A Meditation on Exodus 3 & 5
I’ve got a track on my iPod of the great Louis Armstrong belting out “Go Down, Moses”—the old spiritual Lori sang as our invocation this morning. You can only imagine Louis Armstrong: “When Israel was in Egypt land – Let my people go! – Oppressed so hard they could not stand – Let my people go!” Now I was sick and in bed a good bit of the week, and I played this one track over and over and over again. I couldn’t get enough of it. “No more shall they in bondage toil – Let my people go! – Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil – Let my people go!” Exodus is the spine, the nerve center, the guts of the Hebrew Bible. And Louis and Lori remind us that it’s about God’s tenderness, that it’s about God’s passion, that it’s about God’s initiative around human liberation. “Let my people go!” Without Exodus, without Moses and Aaron and the dumbstruck Pharaoh, there would be no Hebrew Bible. And without the Hebrew Bible, there would be no church. So let’s dig into the text just a bit this morning and see where it leads us.
First thing about Exodus? It’s easily the most disruptive story in the Bible, the most unsettling story in the Bible—because those of us who read it closely will forever be asking disruptive and unsettling questions. Like “WHO ARE THE OPPRESSED IN OUR MIDST?” and “WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT GOD HEARS THEIR CRY?” Disruptive and unsettling questions. Like “WHOSE SIDE ARE WE ON?” and “WHAT MIGHT WE DO TO SECURE THEIR FREEDOM?”
So long as we call ourselves People of this Book or Disciples of the Living Word, we are bound in some way to Exodus and the questions it raises. We are obligated to care about suffering in Ferguson, Missouri. We are obligated to grieve all this violence in Palestinian mosques and West Jerusalem synagogues. And we are obligated to hear the cry of the single parent on the Central Coast, working three, four jobs just to make ends meet. “Who are the oppressed in our midst? And what must we do to secure their freedom?” These make for a rather uncomfortable faith a good bit of the time: not a tidy, sweet and simple faith; but a restless, curious and uncomfortable one. So that’s the first thing about Exodus.
And the second thing is this: on the journey to freedom, on the way to human liberation, Moses doesn’t go to Pharaoh alone.
You know how the story goes. You know how Moses questions God’s judgment and asks how in the world God could want to send Moses into Pharaoh’s chambers on such a consequential errand. “Who am I,” he says, pleadingly, “that I should go to Pharaoh?” And God takes note. God decides that Moses shouldn’t face Pharaoh alone. And God sends Aaron along, Moses’ brother, knowing that Aaron has a few gifts Moses doesn’t, and that Moses does some things well that Aaron can’t. So Moses and Aaron go off to demand their people’s freedom, their people’s liberation—together.
And I think this is no small piece of wisdom and good news for you and me, and for the church. That we too have to learn to go together, in our important ministries of liberation and compassion, to work together and dream together and organize together, to go together in courage and faith to the Pharaohs of this world. We’re not meant to go alone. God says, “Let my people go.” But we have to deliver the message together.
And then one last thing before we get on to some 21st century stuff. This system that oppresses the poor, this system that grinds the working class into the ground, this system that bleeds them dry so that a very few can live well—it’s a human system, a Pharaonic system, a creation of the Pharaoh for the Pharaoh without a whiff of concern for the poor. Scripture doesn’t buy the notion, not for a second, that grinding poverty is an acceptable price to pay for progress, capitalism and the evolution of good ideas. Scripture doesn’t buy the notion, not for a second, that devastating inequality is built into creation and culture, that it’s always been this way and always has to be this way.
Moses and Aaron are sent down to Pharaoh to challenge the system: to call into question a human arrangement that privileges the very, very few at the expense of the hardworking poor. God’s not buying Social Darwinism or trickle-down economics or any other human notion that legitimizes oppression, cruelty and disregard for neighbors on all sides. This God hears the cry of the poor on account of their taskmasters. This God hears the cry of the 98 percent on account of the 1 or 2 percent. And this God calls on Moses and Aaron and the prophets in every age to do something—something bold, something wise, something prophetic—about it. Remember the song that Louis and Lori sing. “No more shall they in bondage toil – Let my people go! – Let them come out with Egypt’s spoil – Let my people go!”
Boy, the more you get into this, the more there is to say about it! So there’s this, about Pharaoh and the good thing he’s got going. You see, Pharaoh’s in no hurry, he’s in absolutely no hurry, to give it all up. Pay attention in the text to the smooth and easy way in which Pharaoh dismisses the brothers’ request for their people’s liberation. Notice how effortlessly Pharaoh tosses aside God’s tender care for the people’s suffering and misery. Pharaoh’s got no use for a God of the oppressed, a God of the poor, a God of tenderness and compassion. He’s something like Sam Walton laughing off his workers asking for a living wage. Right? He’s something like Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell or John Boehner snickering at poor parents calling for universal healthcare or immigration reform or a day off with their families.
