goin’ down to Egypt

bulletin-cover 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.”

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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.”

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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.[1]

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.[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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

Footnotes:

[1] See Where Do We Go From Here? Chapter 6: The World House.

[2] From the poem, The Present Crisis (1845)

[3] From I See the Promised Land, delivered at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ), April 3, 1968.

[4] See Luke 6.27

[5] See John 15.12-17.

 

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plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

In my blog post (September 30: where I stand on sitting & kneeling), I wrote, in part: Colin Kaepernick and others continue to protest against racial disparity and police brutality by kneeling at the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. I find it curious that some who disagree with the protesters seem…far more outraged about what they consider disrespect and denigration of our national anthem and flag than they are concerned about the long-playing and unresolved issues of racial animus in our country…

This morning, I was led by some motivation – at dawn’s light, not quite conscious to me, but perhaps, as I’ve thought through the day about that initial visceral stirring, it was, is the inspiration of deepest remembrance and resonance – to reread Martin Luther King, Jr’s., Letter from Birmingham City Jail.

Written on April 16, 1963, King, jailed for participating in civil rights protests, addressed his epistle as a lengthy rebuttal to liberal Alabama clergy who had published an open letter urging that the fight for racial integration be allowed to run its due course in the local and federal court systems and warning that the nonviolent resistance movement would incite civil unrest. In part, King wrote: You deplore the demonstrations that are presently taking place in Birmingham. But I am sorry that your statement did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure that each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects and does not grapple with underlying causes…

Protests against the status quo stir counter-protests. Always. So, today, 53½ years after King’s observation, anyone, even, I daresay, the casual, though not indifferent, the diffident, though honest spectator might sense some sorrow that we, as a nation, haven’t moved far enough to peer beneath the protest to pinpoint and proceed to act on the cause.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

(your name here) go down to Egypt

a personal reflection on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Monday, January 18, 2016

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The angel of the Lord appeared to (Moses) in a flame of fire from a bush…that was blazing, yet not consumed…God called, “Moses, Moses!” He said, “Here I am.” (God) said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham…Isaac, and…Jacob…I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt. I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them…So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”[1]

Martin stood in the line and light of Moses, taking up the mantle of the ministry of leading people (some would say Black – but, I believe, all – Americans) out of the bondage of discriminatory systems and structures. Today, Martin, assassinated on April 4, 1968, has been gone nearly 50 years. Moses, longer still. Yet their labors, the labor of lifting up the oppressed remains, in this day and time, sadly and surely necessary.

As I reflect on the lives and legacies of Moses and Martin, believing their labors to be fitting for all good-willed folk, I must speak for myself within the character of my chosen identity as a Christian and, thus, within the context of my community, the church.

The church is no sentimental memorial society that gathers to commemorate a dear, dead leader. The church, Jesus’ people, comes together, is together in response to his command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The church gathers to remember his sacrifice; his body broken, his blood shed on the cross of his crucifixion…

To remember that God sent him to be the last sacrifice, the last victim…

To remember that the breaking of the bread and sharing the cup is “not for solace only, but for strength”[2]

To remember that in the strength derived from partaking of spiritual food, Jesus’ people are to go down to Egypt – a metaphor for anywhere and everywhere in a world that, failing to understand the meaning of the cross, continues to seek and make sacrificial victims – and to labor so that no one of any class or color, tribe or clan, gender or sexual orientation, racial or ethnic origin will be victimized, crucified on the twin Calvary crosses of phobia and prejudice.

This Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and every day, I hear the vox Deus, the voice of God, saying, singing, “Go down, Paul, go down (your name here). ‘Way down in Egypt land. Tell ole Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

 

Photograph: Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, Washington, DC, January 14, 2012

Footnotes:

[1]Exodus 3.2, 4, 6a, 7-8a, 10, abridged and paraphrased

[2] Eucharistic Prayer C, The Book of Common Prayer, page 372