Sermon: The Exodus Story Remembered

The Exodus Story Remembered

By the Rev. Michael Mulberry
World Communion Sunday
October 1, 2006 (Pentateuch 4)
Text: Exodus 3:1-15

This fall I began a commitment to study the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch:  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.   As I stated in early September, I think this study is crucial because out of the tradition within the Pentateuch, out of its understandings, out of its stories came Jesus and his community.  Those stories begin with a fundamental belief that God created the world and humankind as good and very good.  That fundamental belief does not allow for an understanding that some people are born as “slaves” and some as “task masters.”  God does not create such systems and structures.  Rather, to set up systems and structures which do not understand humankind and creation as “good” runs counter to God’s creative act.  God does not will bondage.  God does not will oppression.  God does not will slavery.  God does not will exploitation.

The creation story also has God commanding the people to “Have a lot of children!  Fill the earth with people . . .” (Genesis 1:28).  As the earth strains under the weight of so many people populating the planet, we might engage that Scriptural mandate and be critical of any command to fill the earth with people, but we should remember that the story was meaningful for a particular people in a particular time.
“Have a lot of children!  Fill the earth with people.”  Remember that mandate, for it sets the stage for our story today.  Pharaoh, king of the Egyptians, fears that the Hebrews will become too populous in the land and overtake the Egyptians or join with Egyptian enemies to escape their slavery ( Exodus 1.9-10).
In contrast to God, the Ruler of the Universe’s mandate in Genesis, the Pharaoh, King of Egypt, he who considers himself the sun, the moon, and the stars, the Law of the Land, mandates that midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, kill the Hebrew male children.   And what is the faithful response of Shiphrah and Puah, these midwives?  Shiphrah and Puah practice civil disobedience.  They break the law.  And in so doing, the community saves the life of Moses so that Moses may later help to save the life of his community. 
The Exodus story is the birth story of the Jewish people.   The Exodus story defines who the Jewish people were and are to be in the world. 

The Exodus story also defines a counter-cultural God.  For an ancient notion was that a nation ruled because its god or gods were more powerful, that their power and good fortune was provided by the god they worship.  While many cultures even today assume that their power and good fortune is a result of God’s blessing and favor, the Exodus story suggests that God does not will human suffering and oppression.  Moses, later in the story, breaks the law by killing an Egyptian who is beating and torturing a Hebrew slave.

In fact, in the Exodus story, God chooses over and against the Egyptian Empire to work on behalf, in deliverance of Hebrew slaves.  From that point forward, as celebrated in the Passover meal, the Jewish people are to not to mistreat or abuse the foreigners, the aliens, the migrants (1) among them because “[r]emember, you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).  The acting out of the Passover reminds the Jewish people that the story plays itself out again in the world age after age after age.  Remember, you were foreigners, aliens, migrants in Egypt.  To remember the story is to dictate how a people shall be in the world.  It is like the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”
Out of such a story, Jesus and his community moved, lived, and breathed.  Out of such a story, not only Judaism but Christianity was born.  You were made in the image of God and that image was not meant to be treated as a slave, as unpaid labor, as abused and mistreated.  While empire devours and consumes the people, God appears to Moses in a bush that is burning, blazing, but is not consuming.  That understanding of empire is not only true for Egypt in the time of Miriam and Moses, it is also true for Rome in the time of Mary and Jesus. The hand of God is actively working to deliver a people out of the hand of oppression and slavery and into salvation and liberation, into the hand of God.  If we truly believed that, that God was not found in the existing oppressive systems and structures, but working to deliver us from that power, oh, how the world might change.
Too often, salvation in the Christian context is divorced from this Jewish understanding.  We lose what Jesus and Paul taught because we do not remember them as profoundly Jewish.  In Hebrew Scripture, the meaning of salvation is “the creation of space for community life and conduct.” (2)  In Hebrew, salvation is so closely tied to earthly liberation that the word “liberation” is used to define salvation.  Salvation is liberation or deliverance from whatever is considered evil or threatening to community life.(3)
Theologian, Dr. William R. Jones, maintains that the main focus of Judaism, out of stories like this one, is on liberation.  And not just liberation in some bygone era but liberation and deliverance in the today, in the here and now.  The story asks the questions, “Are we free now?  Do we participate in systems of liberation or oppression today?”(4) 
This understanding, this birth story, is the birth story Jesus knew.  It is the meal on which our holy communion is based.  Remember, you were once foreigners, aliens, migrants in Egypt in some bygone era.  Today you are foreigners, aliens, migrants in Rome and what does our faith tell us about how God has acted historically so that we may act today?  Tomorrow you may be or there may be foreigners, aliens, migrants in your midst, and it will be your task to “remember”, to move your feet when you pray.
In each age, this story of Empire and the oppressed repeats itself.  And the questions are asked in each age, “Are we free today?  Are we participating in systems of liberation or oppression today?  Are we living lives that walk with or contrary to the will of God?” 

