Sunday, September 14, 2014
Text: Exodus 14: 10-31: 15: 20-21.
What stories have your parents or grandparents told you about themselves and other family members? Which of these stories have you told—will you tell—to a younger generation? I want to share two of my family stories—and I want you to remember I’m telling these as they were told to me.
From my father’s side of the family there’s the story of Great-Great-Uncle Jason Guice, a major in the Confederate army and a minor war hero. The first generation of Guices in Barbour County, Alabama, he and his brothers fought courageously in the “War Between the States.” Jason was seriously wounded five times in five different battles. One hand was shot off, requiring amputation at the elbow. Each time he was patched up, he went back into the fray. He was not only brave and loyal to the Confederacy; he was also gentlemanly. Once when capturing a Yankee general, Great-Great-Uncle Jason was so “courteous” to his prisoner—and here I’m quoting from a published history of the event—the Northern general removed his gloves and presented Jason Guice with the general’s prized “buckskin gauntlets.” I used to imagine a chivalric Uncle Jason accepting them with a noble nod.
From my mother I heard stories about her mother’s kindnesses to the poor black sharecroppers on the family farm located on land now part of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. On my grandparents’ farm during the Great Depression, my grandmother made ends meet for her husband and eight young children. Everyone loved Dee Da, the name an older cousin gave my grandmother. Less than five-feet-tall and shy of ninety pounds of inexhaustible energy, she was always eager to add another guest to her bounteous dinner table. During the Depression, she and my grandfather owned land and little more. Yet Dee Da would share medicine and food with the tenants when their children were sick. She’d cook huge midday meals for all the farmhands—family and hired workers alike. My mother always mentioned, with admiring emphasis, that her mother invited the black workers to come inside to eat—well, to sit on the porch to eat—and she served them the exact same meal she served her family. I got the impression other farm families weren’t so gracious.
These two family stories and many others were passed down to my generation so we’d know what kind of stock we came from and what was expected of us. Both paternal and maternal stories were told with uncritical pride. But I could not simply pass along these stories to my child. Not without critical commentary. Did you hear parts of the stories that demand an editorial comment?
My ancestors inherited an assumption that white folks were superior to black folks. My family stories extolled a Civil War hero defending the Southern way of life—when that way of life was built on the slave system. My family stories admired a caring matriarch—but her selflessness and humility were measured by her concern for people her culture believed were beneath her. Racism and classism and sexism are unspoken realities in these stories and other stories as I received them. So I retell them in ways that make explicit the blindspots.
Similarly, we inherit stories from our religious tradition. We can still see God at work through these stories even as we acknowledge that the biblical stories were first told by people trapped or enslaved by limited understandings of the world. As are we. We are blind now to things that our grandchildren will one day see clearly. As the Preamble to the United Church of Christ Constitution states, we affirm “the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” Each generation is responsible for making “this faith its own.” The Still Speaking God calls us to honor Christian scripture while hearing it afresh in our ever-changing contexts. I’ll squander a rich heritage if I’m too arrogant to appreciate my grandmother’s wisdom and goodness. But I’ll shirk my responsibility if I accept her generation’s prejudices unthinkingly.
Today we are sharing a 3000-year-old story with Open Table’s children. This story of Moses and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea is a key story within the larger and ever-expanding Christian Story. Whenever the church passes down a sacred story, we need to say three things to the next generation: 1) We believe this God-breathed story tells us something about the God we love and serve. 2) This story also tells us about the people who first told the story. 3) And this story tells us something about ourselves.
The story of Moses leading his people to freedom lives today because we continue to witness the Liberating Spirit at work in this world: breaking the bonds of victims of sexual trafficking or domestic violence, inspiring laborers who want fair wages and safe working conditions, releasing people from enslaving addictions, rescuing those trapped in harmful relationships, calling others to resist tyrants and end bigotry and dispel ignorance.
Yet the story of Moses also depicts God murdering Pharaoh’s army in order to “gain glory” (Ex. 14:18). What kind of violent and glory-crazed personality is this? How can a people who follow such a god not adopt their god’s violent tactics and tribalism? Like those wonderful old family stories with a troubling undercurrent of prejudice, biblical stories, too, reveal the narrow worldviews of the original storytellers.
