Sunday, February 06, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, February 6, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Exodus 5:1-18

Very often it is the most simple and mundane things that reveal the nature of the world and society in which we live most clearly. This past week I went into a corner store to purchase a packet of Hubba Bubba grape bubble gum and when I went up to the counter to pay for my Hubba Bubba grape bubble gum - just so you know now my preference - I went and paid for it, it was 97 cents, with a $20 bill.

The young woman behind the counter looked at me aghast. She said, "I cannot take a $20 bill for a 97 cent packet of bubble gum" and I said, "Well, in that case, my dear, I won't be able to have my 97 cent packet of bubble gum, I will leave here a very, very disappointed man." She didn't still have much sympathy for me, despite almost breaking into tears and she said, "Are you sure you've got nothing in your pockets," she screamed at me, "that could pay for this with exact change?" I said, "No, I have a $20 bill and I want my bubble gum."

Meanwhile everybody else in the store was now hearing this recitation of hers and mine and people were eager to find out the outcome. I said, "Are you sure that in that till you don't have $19.03 that you can give me as change for my 97 cent packet of gum?" She screamed at me, "I don't think so. I don't think so." And then she starts to open the till and her hands are going wild, she's looking at me as if I'm the devil incarnate and finally she throws out all this change on the counter and says, "There you are." My, the customer service these days! She was so stressed out, it was unbelievable and it was 9:30 in the morning. What was the rest of her day going to be like, I thought.

Well finally I got my gum and I began to chew it and I went and I got my paper and I read my paper and had my tea and there was a great headline, "Stress Kills." And it went on to talk about the Heart & Stroke Foundation's most recent assessment that the health of this nation is in dire straits because of the stress that we're under. For example, it says, 43 per cent of people over the age of 30 find that they can barely cope with the issues of family and work and personal finances. 50 per cent of all people over the age of 30 feel that there is not sufficient time in the day for them to be able to accomplish even the most basic tasks. That 80 per cent, 80 per cent of us know in our minds that stress causes damage on our hearts and our kidneys, that it's a source of hypertension, diabetes and stroke and yet 75 per cent of us deal with the stresses in our lives by eating junk food, drinking alcohol and smoking. We are killing ourselves. We are killing ourselves. The stress that people are under in our society is enormous.

This was brought home to me very, very clearly this week in a few other things that I was reading. One of them is that there was an assessment done - now, this is in the United States and not in Canada - of professional people and the average professional person in the United States of America is working twelve hour days. Many are working far, far more than that.

In a conversation I had with Reverend Harries this week about a friend of his who lives in British Columbia where he tells the story that at 9:30 in the morning our time, he called his friend in British Columbia, which is 6:30 in the morning his time, in the hope that he would be able to leave a message on his voice mail and John was staggered that this man was already in the office and had answered the phone. I mean that's the world in which we're living.

I was reading another article about baby boomers and how baby boomers are, in many ways, a sandwich generation. They are bringing up two other generations either side of them: one their children, many of whom are still at home even well into their twenties, and their elders, who are living even longer in their lives and for whom they have to care. That, my friends, causes stress. No wonder people feel they do not have enough time in the day.

And then the state of the world. One of the features of the world in which we live is that we live by a twenty-four hour clock. In other words, the decisions that are made in London at noon impact what happens here at Toronto early in the morning. That the things that we do in Toronto early in the morning, have a direct effect on what happens in Japan and so the cycle goes and as more and more people communicate and businesses get closer and closer together, the clock with which we live is no longer based on any standard times but on a twenty-four hour clock and that is why I am constantly amazed that on my e-mail I get people saying, "Mail sent at 1:24 a.m." Is it any wonder, is it any wonder in the world in which we live that people are feeling this stress?

Well, I want to turn this morning to a text, a text that is one of the oldest in the whole of the Hebrew scriptures, a text that is so highly regarded that two of the great sources of the Old Testament, the E source and the J source both tell this story, hence it is of that importance in the life of the people of Israel. Because as we look at this text that Robin read so well for us this morning, you will see that the story of the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh, Pharaoh being the king, speaks of the relationships that many people have within the society in which we live today. The story is really a very simple one. Moses and Aaron are confronted by God and God says to Moses and Aaron, I want you to go to the king and what I want you to do when you go to the king is to say these words, "Let my people go in order that they might have a festival for me in the desert," and Moses and Aaron both being obedient, although certainly questioning whether or not they wanted to go; Moses tried to get Aaron to go but God insisted, no, Moses must go to the Pharaoh as well, off they went and they spoke to the Pharaoh and they had the gall to say, "Let my people go."

