This sermon was preached at Danville Congregational Church United Church of Christ on July 19, 2020.
The new Pharaoh in the beginning of the story of the Exodus, believed by historians to be King Ramses II, was the head of state of a thriving kingdom. But this ruler had become threatened by the Israelites, a thriving people group who had immigrated to Egypt after the great famine and had been, up until that point, living peaceably with their Egyptian neighbors. So, through a series of policies and laws he and his government enacted, Ramses was able to effect the complete and total enslavement of the Israelites.
One of the laws this ruler enacted, you may remember, was the state-sanctioned execution of every male child born to any Israelite woman. This is the anti-immigrant policy that Moses escaped as a baby. And these are the same oppressed immigrants to whom Moses would return in his hold age to advocate for their freedom.
The son who would succeed Ramses behaved even more ruthlessly toward this immigrant people. Bearing witness to the enslavement of God’s chosen people, Moses prays boldly and unabashedly to God:
“O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? 23 Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
Or in the Pastor T Translation:
“Hey God—what is up with how your own people are being treated?! You might as well be inflicting this misery upon them yourself! This ruler continues to get away with his abuse of YOUR PEOPLE and you’ve done NOTHING about it! Some God you are.”
You know, it continually amazes me how relevant the ancient texts of the Bible can be to the texts being written by our own lives and culture in the present day.
How many times throughout the history of humankind have God’s people prayed prayers like this?
How many times, I wonder, have you prayed something like this?
We know how our own nation was built through the exploitation of Black bodies, children sold and separated from mothers, backs whipped, bodies hung from trees. Some of our ancestors were slave owners or bore witness to the enslavement of a people group.
Where were you in all of this, God? How could you have allowed such a thing?
Some of us in this Zoom have relatives who remember separate drinking fountains, separate seating sections in churches, buses, restaurants where white people could eat inside but Black people had to pick up their food out back and beaten or worse if they did not comply.
God, your people were so baldly mistreated by those Jim Crow laws—why did you let people treat others so unjustly?!
The poor in urban areas have been abandoned. Funding for quality education and social services has been siphoned off to the suburbs and poor children, poor people are left to suffer. There’s not enough food, there’s nowhere affordable to live, nowhere to earn a living wage. There is no safety or security for these.
Why have you let your people be disabused like this God? What are you doing about it?
George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmed Arbery. Tamir Rice. Atatiana Jefferson. Aiyana Jones.
Where were you God when these beautiful reflections of your Divine Image and tens of thousands of others were being murdered by the people sworn to protect them? How can you call yourself God?!
Some of us in this Zoom witness microaggressions toward Black people and other POC, witness Black children and immigrant children being treated deplorably, have heard the stories of those who live with the experience of racism every day.
How could you let any person suffer thusly, Oh God of Heaven and earth?
Many of us witness or read about the continued persecution of transgender people who are denied basic protections that cisgender people take for granted and how our trans and gender-variant siblings of color have become the most vulnerable people in our society.
God! These folx are made in your image just like all the rest of humanity—why are they allowed to suffer this way?!
Let’s go back to our story from the Exodus.
Eventually, as we heard from the excerpt Piper read to us, God acts on behalf of God’s people through Moses.
Time and again, Moses pleads with this Pharaoh to abandon the laws that kept the Israelite people in bondage…to dismantle the system that kept them oppressed.
And plague after plague, this Head of State refused to renounce his unjust laws, refused to disrupt the system that built, expanded, and maintained his kingdom, his position, his wealth. His heart withered from the xenophobia and greed that had corrupted it; and each time, NO was the answer.
So here you have it: A story of harsh exploitation of immigrants whose backbreaking labor built a sprawling empire, the story of a people denied justice in spite of someone advocating for them and despite a series of inexplicable plagues inflicted upon the people, non-human animals, the land, and the water.
Now it would be easy for me to compare this Head of State from antiquity with one from our present day. But that would be lazy of me as a preacher and disingenuous to the Gospel of Jesus Christ which I am called to proclaim.
Let’s look more deeply into the story of the Exodus:
The Israelites who had migrated to Egypt because of the famine had settled there and were, by all accounts, living peaceably with the Egyptian people. The text speaks of no ill-will or animosity among these different people groups—save that the Pharaoh was worried that—get this—the immigrants would out-populate the ‘native’ population. (Sound familiar?) And so at first, perhaps discreetly, Rameses changed a law here, instituted a policy there, had his administration enact orders that began to distinguish and then discriminate against the immigrant peoples. We don’t know how many years or decades this process took, but eventually, the immigrant people became slaves of the state—an ancient form of a prison industrial complex.
Now, it is easy to vilify this Egyptian Head of State—an artist’s rendition of him even frames our worship today; and to be sure: the Pharaoh certainly earned such vilification.
But we cannot—history cannot—place all of the blame on the Pharaoh.
