Our help is in the Name of the Lord, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
Sey and I had finished our first week away on vacation. Our children had left behind many wonderful memories shared together, Sey and I had celebrated our anniversary with a beautiful dinner overlooking a beach and the setting sun. I was filled with the glory of time unfettered, the wonder of being in God’s magnificent creation, and spending moments with good friends.
But thunder clouds were rolling in. There was palpable fear and tension in the news that a planned rally of White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis’, Ku Klux Klan members, armed militias and our new term for hatred “Alt-Right” was scheduled for the weekend in Charlottesville. How could this be? I like many of you watched and prayed that there was some way this could be avoided—knowing that when anger, hatred, and mass gatherings are mixed together nothing but carnage can result. The governor and the mayor called on canceling the rally. But because we are a nation where free speech is held as a cornerstone of our democracy, this rally was permitted to go forward. On Friday night, pictures flashed across the TV and my phone of faces contorted with hate as hundreds of people carrying torches marched through the middle of the University of Virginia campus yelling despicable, yet historical words of terror. The next day, Saturday, as you know, was one of unrestrained violence resulting in the deaths of Heather Heyer, Lt. Jay Cullen and Trooper Berke Bates, and the injury of many others, including Deandre Harris – a young African American teacher who was beaten by hatred filled white supremacists in the Market Street parking garage near Emancipation Park.
This is where we are in 2017. People unafraid, even emboldened to unmask their faces of racism and white supremacy. People willing to march brazenly down a central avenue of learning and progress stating unequivocally that white priority and supremacy must be protected at all costs and that the lives of others are irrelevant or even dispensable—that what is most important is that those who consider themselves “white” must maintain their positions of power regardless of the tyranny it inflicts on the lives of others. While this is certainly not something new in our country, just like the snake that lives underneath your house, when it crawls out onto your porch, and you meet it in the full light of day, it causes your heart to jump into your throat.
Reading about the brutality in Charlottesville, I was heartbroken and sickened. This ideology and the violence it spews goes against every message of the Gospel. Throughout our Scripture we are told that life and love is the central essence of God’s being. Each of us, made in the image of God, called “very good” from our creation, are beloved and recognized for the goodness we can bring into the world. As those of us who seek to follow Christ, we are commanded to love God with all our hearts and minds and soul and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These two commandments are essential to who we are as Christians. And as ones who follow Christ, we are called to go even further, we are to love and to pray for those we see as our enemies, We are to pray for them and of course pray for ourselves as we strive to achieve this very difficult task. We are taught that whatever we do to and for others—we do to and for Christ. You cannot follow the Prince of Peace and try to harm others. And anyone who believes that our existence, our needs, our dignity is superior to anyone else because of race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or any other of God’s gifts cannot be said to follow Jesus who came not to be served, but to serve and put his body in the place of those who suffer.
In our reading today from the Book of Exodus, it begins with one of the most pivotal lines of the Bible. Just 12 words, yet powerful enough to change the trajectory of the Bible’s history. “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” (1:8) The closing chapters of Genesis tell the story of Joseph and his family—the sons of Jacob. Though sold into slavery and despair, Joseph uses his skills in interpreting dreams through God’s providence, and rises to become the Governor of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. In this role, Joseph saves the Egyptian people from sure starvation during an extended famine. For this he, his family, and his people are rewarded for their service to the nation by being welcomed as honored guests in the land. But now, generations later, there is a new Pharaoh, who we are told does “not know” or rather does not remember Joseph or his role in saving Egypt and instead chooses to view Jacob’s descendants as potential enemies. He worries that they have become too numerous and “might” eventually challenge Pharaoh’s power.
We have seen this movie before. A ruler, seeking to solidify his power base, identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame so that all attention is directed at these targets rather than confront the problems facing the society. Rather than coming together to address the needs of the people, it is often more expedient to simply label “the others” as the cause and their oppression as the solution. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity. The people can become complicit as these targets of scorn can distract them from personal stresses, daily challenges, and perceived outrages. In the time of Pharaoh, it was the Israelites who though contributing mightily as allies are fingered as possible terrorists. Today it comes as a way to place the blame for the loss of jobs, insufficient wages, and crime on those we see as being “other” such as undocumented immigrants, refugees, Black and Brown Americans, Muslims, etc. One of the chief manifestations of sin is our proclivity to define ourselves over and against others and in the process to deny others their essential humanity, their significance as beloved children of God.
