(A sermon presented by Rev Sandy Boyce on 30th August, 2020 at the 11am service at Pilgrim Uniting Church)
Moses was introduced to the reader as a baby, born to Hebrew slaves. According to the biblical account, Moses’ parents were from the tribe of Levi, one of the groups in Egypt called Hebrews. Originally the term Hebrew had nothing to do with race or ethnic origin. It derived from Habiru, and described a class of people who made their living by hiring themselves out for various services. It made sense in the context of the Israelites living in Egypt and needing to secure work. The biblical Hebrews had been in Egypt for many generations, and had become a threat because they were so numerous, so the Pharaoh enslaved them. Then, Pharoah ordered that every male Hebrew child be drowned. Moses’ Hebrew mother placed him in a little makeshift basket in the reeds, where he was found by a royal princess and adopted as her own child. We are told his mother was enlisted by the princess to nurse the infant, so she continued to be in his life. Moses enjoyed all the privileges of growing up in the royal household. So far so good.
But then, when he was 20, he saw a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian overlord. In anger, he killed the Egyptian official. Fearing retribution from the Pharaoh, Moses fled to Midian, in what today we call Saudi Arabia. He was in exile for the next 50 or so years.
By chance, he encountered some shepherdesses being harrassed by shepherds and rescued them. Their father Jethro invited Moses to stay in Midian with them. No doubt he could recognise the qualities of the well educated man from Egypt. Jethro was a Midianite priest. The Midianites were descendants of Midian, a son of Abraham through his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1-21). So, the Midianites weren’t in the chosen line, but they would have had knowledge of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It seems likely that the Midianites worshipped a multitude of gods. Moses ended up staying, and married one of Jethro’s daughters, Zipporah, and settled down for the next 50 years or so to raise a family – in exile, in Midian.
I’m intrigued about the religious influences in his life – his Hebrew mother, the royal Egyptian court where the Pharoah himself was considered a god, as well as the complex system of polytheistic beliefs and rituals framed around the many deities believed to be present in, and in control of, the world. And finally the religious traditions of the Midianites.
Which makes Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in the burning bush remarkable.
In our reading today, Moses should have been ready for retirement, surely. He’s reported to be 80 years old. He’s had a good working life. And that’s where the story might end. Put your feet up and relax. Possibly a round of golf? Well, you know the story of Moses is really just begining at this point. The burning bush, a divine calling, and a long journey. Mischief, murder and mayhem along the way. More of that in the weeks ahead. I encourage you to read the story as it unfolds in Exodus in the Old Testament.
Retirement as we know it today is a new concept. In the past, people kept working, paid or unpaid, until they ran out of puff. Work until you die – or until you can’t work anymore. That was how it worked until the late 19th century when German Chancellor Bismarck introduced modern pensions. He wasn’t really motivated by compassion for the plight of the working class but wanted to pre-empt a growing socialist movement in Germany before it grew any more powerful. Now, retirement seems normal in many countries. Even so, many modern retirees are as busy as they were in earlier life. Some will enjoy 20 or 30 years of life after retirement in which to enjoy good health. But perhaps not all retirees have a sense of meaning that animates their life and gives them a sense of purpose. In his book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi suggests that retirement is a time for “harvesting life,” taking time to reflect on ways that God has worked in our lives, celebrating the contributions we have made and acknowledging the wisdom we have gained through life‘s difficulties and losses. It is also a time for the rest of us all to recognize the unique and often undervalued gifts and wisdom our elders are able to offer. As people of faith, perhaps these retirement years might be a time for spiritual growth and renewal?
Deep questions may arise on the journey of ageing: “What is the meaning in this ageing process?” What is of eternal value? How might we discern a fresh way to see who God is and what God is doing? How do we reflect upon the words of Jesus in our Gospel today: set your minds on divine things, not on human things; if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me; those who lose their life for my sake will find it. When we hold these words up like a mirror to our own lives, what do we learn about ourselves, our values, our priorities, our concerns?