We’re not told if the Egyptian citizens rose up against these new edicts and laws and executive orders. We don’t know if they attended policy hearings, town halls—if they had any say at all … if they gathered en masse in the streets to pro-test these egregious actions against their Israelite neighbors or mourned or lamented and demanded an end to the murders of all those Hebrew children … if they tagged the walls of side streets demanding No Justice, No Peace … or if those who resisted were quashed, imprisoned, or even killed.
But reading between the lines of this ancient story, we might imagine that ultimately, the Egyptian people benefitted from the enslavement of the Israelites—that the infrastructure of their cities, public parks, public buildings greatly improved because of this new pool of free labor. That labor for the vainglorious expansion of the Head of State’s kingdom would not have to be on their backs or out of their pocketbooks. Or maybe that pro-testing the new laws came at too great of a cost to their own security as citizens of Egypt.
And this morning, people of God, I suggest that this Head of State succeeded with his subversion of morality in part because this citizens of Egypt did not do enough—or anything—to stop it.
Throughout the history of civilization—and specifically within the context of the United States—people have cried out to the God of their understanding begging for justice. Yet in a scene that is replayed over and over and over through the centuries, those who cry out for justice have been told—either through legislative bodies, or mobs, or apathetic communities of faith—NO.
Or…not right now.
Or…change comes slowly, just wait.
Or this just isn’t the right moment politically.
Speaking at the March on Washington on August 27, 1963 at 23 years of age, modern day-Moses and Civil Rights Leader Representative John Lewis, who passed a few days ago, effectively demanded: “let my people go.”
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to Be an Antiracist and the book our young people are reading together: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You wrote last week in The Atlantic:
To be anti-racist is to believe in the word now.
Patience is a dirty word to those incarcerated by inequity.
Patience is a nasty word to those with injustice kneeing down on their neck.
I believe Moses would have fully understood Representative Lewis and Professor Kendi.
You see, Moses, it must be pointed out, lived most of his life fully aware of the brutality with which his own people were treated; he even fled Egypt and his people and tried to enjoy his new life in the Midian suburbs. Moses had to be goaded by God (another word for this might be his conscience) into action.
And the Egyptian people—we don’t know what they did through these generations of slavery. But I wonder: mustn’t their hearts have been hardened, too? But we know that they, even in all the glory of their great civilization and cheap labor, suffered, too—suffered knowing their Hebrew neighbors’ children had been killed, suffered the plagues, the undrinkable water, the infestations, the boils on their skin, and even the loss of their own firstborn children.
It is the same with us today: we suffer, we all of us suffer, when others are oppressed, when greed and power corrupt society and our earth, when injustice anywhere is allowed to take root.
After my sermon last week, I received an email from one of our members who gave me permission to share their words. They wrote,
My heart is engaged in making the change work this time! You may not see me at a protest or handing out flyers, but never doubt that I am working for change. Actively. I am part of the grass roots. We may not be trending on social media, but real lasting change is happening here. I actively engage those in my small circle of influence, hoping then maybe they will speak with people in their circle, and those people will talk to people in their circles and so on.
My friends—when you hear me speak or read my writing or my posts, please do not think that what I do or believe is not the only way to achieve justice. Not all of us are going to be in the middle of protests. Not all of us will stand in front of crowds with a megaphone or on the steps of the Washington Monument speaking to thousands.
But here is what I believe:
The Israelites did not achieve their status as slaves of the state simply because of one powerful man. They did so because the one powerful man convinced his citizens—either through propaganda, religion, violence, or some combination of all of these—that slave labor was in the best interest of their nation and their prosperity.
It is this same logic…it is this same mentality…that has gotten us to where we are today in this country—yea in our world.
Climate change, poisoned rivers, contaminated water supplies, poverty, hunger, housing insecurity, over-policing, under-funding—ALL OF IT—is not because just one man at one point in history said “NO.”
It is because not enough of us through history have demanded the dismantling of the systems that hold humans captive and desecrate this earth. Because not enough of us demand the liberation of all who are oppressed.
That, my siblings, is the story of this Egyptian Head of State.
And this is the story of the era we find ourselves living within.
Now: thanks to our Godly Play story this morning (grateful to Kim and Karen for that), we know how this story ends for the Israelites. It ends in their liberation, in justice for God’s people.
But how will our story end?
Well: I believe that God is a God of Love, is a God of Justice and that people who love God, love justice and are People of Justice!
And it is time, as people of faith who believe in Jesus of Nazareth, that we rise up … that we say NO—no to every instance of injustice, at every turn, in quiet, grass-roots ways and bold, audaicious ways and every way in between, each of us doing our part to bring about God’s realm of justice—God’s kingdom on earth—not tomorrow, not for our grandchildren’s generation, but NOW. Today.
So go down, friends,
Go down, like Moses, and tell White Supremacy—
Tell the Patriarchy—
Tell every legislator and elected and anyone who will listen:
Let God’s People Go!
May it be so.
Amen & Ashé
Grief that Inspires Action:
The Story of Rizpah and her Modern-Age Daughters