June 14 Sermon: 410 Years, 8 Minutes, and 46 Seconds
With what is happening in our country in these days, I went back to re-read the story of the exodus, the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt. God spoke to Moses from that burning bush. God said, “I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. I know they are suffering. So, I am going to send you to Pharaoh to demand that he free the Israelite slaves and then you will lead them out of Egypt.”
God then said something I missed when I read this story previously. God said the slaves would not leave empty handed. God said to Moses, and this is a quote from the 3rd chapter of Exodus. The words of God, “You shall plunder the Egyptians.” And the people did just that. The 12th chapter of Exodus reports, “Thus, they despoiled the Egyptians.” Smash and Grab. Looted everything, went into businesses and homes and took anything of value. Clothing, jewelry, silver, gold. Anything they could grab. They looted everything they could carry at the behest of God. My friend Jason Bloomberg asks, “Where do you think they got all the gold it took to build that golden calf?”
It is not unimportant that the Bible tells us God sanctioned the looting of Egypt, that it was done at God’s command. I am not sure what to make of that. I’m thinking it had something to do with the way in which Egypt’s wealth was the fruit of injustice, created by slaves just as our own country was built on slave labor and stolen land. Scholars like theologian Stanley Hauerwas said the looting of Egypt by the Israelite slaves and sanctioned by God was simply a matter of collecting 400 years-worth of back wages, reparations, if you will.
Another thing jumps off the pages of Exodus. 400 years. The Hebrews were enslaved for four centuries before God heard their cry. Ask yourself, “What took so long? Why did it take God 400 years to hear their cries, to acknowledge their suffering and to come down to deliver them from the Egyptians?” Was it God or was it people just like us who waited 400 years? Just asking.
This time, the wait was longer. 401 years. 401 years, 8 minutes and 46 seconds to be exact. It was 1619, when the first cargo ship loaded with black bodies arrived in Virginia. 401 years 8 minutes and 46 seconds later George Floyd died with that Minneapolis cop’s knee on his throat. An uncle of mine, 15 generations back, landed in the Mayflower earlier. My uncle didn’t come to enslave Africans. He came to take land from Native Peoples so he and other white Europeans could build a new life. My DNA contains the stain of America’s original sins.
In Exodus, God spoke to Moses from a burning bush. God speaks to us from burning buildings. God is saying, “You’ve been listening to the cries of my people, aware of their suffering, profiting and benefiting from it for over 400 years. Have you not seen how people of color are oppressed among you?” God asks, “What are you going to do about it?”
The Father of the three great faiths, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity can teach us something. The morning’s Old Testament reading puts us at Abraham’s side, as he gets the news. At almost 100 years of age, he is going to be a father. We are in the 18th chapter of the Book of Genesis, standing in the doorway of Abraham’s tent, watching as the Lord suddenly appears. God is with a couple of other men who are never identified. God, almost offhandedly, mentions plans to return later and by the time he does, God says, Abraham and Sarah will have had a son.
The elderly Sarah hears God and laughs. She sees the humor. She is too old for that and so is Abraham. God is not amused by Sarah’s laughter. God takes it as a sign that Sarah does not believe God can make it happen. God asks her husband what Sarah thinks is so funny. Something in the tone of God’s voice causes Sarah to be fearful. The scripture says she “dissembled,” which is another way of saying she lied. “I did not laugh,” Sarah cried out. But, God said, “Yes you did.”
God’s real mission that day was no laughing matter. After a nice lunch of freshly baked bread and tender beef, God and the other two men are off to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has this interesting debate with God’s self. “Should I or should I not tell Abraham what I am about to do?” God decides Abraham has a right to know because, after all, God has charged him with keeping the way of the Lord and doing what is righteous and just. The implication is that as the father of all the nations, Abraham should learn now what happens to those God determines are not keeping God’s ways.
God decides to take Abraham into God’s confidence and tells Abraham there is a great outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah. God is on the way to check it out. “Let me go down and see,” God says to Abraham, “whether, as the outcry has come to me, they have dealt destruction, and if not, I shall know.” The original Hebrew to convey emotion. Here, for example, the Hebrew word translated into “outcry” is more a reference to the “shrieks of torment of the oppressed.”
God tells Abraham he has heard the shrieks of torment of the oppressed and if he finds them to be true, he will destroy every living thing in Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham is aghast. This is the same God who has charged him with doing justice and now that God will destroy the innocent along with the guilty? Picture this moment. Abraham throws caution to the wind. He gets in God’s face. He doesn’t fall back. The Bible says, “Abraham stepped forward” to challenge the God of the universe. “Are you really going to destroy the innocent with the guilty?” Abraham says to God, “Far be it from you to do such an awful thing.” Abraham continues his attack. “You are the judge of all the earth,” he says to God. “Will you not do justice?”
