A review of American history indicates that “Moses has emboldened leaders of all stripes: patriot and loyalist, slave and master, Jew and Christian,” writes historian Bruce Feiler. The pilgrims quoted the story of Exodus as they set sail, and it inspired the Puritans in their battle with an overbearing king. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson proposed that Moses appear on the U.S. seal. Harriet Tubman used the lyrics of “Go Down, Moses” to guide fugitives on the Underground Railroad. The Statue of Liberty and comic book hero Superman are molded in his image. Twentieth century presidents have quoted him from the Pentagon to Congress, one quipping in the 80’s that he doubted the Ten Commandments would make it through today’s legislative process! Martin Luther King, Jr. invoked his name in his final speech on the night before he died. Feiler calls Moses “America’s Prophet.” As a people still too often divided, perhaps the persistence of his story could help direct us toward common ground?
The book of Exodus is the West’s meta-narrative of hope, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The tale of a group of slaves who were liberated from the mightiest power of the ancient world, Exodus is about justice, freedom, and the rule of law… politics, society, and the principles on which people form associations… the sanctity of human life and dignity… the use and misuse of power. For Feiler, realizing “how much the biblical narrative of the Israelites has colored the vision and informed the values” of Americans for twenty generations “was like discovering a new front door to a house I’d lived in all my life.”
As Moses is born, Egypt’s Pharaoh is threatened by a minority group whose race and religion are different from his own. The Hebrew people have been forced by economic circumstance into slavery and required to build garrisons to protect the empire if attacked, but ironically this hardship has made them strong, both physically and spiritually. Not surprisingly, Pharaoh worries that in the event of war, the slaves will support the outsiders and fight against their Egyptian taskmasters. In a cynical move, he issues a command, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile.” Moses’ mother is able to hide him for three months, but fearing for his life, she gambles on a crazy scheme: if she can fool her captors into believing that her son is an Egyptian, then he will be safe.
So she weaves a basket from the reeds that grow along the Nile, covers it with tar to make it waterproof, and sets off the little boat in the direction of an area where women from the royal household often bathe. The Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket and takes him home, and through another ruse perpetrated by Moses’ sister, his mother is enlisted as the adopted boy’s wet nurse.
So Moses grows up as an Egyptian prince, in the court of the king, all the while being tutored by his Hebrew mother, who is a slave. Potentially divided internally, likely to be at war with the disparate parts of himself, Moses instead marries his two origin stories, combining a passion for justice and the courage to speak truth to power. Long before he notices the bush which “burns but is not consumed,” and turns aside to make sense of it, Moses has the makings of a hero. We love the idea of a leader rising up from humble beginnings and of a person with privilege giving up his position for the good of the whole, and Moses gives us both.
Moses’ legacy is to propose “an alternative reality to the one we face at any given moment. He suggests that there is something better than the mundane, the enslaved, the second-best, the compromised.” (Feiler) Oppression is not inevitable, and neither is being stuck. No matter what Egypt we might find ourselves in, there can be a better place, another kind of society, a different way of living.
I encourage you to read Exodus this program year, join me on Wednesdays at 10 for Bible study when you can, and share your insights or questions with others at Redeemer who are reading along with you. Somewhere quite nearby, some branch of the family tree is burning, and the pain experienced there is not so different from your own. Can we turn aside and listen? What bondage is God calling us to liberate?
When I was in my twenties and living in New Mexico, I befriended a professional rodeo-guy named Buck Harris. His skin was sun-bronzed leather, and the comfy trailer he lived in smelled vaguely of piñon and pot.
I asked “Bucky” once if he’d teach me how to ride. He agreed. The next day I showed up, Buck saddled up one of his horses, had me climb on by myself, and delivered a lightning-quick lecture in his southwestern drawl: “Darlin’, the way you learn to ride a horse is to ride. And I suggest you stay on, ‘cause the only thing you learn from fallin’ off a horse is that it hurts.” And that was it. Off I went, with a grin on his face as horse and I got acquainted with one another, very … efficiently.
Years later, I find myself learnin’ to ride again, although this time, the “horse” is “Community Engagement”, and the place is Redeemer. Moreover, unlike my riding “lessons” in New Mexico, which were often solitary affairs (unless, of course, you count the horse!), I find myself surrounded by a veritable posse of riders — some seasoned cowboys and cowgirls, others just learning the ropes, but all of us, together, kicking up dust and getting our hands nice and good and dirty.
