Desmond Tutu once said, “I’m not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I’m a prisoner of hope.” These words rattled in my head as I heard the devastating news this week. My heart ached as I asked my black brothers and sisters, “What shall we say?” My heart ached for my friends who know all too well the deadly sting of racism and the violence that comes with it. My heart ached for people I respect and love who wear a badge and serve their community as officers. I cried over a world and a nation that nurtures hate and exercises violence against their neighbors. I tell ya: “I’m not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I’m a prisoner of hope.” And, that is the reason I preach today.
The sun beat down on the top of his aging head. The spindly shrub did little to provide shade. The sun was always unrelenting in the desert. Moses sat at the base of the mountain; some called it Horeb, some called it Sinai, still others called it the mountain of God. He sat watching his father-in-law’s sheep graze, much as he had for the past forty years.
His desert life, a hard life, was far removed from the luxury he had known before coming to the desert… escaping to the wilderness. The sandy hills were barren compared to the lush, fertile soil of the Nile. The life of the shepherd hardly compared to life as a prince.
Moses had grown up in Pharaoh’s house, although it was pretty obvious early on that he wasn’t Egyptian. He was a Hebrew – a people enslaved to Pharaoh. Yet, somehow, Pharaoh’s daughter had taken him in and raised him as her own. He enjoyed the finest in dining, education, clothing, housing, and sport. He had power and authority. His face was recognized anywhere he went. Heads would bow and nod to show him honor. But, here in the desert, sheep were the only subjects over which he ruled… and they didn’t seem too impressed by his previous status as a prince.
Moses recalled walking the streets of Egypt, admiring the splendor and wealth of the nation. Egypt was growing, expanding, swelling ever more powerful. Life seemed great. There was so much to enjoy, so much to see, so much to do.
But, over time, Moses began to look more closely, to observe beneath the surface of Egypt’s beauty and power. He looked past their military strength, their economic prowess, their political power, their social and economic domination. Moses saw massive construction projects being built by those who lived in the tent cities in the poorest parts of town outside the walls. He saw the thin, emaciated brown bodies that serving food to rich, fat rulers. Egypt’s entire society was built on the backs of sun-kissed bodies. For four hundred years Egypt crushed those bodies and ground them into dust, while Pharaoh and the rest of the Egyptian power-holders profited and prospered – all at the expense of those expendable, sun-kissed bodies.
For four hundred years, Egypt used, abused, and discarded brown bodies in service to economic, political, and Egyptian societal gain. Four hundred years of injustice visited upon the Hebrews. Four hundred years of oppression. Four hundred years of groaning under the whip of Pharaoh. Four hundred years of resentment building up pressure that might explode. Four hundred years of Pharaoh building a system that capitalized on the oppression of others.
We might imagine that this is all in the past, by-gone history, water under the bridge. But, it’s sad to say, Pharaoh is ever so much alive and kicking. Violence against brown and black bodies has been happening for more than four hundred years in these lands we call home.
We have benefitted from the labor of brown and black bodies. We have been made more comfortable by brown and black bodies. We have raised ourselves up on the backs of brown and black bodies. And, we continue to utilize oppression the world around to maintain our power and privilege over those same bodies. For well over four hundred years we have enjoyed the well-being of Pharaoh and Egypt, while others languished under our whips. For over four hundred years anger has festered and violence has been the only way we know to diffuse the growing tensions… But, there is no lasting peace won by the sword.
Moses shook his head, remembering his failure, his inability to change anything. It was a problem too big to tackle. It was overwhelming. He couldn’t overcome the odds. All of his power had been exhausted in trying to change the system… and he failed. He had resigned himself to accept that things are the way they are and that nothing would ever change. Egypt was too powerful. The desert was a place to hide from the world’s problems, like an ostrich with its head in the sand.
He recalled his anger at the whip masters. His fist balled up and his jaw clenched as he saw the brutality visited upon the slashed backs hunched over in agony. His body shook as the rage threatened to swallow him up. That’s why he was in the desert – he had allowed his rage to consume him.
He was walking through the streets of Egypt one day when he saw an Egyptian dressed in blue, wearing a badge of authority, using a club to beat and batter one of the Hebrews. Moses didn’t even think, he jumped on top of the Egyptian officer and beat him until the man lay motionless on the ground in a heap. The man’s head was bleeding and Moses realized the man was dead. Without ceremony, Moses buried the man in an unmarked grave and swore the Hebrew man to secrecy.
But, Moses’ secret leaked out. He learned that his sins were live-tweeted online and broadcast on the local news. Social media blew up and Moses knew his time was short before Pharaoh would kill him. So, he ran. He ran away into the desert. And forty years passed, but the pain and disappointment never faded, they only grew deeper. Moses had tried to change things but the system was too big. Moses thought violence was the answer, but that caused him to lose his influence and sent him into exile. What is to be done when the broken system is so powerful and seemingly impervious to our protests and our call for change?
