"Out of the water"-Sermon for Proper 25, Exodus 1:8-2:10
In all of about a short paragraph, just a few sentences really, our Old Testament lesson this morning begins with the a description of the calculated and, at least from the text, emotion-less enslavement of an entire nation of people…a nation counted in the thousands…likely not much more…but that’s still a whole lot of people…the entirety of the nation of Israel…real human beings who entered Egypt as honored guests and welcomed refugees escaping famine…to, over time, becoming a perceived threat and then made slaves to the ruling powers. Really the events described in this paragraph are some several hundreds of years in the making and, again, include the hopes and then real suffering of many generations of people…our own spiritual ancestors…all summed up in just 141 words.
Thankfully then, I will say that those 141 words are really just the beginning of the story…the beginning of Book of Exodus…that great story of the Hebrew people’s journey out of slavery and into freedom. For, history would indeed be so very different had God not “set his people free”. That is all the events that happen after this short paragraph…the exodus or the departure of the people of Israel from slavery to freedom…from death to life…from the hand of the oppressor…to the land of milk and honey…the land of nurture and sweetness. For the great story of our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel’s, exodus from Egypt, then years wandering in the wilderness, and finally arrival in the Promised Land is, indeed, a promise…a foreshadowing and foretaste…of what is to come many, many years later in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For Jesus’ own departure on the cross, then his descent among the dead, and finally his resurrection to new and unending life is our own story of exodus…made possible and inextricably tied to this first story of exodus. For in Jesus, Israel’s most holy child, our own move from slavery to freedom…from death to life…from the hand of the oppressor…to a land flowing with milk and honey…a land of nurture and sweetness…is made possible…and not just for us…but for the life the world.
However, when I speak of the exodus wrought in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, I speak not only of the dehumanizing institution of slavery that has so marred human history…but slavery to the cosmic forces of sin and death. Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s plan to save the world…though it would require pain, loss, and tremendous suffering…and our own faithfulness in believing in that exodus story and more so becoming ourselves a living expression of that story…has made us free…free from death’s strong hold…free from the power of sin…free from the limitations of a single span of life. Thus, freed from sin and death, we have been empowered to be risk takers in the name of love and in service of those who need us most…free to choose a new and better path with each new day that we waken to…free to be a work in progress…to embrace our giftedness…to give and receive forgiveness…to be and become the love-spreaders and life-givers that God has uniquely created us to be. This is the legacy of exodus, in both the Old and New Testaments, that has been graciously laid before each of us.
But…and here’s that great theological word again…but, as we hold, nurture, and celebrate the legacy of exodus poured into our own lives, we can’t forget that which we have been freed from. That is the past experience of slavery and the ongoing experiences of slavery that still exist both within ourselves and in the world around us…both the spiritual shackles that seek to keep us in bondage…our own fears and unwillingness to name and change that which is still holding us back…and the more visceral and visible shackles that continue to chain so many in our world rooted in things like race and poverty and equal access to education and healthcare. And here is where our Old Testament lesson is really challenging me. For it leads me to this question, which is how am I still participating in the calculated and almost emotion-less enslavement of others. And, I suppose I am not thinking specifically about the dehumanizing institution of slavery…though that is something valuable to consider…but more of the ways I might place limitations on others and use them as a means to an end...my end. That is to see others as a threat or competition to crush or control rather than as partners and companions to learn from and work with to accomplish things more wonderful than any of us could on our own, beginning with those who look, love and live differently that I do.
When in opportunities to learn alongside others, things like bibles studies and Sunday school classes, and ministry planning meetings, I often say the wisdom we seek is already in the room. And, what I mean is that no matter how great I think my ideas are…how confident I am in my own learning and experience…if I limit others contributions…if I shut people down and shut people up…perhaps it’s a stretch to say I have enslaved them…but I have undervalued them, I have silenced them, I have shackled them in some psycho/spiritual way that has consequences…and that really says a lot more about me than them…about my own insecurities, my own need to control all outcomes. And, everyone comes out of that sort of experience diminished…for the wisdom that was indeed in the room…was shut down and shut out. For the truth is that everyone in the conversation has something to bring to the table…their own expertise, experience, and learning that I need to make space for in my own heart and mind. And here’s the wonder in it all, in doing so, in not limiting others…but instead empowering them…the legacy of exodus is made manifest for all involved. For, I am set free from my own bias, my own need to be seen as the most important voice in the room, to solve all problems and provide all wisdom on my own…and the others are set free from the shackles I would otherwise place on them. Thus, all can feel valued and heard and get to fully participate…and if that is not freedom…surely it is an expression of it.
The short paragraph with which our Old Testament lesson begins…just a few words really…that describe such a huge thing…just a few sentences that encapsulate both the political machinations and the ruthless, dehumanizing experience of slavery…just reminds me of how easily…how subtly…such evil is wrought in human lives…and how devastating that is. And I think, at the very least, this is invitation to the work of examination…understanding how we, indeed, if not enslave one another, profoundly limit one another. And, further, examine what it is within ourselves that still holds us in bondage that results in such behavior. For our limitation of others, sometimes calculated, sometimes unaware, always flows from our need for our own sort of exodus…to be set free from whatever it may be that is gripping us and won’t let go…fear, uncertainty, loss of control or relevance. It will look different for each of us…but I am pretty convinced that there is something within each of us…a bond that we need to get on our knees and ask Jesus to break…that both we and those we limit might be set free. (Amen. 9 AM).
And, I want to share one more image from this Old Testament lesson that I think might be helpful as we think about living into the legacy of exodus. As I already mentioned once, expressions of slavery…including our own ways of limiting…of marginalizing one another…has consequences for all involved. And, specifically in the story before us this morning, the dehumanizing limitations of slavery has a Hebrew woman facing the most gut wrenching and unthinkable of all choices. Keeping her new born, much loved son close to her…though that will lead to his being discovered and then murdered by their oppressors…or set him afloat on the wild waters of the Nile River. As Jonathan pointed out in his sermon a few weeks ago, water in the ancient world was symbol of chaos…so would this mother be able to set her entirely vulnerable babe with nothing but a basket to protect him afloat in the midst of the world’s great chaos. And, as the story tells us, this is the courageous choice she makes…she has to make. Thus, the baby marked with his own mother’s tears makes his fateful and perilous trip down the river, through the chaos, and into the arms of perhaps the most unexpected person…Pharaoh’s own daughter…who draws the baby up out of the water and into her life…and hope lives…the possibility for freedom emerges out of the chaos of this world. And, the oppressor and the oppressed, the limiter and the limited, at the very least this woman and this baby, are both saved in that very moment. Moses is, of course, the child…the very person God will use to set God’s people free…Moses…a name that means drawn from the water.
I think this is what it looks like to live into the legacy of exodus, which is to recognize that our freedom, our salvation is all tied up in one another…in each other’s lives…in each other’s arms…the moment when we see one another as worthy of being saved and set free…being drawn up out of the chaos that has us all bound up and shackled…when we lift up out of the chaos the voices of others…make space for the hopes and aspirations of others…then…then the oppressed and the oppressor…the limited and limiter can be set free…wisdom flows and hope for a different sort of future living alongside one another, not above or below one another, but in each other’s arms…emerges from bondage to all the chaos that swirls around. Amen.