23 August 2020
This morning my main focus is on the Exodus reading that we’ve heard today. I invite us to consider that it recalls events based in ancient times and provides us with a context in which we are able to evaluate the domestic politics and foreign policy of our times, as we view what’s happening in our world through 21st Century ‘Christian’ eyes.
As a child I clearly recall listening to and acting out the story of Joseph – the forerunner of the Moses in today’s story. Joseph was the one labelled ‘dreamer’. We dressed in overlarge shirts and wrapped our loins with striped beach towels, modelling what we understood of a story set in a different place and time. Some years later I found the story became even more accessible when it was set to music by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber, performed on both stage and screen as ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’. Perhaps the real story became sanitised through such drama.
As children we marvelled as the Exodus account developed into the legend of Moses in the bulrushes: this Moses the one who leads his people out of Egypt into a place labelled ‘the promised land’. A richly idealised story of the refugee Israelites fleeing famine, and finding refuge in Egypt some many years later, becomes an account of reaction to race-based intolerance and exploiting leading to liberation. The ‘promised land’ offered the hope of new beginnings and opportunities. Both the Joseph and Moses stories acted out in Sunday School pageants and recitations: provided teachable moments used to reinforce notions that good times follow bad times, that good triumphs over evil, that selflessness will have its rewards – each one overlayed with a slight hint that human values of kindness and compassion will eventually shine through regardless of the ethnicity or religion of those involved. Is this what you remember?
Now as I read the book of Exodus with adult eyes there is much more to these stories. They’re timeless legends from which we may extract many layers of understanding. Today’s reading can no longer be remembered as a story solely telling of the birth and upbringing of a boy: an Israelite boy with the good fortune to be discovered by a warm-hearted Royal motherly Egyptian woman. It’s a story that exposes, for those with eyes to see, the institutional and systemic racism of the time, wrapped up in horrific accounts of genocide and infanticide. It is about a dominant group attempting to maintain power in their crumbling world as they loose their numerical advantage. It’s a story about the exploitation of an underclass that is racially and religiously different.
If we choose to read the story this way we do see signs of hope: a hope that springs from the actions of those who refuse to be coerced into behaving in a way that discriminates against and dehumanises people facing scourges they can not escape. In our world we see many examples in lands far away that call out to be challenged and where faith communities are to the forefront of the resistance. We applaud those who take a stand over there. Do we see similar events here in Aotearoa? Do we have similar feelings towards those who campaign for justice in our backyard?
It is easy to identify inequalities in places that are overseas and events that we see on our TV screens as filtered by news agencies. We view refugees fleeing political, social and religious terror.
Since COVID-19 has infected our world we hear less than we did about the horrors of those fleeing Africa and the Middle East seeking sanctuary in Europe, those Rohingya escaping oppression oppression in Myanmar, of boat people detained in Nauru. We worry about children separated from parents at the Mexican – USA border , and transported into detention camps with minimal facilities.
It’s easy to state what’s wrong over there. It’s much more difficult to evaluate indicators of a growing social divide in our own country and to respond to inequalities closer to home. We too have children separated from parents at birth. Reports are that they’re predominantly of one ethnic group. This week there was the release of a study about the effects of streaming in schools, citing students being channelled into less demanding educational courses based on their ethnicity. The study concluded that for many they become the modern-day equivalent of those Israelite slaves building new cities in the desert, to benefit those holding social and economic power. Viewed through this lens this story set in ancient times has a very modern ring to it.
We live in the 21st Century. We view our world with a ‘Christian’ perspective. Our perspective has grown out of those words of Jesus in today’s Gospel story where Matthew has Jesus asking a series of questions. The last of these is very direct: “But who do you say that I am?” What we hear are not abstract theological questions. One commentator I have read this week suggests that these three questions are designed by Matthew to allow us to see that this Jesus is the one who can sway our thinking towards the divine image of God active in our world through acts of compassion, signs of unconditional love and evidence of the gift of inexhaustible grace.
In our world television has invaded our lounges to let the outside world in often in stunning, troubling ways. Globalisation is thrusting us together as never before. Every event modifies and affects very other event. That commentator referred to says that as we are exposed to all of this, we need courageous, honest and cooperative leadership. That is courageous, honest and cooperative leadership in politics. That is courageous, honest and cooperative leadership in our religious life.
Canadian, Gretta Vosper, writing in her 2008 book ‘With or Without God’ offers a blessing for us when she says: “The world you go into is filled with challenges, with crises, with pain,
with disappointment. You go as a people who know these things intimately because you have felt them, experienced them, railed against them. Go now as those who not only see what the world is but what we can make it be, and may your hands, your heart, your voice be turned toward making it so. Go in peace.”
We respond positively to such encouragement. It grounds us. It enables us to face the challenges of today –and tomorrow – even when we do not know what they are or will be.
Our tradition is based on and moulded by our understanding of God the creator and source of all life. We are charged to read our scriptures with open eyes so that we make informed responses to the trials that we face and the encounters we have with others. We are charged to adopt open hearts to ensure that our efforts reflect a commitment to being neighbourly and inclusive of everyone.
May God be with us on this journey. So be it! Amen