In the Name of God: who was, and is, and is to come. Amen.
Then 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. . .’ Exodus 3
Schools started in Ohio this past week. I’m particularly tuned into this because of my family connections. My wife welcomed 29 first graders to her virtual classroom on Monday, and, this past Tuesday, my grandson started second grade with the other members of his learning pod – a pod put together by parents who were trying to figure out how to do their jobs and educate their kids in the midst of the pandemic.
Schools and colleges are all over the place in terms of what they are doing. Some are starting entirely online. Some are entirely in-person. And some are using a hybrid model. It’s all a big experiment, and I yet to speak to a single person who is happy about the alternatives. There’s a lot of anxiety and confusion about what to do. Everything has changed.
One thing that has not changed, however, is how many “first day of school” pictures parents have posted on social media. A friend posted a picture of his 18-year-old’s first day at Ohio University. It was taken in her bedroom at home rather than in her dorm room, since OU is starting their year online. Our neighbors posted pictures of their kids as they started 3rd and 5th grades, backpacks on their backs and smiles on their faces.
Here at All Saints’ we’re asking parents to send “first day of school” pictures to us, too, so we can include them at the nine o’clock service on September 20 – when we’ll be blessing backpacks, laptops, iPads, teachers, students, parents – just about everything and everyone as a new school year begins. If ever God’s blessing was needed, it’s this year.
Many of the “first day of school” pictures posted so far are in kind of a split-screen format showing the same kids at earlier and later stages in their lives. You know the ones I’m talking about – a first-day-of-kindergarten photo next to a first-day-of-high school photo. A toddler picture next to a first-day-of-college picture. We look at them and ask: Where did the time go? How did they grow up so fast?
You may be thinking the same thing when we read about Moses in our first lesson today. Just last week, Moses was a baby in a basket. Just last week, Shiphrah and Puah were disobeying Pharaoh’s orders. Just last week, the infant Moses was being rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. But when we meet Moses this morning, he is a grown man, living in the wilderness, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. Clearly, a lot of time has passed, and we’ve got some catching up to do!
When we last saw Moses, he had just been delivered to Pharaoh’s daughter. He had spent his childhood with his own mother as his nursemaid. Saved from genocide by the midwives, by his family’s shrewdness, and by the princess’s compassion, he had grown up among his own people – people enslaved by the Egyptians and conscripted into forced labor.
When Pharaoh’s daughter “took Moses as her son,” it must have been an enormous change for him – to go from living among the oppressed to living in the king’s court! It must have been like winning the lottery – both the upside of winning as well as the downside.
On one hand, Moses had gone from rags to riches – from hand me downs to royal robes – from a little house to a palace. On the other hand, Moses had gone from the familiar to the foreign – from Hebrew culture to Egyptian culture – from being a slave to having slaves.
The Bible doesn’t say what went on in Moses’ mind, but we can imagine some churning, some sorting out of who he was, some struggle with his identity. Was he a Hebrew? Or an Egyptian? Who was his mother? Was it Pharaoh’s daughter or the woman who had borne and nursed him? Were his loyalties with Pharaoh? Or with the people Pharaoh was oppressing?
These conflicts came into sharp focus one day when, the story tells us, “[Moses] went out to his people and saw their forced labor.” While he was there, “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” What should he do? Whose side was he on?
“He looked this way and that,” the story continues, “and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” At that moment, the die was cast. Even a king’s grandson can’t get away with murder. And the circumstances of the murder – who committed it, who was murdered, and why – would have left no doubt among the Egyptians about Moses’ loyalties. Moses had no choice but to run. There was a price on his head, and he could not stay.
So, Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the Sinai Desert where he found a new home among the Midianites, nomads who moved their flocks of sheep and goats from one oasis to another. Before too much time passed, Moses settled down, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, Jethro, and tried to put the past behind him. He took a new identity as a Midianite shepherd with a young wife and a child.
God, however, had other plans. And God reveals those plans one day when Moses leads his father-in-law’s flock out beyond the wilderness to the mountain of God. There Moses catches a glimpse of a bush that is burning – “blazing” is the word the Bible uses – but the bush is not “consumed.” This strange phenomenon gets Moses’ attention, and he has to see why this was happening. So he turns aside – in the direction of the bush – in the direction of God – and God seizes the chance to engage Moses then and there. God calls Moses by name and begins a dialogue that changes his life and, with it, the course of history.
God’s tells Moses that the plan is to free the Hebrew people from their bondage, and God tells Moses that he is the one who has been called to do the job. “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
This story is so incredibly rich that it has inspired literally thousands of sermons – sermons about God choosing shepherds for leaders, about burning bushes and what they symbolize, about negotiating with God, and about what an enigmatic God we worship – a God we can’t control or manipulate to do our bidding.
