a sermon, based on Exodus 3.1-12, preached on the occasion of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr., commemoration at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Columbia, SC, on Sunday, January 15, 2017
I preach with you, my dear sisters and brothers in the Name of our ever-faithful, freedom-loving, freedom-giving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Moses, in an outburst of outrage, slays an Egyptian, who was beating a Hebrew slave. In fear, he flees Egypt. In Midian, a safe distance away, drawing near a mountain, suddenly, “an angel of the Lord appeared” in a bush ablaze, yet unburned. God speaks: “I have observed my people’s misery…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings…I have come down to deliver them.”
What will be God’s instrumentality? God’s delivery system of choice? Cosmic portents? Cataclysmic earthly upheaval? An army, mighty in number and power? No. God tells Moses, “I send you.” I hear the echo of God’s voice in the soulful words of the spiritual: Go down, Moses, ‘Way down in Egypt land. Tell ole Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” Moses cries, “Who am I that I should go?” God answers with a word of consolation, verily compassion, “I will be with you.”
We remember Martin Luther King, Jr. His life devoted to a dream of equality for all people. His legacy of the necessity of continued labor of succeeding generations toward the fulfillment of that dream.
In our remembrance, we read the Exodus story of God’s declaration of a crisis and call to Moses, stirring in Moses an inner conflict. Crisis. Call. Conflict.
However, in light of Martin’s life and legacy, and from a human existential viewpoint, I bid we alter the order of our understanding of this story, perceiving first a crisis that provokes a conflict that prepares the way for God’s call. Crisis. Conflict. Call.
Moses, on that Midian mountainside, already knowing his people’s crisis in Egypt, surely was conflicted: Do I remain in safety or return, risking my life? Do I concede that the problem is implacable, Pharaoh is intractable, and the liberation is improbable or dare I believe with God all things are possible?
In this crucible of crisis and conflict, now Moses hears God’s call. In the poetry of Hebrew narrative, conveying a reality beyond the power of even precise prose, the vox Deus sounds through fire, that ancient symbol of the divine: “I have come to deliver my people…I send you, Moses, to bring my people out.”
The transcendent-immanent God works out the divine purpose within the concrete context of human history. (Verily, God’s words and deeds are historical events!) Moses answers God’s call “goin’ ‘way down in Egypt land”.
The lives of Moses and Martin embrace many parallels.
Like Moses, Martin was painfully aware of the crisis of God’s oppressed people; believing the American civil rights movement to be a latter day chapter of the Exodus story.
Like Moses, Martin was conflicted about his role and responsibility, the risks to himself and his family.
Like Moses, Martin heard God’s call to freedom. Like Moses, Martin went forth, trusting that God was working out the divine purpose, many times quoting James Russell Lowell:
Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
keeping watch above his own.
Like Moses, Martin discovered that freedom ain’t free, but always costs one’s safety and one’s self.
Like Moses, Martin faced a tenacious pharaoh in the form of unrepentant racism.
Like Moses, Martin never stood in the Promised Land; on the night before his assassination, saying: “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life…But…I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But…we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
We remember Martin. His life of love for the dream of equality for all people. A love, in obedience to Jesus, even for his enemies. A love that forged a movement of nonviolent power and persuasion in which enemies were “killed” with the kindness of an oppressed people standing up as equals. A love through which lives, metaphorically and literally, were laid down for the sake of friends.
We remember Martin. His legacy of the necessity to labor continually to make the dream a reality. A legacy involving us…
The church is no memorial society. We do not gather to recall sentimentally the life and labor of our dear, dead, departed leader. We gather in the power of the Spirit in the Name of a living Jesus in response to his command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Remembering his body broken, his blood shed…
Remembering that God sent Jesus to be the last sacrifice, the last victim, so that no more sacrificial victims of any class or color, gender or sexual orientation, race or ethnic origin will be crucified on the twin Calvary crosses of phobia and prejudice…
Remembering that we are called to stand on the side of the ailing and alienated, the despised and despairing, the helpless and hopeless, the poor and oppressed, the least, last, and lost in all the Egypts of this world that have yet to understand the meaning of the cross and in that invincible ignorance continue to seek and make sacrificial victims.
God, in the eternal, inextinguishable fire of divine glory, spoke to Moses and Martin and speaks to us, “I send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out.” This is neither an easy word from God nor an easy work for us. So, when, not if, we ask, “Who are we that we should go?” God always answers, “I will be with you.”
So, my dear sisters and brothers, let us go!
Illustration: Moses adores God in the burning bush, James Tissot (1836-1902), French Jewish Museum, New York
Photograph: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington, DC, January 14, 2012, by me
 See Where Do We Go From Here? Chapter 6: The World House.
 From the poem, The Present Crisis (1845)
 From I See the Promised Land, delivered at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ), April 3, 1968.
 See Luke 6.27
 See John 15.12-17.