I pitched in for our lectio continua series through Exodus this weekend by preaching on Exodus 5. In advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation (and possibly because we spent so much time this summer in Romans), I’ve been rereading a lot of Luther and it shows. In a good way, I think.
Back in the halcyon days of the 2012 campaign, poor Mitt Romney caught flack for suggesting that “illegal aliens” self-deport. In-artfully put perhaps but at least Mitt Romney never suggested enslavement as an option.
And sure, Donald Trump’s proposed border wall is cost-prohibitive and deeply unpopular but, give him some credit- everyone’s always piling on the Donald, he had the decency to insist that Mexico pay for the wall.
Donald didn’t say the dreamers should build the wall, brick by brick, and now that Steve Bannon is out of the administration it’s highly unlikely that drowning baby boys will be proposed as possible immigration policy though, admit it, if you saw that floated as an idea on Breitbart later this afternoon it wouldn’t surprise you.
I’m going to get emails about that.
My point is-
It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture text.
It would be easy to preach a certain kind of sermon on this scripture. If you were draw a Venn Diagram between our world today and Pharaoh’s world, there’d be a lot of uncomfortable overlap in the middle. It’s hard to read the first chapters of Exodus and not hear the contemporary resonance.
The Exodus story starts out- what provokes the plot in the first place- is an immigration crisis.
This is important: the Israelites didn’t begin as slaves in Egypt; they became enslaved by Egypt. Pharaoh’s quandary wasn’t what to do with the dreamers, the children of illegal immigrants. His quandary was what to do with the children of the dream-reader, Joseph.
Between the Book of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, famine- which in an agrarian society meant not only hunger but economic hardship- forced Joseph’s people, the Israelites, to migrate, as refugees, crossing over the border to their north in search of opportunity.
Sound familiar? Like I said, a certain sort of sermon almost writes itself.
When the Book of Exodus opens, Joseph the dream-reader has died and with him the favor he curried with Pharaoh. It’s not long that Jospeh’s in the ground before there’s grumbling about his people:
Those immigrants…they have so many kids…they’re overrunning the place.
That’s Exodus 1.9
Those illegals…they don’t assimilate…they should learn the language… they’re a drain on the system…they’re changing what made Egypt great.
That’s Exodus 1.10 (Anne Coulter Paraphrase Edition)
So what’s Pharaoh do?
He doesn’t ask them to self-deport. He enslaves them.
He doesn’t build a wall. He forces them to build pyramids and cities.
Again- the Israelites didn’t start out as slaves in Egypt; slavery was a strategy to slow their birth rate. Having recently discovered I’m Jewish, I can tell you- it’s hard to keep our libido down.
Enslavement didn’t work as population control so then Pharaoh tries infanticide, ordering the abortion of Israelite boys mid-delivery- that’s how baby Moses ends up in an ark on the Nile.
And when abortion didn’t work, Pharaoh resorted to making their work cruel and arbitrary, forcing them not only to make bricks but to gather the materials for them without adjusting their quota a single brick.
A certain kind of sermon almost writes itself.
It would be easy to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture.
I could easily unpack the context beneath this text, and I could connect it in an obvious intuitive way to contemporary issues from DACA to the wall to the refugee crisis, from sex-trafficking to the slavery stitched into your clothes to the number of black men killed by cops without a conviction.
And I could localize it for you, telling you about the dreamer in our own congregation or about the woman who worships here who works for the International Justice Mission fighting slavery and sex-trafficking.
It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on a scripture like this, and the imperative in that sort of sermon is obvious too: God is for them.
The oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized; the immigrant and the refugee- God is for them.
In the Catholic Church, it’s called God’s preferential option for the poor. In other words, God is on the side of the least, the lost, and the left behind. God does not forget them. God hears their cries. God does not forget them.
God is for them and- here comes the imperative- as God’s People you have a duty.
You have a duty to be for them too.
You have a duty to stand up, to speak out, to resist, to persist against systems of inequality and exploitation and oppression.
You have a duty to stand up and, like Moses to Pharaoh, say: “Thus says the Lord: Let my People go..”
It would be an easy sort of sermon to preach.
And if I did, some of you would complain that I was preaching politics. You’d feel judged for being on the wrong side of the issues.
Others of you would congratulate me for preaching your politics. You’d feel justified that you’re on the right side of the issues.
Of course, it’s not your politics or your politics but God’s politics.
It’s God’s Law, God’s commands.
It’s God’s Law that we are to treat the illegal immigrant on our land as a native born. Love them as yourself, God commands, for once you were an alien in Egypt. It’s God’s Law that we love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s God Law that we forgive the debts of the poor. And Jesus gives us his own Law. Jesus commands us to work for justice. If someone asks us for a handout, Jesus commands us to give them that and more. Jesus commands us to feed the hungry as though the hungry were hm. And what’s even worse, Jesus doesn’t just command those actions. He commands that you do them for the right reasons. God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intentions in your heart, Jesus says, right before he says “Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.”
It would be easy to preach that sort of sermon on this scripture.
God is for them.
You have a a duty to be for them too.
