Tuesday, September 2, 2014

"That sermon when you imitated Steve Martin and then preached social justice."

Exodus 3:1-15 & Labor Day (17A, 2014)
Appointed lessons

One of the most spectacular traveling art exhibitions of the 20th century was The Treasures of Tutankhamen. In the fall of 1977, my family saw the King Tut block-buster in New Orleans. After a breakfast of beignets, we did — just as the comedian Steve Martin famously sang about in an SNL skit — “stood in line to see the boy king!”

And, we stood in line for hours. But once we entered the exhibition, it was clear that the treasures were worthy of the hype.

Gold jewelry encrusted with precious stones, an impressive golden throne, a massive golden shrine, striking religious objects, intricate cloisonné coffins: they all projected the power, resources, and extravagance of this ancient empire obsessed with funeral arts.

As I moved from display case to display case, I felt overwhelmed by these objects. Being a child, I didn’t have those words at the time, but I remember the feeling. And, in the midst of being blinded by the riches of ancient Egypt, I recalled the stories of Exodus. I remembered acting them out in Vacation Bible School. I remembered hearing them in church.

Those stories broke through my bedazzlement…and I remembered…how God told Moses: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings…”

With the song: “Pharaoh, pharaoh, o-o, let my people go!” echoing in my head, I wondered about the people — the oppressed, exploited, enslaved people — behind those objects of art, behind those opulent displays of power. The ancient Israelites, just one group among many, on whose backs this ancient empire accomplished much.

As I huddled with others around the exhibit case containing the iconic gold and lapis lazuli mask of King Tut’s mummy, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection, and the reflection of others on the plexiglass case. The pharaoh’s face…and our faces.

The convergence of this Exodus story and Labor Day weekend offers us the opportunity to reflect on our own empire, our own practices, to look and listen with God for the suffering of others (and perhaps our own), and then to be part of God’s action plan.

Just as the Exodus story broke through my bedazzlement at the King Tut exhibit to see through to the peoples who were enslaved and exploited in their society, it can now help us see past the bedazzlement of our own lives and society. To see past the slick advertising messages and incessant urging about all we need to be, do, and consume. In this sacred story, God is calling us in our own day and age to look at underside of our industries and practices to the true cost in the suffering of people and animals and damage to our air, water, and land.

I’ll offer just one example: this spring our Agriculture Department proposed a “plan to create faster line speeds in poultry processing plants” making an "already frantic" and dangerous job "even worse."[1] Further, the “painful hand-and-arm condition known as carpal tunnel syndrome”[2] afflicts almost half of all poultry workers. For some, the pain and swelling in their arms is so great that they cannot hug their children at the end of the day.[3]
Let this awareness of suffering break through our enchantment with the $5 cooked chicken at the local warehouse club. And then lead us to ask: how can I make a difference? How can I advocate for change. How can I be part of God’s action plan in this situation?

This is an opportunity for each of us to ask: do I resemble pharaoh? Do I treat those who work for me in the office and in my home with fairness, dignity, and respect? And without discrimination?

From the burning bush, God calls Moses and declares: “I have observed the misery of my people; I have heard their cry; I know their suffering; I have come down to deliver them. I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. I will send you; I will be with you.” Our God is a compassionate God concerned about the well being of all God’s people. The Holy One sees, hears, is moved and moves, and empowers for God’s purposes. God called and empowered Moses. God now calls and empowers us. We are part of God’s action plan. Part of God’s “coming down to deliver.” We have the joy to participate in this ongoing sacred story and God’s saving work.

This sacred story of Exodus has a rich history of helping God’s people with such reflection and action. It is for this reason that slaveholders in the United States were known to remove the pages of Exodus from bibles before they were given to slaves to be used in their churches. During the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others drew inspiration from Exodus. It continues to hold inspiration and direction for us today.

On this Labor Day weekend, let us go to the mountain with Moses to be reminded of who God is and who we are. May this encounter with God break any enchantment with what oppresses and destroys. May God’s grace empower us to make life-giving choices and to leverage our influence and power for what is ethical, healing, righteous, and just. May we be partners with God in spreading God’s divine, liberating love. So that when people look upon us, they will see the face of Jesus, not pharaoh. Let us remember God’s word to Moses and all who work for justice, “I will be with you.”


[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/17/usda-poultry-rule-congress_n_4979655.html
[2] Ibid.
[3] Labor & Job Justice speaker panel featuring Joerg Rieger, Alexia Salvatierra, Brian McLaren, Bacilo Castro; The Wild Goose Festival, Friday, June 27, 2014.