But what I want to talk about this morning is why God tracked Moses down in the first place. Here is the answer to that question. God said: “I have seen the misery of my people. . . I have heard their cry. . . I know their sufferings. . .” God was responding to a people crying out because of the brutal and oppressive ways they were being treated. The time has come, God says, for the subjugation of the Hebrew people to end. It was crystal clear what God was up 33 centuries ago and whose side God was on. God was about liberation. . . . What about now?
It doesn’t require any special gift of discernment to understand what God is up to these days. They didn’t use biblical language, but the Milwaukee Bucks understood what God is up to when they decided not to play Wednesday night. The rest of the NBA and the WNBA understood what God is up to. Five Major League Soccer games and three Major League Baseball games were called off because athletes understood. Colin Kaepernick understood when he took a knee. Tommie Smith and John Carlos understood back in 1968 when they raised their fists on the Olympic podium. Those athletes know that God has seen the misery; that God has heard the cry of black and brown people because their oppression; that God knows their sufferings, and that God will deliver them.
Bushes have been blazing in cities and communities all over America this summer – most recently in Kenosha this past week where a police officer shot Jacob Blake – another unarmed black man – seven times in the back in front of his 3, 5, and 8 year old sons.
Jacob Blake’s father said his son was shot “as if he didn’t matter. But my son matters. He’s a human being and he matters.” God knows Jacob Blake matters. And what God is up to – what God is trying to do – is to stop the pandemic of police violence against black men once and for all – and not just the pandemic of these shootings, but every way our society says, black lives don’t matter.
God saw the misery of the Israelites; heard their cry; knew their sufferings, and came down to deliver them. But God didn’t deliver the Israelites free unilaterally, and God won’t act unilaterally in our own day to end oppressive systems. Back then, God called Moses, a stuttering, reluctant shepherd living a settled, comfortable life to join the mission of liberation. Now God calls us. Ending oppression will not be easy. Pharaohs hold on to their power. And the sad fact is too few people see the situation as it really is.
I was deeply disturbed when I read about the results of poll conducted by NPR and Ipsos this past week. The poll showed that, while some people have responded to the calls for action to remedy the country’s racist past and present, these people remain a minority. “The survey showed that just 36% of those polled said they had taken concrete action to better understand racial issues after George Floyd’s killing. Sadly, white people were the least likely [of any group] to have done so, at just 30%.” To put this another way, less than a third of people like me have done anything to understand the issues, even as this nation navigates its most consequential racial justice movement in a half-century
That’s stunning to me, and I hope it’s stunning to you. What this means is that, at the very least, we have two immediate tasks. First, each of us has to redouble our own efforts to listen and to learn about the experiences of black and brown people. One way we can do this is when All Saints’ offers Speak Up training on how to talk to children about race. The program starts September 17 and goes for seven weeks. Contact Liz Futrell or any of us on the staff for more information. Then, in December, Courtney Reid will lead a program called Pathways to Reconciliation, an exploration of our collective paths and their impact on the present. In addition, the parish’s anti-racism team has been posting bi-weekly book recommendations on our social media.
Second, each of us has to redouble our efforts to encourage our families, friends, and neighbors to learn and grow – to see the bushes blazing all around them and, then, to be curious enough to ask why they are on fire. Even in these polarized times, we can say to those who are closest to us, “Look, over there. That bush just burst into flame. . .” The work of becoming anti-racist and of leading others to become anti-racist is hard and costly. It is painful to hear God say, “I have seen the misery of my people. . . I have heard their cry. . . I know their sufferings. . .” and even more painful to know that our ignorance and our inaction have contributed. But as Christians, we believe that penitence opens the way to new life.
Let me close with this prayer by Archbishop Desmond Tutu:
O God whose Son in anger drove the money changers from the temple:
Let the anger of the families of George, Breonna, (Jake), and others slain or wounded be to the cleansing of this land.
O God we hold before you the anger, the rage, the frustration, the sorrow of all Black mothers and fathers who demand for their children the same chance to grow up loving and unafraid as any white mother or father wants for their children;
In penitence, I offer you my own mixed up anger, that it, with theirs, may be taken up into your redemptive will in which the clash between anger and fear, oppressed and oppressor, can give way to the incomprehensible action of agape-love, bringing about the reconciliation, the embrace of the the other, the alien, the enemy;
Creating the festival of Shalom in which the wolf shall lie down with the lamb and the whole life on earth shall rejoice in the splendor of your glory.African Prayer Book