Moses, Self-Interest, Wolves and Eagles

Exodus 19:2-8a

Our first reading from the book of Exodus says: You are my treasured possession out of all the nations, you shall be fore me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. Some have read these words and said, oh that’s us! We are the greatest. We are the best. We’re number 1.

But that is far from the meaning of these words from the Exodus story. Here we meet the worn down people newly liberated from slavery in Egypt. They are both elated to be free and exhausted from their wilderness journey. We meet them this morning in the wilderness of Sinai. The wilderness of Sinai just happens to be where Moses had a life-changing moment. It was in that very wilderness where Moses was a shepherd taking care of his father-in- law Jethro’s sheep. And one day when he was out with those sheep, he turned aside and saw a burning bush and heard the voice of God calling him to do what felt impossible. The Lord said, “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 I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  It was a call for Moses to go way beyond his comfort zone, tending his flock of self interests, to see the enslaved Hebrew people as kin and take on their interest as his own. “How can I do that?” asks Moses. I’m not ready. I’m not the right person for the job. He’s not wrong but “I will be with you” is God’s only answer.

I have observed the misery…I have heard the cry…I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Those are God’s words to Moses, but I think that many people in this nation, many white people, have had a kind of burning bush moment. They have been forced to turn aside and see the misery of their Black kin and hear their cry and see how they are systematically oppressed. At least I hope and I pray that this is such a burning bush moment.

Of course, a problem with that analogy is that some white people finally having a burning bush moment does NOT mean white people are called to be liberating saviors, but we are all called to be part of this movement towards real action, change and liberation. Ibram Kendi has some interesting things to say about self-interest and racism.

Some of you may remember that we were planning to have a conversation about Kendi’s recent book, How to be an Antiracist but then the coronavirus diverted out attention and ability to gather. It’s time to try again even if it has to be by Zoom. His words in an earlier book Stamped from the Beginning, are useful as we considered today’s passage from the book of Exodus and Moses’s call to move beyond tending to his own self interest to further liberating work:

“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies,… “If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural… Self-interest drives racist policies that benefit that self-interest. When the policies are challenged because they produce inequalities, racist ideas spring up to justify those policies. Hate flows freely from there.

Then he gives examples. The Portuguese had to justify their pioneering slave trade of African people before the pope. Out of THAT self-interest came the racist idea that Africans are barbarians. If we remove them from Africa and enslave them, they could be civilized. Kendi relates this to the slave trade in this country. If I’m a slaver, I’m enslaving people because I want to make money. That’s my self interest. Abolitionists are resisting me, so I’m going to convince Americans that these people should be enslaved because they’re black, and then people will start believing those ideas: that these people are so barbaric that they need to be enslaved.

Before Moses is able to be a liberator, his economic and cultural self- interest is challenged. He will no longer be working with his father-in-law Jethro for his family, his self-interest alone. He will move from shepherding Jethro’s flock to shepherding God’s people who are enslaved. He will take on the interest of those he has been cut off from. His real kin.Jesus calls it loving your neighbor as yourself.

Now back at Sinai, these people who are liberated and yet exhausted from their wilderness journey and the trials and troubles they’ve faced need to know they are loved and precious, because knowing you are loved makes all the difference. But it’s not meant to entrench self-interest in a I’m #1 kind of way- I’m so precious and you’re not. It’s meant to strengthen them and to form them in love for Gods bigger project, for all nations, all peoples all the earth.

In our gospel, Jesus is seeking shepherds interested in God’s greater flock too. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. And so he sends the disciples to take up this holy work. to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. What? That’ s impossible! How can we do that? Can we cure the sickness of racism? Can we cast out the demons of white supremacy as they gloat and tweet and plan rallies? Can we raise the dead? I will be with you God told Moses. I will be with you Jesus told his disciples then and today.

Matthew’s gospel doesn’t downplay the difficulties. He mentions those who will refuse to listen, who will see it all as fake news. The gospel mentions hostile governors and kings, hateful, cynical, violent attempts at quashing the movement. He quotes Jesus saying I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; And the wolves will not all appear to be wolves. I’ve been hearing about some ugly, unashamed racism in both Upper West Side and Upper East Side mom’s groups. We’ve seen it with Amy Cooper in Central Park. We need to beware of the wolves who masquerade as sweet, white sheep hiding the fangs and claws of their racism.

In our Exodus story, when the people hear the call to use their spiritual privilege as God’s beloved for the sake of others, they answer as one:
Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do!  Hmm…

I imagine you can guess how that went. I didn’t read our second lesson but in it Paul tells the Romans we know God’s love because while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.We are justified by faith, not works. We stand in the grace of God. Our Exodus reading puts it a different, more poetic, way: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. To understand what this means it helps to read another eagle wings reference from the book of Deuteronomy chapter 32 where God is described as a mother eagle- Like the eagle that stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young, God spreads wings to catch you, and carries you on pinions.

The writers had observed the behavior of mother eagles. When it was time for the baby eagle chicks to leave their nest and learn to fly, the mother would stir up her nest, and basically push the babies out. Most of the time, they instinctually were able to flap their little wings and fly. But sometimes something didn’t go right and a baby eaglet would flail and fail to fly, falling and falling until it would crash but as soon as the mother eagle saw this about to happen she would swoop under the baby eagle with her strong broad wings and catch it and bear it up. …to safety so it could live to try another day.

When the Biblical writers saw the mother eagle doing this, they saw an image of God’s mercy and love come to rescue us, to catch us and lift us up to try again. We can’t count on perfection but that does not mean we cannot hope and work for real change and real progress. We will make mistakes. We will flail and fail and fall, but we have a God who comes to catch us and lift us up in order that we may keep on.

Most pastors and perhaps some of you, have been with a dying person who has remarked on others they see in the room with them. I’ve been with people near death who tell me about others in the room who I cannot see. Yet the dying person sees clear as day, a loved one who surely cannot be physically in the room because they have died, and yet, the dying see them, as if they are there as sure as the bed they lie in. It’s like they have come to accompany the dying person to lead them on their final journey.

When George Floyd cried out for his mama, I believe he saw her coming to him, ready to bear him up on her eagle’s wings and carry him home. Jesus sent her to him. And I believe that when we flail and fail, the mother eagle will appear, spreading out her strong wings to catch us and carry us that we can carry on until the day when ALL God’s beloved children are liberated from under the boots and bullets of Pharaoh’s armies. Until all God’s beloved children are free.