Preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on August 16th, 2020.
Text: Exodus 1.1-2.10
This is the first sermon in a seven-week series whose goal is to explore the intersections of justice and ecology.
I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.
On a lazy Saturday afternoon many years ago, a man was walking downstream alongside the bank of a wide, deep river in his hometown with a few of his friends. This river had a reputation for growing wild during the rainy season, always ready to overflow its banks with the slightest provocation by the weather. It was well known that this was not a river whose waters you could trust. But on this day, the air was clear, the sky limpid, and the surface of the river was smooth and unassuming. As the party continued down the bank of the river at a leisurely pace, they fell into a peaceful daydream as the perfect conditions beckoned them to relax further and further into the beauty of their surroundings.
All was well until, an hour or so into the walk, from upstream of them, a commotion rang out: splashing, hollering, yelling. The man thought it was just some kids playing in the water at first, and paid it no mind. But the yelling and splashing grew more and more insistent: between gushes and sloshes of limbs hitting water, the man could make out a cry for help: a person was in the river, caught in the strong but invisible current, and was about to drown. The person in the river was clearly not from around here and probably didn’t know not to go swimming in the river, but it didn’t matter.
Without thinking, the man on the riverbank stripped off his shirt and trousers and leapt into the river. He swam as hard as he could while his companions on the bank watched in horror. The man caught up to the person in the water: “don’t struggle!” he yelled as he hooked them around the waist. “Don’t struggle!” he yelled, again and again, until the stranger eased their thrashing for a moment. Then the man began floating them back to the shore.
With a little help from his friends on the riverbank, the man and the person who had been caught in the river flopped up onto the riverbank much like a pair of drunk walruses flopping onto an iceberg, coughing and panting. The person whom the man pulled from the river caught their breath, thanked their rescuer deeply, and continued on their way.
And so the party continued on their way down the river as their adrenaline slowly subsided from the incident. But as soon as they had calmed down a bit, another commotion came into earshot from upstream: splashing, thrashing, screaming, just as before. And so the man, who had just finished drip drying, jumped into the water again, pulled the victim out of the river’s current, and got them safely to shore before continuing their journey once again.
And then this happened a third time. As this third grateful person began to walk away, the man stepped away from his party and began to jog upstream. His friends called out to him: “where are you going?” He replied, “upstream!” They said, “why?” He said, “to find out why people keep falling into this river!”
When the water is troubled, go upstream.
Walk with me as we go upstream from that mythic moment where Pharaoh’s daughter draws a rogue basket out of the water and names its infant occupant “I drew him out.” Of course, Moses is one of the lucky ones: other Hebrew babies have been seen floating down the Nile, too, with no one to draw them out of the water. Upstream of Pharaoh’s act of genocide is Pharaoh’s fear of difference, of these strangers who have immigrated from parts unknown centuries before, these sojourners who threatened the fabric of Egyptian society and identity by their very presence, well, we can’t have that, can we?
Yet do we stop there? We can land on Pharaoh’s xenophobia as a character fault and simply peg it on that. I could pontificate for the next ten minutes about the dangers of xenophobia, and I can decry it, and we can make social media posts and agitate our friends at happy hour and beat our families over the head with it at Thanksgiving but ultimately we’re just pulling people out of the water.
That’s to say, xenophobes do not emerge in isolation. They don’t emerge from the womb that way. I’ve met a lot of babies and I have yet to meet a baby who is a white supremacist.
So how did Pharaoh get like that? How did Egypt get like that? And how did the Hebrews get into this situation in the first place? Because it’s quite a tone change from Joseph and his brothers being in Pharaoh’s pocket in verse 1 and the new Pharaoh who comes round in verse 8.
That’s what I want to offer us today, and that’s what the project of the next few weeks is: when the water is troubled, go upstream.
So what is upstream of xenophobia? What is upstream of white supremacy? What’s upstream of homophobia? What’s upstream of climate denial or or anti-vaxxing or of ableism? What’s upstream of our inability to, I don’t know, wear a mask and wash our hands? What’s upstream of the ways that people who claim to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth have not only been silently complicit but have actively endorsed and participated in these acts of violence, whether small or great?
