Breathing Lessons

Exodus 19:3-7: 20:1-17 preached in worship on Sunday, September 30

Can you breathe?  On the surface of it, it sounds like a silly question. But I mean, full, deep breaths? Filling your lungs so you can feel your toes and the tip of your head? Full breaths that tell you you’re alive and that there is life in you and around you?  Do you breathe like that? Let’s take a few moments. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.  Slowly. Deliberately. Close your eyes. Here you are. Right now. Isn’t that invigorating? Isn’t that freeing? And maybe this exercise makes it clear to you that you, in fact, are not breathing in and out to your full capacity most days.  But shallow, hurried breaths.  Panicky breaths. Worried breaths.  Breaths to just get you through. You know, just breathing like you do. In and out. To keep you alive. Which is no small thing. It’s the point of today’s story. The Israelites have been (breathe out) released from the tight grip of slavery. They’ve been (breathe out) released from their constrained, restricted breathing. 400 years of history of slavery, making bricks to build up the Egyptian empire with no end in sight. To build their monuments of death. And here they are, hanging out next to the sea, gathering all the people together, catching their collective breath. And Moses tells them, “Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” Just imagine, being freed from something so constraining. A hard life of nothing but work and death. I imagine they’re breathing deep, letting the reality of this new life, this new freedom sink in.  Ok, we have only to keep still. Wow. Let’s take it all in. I’ll bet the view of the Red Sea was nice. I’ll bet the view of the streams of people heading out of slavery and into freedom was moving, comforting, reassuring. And then, just as they’re settling into this keeping still, they are told to get a move on, right into the sea.  Wait, what? But we’re free. You said, we were free. We just got here and you told us to be still and now you’re urging us into the sea. It’s a death sentence. Why’d you bring us out here to die? We could have just stayed back in slavery – at least we’d still be alive. How quickly we lose our breath when the freedom of God looks nothing like we expected. American freedom comes with the expectation of loyalty. Our human relationships come with all kinds of strings attached. But our relationship with God? Pure freedom born out of perfect love. And this love wouldn’t actually be love without the freedom.  It’s the very DNA of God. Can you breathe out this great freedom given to us by God?  Can you breathe out, even as you head into unknowable waters, sputtering and coughing and fearful? Can you breathe out this great love given freely to us? Can you also give it freely to others – friends and enemies and strangers alike? We can opt out – that’s the great gift of this freedom. We don’t have to do it and God will continue to give it to us. But are we then stuck on the shore, or making our way back into slavery for safe keeping, because we know the lay of the land? Content with our shallow breathing? Will you dare to breathe out this great gift of God’s love and freedom that has been breathed into your own life and the life of the world? Because it is the great gift given to all of us. It’s for you! Doesn’t it just take your breath away? This past Wednesday, I was at the gym doing a workout that had us moving from station to station. We had 15 seconds to transition and be ready to go and it wasn’t long enough. We couldn’t get our bearings quickly enough. The instructor was watching and noticed our struggle and shut the music off, saying “you all look grumpy!” And I responded, “It’s rapid adapting to change.”  She gave us 15 more seconds each time and that seemed to do the trick. We could get our bearings and even take a breath before beginning again. The Israelites get no such break today. Their transition from slavery to freedom is happening at break neck speed and there are few instructions to help them adjust. In fact, the instructions are confusing and contradictory.  They have been freed and Moses has told them they only need to keep still and now, suddenly, the Egyptians are bearing down on them, Pharaoh’s mind being changed yet again and they are being told to get a move on straight into the sea – into a situation that looks impossible and into a future with no certainty. They yell, “What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt!?” They’ve been free for like 5 minutes and it looks nothing like they imagined it would be and long for their imprisonment again. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” They want slavery again because at least they’d still be alive. Today’s story is about faith in the face of an impossible situation. Today’s story is about the power of fear when a panicked leader goes back on his word. Today’s story is about freedom. Is it what we expect? The Exodus is one of the big stories of our faith. It is about God freeing us, here today – not just back then in an epic scene that movies love to recreate. The Hollywood movies miss the key ingredient in their epic depictions of freedom: The very makeup of freedom from God is perfect love. And perfect love can only grow in freedom. Rob Bell and Richard Rohr talk about the divine flow – freely breathing in and out the promises of God. I suppose because Rob Bell lives in Los Angeles, he uses a snorkel analogy. Do you breathe in the free gift of forgiveness and perfect love from God? And then, and this is essential, do you breathe it out, giving it back to the universe, giving it back to those in your life, strangers and friends alike? Or is your snorkel plugged up? Do you only breathe in these promises from God and that’s it? The freedom that we know because of Jesus Christ is like no other freedom – American freedom demands loyalty. The DNA of the freedom we know in God is perfect love. No strings, no raffle ticket stubs to hang onto, no back breaking brick making, no loyalty requirements. And the frustrating and beautiful thing is we have the option to opt out – it’s that free.  We can say no to it, and yet the offer of it never goes away. The giver is always ready to give it to us. It’s easy to say no to God’s freedom because the rest of the world just doesn’t work that way. We’re not breathing in and out the reality of God’s freedom in our work places or in our families because we have all these strings attached, don’t we? Test scores and homework and deadlines and making a profit and proving our love and loyalty, earning a paycheck.But God’s freedom? It’s chaotic, certainly. Because, first, the pillar of light is in front of us, leading the way. We can clearly see our steps and even the way forward, frightening and unknown as it is.  But then the pillar of light moves behind us, and we’re not sure why, but God’s movement is always to protect and at the same time to prod us forward into what we call the unknown, but into what God knows is that it is always a future with God. Yet the leaving of what we know, the safe place, our routine, the way it’s always been comes with no knowing what lies ahead. God’s love would be a joke or a prize if it was something we had to earn. God’s freedom would be a house of mirrors if love were not the main ingredient. God’s love would be like human love if it were not free.This is our story. We are freed to love because God give us this love and then beckons us to breathe out, to share it with the world.  Will you stay in captivity, will you stay in your old routine, will you stay in your shallow breathing ways because you know the lay of the land? Or will you move into God’s complete freedom, breathing in and out, full deep breaths? It’s a free gift. Breathe deep. Breathe deep the breath of God.