Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28 and To Be of Use by Marge Piercy
Hello beautiful people, thank you for being here for our worship this morning. Today feels like a very special day because of this milestone of some of us being able to livestream onsite from our special sanctuary in the round. I give thanks for the hours and hours and hours and hours that have gone into getting us to this point and also what is to come next. We have all been catapulted into something new and doing something new means it will be perfectly imperfect. We will love it, and one another as this new thing comes to life.
As you are so moved I invite you to take a deep breath and to let yourself arrive. Join me in a spirit of prayer.
God, Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, wherever they are, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
“Can you hear us now?” Those words were spray painted on a remaining wall of the probation office in Kenosha, Wisconsin that was razed on Tuesday morning. And according to the Kenosha News, the Fire Chief, Charles Leipzig said there were 34 active fires around the area after news spread around the world that 29 year old Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by a Kenosha Police Officer as he was entering his vehicle, while three of his children sat in the backseat. He is now paralyzed and in a hospital bed, while his city asks with paint and flames because nothing else has worked, can you hear us now?
The fires in Wisconsin have held up with the precision of a mirror - a black man shot seven times in the back, while a white armed teenager who had just murdered two protesters and severely injured another, walked by officers without incident. A video circulated widely shows a member of Kenosha law enforcement giving the alleged shooter water and telling the local citizen militia group that he was a part of, “We appreciate you guys, we really do.”
Before this recent tragedy and after the last one, I was teary on a call with a friend and local activist here in Colorado, sharing my disgust and my questions, about why yet again?
At one point, she stopped me and said, “Baby, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do.”
But this isn’t the story told and sold to white America.
Given the kind of history education many of us did or didn’t receive, we might think that the concept of a police officer had existed since the founding of this nation. And yet, according to Garry Potter a historian at Eastern Kentucky University, modern-day policing was “sparked by changing notions of public order, driven in turn by economics and politics.”
Olivia Waxman writes that, “Policing in Colonial America had been very informal, based on a for-profit, privately funded system that employed people part-time. Towns also commonly relied on a “night watch” in which volunteers signed up for a certain day and time, mostly to look out for fellow colonists engaging in prostitution or gambling.”
As American cities grew, the night-watch system was not just inefficient, but practically useless. And so in 1838, the first publicly funded, organized police force with officers on duty full-time was created in Boston. Before then, business had been paying locals to protect their property and the movement of goods in the commercial shipping industry. And Professor Potter shared that the merchants conceived that it would save them money if they made a case that it would be better for the citizens to maintain and pay for a police force themselves, contending that it was for the “collective good.”
In the South, however, the economics that led to the creation of police forces were not about protecting the movement of goods, but instead about maintaining the system of slavery. Some of the foremost policing institutions there, were the patrols tasked with just these two things: chasing down runaway slaves and preventing revolts. Records show that the first such official slave patrol, the first police institution was created in the Carolina colonies in 1704.
In the parables you heard from the Gospel of Matthew this morning, Jesus perplexes his followers with these words, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Father Richard Rohr interprets these lines to mean that “we are invited to gaze upon the image of the crucified Jesus to soften our hearts toward all suffering, to help us see how we ourselves have been “bitten” by hatred and violence, and to know that God’s heart has always been softened toward us. In turning our gaze to this divine truth—in dropping our many modes of scapegoating and self-justification—we gain compassion toward ourselves and all others who suffer.”
When we drop our many modes of scapegoating, when we drop our self-justification, when we drop our denial to see the truth of where we are, we lose- we lose what we thought we knew, what we thought we understood, what we thought was right, but we gain everything.
For those who want to save their life will lose it…
Perhaps in pre-scientific ways, Jesus is talking about transcending our own egos, our greed, our need to control, our inclination to be seen as good or the best, our tendency to turn away from suffering and sadness because it is hard or from the truth out of fear. Lose ALL OF THAT, to find…something else.
Last week, we started to explore together some of the ways that individualism has turned us inward, made us more selfish and pushed us away from valuing the things we hold in common. I asked, what our role as people of conscience, as a people committed to the bigger project of a just world for all might be in shifting toward a collective mindset. Are we willing to accept personal discomfort to heal the whole? Are we willing to be inconvenienced for the common good? Are we willing to give something up for that which we say we are about? Are we willing to lose our way to find a way illumined by Love?
The story from the book of Exodus has been immortalized in popular culture and is a part of the core story of liberation in the Hebrew Bible. In it, Moses is tending his flock far out beyond the wilderness when a bush catches on fire and an angel of the Lord appears to him. Moses turns aside, but God calls out his name and then Moses says, “Here I am!”
The two go on to have a discussion and God tells him that the cries of the suffering are heard, that he needs to help lead the Israelites out of Egypt and that now is the time to begin. As if God was calling out with flames because nothing else had worked, can you hear me now?
But Moses says… who am I? Who am I to do what you are asking?
In his book called On Exodus, a Liberation Perspective, George Pixley reminds us that since his birth, Moses lived as an Egyptian prince, writing, “Publicly, he is an Egyptian aristocrat. But with his violent dispensation of justice against the Egyptian who had killed a Hebrew, Moses sacrificed his position, and now lives in exile… God then makes a self-presentation to him, not after the fashion of a familiar divinity of the temples of the Egyptian nobility, but as one who has taken sides with the oppressed.”
God is trying to convince Moses, one who has already lost family relationships and a sense of direction that this is the way, that now is the time. As Pixley asserts, “when Moses comes to know God and learns that God is with the Hebrews…(the ones oppressed) this knowledge taken seriously, will demand a conscious disengagement with the aristocratic class.”
The knowledge of who God is, and whose side God is on, compels Moses toward a conscious disengagement and onto a new path of danger and disruption, but on the way to freedom. In the story, God says, "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,”
Moses doesn’t have instructions. He doesn’t have certainty about the path ahead. He isn’t promised that comfort will come soon. And yet he was willing to lose his self-justification, to lose denial, to lose what he thought he knew, what we thought he understood, what he thought was right, what he thought was needed, to find confirmation of who God is and to start on the path to freedom for his people.
“Baby, the system is doing exactly what it was designed to do” and until we lose it all to find it, we will be stuck on repeat while God is left to speak through flames, “Can you hear me now?”
In a time when we can legitimately blame others for the terrible situation we are in, what shift in energy could occur within us and with our community if we started instead, with, “Here I am?!” When we drop our many modes of scapegoating, when we drop our self-justification, when we drop our denial to see the truth of where we are, we lose- we lose what we thought we knew, what we thought we understood, what we thought was right, but we also have a chance to save everything.
As we heard from the poetry of Marge Piercy, “The people I love the best
jump into work head first without dallying in the shallows and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight…”
In days when we would be right to be angry at what others should or shouldn’t have done, should or shouldn’t be doing, how would it feel to instead begin with Piercy’s words, “I want to be with people who submerge in the task…?” That is another way of saying, “Here I am!” Here we are with our painful past, here we are with our imperfect selves, here we are with our small attempts and doing good, here we are willing ourselves toward a conscious disengagement with all that is profiting from or perpetuating suffering, here we are…
What if you, each of you, are more like Moses than we think? Because I know you are probably sitting there unconvinced that you are up for the job, but you must also know by now that the cries of the suffering are loud enough to reach heaven and that now is the time to move. Are we willing to give something up for that which we say we are about? The Creator is calling out with flames, “Can you hear me now?"