Pharaoh did not remember Joseph. He does not remember these Hebrews as valued contributors to Egypt. So he singles out the Hebrew minority as an emerging threat. While there is no hint in the biblical narrative that the Israelites were anything but good, faithful, hardworking citizens of the empire, Pharaoh lays out a plan of heartless but ancient tactics: enslavement and genocide. He forces them into slavery and then imposes increasing onerous labor on them to reduce them to simple cogs in a machine. When that fails to destroy them, he instructs others to take the life of all male babies so that the hopes of the people would be shattered.
But this plan has a fatal flaw. The weak belly of terrorism and oppression is the work of grace and courage. Pharaoh in commanding that all the boys be killed, fails to recognize that God will use the girls to save God’s people. When Pharaoh directs two midwives Shiprah and Puah to participate in his murderous scheme, he is undone by these two women who “fear God.” They refuse to carry out his murderous scheme and then play upon Pharaoh’s racism to cover up their courageous disobedience. “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.”
When Pharaoh ups the ante of terror by commanding “all his people” to toss every Israelite boy infant into the Nile, a courageous mother and faithful sister guide a reed basket to the garden of Pharaoh’s daughter, who acts on behalf of life. Her father, the Pharaoh orders Hebrew boys thrown away in the Nile, his daughter pulls this baby out. Pharaoh hardens his heart, while Pharaoh’s daughter has compassion. Though recognizing this small baby as “one of the Hebrew’s children” she claims him as her own, giving him the name, “Moses.” As a result of their actions, Moses will grow to lead his people out of the cruelty of Pharaoh’s enslavement.
The white supremacists and Neo Nazis who invaded Charlottesville, claimed their purpose as defending the Civil War statue of Robert E. Lee as a way of protecting history. But in truth, they too do not remember. These persons who follow a philosophy of white supremacy have either forgotten or have never learned the truth that these statues were not erected in these public places to merely memorialize valiant service or to remember some glorious lost time, but instead were built and placed in prominent places to communicate to former slaves, free Black people, and other intentionally marginalized persons that true freedom and true justice would never be theirs’s. Constructed largely during the criminal time of Jim Crow at the turn of the 20th Century and the strive for justice in the Civil Rights Movement in the 50’s and 60’s, these monuments to the Confederacy served primarily to torment and persecute. Their cause was not one of glory and life, but one of oppression and death.
But like the women in the Exodus story, the misremembering that leads to hatred and violence is being met by people with courage and grace. Many clergy and people of faith prayed and then marched to face the bitterness of the white supremacists in Charlottesville. They offered places of respite and safety. They prayed with and consoled those in distress. They transported persons injured when the white supremacist drove his car into a group of people. Though faced with imminent threats of hostility, singing hymns and saying prayers, they offered a counterview of peace. Last week, thousands of people gathered in Boston as a counter-voice against racism. People, including our own Pam Mott, marched, sang songs, prayed and advanced the cause of life and love. More of this kind of direct non-violent engagement will be needed in the days and weeks ahead in our turbulent country.
But every day, in every word we speak, in every action we take, we can remember who we are and to whom we belong. We can remember and act in ways that proclaim that each one of us is God’s precious beloved. Each one of us made in God’s image and said to be very good. No one outside of Gods’ love. There is no us or them—it is all us!! We must say “NO!” in every moment to hatred, bigotry, and violence. When we turn against others, we turn against God. God always hears the cries of his people, and God rejoices in heaven when any one of us reach out in love to others. How will we share God’s love with others this week? How will we be a part of God’s salvation for the world?
Let us pray:
Holy One, we gather this day as one people, members of the same body, grateful for your many gifts and carrying the hope within us for a world filled with love. This vision was given by you, from the very beginning of your creation.
You made the earth, and all that lives on it. You inspired prophets and shepherds, widows and slaves, to seek liberation from all that oppresses, so that we might be released to love fully. You became incarnate in Jesus Christ, so that through him we might experience the depth and width of your unquenchable love.
While Jesus lived among us he stood up for women and children, he touched the untouchable, healed the sick, and welcomed those who had given up hope of being included. Through him we see a path not only to our own freedom, but a path to the liberation of the whole world. He taught us that it will not be in the brutality of violence that our world will be saved.
Rather, it will be in showing kindness to our neighbor, in standing up against injustice, in returning hate with love, in transforming one heart at a time. It will be in the simple but holy task of dining together, sharing bread and wine, truly seeing one another as beloved by you.
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of the World,