Like Moses to Pharaoh, go and do likewise.
It would be easy to preach that kind of sermon and back it up with a list of God’s Laws. It wouldn’t be wrong to preach that sort of sermon- that sort of sermon gets preached in churches every Sunday.
It wouldn’t be unbiblical to preach that sort of sermon- God’s commands are clear and uncompromising.
It would be simple to preach a certain sort of sermon on this scripture, but I wonder- would it be the Gospel?
Or would it-
Would it take the good gift, the grace, that is the Gospel
and turn it into a burden?
Would it turn the Gospel into a work of forced labor that leaves you exhausted and full resentment?
Would it leave you thinking of God as a kind of Pharaoh, with the same complaint for him on your lips as Moses: “Why have you brought this trouble in my life, Lord?”
In “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” an article in The Hedgehog Review, Wilfred McClay, who is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma, argues that the modern world prophesied by the Friedrich Nietzsche has not obeyed the script written for it.
Nietzsche, McClay reminds us, was confident that once God was functionally dead in western civilization and western culture was liberated from the slavey of religion then the moral reflexes we’d developed under that system of oppression would disappear.
We would be free, Nietzsche predicted.
After the West’s exodus from religion generally and Christianity particularly, all would be permitted as the bonds of the old morality were broken, especially, Nietzsche predicted, the bonds of guilt.
With the West’s exodus from Christianity, guilt would disappear.
Nietzsche believed guilt was an irrational fear promulgated by oppressive systems of religion and erected in the name of a punitive taskmaster God, McClay writes.
The modern secular age, Nietzsche promised, would usher in freedom, freedom from guilt.
He was wrong.
Strangely, McClay says, guilt has persisted as a psychological force in the modern world. Guilt hasn’t disappeared as Nietzsche augured. Guilt hasn’t even lingered. It’s metastasized, McClay writes, “into an ever more powerful and pervasive element in the life of the contemporary west.”
Guilt hasn’t disappeared with the rise of secularism; it’s gotten worse. It’s metastasized because of what McClay calls “the infinite extensibility of guilt, which is a byproduct of modernity’s proudest achievement: it’s ceaseless capacity to comprehend and control the physical world.”
In other words, McClay is saying what Uncle Ben says to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And in the modern world, we have more power over the physical world than we’ve ever had and, with it, we’ve discovered what Uncle Ben didn’t bother to mention to Peter Parker: “With great responsibility comes great guilt.”
McClay puts it more eloquently than Stan Lee: “Responsibility is the seedbed of guilt.”
And this sense of responsibility and accompanying guilt, McClay argues, is exacerbated by a connected, globalized, 24/7 world. In such a constantly connected world, he writes, “the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore our potential guilt, steadily expands.”
What Friedrich Nietzsche couldn’t foresee is how the interconnectedness of all things- available to us at our fingertips- means there is nothing for which we cannot be, in some way, held responsible.
It’s not just that you can’t go to Costco without getting hassled by the panhandler at the light; it’s that now in this constantly connected world you can’t swipe your debit card at Safeway without the screen asking you to give money to end childhood hunger.
“I can see pictures of a starving child in a remote corner of the world on my television, and know for a fact that I could travel to that faraway place and relieve that child’s immediate suffering, if I cared to. I don’t do it, but I know I could…
Either way, some measure of guilt would seem to be my inescapable lot, as an empowered man living in an interconnected world.
Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough, or support medical research enough, or otherwise do the things that would render me morally blameless…
In a world of relentlessly proliferating knowledge, there is no easy way of deciding how much guilt is enough, and how much is too much.”
McClay goes on in his article to suggest that the reason our collective fuse is so short, the reason we’re so quick to blame and scapegoat and demonize and point the finger and virtue-signal, the reason we’re so easily outraged and offended, the reason we’re so eager to hide in like-minded tribes and jump down the other side’s throats is because we’re sick.
We’re burdened down with guilt. We’re pervasively desperate “to find innocence through absolution.”
As a culture, we’ve lost the means to discharge our moral burden. We’ve lost the means to find forgiveness.
If McClay is correct- and I think it only takes a few seconds on social media to confirm that he is- then the sermon that would be easy to preach today is not the sermon you need to hear.
The other sort of sermon, the go and do sort of sermon-
It wouldn’t be wrong; it just wouldn’t be the Gospel. It would be the opposite of the Gospel. It would be the Law not the Gospel, what the Book of Romans calls the way of death because it ends in guilt and frustration and, ultimately, despair because you can never do enough.
God’s Law commands us to love our neighbor as ourself, no matter their skin color or immigration status. God’s Law does command us to love the refugee among us. God’s Law does command us to love our enemies and pray for them, to treat the poor and the desperate as through they were Christ, and to welcome the stranger.
And some of you live up to those commands better than others, but do you do so all the time?
For the right reasons? Because Jesus says if you’ve done his commands without your heart in it, it’s no different than not having done it all.
St. Paul says the purpose of the Law, the purpose of all those expectations and exhortations in scripture, is to shut your mouth up (Romans 3.19), to convict you that you are not righteous and on your own you cannot stand justified before God.
