immediately part. The people hesitated at the edge, doubting that God would save them from the waves in front of them and the army behind them. Then Nachson ben Aminadav, the son-in-law of Aaron, heard the command, “Kadimah! Go forward!” And so he walked into the waters until they reached his ankles, but the waters did not part. Again he heard the command, “Kadimah!” Nachson walked further into the waters until they reached his waist, but the waters did not part. Again he heard “Kadimah!” and Nachson walked further in the waters until they reached his shoulders, but the waters did not part. Once more he heard the command and he walked further until the waters covered his nose. At this moment the waters split and Nachson and all the people crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry ground.
Two thousand years ago Jesus told his disciples that he would go to Jerusalem where earlier the Jewish authorities had attempted either to arrest him or to execute him. To this declaration of intent, John the Evangelist tells us that Thomas said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11.16) But when the final events of Holy Week played themselves out, Thomas is no where to be found. Even when Jesus appeared to the frightened disciples who had locked themselves away, Thomas is not to be found. But the disciples did not abandon him and invite him to come to their next gathering. Despite his doubts, fears and profound sense of disappointment, Thomas goes, expecting nothing more than a reunion of dispirited ‘Jesus-groupies’. Instead of a reunion, Thomas receives a revelation of the risen Christ and his life is changed forever. According to ancient tradition, Thomas travelled east, preaching the good news of the resurrection until he met his death on the southeastern coast of India where to this day the so-called ‘Thomas Christians’ continue as one of the oldest indigenous Christian communities in the world, older than any of the European Christian traditions to which you and I belong.
Our present situation is not as dramatic as Nachson’s nor Thomas’. We do not have a stormy sea in front of us and a pursuing army behind us. We have not seen our beloved teacher and mentor arrested, tortured and executed.
We have, however, experienced a sea change in the role of communities of faith such as ours in Vancouver and, indeed, in the rest of Canada. We have seen a significant change in society’s attitudes towards religious leaders. Where once religious leaders were counted among the most trustworthy of people, many Canadians now tar every member of the clergy with the brush of the minority who used their positions of power to abuse children and adults.
Faith is, after all, a matter of trust. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11.1) It is helpful to know that the writer directs his words to Jewish believers in Jesus of Nazareth who are experiencing the aftermath of the Roman destruction of Judea, Jerusalem and the Temple in the year 70 ce. Just as the Jewish world has been overturned by these events, so, too, did the earliest Christian believers find the Roman destruction a challenge to their faith. The writer, in essence, asks the recipients of his letter a simple question: Do you trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead?
Trust does not come easily to human beings these days. If you ask people who have indicated that they will not vote tomorrow, many will say that they will not vote because they cannot trust our political leaders to do what they say they will do. The Pacific Coast of North America, especially in Canada and the United States, is populated by a significant number of people who have moved west precisely because of their distrust of the institutions so firmly entrenched in the societies of the central and eastern portions of our two countries. In a world where political leaders cannot be trusted, where the earth itself seems to betray us by means of floods, storms and earthquakes and where one’s financial stability can disappear at the whim of irresponsible and unaccountable market forces, is it any wonder that there are so many people who find it difficult to trust anything, let alone communities of religious faith?
So the implicit question posed by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews comes around to us in our own time. Do we trust the God who raised Jesus from the dead? We are often very good at telling the tales of when our trust, whether in God or in human beings, was not honoured, but we are not always so quick to tell the tales of when our trust was affirmed and our faith not only restored but renewed.
When I decided to leave Vancouver School of Theology, I heard a voice saying, “Kadimah! Go forward!” I have to admit that there have been and continue to be moments when I wonder which part of my body the stormy waters of my life have reached. There have been a couple of moments that I was sure the waters covered more than my nose, but they turned out only to be the passages of a small wave that quickly receded. Although I have not yet reached whatever I might think to be the ‘other’ side, I continue to trust that the voice that has urged me on.
Here at Saint Faith’s we are facing our own moments of doubt and uncertainty, moments that have the potential to put our trust in God’s purposes for us to the test. We continue to look closely at our stewardship, worship, education, evangelism and pastoral care as we work through the tasks of the Ministry Assessment Process. The Church Committee has made a recommendation regarding the rectory which will be put to a special Vestry on the 15th of May, a recommendation that may evoke a number of emotional and philosophical responses from our members.
But my deepest hope is that our ears will not be deaf to God’s voice that continues to encourage us: “Kadimah! Go forward!” As you wait to receive communion this morning, take a moment to remember how God has given you reason to trust in God’s purposes for you and for this congregation. Remember the stormy waters you have faced and may still be facing. Even if you cannot see the other side, do you have faith that God is at your shoulder, braving the waters with you?
I am convinced that the answer is ‘Yes’. I am convinced that the members of this congregation believe that the answer is ‘Yes’. So let us follow Nachmon and Thomas into the waters before us, trusting in the One who calls to go forward, looking expectantly for the land of promise that awaits us. Amen.