15 Pentecost, Year A
15 Pentecost, Year A
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
“An Alien Life”
Contrary to what might come to your mind due to my sermon title today; I’m NOT going to be expounding upon new age pop culture, supermarket gossip tabloids, Star Trek or any other Hollywood movie extravaganzas. What I AM going to do is focus on verses 23 to 26 in our psalm today, where we learn of Israel’s alien life, living in exile in the land of Ham, which is another name for Egypt. Have you ever considered what it is like to live as an alien, an exile, a refugee, an immigrant, a stranger in a foreign land? The Jewish people, throughout history, have lived as aliens. The following joke, told by Harry Leichter, gives us a clue or two about how the Jewish people lived as aliens.
About a century or two ago, the Pope decided that all the Jews had to leave Rome. Naturally there was a big uproar from the Jewish community. So the Pope made a deal. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave.
Having no choice, the Jews picked a middle aged man named Moishe to represent them. Moishe asked for one addition to the debate. To make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The pope agreed.
The day of the great debate came. Moishe and the pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moishe looked back at him and raised one finger. The pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moishe pointed to the ground where he sat. The pope pulled out a wafer and a glass of wine. Moishe pulled out an apple. The pope stood up and said, “I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay.”
An hour later, the cardinals were all around the pope asking him what happened. The pope said: “First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions. Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that God was also right here with us. I pulled out the wine and the wafer to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moishe. “What happened?” they asked.
“Well,” said Moishe, “First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that his whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here.”
“And then?” asked a woman.
“I don’t know,” said Moishe. “He took out his lunch and I took out mine.” 1
This joke, although humorous, also teaches us a couple of things about the Jewish people living as aliens in foreign lands. First of all, we learn from this joke, just as we do from verses 23 to 25 in our psalm, that the non-Jewish citizens of the country do not want the Jews among them or are jealous of them because they have succeeded in a foreign land. In the joke, the pope wants the Jews out of Rome. In Psalm 105, we are told that while Israel lived as aliens in Egypt, “the LORD made his people very fruitful, and made them stronger than their foes, whose hearts he then turned to hate his people, and deal craftily with his servants.” Tragically, down through the ages, the Jews have been hated by so many nations precisely because they have been blessed by God and therefore, have prospered and succeeded in virtually every walk of life. This hatred and jealousy of the Jews has existed for centuries and, sad to say, is still alive and spreading today in many parts of the world. As Christians we are certainly called upon by Jesus, who was himself Jewish, to love and accept; to live peacefully with and respect the Jewish people in our midst.
The second insight this joke and our psalm teach us is that even though the Jewish people were discriminated against, treated harshly, and persecuted; they learned how to adapt, change, be creative, to endure and survive in their often hostile circumstances. The Jew, Moishe, in the joke was successful in winning the silent debate against the pope. In the psalm, the Israelites, even though they were foreigner aliens, were very fruitful and became stronger than the Egyptians in their own country. In order to survive and succeed, living an alien life requires people to learn fast, observe with care, to endure obstacles and difficulties, to view differences as an opportunity for learning and growth, to creatively adapt and change according to the situation at hand, without losing one’s own identity, culture and faith traditions. Could we as Gentile Christians not learn from the history of the Jewish people living an alien life how to live better with adaptations and changes, to be more creative, to view differences as new opportunities for our learning and growth without losing what we cherish?
Third, we learn from this joke and our psalm today that communication has consequences. In the case of this joke, both parties misinterpreted sign language. Each party, the pope and Moishe came up with their own interpretations and reached their own, very different subsequent meanings out of their communication in sign language, even though the conclusion, interestingly enough, was the same—namely, that the Jewish man won the debate and therefore the Jews could stay in Rome. However, in the case of Psalm 105, the communication between the Israelites and the Egyptians seems to be very troubled, very difficult, and even hostile. There appears to be little, if any genuine heart to heart dialogue, wherein both parties are respected as equals. The language the psalmist employs here in verses 23 to 26 reveals a rather tense relationship, a relationship of conflict; wherein the Egyptians are taking offence at the success of the Israelites and therefore feel threatened by them enough so as to be jealous of them and hate them. On the Israelite side of things, this tense situation called for articulate spokespersons to adequately represent them and work things through, so the psalmist tells us that God “sent his servant Moses, and Aaron whom he had chosen” to communicate with the Egyptians. However, as we learn from the Exodus story, the communication remained rather acrimonious, in fact, eventually broke down altogether, and the two parties, the Egyptians and the Israelites ended up going their separate ways without being able to achieve peace and reconciliation with each other.
How do we communicate with each other as members of this congregation? Are our channels of communication open? Do we regard one another with mutual respect and as equals, with love and good will as valued members of Christ’s family? Beyond our congregation, maybe we can learn from our joke and our psalm today that good communication is vital to the health and well being of those who live an alien life and those who do not. If, with Christ’s help, we can keep communicating together; hopefully we can work our way past the we verses they, us against them, winners and losers mentality; and learn how to live together in love, mutual respect and understanding.