Martin Luther paraphrased that part of St. Paul as lex semper accusat:
The Law always accuses.
That is, the purpose of the Law is to convince you that you’re a sinner in need of a savior. The oughts of the Law (you ought to love your neighbor as yourself) are meant to reveal are all your cannots, that no matter how ‘good’ you are you fall short fall short.
The reason Jesus adds intention to action (God judges not the deeds of your hands but the intent in your heart), the reason Jesus ratchets up the degree of difficulty all the way to perfection (Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect) is so that we’ll have no other resort but to throw ourselves on the mercy of him who was perfect in our place.
“Christ,” Paul says, “is the end of the Law.”
The Law’s obligations have been fulfilled by him. By his faithfulness all the way unto a cross. And there on the cross, your failures to follow the Law have been paid by him.
The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure.
God is not a Pharaoh.
The Gospel is the good news that on the cross God has met you in your failure and forgiven you.
You don’t need Christ to tell you that you should love your neighbor as yourself. Every religion tells you that you should love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s not news. That’s moralism.
What is news; what is unique to Christianity alone; what is the Gospel- is the message that in Jesus Christ God became your neighbor and loved you as himself even though you loved him not.
The Gospel is not a list of demands that you have a duty to fulfill or fear failure. The Gospel is the news that God has met you in your failure.
God has met you in your failure to love your neighbor as yourself.
God has met you in your failure to give generously to the poor.
God has met you in your failure to be a good mother.
God has met you in your failure to be a loving husband, to be a patient sister or a compassionate son, or an understanding daughter.
God has met you in your failure and God has forgiven you.
This never stops being true for you.
No matter how many times you drive past the panhandler on the Costco corner. No matter how many times you press ‘No’ on the Safeway screen. No matter how many times you click through the latest outrage you know you should care more about.
God has met you in your failures and by his own blood said “I forgive you” so that your sins become his and his righteousness becomes yours, permanently and forever.
Your sins and failures of faith- they’re not just forgiven, they’re erased. “Your slate is more than clean. It’s brand new, perpetually so” (Law and Gospel).
It’s true that God hears the cries of the oppressed and the exploited. It’s true that God does not forget them. But the Gospel is that when it comes to your sins, God does forget.
The absolution that is in Christ’s blood is a kind of divine amnesia, Paul Zahl says, a forgiving and forgetting of all your failures to be faithful.
This is true for Moses, who killed a man and buried him in the sand. And it’s true for Pharaoh, whose heart was already hard on his own. And it’s true for Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. And it’s true even for you.
It’s God’s grace.
It’s the gift we call the Gospel.
And it’s not a cheap gift. It’s not even an expensive gift. It’s free (Robert Capon).
Professor McClay concludes his essay with this assertion:
“For all its achievements, modern science has left us with at least two overwhelmingly important, and seemingly insoluble, problems for the conduct of human life. First, modern science cannot instruct us in how to live, since it cannot provide us with the ordering ends according to which our human strivings should be oriented. In a word, it cannot tell us what we should live for.
And second, science cannot do anything to relieve the guilt weighing down our souls, a weight that seeks opportunities for release but finds no obvious or straightforward ones in the secular dispensation.
Instead, more often than not we are left to flail about, seeking some semblance of absolution in an incoherent post-Christian moral economy that has not entirely abandoned the concept of sin but lacks the transactional power of absolution. What is to be done?
One conclusion seems unavoidable. Those who have viewed the exodus of religion as the modern age’s signal act of human liberation need to reconsider their dogmatic assurance on that point. Indeed, the persistent problem of guilt may open up an entirely different basis for reconsidering the enduring claim of Christianity.”
That’s a history professor, not a preacher.
The certain sort of sermon that would be easy to preach on a scripture like today’s text- it’s not the message the modern world needs to hear. The world doesn’t need more moralism. The world needs the Gospel.
Standing up, speaking out, resisting systems of injustice and oppression- those are needful, noble acts but they are actions that don’t need the Church.
The Church is not the only people standing up and speaking out for social justice.
By contrast, the Church is the only People on earth commissioned by God with the authority to announce, to victims and victimizers alike, “Your sins are forgiven.” That’s our unique vocation.
Just as the Old Testament declares that God called Moses to be his ambassador to Pharaoh to announce “Let my people go,” the New Testament declares that God has called you and I, by our baptisms into his Holy Church, to be ambassadors of the Gospel.
And the Gospel is not the Law.
The Gospel is not a list of demands you have a duty to follow but the news, the good news, that in Jesus Christ you have been delivered from what you deserve.
Your slate is isn’t just clean; it’s new every morning.
The God who does not forget his People does forgive and forget their sins.
The Gospel is not “Go and do…”; the Gospel is “It has been done.”
This news of what has been done, this news of the free gift of God- this alone makes the “Go and do” possible.
You can go and do only when you know it has been done (because no one deserves for you to go and do to them out of guilt).
This news alone liberates us to stand up for justice and work against oppression, for, as the closing hymn says, only the Gospel has the power to transform duty into choice and slaves into children.