I am honored to be with you on this Sunday morning. Over the last 14 years, beginning with the wake up call of what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, God has helped me to see the crucial connection between our lives and the life of the planet. And in the past few years I have become so deeply aware that the liberation of all people cannot happen without restoring the delicate balance of creation. Furthermore, we will not be able to stop the degradation of our planet without addressing the systems of injustice that not only lack respect for the sanctity of water, of plants—but of human beings. I want to thank the leadership of this house who have created the space for me to share what God is speaking to me.
The reality is that this sermon is the beginning of a sermon series which, God-willing, will someday become a book. The series looks at the first 20 chapters of Exodus as a way of understanding the times in which we find ourselves. I promise that I will not try to fit all 6 sermons into this one sermon, but I hope it will give you an overview of how I have come to see God anew in these chapters in Exodus. If our goal is to facilitate the kindom of God on Earth, I would like to suggest that we need to examine the text anew and see what it can say to us for this time.
I also want to issue a disclaimer. This sermon started with my looking at the plagues in Exodus to think about how they connected to our current environmental crisis. I started this sermon, as I do all sermons, with a deep dive into the socio-political context of that time. I did not seek to add or subtract anything from the text. However, if you see any uncanny correlations between their context and ours, well…
I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In our tradition we don’t see any separation between our daily lives and what some people might label to be “political.” As the descendants of slaves, we know that the “political” sphere impacts every part of our lives including our freedom to worship God and to be acknowledged as children of God.
Every Biblical prophet speaks about the politics of their time as does Jesus. I say this because, while the message I am going to deliver is completely in line with the Black church tradition I grew up in, I have had the opportunity to talk to many white pastor colleagues and learned that what is considered normal in my tradition is more controversial in some Caucasian church communities. I was taught in my AME preaching class that the job of the prophet is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. So if folks feel uncomfortable please don’t blame Pastor Steve.
I know that you all have been focusing on the topic of Training in the Studio of Love. This is also Black History Month and so I have chosen a passage for this morning which is one of the central passages in the Black Christian tradition – the book of Exodus. In exploring this text I approach it from the perspective of Cornel West who says that justice is what love looks like in public. I will say that again: Justice is what love looks like in public.
This morning I invite you to meditate on the topic, Liberation in the Land: A Reading of Exodus for the Ecological Crisis.
Please turn with me to Exodus 1:8-14
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.
Exodus 1:8-12, 14 NIV
This passage sets the stage for what is one of the most important stories in the Biblical tradition. This story is central to the Jewish faith, and it has also been a foundational text in the Black Christian tradition, because it speaks to a people who find liberation from the dehumanizing conditions of slavery—a people who have been told in both subtle and explicit ways that their lives do not matter. Our text starts with the rise of a new king in Egypt. It says that the king did not know Joseph, which is to say that the king did not know his history. See, Joseph was a Israelite who came to Egypt in chains and rose to be the right hand of the Pharaoh. Joseph was the Vice President, the Secretary of the Treasurer, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Chief of Immigration rolled into one. It was because of Joseph’s attention to God that Egypt was saved from the famine that beset many surrounding kingdoms. Another sermon in this series explores how the intervention of Joseph creates the economic prosperity in Egypt that allows this new king to ascend into a prosperous nation. Maybe he imagined that he had risen by pulling himself up by his own sandal straps. We can’t be sure, but for the purposes of this morning we notice that the fact that this new King didn’t know Joseph is a clear sign that the King really didn’t know much about his history or how he got to the place he was.
So this King rises to power and he is not interested in listening to Joseph. When he looks at the Israelites he doesn’t see them as great neighbors or productive citizens, he does not recognize all the ways that have contributed to Egyptian society, but instead in Exodus 1:9 the pharaoh exclaims, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more power than we. Come let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape the land.”
