Last Epiphany, 2020
Exodus 24:12-18; Ps 99
2 Pet 1:16-21; Matt 17:1-9
Yesterday, our Cathedral hosted our diocese’s first united diocesan celebration of black history, and it was a joyous day. The pews were packed with hundreds of worshipers; a choir gathered from many congregations sang songs from the black church traditions with joy; and the organizing committee pulled together a delicious lunch of foods from the Afro-Caribbean traditions.
At the heart of it all, Shannon Macvean-Brown, the recently-consecrated Bishop of Vermont, stood in our pulpit and shared her own history. She spoke of her predecessor, John Henry Hopkins, who had served as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church just as the Civil War was ending, of how he had defended slavery, publishing a pamphlet which argued that there was no Biblical basis to end slavery, and that black people were unfit for liberty. She spoke of what it was like for her, as a black woman, to be handed his crozier on the day of her consecration, to live in the house he had lived in, to see her own election as a form of reparations. It’s a troubling story: Hopkins had given his life to God, had prayed and taught and studied the Scriptures and received Communion, but at the crucial hour, when the people he led stood poised between bondage and freedom, he failed to hear the voice of God. It made me wonder what words of liberation God is speaking today, which ones I am hearing, and where I am failing the test. We are all of us enmeshed in systems which are not perfectly just, and which seem to us to be normal.
Today’s reading from Exodus takes us to a similar moment; God has called Moses and sent him to Egypt to free the Hebrews from bondage. Moses and his brother have confronted Pharaoh and led the people out of Egypt and crossed the Red Sea and escaped the Egyptian army, and here they are: six hundred thousand people milling around in the desert, no longer slaves, but not yet free — not truly free, with the freedom that comes from knowing God and knowing your own dignity and knowing that you are loved. If we’re honest, most of us live in that place, at least part of the time. We who have never been slaves struggle to make good use of our freedom. We sell it out to all kinds of paltry things: to convention, to the expectations of others, to our own deep-rooted feelings of unworthiness, to drugs, and work, and consumerism, and simply to triviality. James Baldwin writes, “I have met only a very few people…who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear.” (The Fire Next Time, p. 88.)
And yet, St. Paul reminds us, “for freedom Christ has set us free.” (Gal 5:1) And so it is worth spending time with this passage this morning, because it shows us how God prepares a man for freedom: not freedom from slavery, but the freedom which frees us to serve our God with power.
Like all our conversions, it begins innocently enough. God calls to Moses and says, “Hey! Come up here! I want to show you something! I have some commandments for you, rules which will help you lead this people.” It sounds simple enough: go up the mountain, receive the tablets, climb back down. And Moses needed those commandments: he had six hundred thousand people who were used to living under compulsion, people who had been told when to wake and what to eat and where to work and what to do and whether they could even bear children, people whose choices had been constrained just as tightly as the forces of industry and advertising and technology seek to control our own. Those laws held out life for the people, a new life and a new freedom. And so Moses went to God thirsty: he appoints others to lead for a few days, takes his assistant, and heads up the mountain.
That’s where it starts to get interesting: God does not just hand over the commandments. Instead, he takes Moses through a period of purification, forty days in the near presence of God. Forty days to learn to be free. It begins with a mystery: “the glory of God abode upon Mount Sinai” like a devouring fire (Ex 24:16, 17), and it lingered there, six days. And Moses was there in the midst of it.
Have you ever had an experience which burned your old certainties to dust? Maybe it was the birth of child, or loving someone who was not neuro-typical, or not able to enter the ordinary paths of thriving, or who was trying to figure out what gender they really were. Maybe it was divorce, or a business failure, something you read, or a sudden moment of deep spiritual conviction. Whatever form they take, those experiences leave us reeling. After the initial shock, it is like being in a cloud of un-knowing: of not knowing who we are, what we are supposed to be and do, or how we are to live in this world we have been given. These episodes are disorienting and uncomfortable and often painful — but they are also a gift. They hold out to us an encounter with truth, with a deeper truth than we have been capable of living. If we can lean into them, if we can remain open to God’s grace, these times of disintegration can lead to a profound reintegration, to healing on a level deeper than we have ever known. Baldwin reminds us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” (As Much Truth as One Can Bear,” New York Times)
We see this in the life of Moses. Scripture does not tell us what happened in Moses’ heart during those long days alone on the mountain, but we do see its effects. When Moses comes down from the mountain, he finds the people of Israel dancing around a golden calf which they have made; the image of a god from the land of their origin. They have turned away from their freedom, and have embraced the familiar patterns of unfaithfulness, setting themselves to adore what is not real and does not matter. And Moses is filled with rage. He shatters the tablets of the law and strides among the people and burns the golden calf and grinds the ashes into dust and makes the Hebrews drink it. This is a far cry from the diffident man who tried to evade the work of leadership, the one who pleaded with the burning bush that he could not do this work, that he had a speech impediment, that he was afraid, that God should just choose someone else. We do not know what happened on that mountain, but from the transformation in Moses, we can guess.
Somehow, in that time of extended intimacy with God, Moses has undergone a three-fold conversion. He has been given a new intimacy with God; he has unlearned his old ways of being; he has unlearned his old self. In other words, he has been freed from bondage to sin. The theologian James Cone writes, “Sin is a concept which is meaningful only within the context of a Christian community. It is community recognition that some have lost their identity for being.” (A Theology of Black Liberation, p.53.) Moses has been given a new identity; he has become a man who can no longer tolerate the continued existence of people who degrade themselves, who dedicate themselves to fictions made by their own hands.
As many of you know, I came to the Cathedral from the United States. We’re struggling a bit down there right now. One way to understand what is happening there is to see that we have allowed too much untruth to exist in our national discourse. We have tolerated lies about race and class and creationism and conspiracy theories and scientific skepticism and bad economics. We have tolerated them and made space for them until these things which do not exist have taken on a life of their own, so now these unreal things are shaping reality. We have unicorns in the living room and minotaurs on the lawn, and no one knows how to get back to a world in which what is unreal becomes unreal again.
We here in Canada are not so far gone — nor are we immune. What does it mean to acknowledge that territory is unceded without either returning it or freeing it from the legal control of those who appropriated it? What does it mean to base a regional economy on oil, to have hundreds of thousands of people whose livelihoods depend on perpetuating an industry whose effects will kill us all? What does it mean to be immersed in a culture which defines who you are by what you have and what you wear and where you live, rather than by the moral choices you make and the people you love and the work to which you choose to give your life?
Amid all this untruth, we have the law of God. Not only the law engraved on stone, but the deeper law engraved in God’s heart. When the Lord appeared to Moses in the burning bush, God said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people….and I have heard their cry…and I am come down to deliver them.” (Ex 3:7-8) The deepest truth of God is that God cannot tolerate a degraded people. Whether we have been forcibly degraded by others or whether we are degrading our selves, God is always working to lift us up, to liberate us, and to turn our lives around. To free us from bondage to unjust laws, to pernicious systems which cripple our potential, to trivial things on which we squander it. For freedom Christ has set us free. And the name of that freedom is love: not the rosy-tinted love of greeting cards but the true love of laying down our lives for one another, whether we feel like it or not.
That encounter with God did not end Moses’s problems. Rather, it fitted him to take on a greater level of responsibility, which is the face love wears in this world. It is same invitation God holds out to you and to me each day, and particularly as we enter into the season of Lent: to turn away from all that constrains our ability to love; to acknowledge our power; to take responsibility for the world we have been given. To go up that mountain; to see the face of God anew; to be transfigured in our turn. This is our freedom: to love with all the love of God. We walk with God’s beloved son. Listen to him.