Sermon preached by Br Sam at Hilfield Friary, 6th March 2016 – the Fourth Sunday of Lent.
‘Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’. Joshua 5.9
This morning’s reading from the Old Testament actually begins half-way through a story, the first part of which recounts how, having led the Hebrew tribes across the River Jordan into the Promised Land, Joshua then circumcised all the Israelite men as a sign of God’ covenant with them, as a witness to the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring them from Egypt into the land of Canaan. The story tells how, all this rather painful surgery being completed, they remained in the camp until they were healed. You can see why, perhaps out of delicacy, the compilers of the lectionary have left this part of the story out of the Sunday reading – I don’t remember it as having been a picture in my children’s bible! But this mass ritual circumcision forms the context for the statement with which this morning’s reading begins: ‘Today…I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt’: ‘today, because my promise to bring into this land as a free people has been fulfilled, I have rolled away from you the disgrace of slavery, the disgrace of punishing servitude, the disgrace of generations of oppression’.
It had been a long journey for these Hebrew tribes to remove the disgrace, the stigma of slavery from their expectation and understanding of life. There’s a rabbinic saying: ‘It took just a few days for Moses to take the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took forty years to take Egypt out of Israel.’ The experience of slavery – of subjugation, powerlessness, humiliation and brutality leaves its mark. When Jonathan and Hugh returned from the refugee camp at Calais a few weeks ago, the thing which struck me of their account was that many of the people there were ‘traumatised’ – by the violence, fear and hopelessness which they had left behind, by the hard slog across Europe, and now by living like prisoners in a cage, continually risking their lives to escape to what they hope will be a ‘promised land’ across the Channel. I wonder how long it will be before these memories will be healed, how long before their ‘disgrace’ will be ‘rolled away.
Many of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are marked, wounded, by the trauma of particular events or experiences. Being unemployed for a long while leaves its mark on life; the experience of mental illness, of childhood neglect or abuse, loss through bereavement, the break-up of a marriage, a time in prison, a particular failure – all these leave their scars, a sense of shame; they can make us feel to be a victim, that it has been our own fault. It is rightly termed ‘dis-grace’ because it affects how we think of and feel about ourselves; we feel demeaned and diminished, we have no sense of being ‘graced’/gifted. ‘Today, the Lord said, I have rolled away from you the shame of Egypt.’
The young man in today’s gospel reading (the story of the Prodigal Son) had a deep sense of disgrace. He knew that he had messed up bad. He had dishonoured his father by walking off with his inheritance which he had then blown on dissolute living, and now he was sitting among the pigs:…….’I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired hands’. You can hear his sense of shame. But the father runs out to meet him: ……Quick, take those rags off him and bring out the best robe, put a ring on his finger and sandals on his worn feet. Kill the fatted calf, butcher the best steak and celebrate with me. The father rolls away his younger son’s disgrace. And if the elder son would let him he would do the same for him too: ‘roll away that burden of resentment at feeling passed over, the hurt of feeling unrewarded for your efforts on the farm for all those years. ‘Today I have rolled away the disgrace of Egypt.’
Paul, in his second letter to the Church at Corinth which we’ve also heard this morning, tells them that ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself and entrusting us with the message of reconciliation’. This could be translated as: ‘God was in Christ rolling away the disgrace of our own Egypt, and enlisting us in the work of disgrace rolling’. We are disgrace-rollers for Christ – working with God to remove the disgrace, to heal the shame of each other’s lives and that of the world.
In three weeks’ time, rather earlier in the day than this because the clocks will have gone forward the night before, we will be here in the Chapel celebrating the feast of Easter, the great feast which re-shapes, transforms our life. We will have followed the story of the Passion, of Jesus sharing and bearing the disgrace of a criminal’s death. And if we read St Mark’s account of the resurrection we will be over-hearing the conversation between the women who made their way with spices to the tomb early that morning: ‘Who will remove the stone for us’ – the heavy boulder that lay over the dark mouth of the sepulchre. And it will be our joy and delight, our song and our dance, to discover with them that, of course, the stone has been already rolled away.