And Pharaoh was furious. He would not accede to their wishes. He says, "You are a lazy bunch and you're just using your laziness as an excuse and you cry unto me not because of your God, but because you're just simply lazy people." And so, therefore, to send a message to the people of Israel, he sent a word to those who were the slave drivers, that the people of Israel who had been working for the Pharaoh must now change their work habits. They were building bricks and the bricks were used for the building of the things that the Pharaoh wanted and of these things that the Pharaoh wanted, there was a need in the bricks to combine mud and straw, but the challenge was that now the people of Israel had to get their own straw, it was no longer going to be provided.

Now in those days the way in which straw was taken was that it was scythed and cut and the people who own the straw would take it away and what was left in the ground was known as quash or stubble, and stubble is very hard to get out of the ground after the top straw had been cut off..

So the people of Israel had to go and get this stubble and combine it with the mud to make the bricks. In other words, their workload was even doubled and they could not do it and the harder they tried and the more their foremen pushed them, the more angry the slavedrivers became until the foremen were actually beaten and finally the people of Israel went to Pharaoh and they appealed to him, they said, "Please, please, we simply cannot do this, we cannot be this productive," and Pharaoh said, "You are a lazy bunch. You use God as an excuse, you are just lazy, that is the sole problem." And so the people then turned on their foremen and the foremen turned on Moses and Aaron and they went to Moses and Aaron on behalf of the people of Israel and they said, "Do you know that you have made us a stench, a stench in the nose of Pharaoh. Do you know that by asking us to worship God, you have put us in a most terrible situation. What are you going to do about it?" And Moses and Aaron stuck to their guns, for they above all were obedient to God and they still wanted the people of Israel to worship God in the desert, even before the demands of Pharaoh.

My friends, this story is as modern and applicable and as real as any that has ever been written and I want to look therefore at Pharaoh and Moses for they represent two different sides of humanity today.


The first is Pharaoh and Pharaoh is what I would call the thoroughly modern man, or the thoroughly modern person is Pharaoh. Look, for example, at the way he deals with God. As many people do, he is symbolic of the attitude towards God that prevails in society. First of all he was what I would call a polytheist, he believed in many different gods. And Pharaoh says, "Why should I be obedient to you? I don't know the Lord. I don't know the Lord, so why should I be obedient? Why should I be obedient?" You see, he used a belief that there were many gods as an excuse for having to follow in the ways of the one God and Moses and Aaron represented the one God to him, but he just simply thought that God of Israel was just one amongst many gods. My friends, we have the same attitude in our society today.

There is a growing spirit of polytheism, the belief that there are many gods existent within society and this is a convenient position to hold because if you believe that there are many gods, you never ultimately have to be obedient or accountable to any of them, you just pick and choose which god you want. The only problem is that as you pick and choose the gods that you want, you find that others around you do the same thing and so all of us in a sense are just picking our gods as we go and being obedient not really to the word of God or to the power of the one God, but simply a god of our own making or a god of our own choosing and this causes anarchy. There is also the same danger, the danger of what I call relativism. There was at the heart of Pharaoh a relativistic attitude that his truth could be placed alongside the truth of Moses and of Aaron. My friends, the same attitude prevails today, that there are many truths, that there is no such thing as truth and when there is no such thing as truth, there is a vacuum created and that vacuum is often created by those who possess power and those who possess power want people to believe that there is no necessary truth in the claims of God, in order that they might control our lives.

