Sermon from October 20: God Remembers
Pentecost XIX (O. T. 29); October 20, 2019
I think I’ll start out by pointing out some similarities between the story of Moses and the story of Jesus. Knowing these will help set up the events that are coming in the story; also, if you aren’t interested in the rest of what I have to say, then you at least have something to think about.
Last week we read the story of the birth and infancy of Moses; now suddenly Moses is grown up. The Gospels treat Jesus much the same way. Mark and John don’t even bother to tell us about Jesus’ birth; they don’t consider it important. Luke goes into some detail, then skips ahead to a story about when Jesus is twelve, and then suddenly he’s an adult. Likewise Matthew tells briefly about his birth, then a story about his infancy, then suddenly he’s an adult.
Moses flees Egypt and remains away until the Pharaoh who threatened him dies.
Jesus’ family flees Palestine for Egypt and remains away until the Herod who threatened him dies.
God sent Moses to the people for salvation when they suffered under Egyptian oppression. God sent Jesus to the people for salvation when they suffered under Roman oppression.
But the similarity that I find most compelling is also somewhat subtle: both are strangers among their people. Jesus once said that “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Among his own people he cried out, “How long do I have to put up with you?” (Luke 9:41) and when he goes to Gentiles and heals a demoniac, they ask him to leave (Luke 8:37). And Moses: among Egyptians he is a Hebrew; among Midianites he is an Egyptian; and so he names his firstborn son “Alien” (Gershom), saying, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22).
There was a time when if I said “Alien” you would think of something hidden in Area 51 or from “Star Trek,” but with all the noise these days about aliens I don’t think you’ll be confused. If you picture Guatemalans fleeing gang murders, or Mexicans fleeing drug cartels, or people from any number of places in Africa or the Middle East fleeing constant warfare, then you have a picture of Moses and Jesus the aliens.
So here’s our picture of Moses thus far: passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. He doesn’t sound too different from any of us. When he sees an Egyptian foreman beating a Hebrew slave, his sense of justice and his passion do not let him say, “I’m not getting involved.” He intervenes, but goes too far. Figuring he can get away with it, he kills the foreman. When he learns he didn’t get away with it, he’s frightened and he leaves the country. There he sees some men harassing a group of women trying to water their sheep, and he stands up for the women. This man has a passion for justice; he doesn’t want to see people mistreated. But he doesn’t always think through his actions. Standing up to the shepherds was the right thing to do; killing the Egyptian was not.
Isn’t it odd that the sisters didn’t invite Moses home with them to meet their father? Hospitality was a great virtue in the ancient world, and you would think that they would have thought for themselves that they should do something to repay Moses for his kindness. Their father, however, sent them back after him. Moses became a real asset to the family, so much so that Reuel (later in the story called Jethro, for some unknown reason) makes him his son-in-law. And, as you know, Moses and Zipporah have a son and name him Gershom: Alien.
After telling us all these events, the story-teller adds a note: the slavery of the Hebrews was oppressive, and their cries came up to heaven, and God remembered the promise God made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God remembered. I’m not going to quibble with you about whether God ever actually forgot, but simply look at things from the point of view of the slaves: they suffered for a very long time; it must have felt to them as though God had forgotten them. The story is about to turn to how God rescued them from slavery, and so the prologue says that God remembered the promise God had made to their ancestors.
God remembered. This is where the Scripture is going to instruct you and me today. And the Scripture is taking us to two places: to the people God remembers, and the people God uses to rescue them.
God remembers the slaves, in this story. In our own history as a nation, we can make a good connection there. How many years did African people suffer under slavery before God remembered them? They had many Moses-figures, perhaps pre-eminently Abraham Lincoln. Who today is groaning under oppression, wondering if God has forgotten them, and yearning for God to remember them?
And who will speak for them? You know how the story of Moses unfolds, I suspect; we’ll go into detail over the next several weeks about God sending Moses to speak on behalf of the Hebrew slaves. Who speaks today on behalf of those who wait for God to rescue them?
I’m going to answer two questions some have asked me and others have just others have just whispered to each other in the parking lot. Why, in Church, do we hear about the plight of Palestinians but don’t hear the “other side”? And why do we have a task force looking into how we could welcome LGBTQIA+ persons when we say we want to welcome everyone? Some of you are not going to like what I have to say, so let me remind you of the terms of our life as Christians. You do not have to agree with me. But since you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you must listen to what your pastor says and consider it carefully. You can reject it, but if you do, you should reject it because you believe it does not accord with Biblical Christianity, not because it doesn’t suit your self-interest.
Why do we, in the Church, listen to the pleas of Palestinians while no one in the Church is presenting the point of view of the State of Israel? If you pay attention to the news, whether television, internet, radio, or newspaper, all you see and hear is the point of view of the State of Israel. Only in the Church is anyone speaking on behalf of Palestinians. I don’t think I even need to discuss the question of oppressor and oppressed, when the public bias in which we live is so evident. We have been conditioned to do two things: to associate the word “Palestinian” with “terrorist,” and to assume that any criticism of the government of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic. That is, of course, ridiculous; you can criticize the government of the United States without being anti-American; you can criticize the government of Russia without being anti-Caucasian; you can criticize the government of Somalia without being anti-African, so surely it is possible to criticize the government of the State of Israel without being anti-Semitic. But we have been conditioned. Very few dare in public to question whether the policies of the State of Israel toward a conquered people are just; only in the Church is anyone daring to speak up.
Likewise, we have a public bias about the relationship of Christian Faith to LGBTQIA persons. Simply: “I’m a Christian; therefore I condemn gay people” and so forth. Studies have revealed that one reason so many young Americans reject the Church is because they have been presented with two ideas: Christians hate science, and Christians hate gay people. Now, neither of those is true, but that is a public perception. Since LGBTQIA persons are condemned by Christians with a public voice, is anyone going to speak up and say, “No, we welcome them”?
In those cases – and in so many others – people may wonder if God will ever remember them. How many of the Hebrew slaves wondered if God would remember God’s people Israel? But God did remember, and God sent Moses, as we will begin to read next week. In today’s reading, though, we learn something about Moses that should encourage you and me: he wasn’t perfect. He was passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. You’ll see all of that in the stories yet to come. And God was determined to use Moses as the instrument of the people’s salvation.
You and I are passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened. I know you wish you had a perfect pastor, like those you imagine you had in the past. And I wish I served a perfect congregation, like those I sometimes imagine existed in the past. But no pastor and no congregation have ever been perfect. God uses passionate, kind, flawed, and frightened people, like Moses and like you and me, to do God’s will. When God remembers oppressed people, and God wants to use us to rescue them, will we respond?
I don’t know when the world will see justice for Palestinian people. Or, for that matter, for Kurdish people or many other peoples now feeling forgotten. And your Inclusive Church Task Force has concluded that we are not ready, as a Church, to welcome LGBTQIA persons and so will keep working. I always have great hopes for the Church, because it is Jesus’ Church. It’s not your Church; it’s not my Church; it’s Jesus’ Church. The parallels between Moses and Jesus help us realize who we are as the people of Jesus: we are ones who respond to the call when God remembers.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master