Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Of Moses and Me ...

I must confess ... sometimes the sermon I write turns out to be the wrong sermon.  That happened with the one I worked on for this past Sunday -- "Go Down, Moses!"  I worked hard on it; thought about it; developed it.  And then, when I'd committed most of it to paper I realized that it wasn't the right message for the service.  And rather than change the service, I changed the sermon.  I wrote another one.  But I still had the original idea(s) floating around my head -- and saved in DropBox -- so I decided to turn it into a blog post.  This blog post, in fact.  And, so, here is the sermon I didn't preach on the subject of Moses and the Exodus:

First, a little backstory.  It was Joseph, son of Abraham, who really got this story started.  Or maybe it was his brothers.  But you may recall that Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him and decided to do what older brothers often want to do – they decided to kill him.  At the last minute, though, the come to their senses and “merely” sell him into slavery.  And that brings Joseph to Egypt.

Joseph’s story is filled with as many plot twists as an episode of Scandal, but suffice it to say that he eventually becomes the right-hand man to the Pharaoh himself.  And when, thanks to Joseph, Egypt has weathered an economic collapse (aka, a famine) much better than any of the surrounding nations, people from all over flood in for aid.  Including Joseph’s family.  And that’s what brings the nascent Hebrew people to Egypt.

Over time the Israelites do well for themselves and they become quite numerous.  And as long as Joseph is at the right-hand of the Pharaoh, or as long as Joseph is remembered by the Pharaoh’s successors, things are okay.  But eventually there comes a day, as the Bible tells us, in which a new Pharaoh does not remember Joseph, and everything goes to hell pretty quickly.

The exodus story proper begins with this Pharaoh wanting control over all these now undesirable “others.” He condemns them to slavery.  And then he increases the brutality of their enslavement.  Yet apparently even that wasn’t enough for him, so he orders that the midwives who attend to Hebrew women should kill every male child as it was being born.  And then there’s one of the great acts of civil disobedience on record – the midwives refuse to do this, and explain their failure to follow the Pharaoh’s edict by saying that the Hebrew women were too strong and too healthy and were always giving birth too quickly for the midwives to get there on time. 

But this doesn’t stop Pharaoh.  He just changed his decree, and now ordered that every newborn Hebrew male be thrown into the Nile to drown.  When Moses was born his mother had a different idea, so she threw her son into the Nile … in a basket so that he might live.  (It’s worth noting, I think, that many, many years later another King – Herod – orders that all Jewish boys be killed and that another savior – namely Jesus – was himself saved from such a fate by his parents.  Not only that, but there’s the irony that Jesus’ family go to Egypt to ensure their safety!)

The plan worked.   Moses lived.  And he was found by the Pharaoh’s daughter who took him in, ensuring not only that Moses survive but that he would thrive in a life of privilege.  He grew up a member of the Pharaoh’s household – you might say that he had the opportunity to “pass.”  While his people suffered in slavery he experienced endless freedoms. 

But one day he witnesses and Egyptian overseer mistreating a Hebrew slave, and Moses couldn’t take it.  He intervened on behalf of the outcast, the oppressed; he intervened and killed the Egyptian, burying his body in the desert so that no one would know.  The next day, however, when he saw to Hebrew men arguing he tried to mediate, but they looked at him and said, “What?  Are you going to kill us now?”

So Moses took off.  He ran away.  Oh his own, by himself, of his own accord he’d tried to do something to ameliorate the suffering he saw around him, tried to do something to redress the wrongs the oppressor had done to the oppressed, but it was too much for him to take on.  He flinched.  He hightailed it out of Dodge and tried to put the whole thing behind him.

Jump ahead a bit.  Moses is in a comfy situation in the nearby state of Midian.  He’s married.  He’s got a family.  He’s got a good job with his father-in-law, and he’s doing pretty well for himself.  He’s become a man of substance, a success.  And while it’s not the luxury he knew in the Pharaoh’s palace, at least out here he could forget about all that injustice in his homeland.

But one day …  and that’s a motif, really, throughout the Bible’s stories.  Things are going along normally, life seems solid and stable, “but one day” …

One day Moses was out tending the sheep of his father-in-law when he decided to take them to a new grazing area.  And then he saw it – a bush that appeared to be on fire but wasn’t being consumed by it.  And even if you didn’t know any of that other stuff you probably know this – out of the fire the voice of God spoke to Moses by name and called him to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew people.

So let this sink in for a minute.  Imagine yourself in Moses’ sandals.  You were raised in a life of privilege and freedom.  You’ve taken this life for granted.  It’s all you know, yet all around you there is untold suffering.  And then one day – there is that motif again – one day you realize that you really have more in common with the oppressed than with the oppressor with whom you have identified for so long.

It would take some serious soul searching, wouldn’t it, before you’d know how to respond, right?  It’d take some serious shuffling of perspectives and assumptions.  It’d take a radical reconstruction of the way you see the world, right?