In January 1994, the United States, Mexico, and Canada began the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA.  The free trade and neo-liberal economics dictated by NAFTA carry its own set of assumptions.  One naïve assumption of free trade is that everyone, from the smallest peasant farmer in Mexico to the largest multinational corporation in Canada, has equal economic access and power.  Free trade also assumes that a multinational corporation, as a community citizen, leaving Mexico for China to pay its workers cheaper wages has the same environmental impact on its community as a union shop steward who bargains for higher wages. 

This assumption means that corporate tariffs and taxes are cut to make it easier for multinational investment.  Unfortunately, such cuts leave nothing for the government in the way of social spending.  Cuts in social spending leave no money for health care and education.  Food stamps and welfare reform disappear. 

NAFTA demanded that Mexico stop giving out agricultural subsidies which provided low interest loans and protection for small farmers.  While NAFTA demanded that agricultural subsidies be cut in Mexico, the United States spent billions of dollars in agricultural subsides, primarily to industrial agriculture.  Canada doles out more.

Because the assumption is made that multinational corporations and peasant farmers stand on equal footing, land ownership is liberalized.   Once protective laws and measures for small land owners are stripped and debt is leveraged against peasant farmers, subsistence farmers have their land foreclosed on them.  These subsistence farmers go from barely getting by to take a little to market and using a little of the produce to feed their own family to sharecroppers and tenant farmers on what was once their land. 

When NAFTA went into effect, 1.3 million peasant farmers lost their land.  Eighty pound bags of coffee that went for 1400 pesos now went for 300-400 pesos as multinationals dumped a glut of product into these countries.

NAFTA also demanded that environmental and labor laws be loosened to encourage more investment.  Regulations like financially penalizing  a country if their people went on strike against a multinational left Mexico with only one solution to labor unrest—a military solution.  Without the taxes and tariffs the government has no money left to enforce what little environmental or labor laws that are left on the books. 

Finally, as more and more multinational corporations leave for China and cheaper wages, the once poor substitute for farming, the maquiladoras or factories left to Mexican peasants, is now gone.  No land, no job, no subsistence food. 

So in this milieu former Mexican peasant farmers are left with the choice of staying at home and dying with their families or trying to cross the border in the worst part of the Arizona desert, in what has now become a gauntlet of death.  In pre-9/11 where many migrants would return back to Mexico to be with their families after they had earned some money, with the borders sealed off in California and Texas in post-9/11, so many more undocumented workers are staying in our country.  These people fear they will either not be able to make it back to the States to earn necessary money for their family or they will have to make the exodus through the same devil’s highway risking their lives.  So these foreigners, these aliens, these migrants remain in our country, many of them here precipitated by an Empire that has an insatiable need to devour and consume.

State and national legislation has been introduced and policy enforced which would make it a felony for groups to provide health care to someone dying in the desert or water to someone dehydrated.  One such instance is of Shanti Sellz, an Iowa City native, and Daniel Strauss.  Both 23 years old, Daniel and Shanti were arrested by United States Border Patrol for medically evacuating three people in critical condition after they had been advised by medical professionals to do so in the 105 degree Arizona desert heat in July 2005.  Very appropriately, Daniel and Shanti belong to an organization referred to as Samaritan Patrols.

Their trial date had been originally set for this Tuesday, October 3, in federal court.  Charges against them were dismissed earlier this month.  If they had been convicted, Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss could have received a 15 year prison sentence. 

Today is World Communion Sunday, the day when we remember a story based in the Passover which tells the Exodus story.  Recently, political pundit Pat Buchanan reminded us that the story is told time and time again when he shared his fear that the migrants would become too numerous in our land and take over the country.  In each age the Exodus story is told and remembered as beginning with two midwives who commit an act of civil disobedience.  Shiphrah and Puah break the law. 

In Christian tradition, we remember Jesus teaching that “loving your neighbor” means turning to help those who lie broken and bloodied alongside the road.  We practice this meal as a way to remember a Christ who came to two disciples on the road to Emmaus as a foreigner, an alien, a migrant.  As the disciples broke bread with this stranger, they recognized the risen Christ and they remembered how their hearts burned but did not consume as they walked the road with this stranger.  People who remember their stories are forever destined to save the world.  So today, on World Communion Sunday, we are asked to be a people who remember our stories.

(1) Biblical scholar Ched Myers believes that a more appropriate translation of “alien” or “foreigner” in the Biblical text would be migrant.  UCC Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has begun translating the word to migrant or immigrant.

(2) Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, ed. by Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco:  HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 960.

(3) James C. Livingston, Anatomy of the Sacred:  An Introduction to Religion:  Fifth Edition, (Prentice Hall, 2004) p. 325.  See also The Catholic Encyclopedia and K Klostermaier, Liberation, Salvation, Self Realization: A Comparative Study of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian Ideas (1973); A W Pink, The Doctrine of Salvation (1975); C R Smith, The Bible Doctrine of Salvation: A Study of the Atonement (1969).

(4) Rev. Sharon Dittmar, “Is Freedom Just Another Word?” April 8, 2001