This past week, I think it was yesterday actually, I received a telephone call from a friend of mine and he said, "Happy New Year, Andrew." I thought this is one of my rather slow friends, but I looked at my watch and it said what, February the 4th, I thought this guy's got a Y2K bug somewhere in his system, I think. I said, "Well, thank you very much, happy New Year to you as well," and I thought I'm already getting the right dates on my cheque books, so I know we're well into the year, I don't know what he's been doing. And then he said, "Andrew just a minute now, don't be so curt and so rude, I'm wishing you happy New Year." I said, "Well, thank you very much," and then it dawned on me, the friend who was phoning me was Chinese. It was the Chinese New Year. And he said, "Oh, Andrew, it's going to be a great year, just a great year, I'm looking forward to this year," and the two of us began to talk and he said, "May God bless you in the New Year," and I said, "May God bless you in the New Year," and then we started to talk about his family, many of whom are still at home in China and we started to talk about how the Christians in China celebrate this very day and how they commit this day to the glory of God and then he began to tell me of the problems that some of his people have, how hard it is when you have the hegemony of the state pushing you, manipulating you and controlling you, and he said, "You don't know, Andrew, how difficult it is for my relatives to believe in the truth of God when every time they make a claim, every time they worship, they are ridiculed, vilified, when they are pushed to the periphery of society. When I wish my family a happy New Year, I have to pray for them, that they might have the guidance of the one true God."

My friends, we sometimes don't have a sense in our society of just how important the truth is and Moses and Aaron went to the Pharaoh on the foundation of the truth, the truth being that you recognize God first and foremost, but Pharaoh, the ultimate relativist turned his back on what Moses and Aaron were saying, for he picks his own god and his own truth as he goes. He is a thoroughly modern person.

There is another side to Pharaoh. Not only does he have a particular view of religion, he also has another view, he is what I would call the new material boy. If Madonna was the new material girl, Pharaoh is the new material boy. Pharaoh above all else placed productivity before people. He wanted to get every ounce of sweat and blood and tears out of his people because he wanted productivity first, no matter what the demands of God might be, I do not know your god, these people are lazy, I'm going to make them work harder.

My friends, that has always been the human driving force. Not that there is anything wrong with productivity, not that there is anything wrong with hard work, I'm a devotee of John Calvin, how could I ever say something like that. No. But when that productivity becomes more important than the demands and the call of God, it becomes an idol and Pharaoh had created an idol and he would not tolerate these lazy Jews who keep talking about their God.

My friends, we have had this struggle in the modern world as well. Even in our law, even in our constitutions, there has always been a fine balance between protecting the rights of property and protecting the rights of individuals and the welfare of people. From John Locke on, there has been this debate within constitutions, some of whom come down on the side of personal property, others that come down on the side of the individual, and it is always a balance, but Pharaoh had lost the balance. He had come down so heavily on productivity, so heavily on his own desire for private property and for building at the expense of people who could be beaten and tortured, that he had lost all that sense of balance and that happens, my friends, when God isn't recognized.

There is also the sense too in which we have in the Pharaoh the bondage of the soul. Pharaoh terrified Moses and Aaron, so terrified were they of him that Moses originally said when he was called to go forth and say, "Let my people go," he said to God, "Excuse me, would you mind getting Aaron to go in my place. Send Aaron, he's more articulate, he's better, he can do it more profoundly, send Aaron, he's your man." But God insisted that it was Moses and Moses was the one who was called by God to go and to say to Pharaoh, "Let my people go, you have held them in bondage long enough, you can't hold them in bondage any longer."

There's a wonderful story of when we do this sometimes in the stories of Einstein and Einstein tells a true story of one day his chauffeur, who used to go to all his lectures with him, told him that he understood every word in every lecture that Einstein had ever given and so he says to Einstein, "You know that lecture on the theory of relativity, I know that. I know that. Word for word, I can repeat it right here and now." So Einstein then said to his Pharaoh, "Well, in that case," he said, "next week I am to present a lecture, why don't you then go and present it in my place." And the chauffeur said, "All right, Einstein, you're on, I can deliver that lecture." So off they went to this university that never even met Einstein in person and Einstein dressed up as the chauffeur with his hat on and in went the chauffeur and the chauffeur was introduced to thunderous applause and he delivered a word perfect lecture on the theory or relativity. There was only one problem, when the lecture was over there was a question and answer period and so the chauffeur, after having delivered the lecture, was confronted by one of the eminent professors who asked him the most intricate question imaginable with the most complicated mathematical formulae and he said, "Will you, Dr. Einstein, please answer this?" And the chauffeur said, "Oh," he said, "this is so easy, really I don't know why you're bothering even asking, trust me, look, for example I will get my chauffeur to answer this for you." That's my Moses. That's my Moses. Let me get my chauffeur to answer it for you. Because of the bondage, the bondage that Pharaoh held them in, it was terrifying.

