A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, March 23, 2012
EXODUS FOR NONBELEIVERS
And Moses looked and witnessed the bush burned with fire, but was not consumed. Moses thought to himself, “I will turn aside and watch this miracle.” And then a voice called out from the flames and said, “Moses, Moses.” And Moses replied, “Here I am.” And the voice said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.” And then the divine unveiled, “I am the God of your parents.” And Moses was afraid and hid his face. But the divine said, “I have seen the hurt of my people, and I know their sorrows. And I will deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Exodus 3, excerpt & adapted
Let me sing you a song of grace. Grace, elegance, beauty, hope and joy.
Once upon a time a very long time ago the wise Joseph, known as the man with the coat of many colors, was sold into slavery and carried off to Egypt. After many adventures and hardships he rose to leadership in the great empire. Later his family followed him, moving from their home in the foothills of what we would call Israel and Palestine to also settle on the shores of the Nile. At first the family was well received and they and their descendants prospered. Generations passed. But over time the Egyptians began to resent the success of the foreigners and fear they might become a fifth column for other alien interests. Eventually, following ever more restrictions on the family now grown into a community, the Egyptians enslaved Joseph’s descendants.
Even that didn’t prove enough. And at some point the Pharaoh ordered the murder of all newborn Hebrew children. Out of desperation one mother took her baby to the Nile hiding in the rushes, and waited until Pharaoh’s wife and her retinue went, as was their habit to sit at the side of the river, placed her baby into a basket and pushed the basket toward the women. They saw the baby, rescued him and decide to keep him as their own. The baby’s mother then presented herself to the royal retinue saying she was looking for work as a nanny.
Moses was raised in the royal court as an Egyptian noble. But eventually his nursemaid whispered his true identity to him. Knowing this and haunted by it, when he witnessed a slave-master whipping a Hebrew slave he was enraged and killed the man. Feeling all lost he fled into the desert.
He wandered, he married, he prospered, but also he remembered. Finally, in the desert, in the heart of it all, where suffering and joy collapse, God appeared to him in the form of a burning bush. He was graced with a vision of the divine. Speaking with tongues of fire the divine told Moses what his destiny was: to lead his people to freedom, to the Promised Land. Grace.
Moses returned to Egypt and informed the Pharaoh of God’s intentions for the Hebrew people. A series of horrific events followed, nightmares that haunt everyone who reads of them a thousand generations later, so terrible that they force even Pharaoh the most powerful of men to submit. And so he let the Hebrew people go. Immediately after they left Pharaoh regretted his moment of weakness, gathered his army and pursued the fleeing people, only to meet a terrible fate where he and the army are lost in the crashing of waves.
After that the Hebrew people wandered in the desert for forty years, changing, preparing, and finally arriving at the Promised Land. Moses was allowed to see that dream land, the land of milk and honey; but for his sins not to cross over the river. Instead he died. As a last testimony to what Moses stood for, and the good he did, God himself buried him, where exactly, no one knows.
I know that story down to my bones. I wrote it without having to reference the text. In my childhood it informed my life. It was the dream promise that things did not have to be the way they were. This I knew as a child, from hearing that story over and over again: God wants something more for me. It was, it is an invitation toward a journey, a journey to a Promised Land. Even to this day Moses is part of my dreams, along with his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. All of them, that great crowd of characters in this story, they live in my heart. As grace, elegance, beauty, hope and joy.
Of course, then I had to take off on my own journey. My life would take its own peculiar unique shape with all those different turns, and twists that make us who we are. Now, while still a part of who I am, that story and others that populate the scriptures of our Western tradition live further back in my mind and heart. Then, after my time in the Buddhist monastery, after my own experiences of desert and life giving waters and new possibilities, by the strange twists and turns of life, I came to seminary.
As it turns out very few academic Biblical scholars believe what we were taught in Sunday school. There are few more dramatic examples than their views of the early history of the Jewish people. When I arrived at seminary I knew Biblical scholarship challenged miracles like the parting of the Red Sea; you know it was actually the reed sea and was shallow. Or, a bit later when Joshua’s army marched around Jericho blasting those horns and God causing the city’s walls to collapse; well, really just luck with a timely earthquake. That sort of thing.
I had no idea.
In fact the scholarly community has a rather more radical consensus. Right at the beginning, there is no Abraham. There’s a near consensus that the stories of Abraham were not independent oral traditions based on some historical person brought together into a final document, the Bible; but rather the flat out invention of writers somewhere between the sixth and fifth centuries BCE.
