A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 7, 2018
Exodus 14: 10-16, 21-30a
A few weeks back, we heard a story about Joseph, an Israelite who was living in Egypt. Today’s text jumps ahead quite a bit. A new Pharaoh came to power, one who didn’t know Joseph, one who decided that the Hebrew people were different enough, numerous enough, to be a threat. So the Hebrew people living in Egypt were enslaved, and were subject to laws and policies that tried to limit their childbearing, their movement, their autonomy.
How did it happen? How did they allow themselves to become enslaved? Why would they give up their freedom?
I suspect it was a slow process, an erosion of freedoms, little by little.
Maybe they didn’t really notice it until the shackles were on and it was too late.
Maybe they thought Pharaoh was kind of a jerk, but his economic policies were good and might end up trickling down to them.
Maybe they figured the next Pharaoh would see the injustice and reverse the policies, and their freedoms would come back.
Maybe they saw Pharaoh removing freedoms from other groups of people first, and didn’t worry about it, because it didn’t involve them and they didn’t want to rock the boat.
I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t say why they allowed Pharaoh to take their freedom. But it’s gotten me thinking about freedom.
What does freedom mean to you?
What are you willing to do to maintain, or perhaps obtain, freedom? What are you willing to do to make sure other people can also be free?
For many of us, freedom conjures up patriotic, American ideals, and perhaps also the men and women who serve our country to defend American ideals. In America, the word “freedom” is often synonymous with patriotism and national identity.
For some of us, freedom is a freedom to do—to do whatever you want. No limits! I do what I want, regardless of how it will impact other people, or how it may impact our own lives. Freedom to drink all the alcohol you want to drink may feel like freedom. Until it becomes an addiction. I know people who are in recovery programs would not describe that kind of freedom as being free.
This biblical story is one of freedom. But it isn’t a nationalistic freedom, or a story of individual freedom that trumps all other concerns.
It is the story of God liberating the house of Israel from slavery, and bondage, into a life of freedom. For everyone. In God’s story, freedom is not private and personal. Freedom is systemic, and for all.
I’m sure the Egyptians thought they had a life with plenty of freedom as they enslaved an entire people to do their hard labor. The freedom of Egypt, built on a system of enslavement and oppression, was not freedom, even if the Egyptians had more leisure time and mistook it for freedom.
Before today’s story, the Hebrew people had fled Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing. The plagues God had visited on Egypt made Pharaoh decide it wasn’t worth it to keep his slaves. As the story picked up today, Pharaoh has changed his mind. It’s hard to let go of a system of injustice and privilege when it benefits you. And so all of Pharaoh’s army goes in pursuit of our plucky band of Hebrew slaves, led by Moses. The text says the Israelites looked back and saw their taskmasters coming for them.
And rather than running faster, or preparing to battle, or make a stand, to defend their newly found freedom, the Israelites cried out.
‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, “Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians”? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’
I confess, I’m not thrilled with this response from our ancestors in faith. Especially as an American who has been steeped in language of defending freedom at any cost. Especially as I consider the ways I too, have rationalized away values I claim to hold dear.
I recognize it is not just the Israelites in Egypt who tend to find comfort in systems of oppression and abuse.
We too, have made comfort with oppression.
We are a nation that was built on slavery. Freedom for white men was enshrined in the Constitution. The rest of us have had to contend for it. While slavery ended 150 years ago, the racism that was behind it remained in housing policies, Jim Crow laws, citizenship laws, the education system, the GI Bill after World War 2, and our prison system. I have lived much of my life without having to be aware of my privilege, and of how the system was rigged to give me opportunity at the expense of others. And I’m grateful for the Waking Up White book discussion, and other books I’ve been reading, that have opened my eyes to the ways I’ve been comfortable in a system that has oppressed people.
Despite strong data from scientists about human impact on climate change, I deny the ways I benefit from behaviors that are negatively impacting our planet. I drove my car here this morning. We oppress the planet for our ease and comfort.
When the Israelites cry out about their fondness for living under oppressive regimes, I hear my own voice.
At the beginning of the Exodus story, when God speaks to Moses from a burning shrubbery, God says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land….”
This whole Exodus story started because people were crying out about their oppression. And God observed. God heard. And God responded, setting in motion an epic story of liberation from bondage that still resonates today.
Beyonce’s song ‘Freedom’ repeats the cry of Israel for deliverance, but written about the experience people of color are facing today, in our own country.
Freedom! Freedom! I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose!
Freedom! Freedom! Where are you?
Cause I need freedom too!
Are we listening to the voices of people of color in our country today who are still crying out for freedom?