Some of you may have heard about the ancient practice of writing ‘ethical wills’. We are all familiar with legal wills by which we make clear our wishes in relation to financial and material matters. In contrast, the ethical will, which can be written at any point in our life, is an opportunity to record the values and beliefs, experiences and life lessons by which we want to be remembered. It is a kind of spiritual legacy to family and friends, and church communities. What is important to you? What do you want to be remembered by? What of your life counts, and has eternal value? Perhaps you might put aside some time to begin this reflection process?
Back to Moses. In his senior years. A man with family responsibilities. Still tending sheep. And then, this encounter with God in the burning bush in the desert – burning but not consumed. “Take off your shoes, Moses; this is holy ground”. Given his diverse religious influences and practices he is right to wonder who has called his name. Who wanted his attention in the middle of desert country?
The speaker is identified as the God of Moses’ father, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is immediately followed by a call to a very costly call to help the Hebrew people in Egypt – Moses’ own oppressed people, whom, up until that point, he had probably not given a second thought to in all those long years in Midian. The enslaved Hebrew population had to work very long hours daily for minimum wages in order to meet the economic objectives of the Pharaoh. God said, “I have heard the groaning of my people in Egypt. You, Moses, are to go confront Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go” (Exodus 3:9-10). This call from God asks Moses to leave his comfortable and predictable life, and go back to Egypt, to confront the cruel and demanding Pharoah – leader of Egypt, and to demand he let the Israelites go free from slavery. No wonder Moses came up with so many convincing excuses not to go!
Why this man – why not one of the Hebrew people living in Egypt? Because human life was cheap and disposable. Anyone who raised their heads on behalf of the people, for basic human rights, was quickly seen as a threat to be eliminated. Only a few days ago (17th August 2020), a Filipino human rights activist, Zara Alvarez aged 39, was murdered, one of many extra-judicial killings, outside the law but condoned by Government. She was a legal worker and human rights champion with the ecumenical group Church People-Workers Solidarity, working on behalf of landless farmers in the Philippines. Bishop Gerardo Alminaza said, “I bleed of this never-ending injustice and violence, when someone closest in my work with the oppressed is murdered. I just cannot believe this continuing madness of senseless killings! These systemic killings of human rights defenders and activists must be condemned and must stop. I thank the Lord for knowing you, Zara, my dear little child of struggle. I promise to ever continue our work in the service of God’s poor. You inspired me in many ways to be a pastor of the anawim [the poor] of God’s kingdom. Your active involvement in the Church People-Workers Solidarity is worthy of emulation – always reminding us to be prophetic in our work of evangelization and social justice.”
This week, the world remembered the anniversary of the ‘March on Washington’ 1963 and Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on 28th August 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial. Listen to how it resonates with the experience of poverty and slavery of the ancient Israelities.
I quote: ‘Five score years today, Abraham Lincoln, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition’.
These words resonate still in the #blacklivesmatter movement.
Moses may have been slow to respond to God’s call, but once he does he holds fast to it with conviction until his death. His particular call had social, economic, historical, and political dimensions. The Israelites were oppressed, enslaved. God entered the human arena as the compassionate liberator. Moses was to be the means by which this liberation would be achieved. Moses needed to know for himself the anguish, hardship and suffering of the Hebrew people, and then to play his part in their liberation. Over and over again,the biblical God is revealed to be on the side of the oppressed, not the powerful.
Indeed, the Exodus story continues to inspire and sustain political struggles for liberation all over the world. Oppressed and marginalized people see themselves in the story. They are moved by the compassion of God who hears the agonizing cries of people crushed under the weight of oppression, the God who sees their plight and takes their side, and acts to liberate them from a life of subjugation, dehumanization, and bondage. This is the God who particularizes divine universal love by preferentially opting for the poor and the oppressed. This is the God who stands with the marginalized against the Pharaohs of this world and their life-negating powers.
The pioneer African American theologian James H. Cone maintained that “the liberation of the oppressed is a part of the innermost nature of God. Liberation is …the essence of divine activity” (Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 67).
May we all, young and not so young, find our part to play in God’s reign of justice and liberation – the essence of divine activity. Amen.