[This sermon was originally preached at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Brooklyn, NY on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019.]
On this Sunday, as we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose leadership is so likened to that of Moses, it’s wonderful that the lectionary holds a lesson from Exodus. The book of Exodus is full of so much drama and intrigue, yet in all of that, it gives us, I believe, such a clear glimpse into the human condition and God’s nature, and guidance for our response to both. Exodus 3:7-12 does not disappoint. And I think is suggests that before the face of injustice and oppression, and before the face of God we must have a twin response: to cry out and to show up. The first two verses give us our clues about this response.
The Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
First off, notice the Israelites. They are not suffering in silence, or neglecting or minimizing their pain. They are crying out about it. They are talking to God about the injustices that are happening. They are probably also talking with each other, commiserating and trying to figure a way out. So that says to me that when injustice and oppression are a part of the human condition — we have to cry out to/with each other and to God. We have to pray privately and to move those prayers publicly – and by move publicly, that may mean your feet. Moving is part of how you show up.
Now, I know that sometimes when I pray, there’s a bit of doubt, like, “is God really listening, is God going to answer this prayer.” But here’s the comfort this text gives us. God says, I have heard their cry, I know their suffering. Yes! With all manner of perception God is aware of the human condition, of my condition. So we can cry out, we can pray, with expectation that God hears and sees, and is moved when your ability to live fully is diminished, systematically.
Now what does crying out look like today? Well, it may look like people in Pennsylvania saying our access to healthcare is too costly and we are dying needlessly. God has observed. Our water is tainted and we can’t get to work or school because we cannot eat or bathe in Flint; and we can’t even afford it in Detroit. God hears about it. If your partner must take sanctuary in a church because ICE has come calling, or you are at the border and your child dies as you seek asylum, God knows and has come to deliver.
When you are in the street marching for your life and pointing to the ways our nation must move forward and must value women, if your public housing apartment is full of lead paint and unmet repair needs, if your astronomical rent does not match your abysmal wage, God sees and has come down to deliver! The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival lifts up these and so many other cries.
And if none of these issues personally affects you, they must still matter to you. Our faith rests on loving God and loving neighbor as self. That means if your neighbor is hurting, you’re hurting and you must stand and say it’s gone on far too long.
So when the text says, God sees, hears, and comes to act against injustice and oppression, we know that it’s part of God’s nature, of God’s identity. After all, Exodus, this book of the Bible chronicling the journey from oppression, is the book where we find out God’s name, “I am.” God’s identity is just so closely associated with freedom from oppression. But as children of God, God’s identity is also ours. So to go, to see, and to act, is not just our task, it is our nature. It is how we respond to God, how we faithfully live out our identity.
I believe God wants for us join in as God moves people toward liberation, toward justice. In today’s passage, God says to Moses, “I have come down to deliver … so I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” God needs a conduit! God is ready to act and needs us to carry out the action. God needs us to show up and that may look different for each of us. But. BUT! Look at what happens later in our passage:
Moses says, “But who am I to go?”
There is a moment, a protracted one actually, of indecision. Moses questions whether he is adequate to the task. And, if we go on a little further in the chapter, we learn that Moses wonders whether the people will accept him. Oh yes, insecurity is part of the human condition as well. And, why might that have been the case for Moses?
Now, the counselor in me wants to says it’s something about his childhood – surely his legitimacy must have been repeatedly questioned, even if he grows up in the plush royal rooms of Pharaoh’s house. Moses just appears one day so many must have whispered: Whose child is this? Is he the right kind? I can imagine he didn’t feel 100% accepted. And let’s remember that he was in danger from birth – Pharaoh had decreed that all male Israelite babies should die, only the female babies should live. Pharaoh, concerned about the foreigners in his land was separating the families! Does that sound familiar?
But remember Moses’ infancy was protected by daring midwives, a cunning sister, a faithful mother, a compassionate surrogate mother, in Pharaoh’s daughter. Without the women, there is no Moses story, Moses dies and who knows what happens to the Israelites in oppression? If the Exodus text can’t help us as we struggle with valuing women and embracing the foreigners on our soil today, then I don’t know what can!
I believe God wants for us join in as God moves people toward liberation, toward justice.
But I digress, back to Moses and inadequacy. If we know about Moses’ adulthood, we know that even as he’s standing before God at the burning bush having the dialogue of today’s passage, he is a fugitive, having killed one of the Egyptian taskmasters for beating an Israelite. It may have been vigilante justice but it’s still murder. So he’s away and now talking to God, questioning what role he can play, how and whether he will be accepted when he returns. Exodus can helps us today as we struggle with criminal justice reform. Because what if Moses doesn’t come back, what if the Israelites don’t accept him in his role? More years of oppression. What if we have sent away the Moses that we need today and have limited his/her/their ability to fully serve society upon return? Are we keeping our own selves in bondage? Sentencing ourselves to more weary years?