Do you recall why Israel became slaves? Pharaoh was trying to deal with Egypt’s illegal immigrant problem. Israel, in Pharaoh’s eyes, was a huge liability. They were becoming numerous – quite a voting bloc to contend with if another nation decided to attack Egypt. The final solution? Put a burden so heavy on their shoulders that it would break their back. Kill their children. Kill their future.
Much like Pharaoh, we don’t mind turning our eyes away while others are used and abused. We don’t mind being blissfully ignorant of our nation’s oppressive practices, especially if we benefit from the arrangement. We love living in a nation of political prominence, economic excellence, technological transcendence, societal “superiority.” We rarely think about the devastating impact we are having on other nations to maintain our escalating hunger for more wealth and comfort. We sing about those things as if it is God’s very blessing upon us… when in reality, we have grabbed those things like Pharaoh by building our power and privilege on a mound of black and brown bodies. And, standing in the pile of those bones, we rejoice with pride at the work we claim our hands have made. But, in turn, we ignore the hands held open asking to receive a small pittance from the table of our comfort – primarily because those hands look so different from our hands, because they might take away some of what we claim as our God-given birthright.
Moses, like the sniper that killed five Dallas police officers, took matters into his own hands. He was filled with rage at the injustice of the system and killed an Egyptian officer. The denial of justice in society created a ticking time bomb that erupted in violence and death. Unlike Moses, Micah Johnson learned too late that violence only births violence, it does not create justice. Micah decided to live by the gun and he died by the bomb. Violence did not solve the problem, but only escalated the violence. Violence in Dallas tore apart six families, destroyed six lives, and still nothing has changed. We are just as divided and just as violent. Even if we don’t use weapons for violence, often times our words are weaponized for violent means. We use our words just as effectively as guns to kill and wound. Violence will continue to spill out into our communities until we deal with our society’s injustice toward black and brown bodies. Violence will continue to spill over into our communities until we forsake our thirst for violence and violent retribution.
Something caught the corner of Moses’ eye. A shrub nearby seemed to have caught fire. God, it was hot out here. He sat watching the shrub burn… and burn… and burn. Yet, as Moses watched the shrub he noticed that nothing really changed. The shrub remained the same size and shape. No ash gathered at the base. In fact, the shrub looked amazingly unharmed. He stood and walked toward the strange bonfire: “I’ve got to check this out, why isn’t this bush torched?”
God was watching, waiting. When Moses started moving toward the bush, God called to him, “Hey, Moses!”
Moses replied, “Hey, it’s me!”
God said, “Stop dead in your tracks! Take off your shoes, this ain’t no regular dirt. This ground is different because it’s set apart, holy. Allow me to introduce Myself: My name is I’M GONNA BE WHO I’M GONNA BE. I AM the God of your family, the God of your people all the way back to Abraham.”
Moses dropped to the ground and buried his face in the sand. He was deathly afraid to catch a glimpse of God.
God continued: “I’ve been taking notes on my people in Egypt, their cries are like a megaphone blaring out their suffering under their slave-masters. I have experienced their pain and suffering. Now, I’m jumping into the fray to pull them out of this pit and to bring them to a better living space. You better believe Israel’s tears and wailing have caught my ear and my eyes have spied Egypt’s violent and hateful treatment of them. And, guess what!? You, Moses, are going to be the person that rescues Israel for Me from Egypt.
Moses was probably ecstatic to hear that after four hundred years, God was going to deliver Israel. I can imagine tears of joy streaming down his face. Then, like a deer in the headlights: “’Scuse me, You’re sending who? I hate to throw a wrench in Your machine, God, but I’m nobody. I’m not powerful anymore. I’ve got no juice. I don’t have the same swag I used to. I don’t have that kind of influence. I’m a criminal on the run, marked to be shot on sight. Maybe You need to find somebody else for Your dirty work.”
God told Moses, “Stop sweating! I’m going with you. That’s how you’ll know I sent you. And when you’re done freeing Israel, bring them back to this mountain to celebrate with Me.”
Moses wasn’t done giving excuses yet. “Well, God, what do You expect me to tell everyone when they ask who sent me? When they ask me the Name of the One I’m representing, what should I tell them?”
If God had eyebrows, they would’ve been raised: “Look, ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be.’ Tell ‘em ‘I’m Gonna Be Who I’m Gonna Be’ sent ya. Tell Israel, ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of your family and people since Abraham sent ya to them!”