Then the two engage in the most extraordinary bargaining for the lives of the just. Abraham haggles with God. He first secures God’s agreement to abandon his destructive plan if there are 50 innocent people in the city. Then God agrees to reduce that number to 45, then 40. Abraham says, “What about 30? Okay, says God. Abraham says will you give me 20? They finally agree that if God gets there and finds at least 10 innocent people, God will not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah.
As the story continues into Genesis Chapter 19, we learn the only innocent souls in Sodom & Gomorrah are Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family. Alas, they do not number the requisite 10 agreed to during God’s bartering session with bartering session with Abraham. A deal is a deal. The city will be destroyed. This morning’s sermon is not about the destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah. That’s another day. But, a footnote. I know you have heard it said this is a story of God’s condemnation of homosexuals. But, I say to you, it is not. If you’d like to hear more about why I say that, email me or call. Perhaps we will pull together a Zoom bible study for the purpose of taking an honest look at chapter 19.
Let’s figure out what’s going. Abraham is suddenly and surprisingly audacious, questioning God for the first time, in the cause of justice. Where’d that come from? Until now, the Abraham we had come to know has been compliant and obedient. “Okay God, you want me to pack up and leave my home for a land I never heard of? I’ll do it. No questions asked. You want us to cut off the foreskins of every male among us? No problema. And the Bible says Abraham took Ishmael, his 13-year-old son, and all his slaves and circumcised them and himself that very day. God’s wish was his command. Before now, Abraham never questioned God.
So, why now? Why is this the moment Abraham decides he has to walk the tight rope knowing it could become a rope with a noose at the end of it? What happened to turn this quiet, mild-mannered, pliable, faithful man into a prophet? After years of saying “yes, yes, yes,” with no questions asked, Abraham unexpectedly steps forward and says, this is not what I expected from a God of justice.
What changed? Only one thing. Abraham has just learned he will be a father. Becoming a parent changes how the world looks. Theologian Walter Brueggeman described the old Abraham as “the quintessential man of faith, preoccupied with the vertical reality of his life.” That means it was he and God, alone. Nothing else mattered in their relationship. Now, there is a horizontal reality to Abraham’s life. Abraham has to figure out the meaning of faith and justice and righteousness in a new world, one where there is more to it than just him and God. Abraham has to come to grips with the reality of living his faith to include the justice due others on a horizontal line beginning with him and extending out to others of God’s children.
It is no coincidence that on the very day Abraham learned he was about to become a father, that his reality changed from vertical to horizontal. Abraham realized that to be faithful to the God he loved, he had to resist what was wicked. It wasn’t enough for him to protect his personal relationship with God. He was called to speak up for the creation of a just world for his son and others to grow up in. You grandparents know what that means, right?
My oldest grandson, Rhyland, who, by the way is preparing for baptism when we return to the sanctuary is biracial. Rhyland’s mother is African- American. Rhyland didn’t make it past the 4th grade before a classmate called him a “nigger.” Think about the parenting, in two homes, that led to that awful moment. That young classmate of Rhyland’s wasn’t born with that word in his head. He learned it at home. And Jesus said, “If anyone causes one of these little ones-those who believe in me-to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.
It is said that one of the benefits of white privilege is never having to tell your children they will be treated unfairly, may even have their life threatened or taken, simply because of the color of their skin. When Rhyland was born, our family was stripped of that piece of our white privilege. Like African-American, Latino, and American Indian parents, Rhyland’s parents and grandparents were forced to have that talk and prepare him for the racism he would inevitably encounter and, my dear grandson, there is more ahead. It doesn’t have to be that way. Look across the faces in church this morning. All white and I’m thinking we white folks are the ones who will decide whether anything changes. Congress passed laws. Courts integrated schools. Millions have marched and protested. But, until something changes in the homes of white parents, there’s not a new law or policy or demonstration that will matter.
Parents and grandparents who teach justice in their homes will change the world by raising children who will also demand justice. Take a parenting lesson from Abraham. Abraham is telling us that our vertical, earth to sky relationship with God is built on the horizontal, brother to sister relationship we maintain with all of God’s children. And, it was not only Abraham. The story is a precursor for a far more significant conversion. The change that took place in Abraham took place in the God of the Bible who transitioned from the God of the Old Testament who a few chapters earlier was so disgusted with humans that he destroyed the entire bunch of them in a flood and whom we see today heading down the road to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah, to the God of infinite grace we meet through Jesus Christ in the Gospels. The difference between the two? The birth of a son. AMEN