Scholars believe this violent tale was originally told as “the struggle between YHWH . . . and the gods of Egypt (Jenks 77). “The myth of the victory of the gods of land and agriculture over the primeval sea-monster . . . [was] domesticated to celebrate Israel’s conviction that her existence is nothing less than an act of God” (78). Certainly we understand the appeal today’s violent Bible reading had for the powerless who first told the story—and for disempowered people down through the ages, like the enslaved Africans brought to this country many centuries later. We recognize the hope Moses’s God offered them and why they needed a god who clearly sided with the slaves. Scholars believe that Miriam’s song gloating over the dead Egyptians (Ex. 15:20-21) is one of the oldest passages in the Bible.
Unfortunately, history tells us that the oppressed can turn into the oppressors; the persecuted can become persecutors, the excluded may try to exclude. A case in point: Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, pastor and author, recently reported that an online directory of gay-friendly churches had excluded her church because her church’s website didn’t provide evidence that they were orthodox enough.
When asked to prove that her LGBT-friendly church was a “real” Christian church, she replied: “We don’t really do a doctrinal ‘sniff test’ on people. Instead, we ask that they affirm the only creed Jesus ever affirmed, which is one of love for self and others and a dedication to service in the world.”
The folks in charge of Gaychurch.org responded that “following Jesus’ teachings of love and service” was not sufficient proof that her church was Christian.
Candace’s response: “This infuriates me. As a member of a group of people who have been excluded, denied membership and generally shunned by Christian churches around the globe, to be summarily dismissed by a website that is supposedly set up to help LGBT people find accepting places to worship shows just how far the LGBT community has strayed from our own commitment to welcome everyone. Apparently, we cannot even make room at the table for everyone in our own community if their doctrines don’t smell right (http://religiondispatches.org/lgbt-friendly-church-is-not-christian-enough/).
It so happens that I had registered Open Table for this directory of welcoming churches some months ago. Apparently we passed the sniff test; I’m not sure how. But after reading Candace’s article, I wrote the organization and politely asked them to remove Open Table from the directory. I explained we are proudly LGBTQ-affirming, but we don’t require a doctrinal test for membership. Last I checked they’d not removed us from the directory.
Friends, let’s be careful how we introduce our children to Moses’s war god. Years ago one of my nephews was tormenting his older brother. When the older boy had had enough, he went on the offensive while shouting a phrase he thought he was quoting correctly from the Bible: “Vengeance is mine; praise the Lord!” Vengeance becomes an easier option when we think it’s the way God operates.
Vengeance can trap individuals and nations in cycles of violence as powerful as Pharaoh’s bondage. Think about the Iraqi quicksand our country has stepped into. With every violent action we take, we find ourselves more and more mired in a moral and political mess.
We bear a responsibility for the ways we tell our stories. Real liberation contributes to full liberation for all.
To illustrate how unexamined worldviews affect our readings of Bible stories like this one, biblical scholar Gregory Jenks tells about a trip he made to Egypt and his participation one day “in the celebration of a Eucharist in the corner of a hotel lobby on the shores of the Suez Canal. Not surprisingly,” he relates, “whoever was responsible for the selection of the reading for that service chose the account of crossing of the Red Sea by Moses and the Israelites in Exodus 14. We were to make a similar journey later that morning, although we would travel in a bus across the sea by a tunnel. As I listened to the Bible passage with its account of the dead bodies of the Egyptians strewn on the shore, I became aware of our context—an Egyptian hotel, staffed by Egyptians. Suddenly, ‘Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore’ (Exodus 14:30) seemed grossly inappropriate, and it has remained so for me ever since” (Jenks 37).
But for me the Eucharist is the very picture of the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. We prepare for this meal by speaking words of peace to all who gather. We approach the Table as equals—free before God. From the beginning this meal symbolized a radical leveling of social hierarchy. At the Lord’s Table no one was labeled slave or free. At this meal all are free people remembering Jesus’s supper—which he ate in memory of Moses’s last meal in Egypt. But after his Passover supper, Jesus lost his liberty. Refusing to respond with violence, Jesus accepted temporary restrictions on his bodily freedom—so that his Spirit could remain free of violence. Here’s the core story we tell our children each Sunday: in Jesus we are free. And we learn this story of Jesus’ betrayal, death, and resurrection by entering this story ourselves, week after week, enacting it even when we don’t understand it—to live and give God’s liberty.
Jesus, show us how to live as freely as you did. Though arrested and nailed to a cross, you never lost your liberty.
Jenks, Gregory C. The Once and Future Bible: An Introduction to the Bible for Religious Progressives. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011.