Why are we people who recognize our enslavement and cry out in complaint AND, at the same time, people who claim we’d prefer to remain right where we are, as if slavery were just a minor issue? How can we be so accustomed to, and accommodating toward, our own oppression? How can we turn away from the oppression of others?
I want us to be people who cry out for freedom, not people who rationalize away the erosion and removal of our freedom.
God, to God’s great credit, doesn’t walk away from Israel when they start talking about how great slavery was. God doesn’t point out their rather major failure of logic, rationality, and rhetoric. God does not say “the choice isn’t between serving the Egyptians and dying in the wilderness, you idiots. I’m the one delivering you to freedom!”
Which is what I might have said, were I God. Which is why it’s a really good thing I’m not.
God, instead, hears their cries, their longing for slavery, and says to Moses, “why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.”
I think these are helpful words for us these days. It can be tempting to look back, instead of move forward. I saw a quote this week, attributed to Roy Bennett: “The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence”.
God knows we need to learn from our past. And still God calls us forward, bringing everyone out of the past, out of bondage and into liberation.
Liberation isn’t easy. It isn’t simple.
Yet it is where God calls us to walk. Forward. Out of systems of oppression and enslavement. Even if we’re really comfortable in our enslavement.
Slavery is not what God dreams for God’s people. Slavery is a system humans dream up, pretending that any of us can be free while some of us are not.
In Bible study this week, we noticed that God doesn’t just teleport the Israelites from one side of the Red Sea to the other. God also never pushes them. The pillar of cloud moves behind them, as a protection between them and the Egyptian army, but there is no indication of God pushing the Israelites into a freedom they don’t want.
God does the delivering. We do the moving forward.
Again, I don’t want to pretend that the moving forward is easy. In this case, the moving forward is walking into a recently deep and wet ocean, now with the water piled up high on either side. The sharks and beasts of the deep were very possibly just on the other side of the wall of water, watching the Israelites cross on dry land.
God delivered the Israelites as the signs of danger remained present and in their line of sight.
Move forward, God says.
With walls of water on either side of you. With Egyptian armies behind you.
As the Israelites did the moving forward, God was at work too, throwing the Egyptian army into a panic, clogging up their wheels, and eventually crushing them under the water that had just provided the deliverance for Israel.
God is actively working on the side of liberation. And we are called to walk toward it as God is working on our behalf.
I want to be clear about this liberation we’re walking toward.
Freedom isn’t a race to be won at the expense of others. The fastest guy can’t race ahead and claim it for himself, knocking over the slower people to get there first. We can’t get there without helping other people get there with us.
Imagine that we’re in the proverbial crowd at the shore of the Red Sea, enemies on our heels, liberation on the other side of the shore. How are we going to get everyone across?
What are we going to do to make sure the people whose wheelchairs will get stuck in the sand will get there?
How are we going to help the people who are blind or differently abled get across with us?
How will we get the people in prisons get out so they can walk to the other side?
The children in the tent camps on the US border—who is bringing them to cross the Red Sea?
Who is going to help the people who don’t speak our language and don’t understand what Moses is saying and are terrified of walking into an ocean floor?
How will we get the people to join us in the journey who insist that they support Pharaoh and they don’t think liberation is all it’s cracked up to be?
How do we go across with the people we don’t like, or who scare us?
What do we do with the people who want to bring the structures and tools of oppression and slavery with them, so they will have some measure of financial security once they get across the water?
How do we help victims of abuse, and their abusers, both, walk together toward liberation?
God’s liberation doesn’t allow us to leave people behind. It doesn’t allow us to decide who gets to walk, who hasn’t earned it, who isn’t deserving. The deliverance the Lord accomplishes is for all.
Which means we have to leave behind those ways we hurt each other, the ways we demean and diminish each other, the ways we build up structures and systems to oppress. Racism, sexism, classism, economic models that need some people to live on subsistence wages while others get richer and richer–those all have to be left on the shoreline.
In our Brief Statement of Faith from 1983, we acknowledge:
we violate the image of God in others and ourselves,
accept lies as truth,
exploit neighbor and nature,
and threaten death to the planet entrusted to our care.
Do we really want God’s liberation from that?
We are going to come to the Table in a few minutes to celebrate World Communion Sunday, which is a reminder that God’s Table is wide. There is room for all of us at God’s Table. All of the ways we divide each other, hurt each other, exclude each other, oppress each other—those are not God’s ways. God is actively at work on the side of deliverance and freedom, inviting us to a feast, prepared for us, and prepared for all.
May we be fed. May we be free. Amen