Geography of Faith: Egypt and Sinai Desert

(Homily for Twenty-Fourth Ordinary Sunday - Year C)

Message: Today we see the movement from the slavery of Egypt to disciplined freedom: the Sinai Desert.

Last week our Scripture reading asked: What can we know about God's counsel, his design, his plans for us? We heard the answer: By our own power, very little. We can't get far on our own steam, but fortunately God has chosen to freely reveal himself to us.* We find that revelation in the Bible.

As I told you last Sunday, I am dedicating series of homilies to explore God's revelation. I will use a helpful framework that I learned from Bishop Liam Cary: "the Geography of Faith." School children know that geography means maps and countries. God uses those same things to help us understand where we are, where we're going - and how to get there. The Geography of Faith means that, just as God called his people to leave one country and journey to another, so he does today for you and me. The Bible is your personal GPS - Global Positioning System.

By a nice coincidence today's Old Testament reading mentions the three main places of that geography. First: Egypt. By a process that involved both human sin and divine providence, you and I wound up in Egypt: An abundant country, but it has become a place of oppression. God tells Moses that he calls his people out of Egypt.

Egypt is a real place and we have heard a lot about that country in the news. But in the Geography of Faith I am concerned not so much about modern Egypt - except to pray for that nation, particularly for our fellow Christian facing persecution there.

Modern Egypt is one thing and Biblical Egypt is something else. For the chosen people, the Hebrews, Egypt was a place of slavery - to Pharaoh and to idols. God delivered them, but very soon they started missing Egypt, especially the food. (You can take the boy out of Egypt, but you can't Egypt out of the bo They dreamed about the meat, the garlic and the onions. (cf. Num 11:4-5) They longed for the sensual pleasures of Egypt.

Don't misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with sensual pleasure in itself. God invented it and he wants us to have it. As much as anyone else, I can enjoy a Whopper with onion rings. And like the Hebrews, I would have hard time living without garlic. Still, I recognize that a disordered drive for sensual pleasure can enslave. Egypt represents the disordered sensuality that enslaves. We see it today in things like drugs, alcohol abuse, gluttony, sloth and porn.

Sensuality and slavery. Egypt has a third "s." It's more subtle, but it is the worst of the three: Salvation by works. You may have seen the papyrus hieroglyphs that depict a god weighing a human heart in a scale.** If evil outweighs the good, the soul receives a punishment. But if a person has more good on his side, he receives a reward: Salvation by works.

When God freed the people from Egypt, he gave them a different religion - not based on works but relationship.*** (It was not something new, but a return to Abraham - our father in faith.) Do you remember what Moses told Pharaoh? "Let my people go." Yes, but why? Listen closely: "Let my people go so that they may worship me in the desert." (cf Exodus 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3).

God calls his people out of slavery, out of the prison of sensuality and salvation by works so that they can worship - enter a personal relationship with him. That personal relationship, that freedom, does not mean "anything goes." We hear today how God reacts when they fall back into the slavery of idolatry (the "molten calf") and give themselves over to sensuality - a full-blown orgy. His wrath blazes up and he wants to destroy them.**** God calls us not to dissipation but to discipline, a disciplined freedom - to become disciples.

While the people were engaged in dissipation, Moses was somewhere else. He had climbed Mount Sinai where God gave the Ten Commandments. For their relationship with God the people need the Commandments. Freedom without the Commandments leads back into slavery.

So we have seen two things that begin with "c": cult (correct worship of God) and code (the Ten Commandments). There is a third "c": creed. We will talk about it more later, but in Deuteronomy, Moses gives the basic creed: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone." (6:4)

So cult (worship), code (Commandments) and creed (statement of belief), these make possible a personal relationship to God. That relationship saves, not the amount of good works - although works have their place. But a person cannot live an immoral life and refuse to worship God, then think that good works will save him. It is a wonderful thing to join the Peace Corp or to give to charities, but works in themselves will not save.

One of our young local pastors notes how people have bumper stickers bragging about their children: "My child is an honor student." "My son plays in the band." He says he wants to have bumper sticker saying, "My kid is a class A sinner who desperately needs forgiveness and to be spared from the wrath of God." We are not saved by our achievements, but by knowing Christ. We honor achievements, but then give glory to God. Salvation comes from relationship to God through cult, code and creed.

I mentioned last week that the Geography of Faith has particular significance for young people. The basic task of youth is to get out of Egypt: to move from slavery to freedom. It's not easy. When you are young and strong, salvation by works and sensuality attract powerfully. But God has something better: Freedom. Disciplined freedom. Enjoy your video games, but not ten hours a day. God wants us to have disciplined freedom - the freedom that only he can give.

Blessed Pope John Paul II observed that young people want a beautiful love: a total self-giving to the other and to God. That self-giving involves worship (cult), living the Commandments (code) and a correct understand of God (creed). These three give a foundation so the young man can discover his purpose, his true homeland.

Today we see the movement from the slavery of Egypt to the freedom of the Sinai Desert. Try to recall the three "s's" of Egypt: slavery, sensuality and salvation by works. And the three "c's" of the Desert: cult, code and creed. With them we enter a personal relationship with God. "Let my people go so that they may worship me in the desert."

Now, we can't stay in the desert. We have a destination beyond the desert. Today's reading refers to that country: the Promised Land. To get to the Promised Land, we have to pass through the Desert, learn its life lessons: cult, code and creed. And to enter the Promised land we have to leave some things behind: slavery to idols, the prison of sensuality and salvation by works. Out of Egypt through the Sinai Desert into the Promised Land.

You may have heard that the Promised Land "flows with milk and honey." Yes, but if you think it's all peaches and cream, you are in for a big surprise. More next week. I will give you Bishop Cary's understanding of what the Promised Land actually is.

For today, I want you to know we are on a journey. It begins in Egypt and goes through the Sinai Desert. In his first homily, Pope Francis said, "Life is a journey, and if we stop, things don't go well." The young man in today's Gospel did not sink into self-pity or despair; he got up and made the journey. And he has given us all some beautiful words: "I will rise and go to my father." Amen.


*In recent homilies I have tried to address some preliminary questions: Why Are We Here? and Why do we need revelation?. The answer to the first question is found in Genesis, Chapters 1 & 2. The answer to the second question in Wisdom, Chapter 9. There is a third preliminary question: How did we get into such a miserable state? Genesis, Chapters 3-50 address that question. I do not have a separate homily on it, but will deal with it in Generations of Faith. See: Outline of Geography of Faith.

**And of course they built the pyramids and went through elaborate processes thinking those things give them a place in the next life. While not negating everything the people learned in Egypt, God began to show them that what matters is our relationship to him. This revelation would reach its climax in Jesus: "I am the Resurrection and the Life."

***"Religion" has gotten a bad rap, but the word means "the service and worship of God or the supernatural." Whether religion is good or bad depends on whether one serves and worships the true God or false gods.

****Fortunately for them, Moses intercedes. We see here the power of intercessory prayer.

Versión Castellana

From Archives (24th Sunday, Year C):

2010: God's Perspective
2007: Never Give Up
2004: A Veneer of Forgiveness
2001: He Welcomes Sinners - And Dines With Them
1998: Why God Became Man

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Sunday Homilies

Audio Files of Homilies

Resources for Geography of Faith

Geography of Faith Retreat by Bishop Liam

Bulletin (St. Mary's Parish)

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Parish Picture Album

(Centennial Celebration)

New sculpture celebrates St. Mary of the Valley centennial
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KRA's & SMART Goals (updated June 2013)

A Homilist's Prayer

Outline of Geography of Faith