Let’s follow the course of the Exodus story upstream: how did the Hebrews end up in Egypt in the first place? It all began with a famine, the very famine that Joseph predicted through interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh. That same famine allowed Joseph to rise to prominence in Pharaoh’s household, and that same famine drove Joseph’s estranged brothers into the arms of reconciliation with one another. That’s how the Israelites ended up in Egypt. We could follow that upstream to the jealousy Joseph’s brothers had for him, we could follow that to the conflicts between Joseph’s father Israel and his brother Esau, and on backward, all the way to Eden, if we wish.
At each turn of the story of Joseph and his ancestors, which in turn becomes the story of Moses, his people, and their descendants, we see that there’s this kind of division, this kind of rift, that’s not actually a rift at all. And yet this rift is something that we cannot ignore if we want to look to the troubles of today and address them.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot that we are not separate from what we call “nature,” and we forgot that we are not separate from each other, and we forgot that we are not actually separate from “God.” God doesn’t just create humans and drop them into the universe: through the universe God generates humans, and all conscious life, like a seed that becomes a plant that then puts out leaf and flower and fruit.
If you think I’m being weird and New Age-y, I refer you to Acts 16, where St Paul quotes the philosopher Aratus of Cilicia when he’s giving his TED Talk in Athens: “In God we live and move and have our very being.” Everything that exists exists in God, for the sake of love.
We are caught in the stupefying dream that we are somehow set apart and special among all the orders of creation. And this fiction suggests that such a rift extends to the space between us and other kinds of humans, and between us and the natural world. Accordingly, we think that, because we’re separate from nature and from God and from each other, that the only way to make it is to have enough of something that’s not us—whether it’s food or shelter or the love of God or other people—to ensure our security. And to do that, we have to win: life ceases to be play and becomes work and toil and striving.
I’d venture a guess that a good word for this illusion of separation between us and God and nature is “hell.” That’s how “hell” is defined by numerous red-faced hypertensive perspiring preachers as they waggle a Bible over our heads like a threat. But I actually think they’re right in a way. Because, when we behave as though “hell,” as though the illusion of separation from God and nature and each other, is a real thing, that we’re all separate from one another and we’re competing with one another over a single slice of the pie of existence, well, that’s when we create hell on earth, isn’t it?
The Franciscan friar Richard Rohr writes, “Every single creature—the teen mother nursing her child, every one of the twenty thousand species of butterflies, an immigrant living in fear, a blade of grass, you reading this book—” and you hearing this sermon, and me preaching it, I might add— “all are ‘in Christ’ and ‘chosen from the beginning.’ What else could they be?”
Friends, because there is no separation between us and the world of nature, between us and God, between us and one another, there is also no separation between our troubles and the troubles that other people face, whether those people are human or not. To forget this is to die, in a way. To forget this is a real hell.
The illusion of separation continues to flood the Western psyche even today. So when the cool and still bodies of drowned Hebrew infants began to trouble the waters of the Nile in Egypt, when the cool and still bodies of those who have died of COVID or those who have been murdered by police cry out to God, they cry out for us to remember that we are not separate from them.
Is their cry a call to be outraged? Perhaps. But is it a call to perform our outrage on social media or in sermons for the sake of ensuring that we’ve secured our position as a member among the moral elite? Probably not. “And the cries of the Israelites reached God, and he remembered their plight,” say the storytellers of Exodus.
The cry of the suffering is a call to remember. To remember that anything that separates me from you is a falsehood. To remember that anything that separates us from the rest of the created world with all of its manifold diversity is a lie. To remember that anything we believe separates us from the loving presence of God is baloney.
It is for good reason then that all of the Hebrew Bible’s commands to show hospitality are underpinned with the command to “remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” And it is for good reason that we follow Jesus’ instructions to his friends: “do this in remembrance of me.” Amen.