There’s the kind of dirty your hands get, for instance, when you’re slabbing Quikwall-Surface-Bonding-Cement onto bricks at 714 McCabe Avenue in Govans as part of Habitat for Humanity. It is a different kind of dirty from when you’re sticking a finger (shhhhhhhh!) in a cheesy-chicken-mushroom-noodle-concoction in our parish kitchen, a quick taste-test for our Paul’s Place Holy Casserole-y ministry. Which is, of course, still a different kind of dirty from when you’re finger-painting with children at Govans Elementary as part of an after-school activity … or lifting bags of food to help stock the shelves at GEDCO/Cares food pantry … or simply scratching your head, trying to understand the ins-and-outs of TIF financing and the new Port Covington legislation, as an ally of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).
“But I thought that was all part of ‘Outreach’?” you might ask. “What’s all this stuff now about ‘Community Engagement’? Isn’t it all the same thing?”
Well, yes. And, no.
Yes, in that both “outreach” and “community engagement” are ways to respond to Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …”; as well as ways to honor our baptismal promises, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
No, in that “outreach” implies a “do-er” at the center “reaching out” to target recipients. Blogger Doug Borwick continues: “Outreach is (at best) done ‘for,’ community engagement is done ‘with’ … Community engagement is rooted in relationship building. The [ministry] grows out of the relationship, factoring in the interests and needs of the community. This is not simply a semantic distinction. The frame of reference … impacts the quality (or even the existence) of the relationship. It will also affect the nature of the work [done] ….”
Wouldn’t you know it, it’s all about relationship! Not us “reaching out” to them, as much as all of us in relationship together … creating …building … dreaming … doing … slabbing … painting … cooking … learning … journeying … and yes, riding … along The Way … each of us transformed by one another … and transforming our city and communities, one house, one family, one relationship-at-a-time …
So how about it? Won’t you come along for the ride?
Bugs Bunny is one of my heroes. He’s funny and smart and scrappy. He cuts Goliaths down to size with his wits and pierces inflated egos by exposing his own delusions of grandeur. Like Groucho Marx, Bugs admonishes fools by acting foolish himself. He is clearly flawed, but that’s what wins us over: he’s a rascal with a heart of gold. And he reminds me of the main character in the gospel appointed for this Sunday.
Here’s how Jesus describes him: “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned the manager and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg…’” So in a dramatic flourish, the so-called “dishonest manager” erases the debts that various folks owe his master. Everyone knows the little guy is posing, but maybe his scheme can take the master down a few pegs and give them a leg up in the bargain. They’re charmed by his chutzpah.
The steward’s practices as an employee got him fired in the story and might result in a worse fate today. Squandering his master’s property is presumably bad for business. But the word “squander” is the key to understanding this wily fellow.
A quick word study reveals that the same word is used to describe the action of the prodigal son, whose story is told in the previous chapter of Luke. The younger brother “squanders” his inheritance. What is Jesus up to? Why does he cast these characters, who seem to be awfully free with someone else’s property, as the ones that the master and the father embrace?
Here’s what I think. Paradoxically, the father and the business owner/master are given new life when they give their lives away, to the son and the employee. And Jesus gives us the prodigal son and the shrewd manager, precisely because their stories help us remember that generosity is the best investment of all. Flawed as they are, they embody a principle that Jesus sees as critical to our well-being: gifts are meant to be used and shared, not hoarded or locked away. Everything that we have—this church, our individual resources, even our intelligent wily craftiness—is a means to help and heal the world. Investing in the good of the other, while sometimes risky, is always life-giving, and this kind of stewardship is what characterizes the economics of the gospel.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. (Wendell Berry)
The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don’t want to see. Do you think a capitalist wants to see what is good in the communist system? Do you think a communist wants to see what is good and healthy in the capitalist system? Do you think a rich man wants to look at poor people? We don’t want to look, because if we do, we may change. We don’t want to look. If you look you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together. And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength, or youthfulness, or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new. (Antony de Mello*)
Every morning I receive emails from a variety of sources that offer short spiritual reflections, prose or poems. I sit in my favorite chair and love the luxury of reading through them in the quiet; some speak to me and others not as much. It is not unusual for pieces of them to show up in my sermons or at the 7:30am Wednesday Eucharist. Yesterday, the reflection from Antony de Mello caught my eye as I was considering the subject of this E-Redeemer. Both the title, “Learn Something New” and the content seem especially appropriate for this particular week.