After all, Pharaoh sits at the tippy top (let’s say the 1 percent tippy top) of a colossal social and economic system: let’s call it a pyramid scheme. And it’s a system he manages very well and very wisely. Surrounded by the best and the brightest from the best and the brightest schools and think tanks. And they’re in no hurry to dismantle this system of privilege and accumulation—not for a bunch of Hebrew renegades who are working a lot and complaining too much.
In fact, when Moses and Aaron turn to go, the first time around, Pharaoh and his lieutenants smugly turn the screws even a little tighter. Hey, Hebrews, you’re working pretty well doing a 60 hour week. Why not make it a 70 hour week, an 80 hour week? Why not work three jobs, do three shifts, instead of the usual one? Why not come in on holidays, maybe even Thanksgiving this year? Work yourselves a little harder? Give it up for the system? I promise you that I’m not making this up. It’s right here in our text, right here in the Bible. Pharaoh’s working a pyramid scheme; and Moses and Aaron will have get creative and brave about bringing the whole thing down.
So that’s what I’ve got this morning. First, we’ve got Exodus mixing politics and spirituality like our eucharist mixes bread and grape juice. And it’s uncomfortable and it’s disruptive, and it rankles a good many of us a good bit of the time. And second, God gives us friends to do this hard work with: God gives Moses Aaron, and God gives Martin King Rosa Parks, and God gives Ruth Naomi, and God gives us brothers and sisters to march with and organize with and dream new dreams with. We’re meant to do this work together. And third, Pharaoh has never been an easy sell. It’s going to take hard work and revolutionary patience and deeply courageous sacrifice. The liberation of God’s people won’t happy in the blink of an eye, and it won’t be easy and painless and it won’t be sweet. Pharaoh’s a smooth operator: and the system’s quite content with things as they are.
So let’s finish up with some Moses talk this morning. Because Moses is you and me, and Moses is the church in this tale. Moses is us.
And we’re going to look at the madness in Palestine this fall, and we’re going say to God. “Who are we that we should go to the Middle East, to Israel, to Palestine—and even attempt to do right by the oppressed and the occupied, by the poor and the paralyzed? Who are we? Just a little church.” And we’re going to look at the storm clouds hovering over Ferguson this week, and we’re going to say to God. “Who are we that we could possibly tackle racism in our own land—and even attempt to speak a new and holy word of justice for all and liberation for our kids? Who are we? Just a rag tag band of believers.” And we’re going to look at the economic screws turning against our own Central Coast families, against mothers and fathers working more and more for less and less, against young families with no chance of owning a home or feeding their kids. And we’re going to say to God. “Who are we that we could possibly change the system, the ugly human pyramid system? Who are we that we could possibly go to Pharaoh and demand our people’s liberation? Who are we, God? Who are we?”
And here’s the thing. God will have compassion on us too. God will hear the fatigue, the anxiety, the deep doubt in our hearts. And God knows that the Pharaoh’s a self-righteous, smug and callous creature. God won’t let us off the hook, but God will have compassion on us too.
“This is the work I have called you to do,” God will say. “But I will not send out there alone. I will not send you to Pharaoh alone.” So our little church will find allies on the way, just as Moses finds Aaron and Miriam at his side. When we’re talking about peace in the Middle East, we’ll find Peter Klotz-Chamberlin and the Resource Center for Nonviolence by our side. We’ll find Rabbi Paula Marcus and a whole host of daring friends from Temple Beth El by our side. And we’ll speak truth to power, and we’ll do what we can, everything we can, to bring freedom and peace to a desperate people. And when we’re acting up for struggling families on the Central Coast, we’ll find COPA by our side, and Roman Catholic parishes in Salinas and Mexican-American labor groups in Watsonville. And God won’t send us out there alone. God will make us laugh together and dream together and march together until the job is done.
Pharaoh’s going to see a whole host of Moses’ and Aarons and Miriams and Suzannes and Pegathas and Quinns and Stew Jenkins, a whole host of poets and priests and pastors, a whole host of rabbis and rabble rousers, a whole host of farmworkers and musicians and lovers—and we’ll all be showing up together. And we’ll be singing: “Any day now, any way now. Any day now, any way now.”
And when we do, when we go to the Pharaoh as the Bible says we must do, we’ll look to the good book and find everything we have to say. It’s really quite simple and it’s really all there. “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Let my people go!’” Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, LET MY PEOPLE GO!