Are we missing our Moses today? Are you, my brother, my sister, a Moses for today, perhaps too bound by your past to show up when God calls you? I will commend you to God in seeking an answer for those questions. I know that just a few chapters later, Moses, flaws and all and quite reluctant, does show up, does act in a new way to address the unjust things he’s been seeing and hearing. And God gives Moses all that is needed to lead the people out of oppression. So, let me muse in another direction that may prove helpful for our seeking.
We often compare Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Moses, right? The parallels are certainly there. King led the people of this nation away from the oppressive injustices of discrimination and segregation. We see him and thousands of others March on Washington; later see him before the ruler of his time, President LBJ and his cabinet members, advocating for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Acts. And of course, there’s the mountaintop speech that King gives the night before his assassination, where he proclaims that, like Moses, he has seen the promised land and that he may not get there with the people, assuring that the people will get there. Now, we marked the 50 year anniversary of that speech and his assassination last April, and he would have turned 90 last Tuesday if he’d been allowed to live. So do you think we have entered the promised land yet?
We like to recall King and his dream, the ending of segregation, a post-race society. Some say, well everything is integrated now, and we had President Obama. We can and do hold hands so … Well yes, we hold hands, just don’t be black and brown when the cops ask you to hold hands up … There are still many issues around race. And there were more issues to King than race.
We don’t like to dwell on the King, who three years after his “I have a Dream” speech, said the dream became something of a nightmare. Nightmare? Those were his words! Of course he’s not saying bring back segregation, but as King matured and analyzed, he began to see that there were more things structurally keeping us apart. Some of you may be familiar with his structural critiques, what he called the triple evils: racism, militarism and poverty, which he saw destroying our society and the world. The promised land King is trying to get to is one in which we have moved out from structural oppression.
So, in what would be his final months, he spends time partnering with organizers to launch the Poor People’s Campaign – a movement to be led by the poor, across lines of difference, convinced that this would be a “new and unsettling force” to lead the nation up and out of structural evil. And this is the context in which he offers his Moses-like mountaintop analogy in Memphis. King is there to support sanitation workers who are striking for better work conditions and a better wage. He has shown up, in solidarity with those who are crying out against forces that bring poverty. In this context, King says, “I may not get to the promised land with you but that we as a people will get there.” So, are we there yet?
Well, if King’s last fight against structural oppression involved, among many things, the fight for a living wage, the Fight for $15 of that time and place in Memphis, then you tell me. I believe in this state, for most, not all, the new minimum wage is $15 and hour as of Dec. 31, 2018, 20 days ago, some 50 years after the sanitation workers strike and King’s mountaintop speech. I hear that more legislation around living wage is on the table in many states, but our federal government is partially closed, so a national law is on pause, if it’s on the docket at all. We do make great strides toward the promised land, but we are not yet there.
Racism, poverty, and an exaggerated war economy still persist — add to them ecological devastation and a distorted moral narrative which says the ones who suffer are the ones to blame.
If there is still family separation and concern about the foreigner in our lands, leading to the deaths of children, we are not yet there. If women have to march in the street to proclaim the ways in which society must advance, we are not yet there. If our communities are threatened by lack of water through poisoned water sources, and simultaneously threatened by water abundance in the form of unimaginable storms, rising sea levels that derive from an overheated planet, we are not yet there.
Racism, poverty, and an exaggerated war economy still persist — add to them ecological devastation and a distorted moral narrative which says the ones who suffer are the ones to blame. These are the evils that today’s relaunched Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is crying out about. Movement out from these things is its concern, that is the promised land we seek. Those who are most affected have been gathering together at state houses and before Congress to demand what we seek. A moral budget will be delivered to our leaders including the costs of ending our crises, and detailing the human costs (the lived human narratives) if we don’t. All kinds of skills and solidarity are needed as we cry out.
If the leaders of their time — Moses, King, and others — have told us they weren’t getting to the promised land with us, that means they have left us work to do. You know Aaron had to come behind Moses to lead the people, and then more leaders after that until the Israelites got to the promised land. So if we know that we too are not fully out of the structural oppression King saw, more leaders are needed. We need many Martins. And, we must keep crying out, we must pray and move our prayers, show up in solidarity with each other and move our feet, even until they’re right before Pharaoh, before our rulers today. The promised land is waiting. We can, must, and we will get there!
If the leaders of their time — Moses, King, and others — have told us they weren’t getting to the promised land with us, that means they have left us work to do...We need many Martins.
So I want to close saying this: When earthly powers don’t hear or see us in our oppression, when they in fact legislate it, God hears our cry, God sees the injustice. God will come down. God will deliver. To cry out is our response to the human condition of oppression, to see, to hear, to act on those cries, is God’s nature and ours, our identity and our task. And as we move our way forward, we must remember that in the end of today’s passage, God says to Moses, I will be with you. God hears, sees, comes down, delivers, is with you. God is always with us and we must be with God. So rise up and walk in love with all God’s children. Amen.