What led Pharaoh to see the Israelites this way? The scriptures do not speak of some precipitating event, but we can surmise that it could have been that a slump in the economy made people start asking about whether they should have to spend their tax dollars to educate Israelite children. Or it could be that Pharaoh was just a skillful politician who realized that fear-mongering and nativism could help him to win more support from his base. I believe we can understand the motivations of the King based on a textual clue: in verse 8 he is described as a king but by verse 11 he is called a pharaoh. We often use the words interchangeably, but a king is a ruler. Whereas the term pharaoh can be loosely translated “great house”, a pharaoh does not just rule the people, he projects his power through his familial dynasty and through the building of great edifices, and to this day people go to see the amazing structures built by the pharaohs. So this slight change of description leads me to believe that this man was not just about ruling the people but he was set to make a name for himself with the biggest structures he could build; he would cover the region in his pyramids and temples—you know, the ancient version of towers. In verse 11 it mentions that Pharoah immediately set the Israelites to building the garrison cities of Pithom and Rameses.
Publicly, the Pharaoh states that his motivation for enslaving the Israelites was for reasons of national security—that the Hebrew population was dangerous. They were having so many babies and they might rise up to be a weapon of mass destruction within Egyptian borders. Yes his stated reason was to put Egypt first, and to keep Egypt safe from the invading hoards. But if I can be honest I surmise that it was really free labor, that was his motivation. I mean let’s be realistic, how was he going to complete these massive construction projects if he was constrained by paying a living wage? How could he become a great ruler with massive structures bearing his name if he didn’t cut a few corners in the labor department? Driven by his desire for fame and fortune, Pharaoh mobilizes his forces to enslave the Israelites and puts them to work building his new cities. Egyptian “progress” is built on the backs of the Israelites much like American “progress” has always been built on the backs of “foreigners”—stolen African slaves who tilled the soil producing cotton, tobacco and other cash crops, Irish, Polish, and Italian immigrants who toiled in coal mines and wove in textile mills, Chinese laborers who blasted through mountains and laid thousands of miles of railroad tracks, and even now Mexicans, Haitians, and Vietnamese workers who pick crops, catch shrimp and even lose limbs in slaughterhouses.
Even as Pharaoh subjugates and oppresses the Israelites, they continue to have hope. Their hope motivates them to maintain their traditions, their hope gives birth to children and even in the midst of back-breaking labor their numbers keep growing. So Pharaoh decides that to control the Israelites he must decrease their population. He tells the Egyptian midwives, that when they go to deliver a baby that if the baby is male that they should kill the baby. Now I want to take a moment to challenge the efficacy of this strategy. I would assert that if his goal was to have more builders it probably would have made more sense to kill the girls rather than the boys. Furthermore, if his goal was to stop the growth of the people, it makes the most sense to take out the folks who are actually able to give birth. Finally if you want to kill the hope of a people, then in my experience you want to take out the women, because it is often the women and the mothers that speak life into the next generation. It is the women who often hold the spiritual traditions even when the men have lost their faith in God. Pharaoh’s blinding patriarchy leads him to a strategy that devalues women’s lives and asks women to participate in his genocidal project and the Egyptian midwives resist this plan. And even when Pharaoh enlists the entire Egyptian population to participate in this genocide, Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues the Hebrew boy who will later lead his people out of slavery. Throughout this text, women mount a quiet resistance to Pharaoh’s imperial policies. We don’t have time to go deeper into this, but some other day I will share the sermon “The Real Midwives of Egypt – A Story of Subversive Sisters.”
Focused on “progress” and control, Pharaoh had no respect for the lives of the Israelites—the Hebrew people—and there was no limit to his oppression. And yet more than forty years after Pharaoh tried to kill all Hebrew boys, this same baby who was raised in Pharaoh’s house comes back to confront him. Moses sees the suffering of his people and comes with a divine anointing to confront not just the king but the Pharaoh—the Great House—the system of oppression on which the wealth was created.
And in this story we see something that bears out time and time again in the scriptures and in our own history. We see that any system built on oppression is a system that God will eventually interrupt.