A number of years ago in Grahamstown, South Africa, I was asked to do the most peculiar thing. A very good friend of mine was a Justice of the Peace and the Justices of the Peace in South Africa would listen to cases, menial, ordinary, every day cases within society, and then they would pass a judgement and refer it on to the courts if necessary and this friend of mind who was a Justice of the Peace was unable to go on the particular day and they were given the power of proxy and so they could ask somebody else to go in their place. I still think it's ironic to this day that I was actually asked to go and represent the Government of South Africa in court, but I was and I went and I heard the first case of the day and it was a story of a young black boy who had stolen a loaf of bread. He was 13 years old.

And when this young man was interrogated, he said that he stole the bread because his family was hungry, that they were starving and he didn't know what else to do. So the decision was made and the law stated that this young boy's parents had to pay back to the store owner not only the cost of the bread but half their year's wages in fines, and that this young boy could well, if the next court decided, send him to a boarding school, a school for remedial children 300 kilometres away from his mother and father all because of a loaf of bread. Now that's injustice. That's what Pharaoh did to his people and very often those who say they do not know God, drive in such directions. Is it any wonder that there is stress in the world when people don't put God first.


Which brings me now to Moses. Moses is what I call the thoroughly godly man or the thoroughly godly person. He appeared to have no qualifications for the job. He was someone who was not particularly well known and yet he was called by God to make sure that God came first. Whatever you think of Moses, there is one thing you must always know, he wanted to make sure that God came first. That is why when he went to Pharaoh, he had the courage to say, "Let my people go." Let them have a place of worship. Worship of God must come first. The people must have a sanctuary. They need a place to honour their God. Pharaoh, let my people go. Moses had the courage to say that.

My friends, the same thing needs to be said in the world in which we live. As much as the spirit of Pharaoh lives in the world, so must too the spirit of Moses. This past week at the Canadian Club, I heard a magnificent presentation by the CEO of the City of Toronto. I learnt more in his twenty-five minute presentation than I have learnt in fifteen months of living in this great and this glorious city, that in this city there are some what, 6,200 kilometres of road, enough probably to get us from here to Vancouver. That in this city we are the fifth largest in North America behind Mexico City, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the GTA now reigns as one of the great cities of North America and the world. That we are in fact the financial driving force behind the economy in this country and in this province, that without Toronto, this country would be in serious trouble and he shared all the great and the glorious things that we have, the new things that we're planning, possibly a new harbour front, possibly the Olympics, all manner of great things, we are one of the best cities, if not the best in the world in which to live and every time I come back to Toronto having visited somewhere else, I say amen, this is, without doubt a great city.

Sometimes there's the danger that we can become like Egypt and we can become like Egypt if people in their own lives do not have a sanctuary, they do not have a place for God first and I think that we here at Eaton Memorial Church and indeed all the churches that exist in the city, have a profound role to play in this new and vibrant and large city in which we live. That we, like Moses, say here is a place with all the strains and the stresses and the demands of productivity and time that are there on your doorstep, here is a place where above all we will put God first. A place in the desert where the people of God can worship that in this great and this glorious place in which we live, there will be a sanctuary for God's people, but the sanctuary does not really just exist outside of you, the sanctuary must exist inside of you. When Jesus set himself apart and took his disciples and went up into the hills, he communed with God his Father, he did so from the depth of his being. Let me tell you, if you want to do something actively, if you want something that is going to give you a centre in this world that buffets you and challenges you, find that sanctuary in your soul by recognising the need to acknowledge God first and when you do, he will give you the power that he gave Moses and give you the freedom that says "Let my people go." A sanctuary in your life, a sanctuary in this place, a sanctuary in this great city is what is needed if we are not going to follow Pharaoh but Moses. Amen.