As I was processing out of Church after this sermon, a disillusioned Viet Nam vet, who said his heart is still “torn apart,” handed me a note that said,“I don’t’ know if God exists, but if so, I want it to be the God you spoke of this morning.” Wanting God to exist is way better than just holding the opinion God exists without it really mattering. I pray that the god Moses met on Horeb is a god you want to exist and that such a god does.
Today’s lesson from Exodus is the biggest zinger
of a surprise in all religious literature.
Everything in the Bible turns on this.
But in order for us to get it,
we need to do a little trick with our minds.
We have to forget about everything that happens in the Bible
leading up to this moment.
The reason is: those beautiful and deeply true myths and legends
would not be written until hundreds of years after the event
in today’s lesson.
This text would do a lot more to shape those stories
than they could shape this event.
So forget all that.
Let me tell you another story instead – the story of religion
before Moses met God on Mt. Horeb.
Stone Age hunter-gatherers had some primitive religion,
but we don’t know much about it,
except that it was a pretty unstructured thing
done by guys out in the bear caves.
Formal structured religion was born with the invention of agriculture
around 10,000 BC.
Once we started farming, small groups of people began to acquire
more and more land.
But to make use of that land, they needed farmworkers.
So that’s when we got forced labor,
kings with taskmasters to keep the slaves in line,
and standing armies to protect royal land claims
from greedy neighbors.
Religion grew up in the context of agrarian tyranny.
It really was, as Marx said, “the opiate of the masses.”
Religion explained and defended the injustice of oppression.
The gods and the kings, you see, were close friends, even relatives.
Some of the kings actually were gods.
For poor people, religion meant trying to buy a blessing
with a sacrifice, a tiny bit of which was burned on an altar,
but the rest was kept by the rich folks to sell.
The gods helped the kings keep the poor folk in line.
In all of ancient religion, there was no exception
-- not one -- until that day on Mt. Horeb.
A god Moses did not worship, did not sacrifice to
-- a god he’d never head of and never spoken to –
out of nowhere that god spoke to him.
And God said the strangest thing.
He said, “I have heard my people’s cry.//
I have seen how they suffer under their oppressors.”
Now those people didn’t worship this god either.
They did not sacrifice to this god, pray to this god, or believe in this god.
So what made them his people?
Just this: they suffered.
All of the other gods of the ancient world were gods of the rich and powerful.
Pharaoh was one of the gods himself and close kin to the others.
But the god of Horeb was the god of the oppressed.
And he said,
“I have heard my people’s cry.
So Moses, go tell Pharaoh, go tell that popinjay poser deity,
to let my people go.
My people. Let them go.”
This was a revolution in religion on two counts.
First, we now had a god on the other side of class struggle.
Second, up to now, religion was not interested in morality.
It was about sacrifices to buy blessings or prevent curses.
Religion was a mix of cosmic graft and celestial protection money.
But this was a god who cared – and cared mightily –
about right and wrong – cared about morality --
and the morality he cared about was social justice.
This god was moved to act, not by bribery, but by his conscience,
which went hand in hand with his compassion.
So what had these people done to earn God’s blessing?
Nothing. They just needed him. So he showed up.
He didn’t say,
“Moses, go tell the people I have this 613 commandment law
and if they’ll keep it strictly for three years,
I’ll have a word with Pharaoh.”
No, they didn’t have to do a thing.
God just acted out of his compassion to set them free.
After they were free,
God gave them the law as a way to respond to his action.
But even then, the law wasn’t to meet his need.
It was to help the people live into the freedom he’d bestowed.
The word for law was halacha – the way of life.
“I set before you life and death,” God said, “choose life.”
Some of the law was still ancient ritual stuff
they probably got from their neighbors.
But the heart of the law was God teaching the people compassion,
teaching mercy for the down and out – the widow, the orphan,
the laborer, the outcast – and most of all the alien.
“Do not oppress an alien,” God said, “for remember that
you were once aliens in Egypt.” Exodus 22: 21.
In a world where religion was all about the right of the rich
to oppress the poor,
here was a god saying the way of life is not land acquisition
-- not exploiting the labor of the landless.
-- not leading powerful armies against your weaker neighbor.
Real life is found in simple acts of mercy.
When you harvest your crop, leave some for the poor.
When you hire a worker, pay a fair wage.
Loan money and if the debtor cannot pay, forgive the debt.
I cannot begin to express how utterly bizarre this religion was
in the Ancient World.
1,300 years later, Jesus did not reverse that religion of Moses.
The kings of Israel and their minions did that
when they turned into the Jewish equivalent of pharaohs.
But Jesus reclaimed it.
Jesus spoke with the same heart as that strange god of Horeb.
He led his people up a mountainside, a place like the one
where Moses heard God’s voice.
And Jesus said,
“Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the bereaved.
Blessed are the hungry and thirsty.
Blessed are the merciful.”
God has shown us his heart
and invites our hearts to beat in sync with his.
That is the way to life and true happiness.
So, where do we stand this Lent? On Mt. Horeb.
Our God is the one who hears people cry.
Do we hear them?
The top 1 percent earn an average $6 million dollars per year
-- more than doubling their share of the national income in my lifetime.
The bottom 90 percent average $33,000 per year, which means
a lot of them are earning way less.
We have the highest incarceration rate in the world.
We lock up dramatically more of our people than countries
we call totalitarian.
Latinos are three times as likely as whites to be incarcerated.
Blacks are six times as likely.
One out of every 10 black men in his thirties is in prison.
And this is not about the crime rate.
The crime rate went down,
but the incarceration rate keeps going up.
Others of God’s people are imprisoned in addiction or domestic abuse.
And we do have the alien in our land
-- the Salvadoran alien, the Mexican alien, the Syrian alien,
the Pakistani alien.
So brothers and sisters, our feet this Lent are on Mt. Horeb
and God is speaking to us.
I do not hear God saying,
“Give up Facebook for a few weeks
and lay off the lattes.”
No, God is saying,
“I have heard my people cry.
Do you not hear it? Are you deaf?
Go tell your American pharaohs
to let my people go.
My people. Let them go.”