Sermon Given on September 14, 2014
The Exodus is Relevant
I was reading a commentary on the scripture selections for this week that warned preachers against seeing a relationship between the account from the Book of Exodus and the Gospel according to Matthew; that we preachers should not be tempted to see connections here that do not exist. Just so you know in advance, I’m going to ignore that expert advice, because the theme of both texts is the same.
Matthew may or may not have had Exodus in mind, but freedom was very much on his mind.
The greatest event in the entire history of the Hebrews was the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea waters. It was celebrated in song and Psalm and dance: “Sheroo, la Yahweh, key-‐go-‐o, ga-‐ah, sus wa-‐row-‐ka-‐voh, ra-‐mah, vay-‐ yam.”
“Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider have been cast into the sea.” This is thought by some to be the oldest line in the Bible, uttered by Moses’ sister. It’s the Song of Miriam (Exodus 15:21).
The Exodus was celebrated in liturgy and creed. When subsequent generations came to the temple in Jerusalem to make their offerings to God, they said this little creedo as a statement of their faith and the reason for their offering.
A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey (Deuteronomy 26:5-9).
The Exodus, along with the subsequent period of Wandering in the Wilderness, was considered by many of the prophets as the most fertile and formative time in all of the history of Israel. This deliverance out of slavery into freedom became the defining moment for the Hebrews who saw their God as a God of liberation.
Some 600 or 700 years later, when the Babylonians defeated Israel in the time of King Nebuchadnezzar, they were carried off into a new captivity, which they called the Babylonian Captivity. But to their minds, this was just another slavery of the type that they’d experienced in Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar was just another Pharaoh. It’s the same game, but different names and faces.
Subsequent persecutions, enslavements and dominations have been interpreted in the same fashion. The archetype is the Exodus. The people of God are in bondage, and God is a God of freedom.
Such was the case in the Israel of Jesus’ day as she struggled under foreign oppression once again. This time, Pharaoh’s name was Caesar. The Roman Empire ruled the Mediterranean world. And once again, Israel began to seek for God’s deliverance. God would send a savior, a new Moses, a new Joshua, a new David, a new Daniel; ‐ a Messiah who would set God’s people free.
Is it any wonder that wherever people find themselves oppressed with something new, the Exodus has served as the pattern for the struggle for freedom? When the slaves sang, “Go down Moses into Egypt and tell ole Pharaoh, Let my people go,” the plantation owners thought they were singing about an Old Testament story. Little did they know that they were Pharaoh.
Jesus came to make us free. St. John says: “You will know the truth (“I am the truth,” he said) and the truth will make you free (John 8:31). “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a permanent place there forever.
So if the son makes you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:34-36)?
And understand here, that the sins Jesus is referring to are not the moral failings of individuals or rebellion against God. The sins were the violations of the holiness code and the kosher laws, sins often caused by poverty or station in life. Slaves, the working poor, beggars, shepherds, the sick – they had neither time, energy, nor resources to wash or perform the rituals to maintain purity. Some despised professions or trades, like undertakers, butchers, and tanners, people who regularly touched the dead or the products of death – these people were perpetually unclean and otherwise known as sinners. They were slaves to their sin.
In addition to economic, racial, and social bondage, there’s also internal oppression. Internal oppression is simple. You keep someone down long enough, you tell someone that they’re stupid enough times, you demean another over a long enough period of time, then there will come a day when you don’t have to oppress them anymore. They’ll do it to themselves! That’s internal oppression. You can remove the Jim Crow laws, you can open up the employment process, you can tell a person that she is now free to be and do and become whatever she wants. But after 400 years of oppression, she’s internalized it so much, that she’s now telling herself that she’s
not capable, smart enough, or worthy enough to even give it a good try. She’s still a slave.
I talk a lot about freedom and openness and equality. I think about it every single day of my life. Part of it is due to my family history. I can attribute it in part to my experiences. But most of it is this Gospel of Jesus that has taken hold of me and won’t let me go.
Those who say that people like me would discriminate against those who don’t want to change, ‐ who don’t want freedom, equality, and openness; those who want to continue to discriminate or exclude . They’re right. They want to keep some people from having a place at the table and in society. God won’t stand for that and neither should his Church.
That’s why the Gospel story of forgiveness is an Exodus story. Jesus was talking to Peter about forgiveness. You should forgive so often, Peter, that you can’t keep track anymore. Not once or twice or seven times, but 70 times 7 times! And then he told the story of the king who forgave a massive debt to one of his slaves, who begged for mercy and patience. The slave was set free, allowed to go his way, unburdened. He crossed the Red Sea! “That’s what God is like,” said Jesus. He’s like the King in the story!
But when the first slave had the opportunity to do the same for a fellow slave who owed a much smaller debt, he refused to be patient and merciful, and he cast him into prison. “No crossing the Red Sea for you,” he said. The ungrateful servant’s fellow slaves saw his wretched ingratitude and called him on it.
The King was angry when he heard about it. He called the slave wicked, for he kept a fellow slave in bondage. That’s why Jesus asked us to pray: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Forgiveness is related to exodus. Exodus from slavery to Pharaoh is the same as Exodus from slavery to sin. Exodus and forgiveness are both about freedom, empowerment, new life. Movement from slavery from Pharaoh and from slavery to sin is movement from death into life. It is resurrection!
Refusal to forgive is a refusal to free the other. The first slave was forgiven. The second was enslaved.
The New Testament may appear on the surface to be different from the older testament. But when all is said and done, it’s the same old story. The New Testament is midrash (that is, it’s commentary) on the Exodus. From the time of Moses God has not changed. But our perceptions of God have changed. The movement of Holy Scripture, from Moses to Jesus, is a expanding understanding of hospitality and welcome at the freedom banquet of the Lord.