As I began writing this I was well aware of the way(s) in which the story of the exodus of the Hebrew people from their bondage in Egypt was a powerful story for the enslaved people in early America.  It’s not for nothing that famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman come to be called, “the female Moses.”  This story had profound resonance for African Americans in those days.

And when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr spoke about having “been to the mountaintop” yet perhaps not being able to “get there” with his people, he was making a clear reference to the exodus tale, as Moses also viewed the Promised Land from a mountaintop yet was never to set foot within its borders.

So, as I said, as I began writing I was well aware of the many ways this story was evoked, and how it provoked, the causes of African American freedom and equality throughout our nation’s history.  What I hadn’t realized until I reached this point, is that Moses can be a powerful model for Euro-Americans who are doing – or want to be doing – anti-racism/anti-oppression work.

As we’ve seen, Moses was raised in luxury and privilege.  And because of his status he no doubt never really questioned it – the way his life was was the way life should be.  He was aware, certainly, of the plight of the enslaved Jews, and poor Egyptians as well, yet it seems reasonable to assume that if he thought about it much at all he’d have thought that his lifestyle and life-experiences were the norm and that these “others” were aberrations.

Isn’t this very much like what has been learned about the state of White Americans?  Speaking as one, haven’t we been raised in (at least relative if not outright) luxury and privilege.  Yes, of course, poor White Americans still suffer from poverty, and there are some extremely successful Black Americans.  Yet it is also true that if you compare poor Whites and poor Blacks, and wealthy Whites and wealthy Blacks, the lives of these Black Americans are generally more difficult than their White counterparts.  And, so, White Americans can understand Moses’ mindset as the story begins to unfold.  We know (to some extent and, again, at least relatively) what it’s like to live in Pharaoh’s house.

And then there comes that moment when Moses sees the Egyptian overseer beating the enslaved Hebrews, and it is no longer possible for him to ignore the injustice.  He has to act.  And at least among Euro-Americans who are working for racial equality, wasn’t there usually such moment?  Wasn’t there usually some encounter, some discussion, some acquaintance, some event that made action all but inevitable?  So we can relate to Moses here, as well.

And then … Moses runs away.  Rather than try to do something about the injustice he has now seen, he turns his back on it.  Pretends it doesn’t exist.  His freedom included the freedom to ignore the enslavement of the Hebrews, to close his eyes to their oppression.   Which is what a lot of well-meaning White folk do as well. This pattern is so pervasive that it led Dr. King to say, “In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

But then there’s Moses’ fateful encounter at that Burning Bush.  For him it was the voice of his God, for us White Americans it could be so many different things, but many of us, too, know the experience of something that changes us.  Changes the way we look at ourselves and look at the world.  Changes us so that we not only oppose the oppression of others but that we come to identify with the oppressed.  That we see, as Moses did, that the enslavement, the oppression of “others” but of “our people,” for we are one human family, after all.

And then we, too, if we’re brave enough, go back to Pharaoh, whom we know so well because we grew up in the Pharaoh’s household, and demand that he free those whom he has enslaved.  We acknowledge the role that we, ourselves, have played in “their” oppression, and we declare our decision to stand with “them” until there is only “us.”

Two more thoughts here.  First, it’s worth noting that Moses responds to God’s call by arguing that he’s not the right guy for the job.  He says that it’d take an eloquent orator and that he stutters.  He says that his brother would really be a better fit.  He says, “Really, God – couldn’t you find someone better than me?”  

The answer, of course, is, “no,” and that’s the answer we will receive when we wonder aloud (or to ourselves) whether someone else might be better suited to the task of undoing racism and ending oppression.  Nope.  It’s up to you; it’s up to me.  Again, speaking as and to White Americans, we’re the ones who are going to have to do this.  Only a member of Pharaoh’s own household will have access to Pharaoh, and only one who has herself or himself experienced the privilege of the oppressor can demand the release of the oppressed.

The second thought is this – it took ten times, for Moses to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go.  And in between each attempt there were some awful plagues that came upon Egypt, and yet the Pharaoh refused to budge until it got really personal.  In the story it was the plague of the death of every firstborn child and animal in Egypt that tipped the scales.  In the United States in the early 60s it was the images from the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, or of the rubble of the 16th Street Baptist Church that broke open the hardened hearts of most of White America.  (And, of course, there are some hearts and minds still walled off, which is why there’s still work to do.)

This work is not easy.  It is not comfortable.  Change will not happen overnight – nor can we say it has already come.  Some, yes, but far from all that is needed.  And it will never come if we who’ve lived in Pharaoh’s house are unwilling to step out of that house so that we are both insiders and outsiders.  Yet the promise of the exodus story is that change will come eventually.  Freedom cannot be stopped up forever.

Let’s commit to doing what we can to help that day come sooner.

Pax tecum,


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