But, and here’s where it gets harder: also, no Moses, and with no Moses no Passover, no Exodus, no invasion of the Promised Land. Looked at hard, the textual evidence is riddled with inconsistencies, and is not supported by any historical accounts outside the scriptures themselves. And this is harder yet. There is absolutely no supportive archaeological evidence for the existence of an oppressed Jewish community in Egypt. And, adding insult to injury there’s an uncomfortable similarity in the Moses story to pre-existing Canaanite origin stories.
Rather more likely small bands of what for lack of a better term can be called Semitic people, for various reasons came to live in the hilly country of what is now Israel and Palestine. At some point they began to develop stories, some likely influenced by people who had escaped slavery in Egypt as individuals and small bands and had become part of their communities. And these stories were woven together as the founding stories of this coalescing community. Maybe, just barely maybe these stories were hung on the life of a Bronze Age leader, but with no more historical accuracy than the Arthurian legends.
These stories would have several currents until Babylon conquered the area and carried away the community’s intelligentsia, who while in that captivity further refined the stories developing what we now call the Pentateuch. All of which taken together, the Babylonian, not Egyptian captivity and the book they began to put together during that captivity, this more or less created the Jewish identity we know.
Actually you find this sort of thing with every ancient religion’s founding stories. Everyone who has a religious agenda that collapses a “sacred history” into history is living in a glass house. I recall in my adolescence reading a science fiction story in which someone invented a device that could look into the past. One consequences was the death of every religion but Buddhism, and it was seriously, seriously reformed. It turns out scholars of religion have a rough version of that time scope, have had it for some years. And, yet, for various reasons their findings don’t tend to make it into the cultural mainstream.
So, if not historically true, what is the value of this story, of these stories? I believe pretty much everything. I find as we look at the Exodus story, we see how it isn’t like other stories, it isn’t about Santa come visiting, it isn’t about ghosts haunting, it’s about the matter of our heart’s longing, and it points us on our way. It is a map written into the sky by our ancestor’s telling us how we can find our own way.
There is astonishing power in that story of Exodus, of great truths: of our being held in bondage, of a proclamation of a true liberation, and following that, of a journey, of a journey from slavery to freedom. Grace, elegance, beauty, hope and joy.
This story has sustained the Jewish people for three thousand years. This story sustained those Africans who were captured and transported to this land and their children, and their children. It was a beacon of hope, and a road map to that journey for all who suffer. It is a story that told me I, if I would take a step, could begin a journey that would take me home, to a Promised Land. Not, the literal promised land of the story, we need to get over that, but to something rather more important, much more important.
I began a journey that took me home. And, so can you. And the Exodus story outlines how. It can be just as true as true for us, for you and me today, if we allow it. So, are you tired of the burdens of life? Do you feel incomplete? Do you feel lost? Do you feel bound by currents and powers beyond you?
Here’s the good news. Your bondage is not the will of God. Whatever that bondage might be. Addiction? Longing for something that seems always beyond your grasp? Are you burdened by fear, or resentment, are the injustices you’ve experienced or witnessed eating your heart? Does the world you were told you live in, the world you believe is supposed to be, crumbling, like a child’s sand castle as the tide washes it away?
Your bondage to these things is not necessary. There is a land of milk and honey, of freedom, where we can see the world as it really is, and discover it to be our home. Finding our home is an experience of grace.
Grace happens. We are trapped, all seems los, and in an instant we notice. That noticing is the magic, is the wonder, is grace. After that noticing the trap, a path opens. But we have to do our part. We have to leave the world we were living in, that world where we are ravaged by our grasping and our hatred and our certainties, and move into the great way, the journey. It can be hard. It is through a desert, after all. But the Exodus story tells us what it will look like. It gives us a map.
And that way lies open for us, always. We need only take the first step. And, yes, the second step, and the third. Walking as long as it takes, through that desert, through the brambles and snares, journeying on, walking on: following the burning light that beckons.
And, what, my friends, is that burning light, really? It is our surrender into a life of curiosity, of not knowing, but questing, of not settling, but of ever greater opening to the world we encounter.
We’re called to walk out into the desert, where we cling to no thing, but following that burning light, our constant looking and listening and sitting with, being with this world as it presents.
Do this and we open our hearts to the movement of grace, every moment a moment of grace. Even when we don’t believe it.
Do this, get up and follow that burning light, that dazzling darkness, which is the curious heart, the open heart, and grace becomes our home. Grace becomes our possibility. Grace becomes who we are.
That is the Promised Land.
That is the home our ancestors sang to us in this old, old story.
Grace, elegance, beauty, hope and joy.
What we were born for.