Sunday is officially ‘Homecoming Sunday’….or as we Orioles fans might say “Opening Day” for our parish program year! I assume you have received your “Chimes” newsletter by now (if not, please email Ellen Chatard to let her know!). Contained in that mailing is the scope and breadth of the many, many programs that The Church of the Redeemer is offering this fall…and beyond. There is such an exciting balance between the ‘old’ favorites such as Rector’s Bible Study, Women Who Wonder, Women’s Book Group, Knitting Ministry, Men’s Forum, Centering Prayer to ‘new’ opportunities that include Wednesday Evening Series, Paul’s Place “Holy Casserole-y”, and expanded Sunday Adult Formation opportunities. Stay tuned for a significant increase community engagement prospects as Cristina transitions into her new role.
And that is not all….Kathy LaPlant has terrific new ideas for our young people and Paul Smith is working on coordinating expanded ministry to our RYG members. And of course, how about Bert Landman, our new Director of Music and Organist who will be working with all ages bringing his gifted perspective to broaden the foundation of excellence that he inherited.
So, the bottom line, I invite you to re-read Antony de Mello’s reflections about “Learn Something New” as we enter this new program year. May we each as individuals and as a congregation commit to ‘learn something new’, both within our parish and beyond our parish. I just bet that when we learn something new, we will do something new!
*Anthony “Tony” de Mello (4 September 1931 – 2 June 1987) was an Indian Jesuit priest and psychotherapist. A spiritual teacher, writer and public speaker, De Mello wrote several books on spirituality and hosted numerous spiritual conferences.
It’s funny what you hold onto from your childhood—what words or lyrics or images you carry. When I was a little guy, younger than 6, we lived in a small, southern college town. My dad was an erstwhile student and manager of the book store, my mom was the Dean’s secretary, and we had a babysitter named Savannah who “watched” us. Most afternoons after lunch, Savannah would take a little nap while my brother and I were supposedly resting; in fact, the two of us would wait until a deep quiet fell on our apartment, and then we’d tiptoe out the front door. Sewanee was our oyster, and there were always pearls for two pint-sized explorers to discover.
“Grandmother Chilton” had never married, didn’t have family nearby and neither did we, so the three of us adopted each other. We thought we were sly, but she must have always heard us coming: by the time her picket fence gate clicked behind us, she would appear on her porch with cookies or peaches or lemonade and a book to read. Afterwards my brother and I played pirates in Abbo’s alley, hiding inside bushes and swinging over a trickle that swelled after a rain. My favorite was helping “Ray” mop the floors at the gym. We’d sneak in a door he propped open to let the heat out, and then refill his buckets and chase water across the pool deck with a squeegee. When we moved away, “Ray” was the last person I went to tell good-bye, and we both cried.
The chapel was always open at Sewanee, and that has stuck with me, too. Students and little boys, even dogs, were allowed to come and go through that space whenever they wanted, and all of us dropped in and out of services at will. It never occurred to me that what went on in that soaring room ever started or ended; whatever happened there was always going on, it seemed, and everybody was invited.
The reality was more complicated. There were African students at the school, but no African-Americans, and the church in the South at that time was frequently on the wrong side of civil rights. Savannah and Ray were two of my closest friends, but they entered buildings through different doors than I did. Down the road at the Highlander Fold School, things were changing. There, my parents and scores of other individuals were trained to challenge the status quo with dignity and non-violence, and black people and white people were partners engaged in a common cause. I remember crowding lots of strangers in our big Chevrolet. When I asked her why, my mother said, “These days you can’t just open the doors and say ‘Ya’ll come!’ You’ve got to go out and find each other.”
In 1968 the law of the land changed, and since then everyone has been invited through the same doors to sit at the same table, whether in the break room, the board room, or the lunch counter. But we know the reality is more complicated. We still can’t just open the doors and say “Y’all come!” In our schools, on our streets, in the workplace and where we pray and play, we still need to go out and find each other, get to know each other, love each other, serve each other—black/white, rich/poor, male/female, gay/straight. We need each other.
Have compassion for everyone you meet,
Even if they do not want it. What seems conceit,
Bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign
Of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
Down there where the spirit meets the bone.
God is always looking for us. Will you go with me, where the spirit meets the bone, out the doors of Redeemer, to find the face of God?