God didn’t stop there: “Go, get the people together, grab all of the leaders and tell them: ‘Gonna Be,’ the God of this family since the time of Abraham showed up and told me: ‘I reviewed the video footage of what’s happening to you in Egypt. I’m busting you outta there and taking y’all to a place with plenty of good things for everyone. They’ll feel what you’re saying, Moses. Then, take Israel’s leaders with you and go on up to talk with President of Egypt, Pharaoh. Tell Pharaoh, ‘God showed up. Let us go out to the wilderness to celebrate with God.’”
(Pause) God takes note of the marginalized and oppressed. Their suffering is engraved in the palm of God’s hand. Their cry pierces God’s heart like a spear jabbed in the ribs. Their spilled blood runs down like red rivers down God’s thorn-pricked brow. God knows the suffering of the destitute and dispossessed; the down-and-out and the downtrodden; the denigrated and the denied. God knows their suffering as God’s own suffering.
And God wanted Moses to know it, too. Sure, it was a bush on fire – nothing particularly special about that. But, that fiery bush erupted in images of bodies lying cold on the pavement. And God stood right in the middle of that fire so that the bush wasn’t consumed. When God is present in the midst of the fire, even when the heat is most intense, God can preserve a dried up branch from being consumed.
God catches Moses’ attention with the fiery bush. God draws Moses’ vision to the fires that seek to destroy God’s Creation, God’s people. Moses begins to observe and pay attention to the flames of oppression, the flames that destroy community. And, in seeing the fiery climate that threatens a vulnerable community, Moses’ heart is ignited by God’s Spirit to move. Moses’ move toward the flaming bush is a step toward God. But, God isn’t interested in just one step: “Take off your shoes, Moses, because I’m going to need both of your feet for this job.”
The news over this past year may be our burning bush. Ferguson. Baltimore. Orlando. Baton Rouge. Charleston. St. Paul. Dallas. God may be trying to get us to recognize our addiction to violence. God may be opening our eyes to the deep-seated racism still entrenched within us and within our society. God may be calling our attention to the fire-storm of hatred that leads to violence against others and the ambivalence which permits it to continue unchecked.
In recognizing, instead of ignoring, the fires that threaten to consume us all, we take one step toward God, but God says, “Now, I need both feet. I’m sending you to represent me and to set my people free. Free from violence. Free from hatred. Free from the denial of our responsibility for these problems. Free from ignoring our responsibility to change our way of life. Now, I need both feet, not just one foot… You’re standing on holy ground. Quit hanging your head in the desert, avoiding the problems of Egypt. Get in the game – the flames won’t consume you, I’m going with you!”
God warns Moses, despite God’s presence on this journey, it’s going to be hard work. God says, “Don’t be shocked. I know Pharaoh isn’t going to budge and let you leave. He won’t change his mind unless he sees something greater than himself. And, I’m about to reach out and slap Egypt upside the head with wonders, then Pharaoh will let you go. And you won’t leave empty handed either. I’m going to help you leave this place with Egypt’s wealth on your wrist, and new threads on your body and kicks on your feet, both you and your kids are going to be dressed to the nines, while Egypt will be stripped buck naked.”
God warns Moses, God warns us, confronting Egypt is difficult, dangerous work. Don’t be shocked at the resistance to changing the way our society operates. Confronting our broken system is hard, dangerous work because not everyone wants it to change. Some are happy to keep the present arrangement – like Pharaoh – and will even use violence to protect it. Protesting the wicked corruption of a society that gives advantage to some through the disadvantage of others, may result in crucifixion.
But know that God has already declared victory over the powers of injustice, violence, and death. God has announced victory over systems of oppression that maintain those systems of injustice. God says that those society’s will one day be stripped naked, laid bare. Their glory will be their shame. Their pride will be their ruin. Their violent power will be turned back on itself. Pharaoh wouldn’t relent from his ways until he saw something greater than himself; his arrogance kept him from seeing anything greater than himself. It led to his ruin. Let’s not be so prideful as to think that there is nothing greater than ourselves – lest we be stripped naked and our shame laid bare for all to see.
Where do we find God in the midst of such tragedies as we have witnessed this week? If we wonder where God is at work, we will find God right in the heart of the fires that threaten to consume. Where lives are being torn apart, God is working to mend them. Where people are being torn down, God is working to build up. Where people are being destroyed, God is working to bring new life. It may be dangerous work, but there’s riches untold in joining our hands with God’s hands, which then joins our hands with the hands of those who are oppressed and marginalized in our world.
God is taking note of the violence and the oppression in our own neighborhoods and communities. God knows that suffering as God’s own suffering. God has jumped into the fray. God wants us to know that suffering as well and to jump with both feet into the fires of injustice to free God’s people. And we will know it was God that sent us because God will go with us, preserving us through the flames unto everlasting life. “I’m not optimistic, no. I’m quite different. I’m hopeful. I’m a prisoner of hope.”