So despite his many protests, Moses answers the call of God to return to Egypt, reunite with his brother Aaron, assemble the Israelite elders and tell them that he is called by God to confront Pharaoh. And the Scripture tells us in Exodus 5 that Moses says to Pharaoh – “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let My people go that they may celebrate a festival for Me in the wilderness.” While the ultimate goal is the freedom of the Israelites, Moses starts with a simple request that the people be free to worship God in the beauty of the creation. And Pharaoh makes it clear that he does not acknowledge the Hebrew God. Again,, Pharaoh does not remember how it was God, through Joseph, that allowed the Egyptians to survive through famine. All he can see is that if he lets the Israelites go he will have no way of maintaining his building projects. I want to give Pharoah a little bit of credit: maybe there was a piece of him that was slightly charitable, maybe he made donations to children’s organizations or maybe he was good to his top executives, but in the end he had to be clear that his lifestyle and standard of living were built on the backs of others. He saw himself as the ruler, and there really wasn’t room for a God who might put demands on him that would counteract his lifestyle.
Pharaoh would not acknowledge God, he would not turn from his wicked ways, he was more committed to his standard of living than his standard of justice and so when he would not listen to the prophetic words of Moses, God allows the message to come through the creation.
Water into blood (Exodus 7:14-24)
Lead and other pollutants in the water
Proliferation of invasive species
Lice (Exodus 8:16-19)
Flies (Exodus 8:20-32)
Wooly Adelgid eating Hemlocks
Diseased Livestock (Exodus 9:1-7)
Mad Cow disease
Boils (Exodus 9:8-12)
Thunderstorms of Hail + Fire (Exodus 9:13-25)
Hurricanes & Wildfires
Drought that swallows up crops
Darkness for Three Days (Exodus 10:21-29)
Disintegrating of the Ice Shelves
Death of the Firstborn (Exodus 11:1-12:36)
The Unnecessary Death of our Children
These signs give a physical manifestation to the corruption that was already in the soul of the Pharaoh and in the society he was leading. Pharaoh would not—could not—admit to his own moral bankruptcy, so God lets the truth be seen in the natural world. It is only when he loses his son that Pharaoh is finally willing to let the people go. Only when his hubris and stubbornness has caused him to lose the son that he loves. Only then is he willing to relent.
My deep fear is that we too will not get the message until it is too late. Is is possible that our love of comfort will not be broken until we have sacrificed our children on the altar of consumption.
We too have a system where oppression is too often baked into the equation. From mass incarceration to sweatshop labor to education inequity to gentrification our world is filled with so many examples of our disregard for the lives of the least of these. We care so little for those who matter most to God. We have all the resources that we need to feed everyone, to house everyone, to educate everyone—but we steal and we hoard such that people don’t get what they need. God is not pleased and God is making us face our injustice in the groaning of creation.
As each year gets hotter than the last, we have politicians who still question the science of climate. Even as we know that we must transition away from fossil fuels we continue to destroy conservation land—land that is as God made it—to secure our right to cheap oil. Even though Oklahoma had more than 800 earthquakes in 2015 as a result of fracking waste-water disposal, their governor refused to put the safety of the people above the profits of energy companies. As the cost of our lifestyle becomes more and more evident, I wonder what it will take to recognize that an economy built on the profits of the few maintained by the labor of the many that is fueled by stealing the planetary inheritance of future generations, is not an economy worth maintaining? The problem is not climate change; it is our commitment to a system that does not value all of the life that God created—a system that allows us to topple majestic mountains and depress human dignity in the name of “progress” is an unjust system in direct opposition to God’s love.
The responsibility lies not only with our elected leaders but within our communities, as we must make decisions not just for freedom of the individual but for the benefit of the whole. How much disruption has to happen before we consider the folly of our way of living? How many many forest fires will it take before we stop cutting down virgin forests to build McMansions? How many drought warnings will it take to realize that it is not natural to have golf courses in the desert? How much pollution will we breathe in before we question whether we need so many mass produced goods?
Some of us have read this story countless times or watched the movie version and undoubtedly imagined ourselves always in the role of the Israelites. Some of us became congregational leaders or activists, wanting to be like Moses or Aaron or Moses’ mother and sister who saw the vision early on. But this afternoon I want to challenge us to realize the ways that we have also been complicit with the Pharaonic order, the ways that we have aligned our thinking and our habits with “The Great House.” We call out those who are running to be in the Great White House, but are we willing to recognize the ways that we have allowed our minds and our habits to align with oppressive systems?
We denounce the government for going to war but happily fill up our tanks with oil. We call for action on climate change but will not divest our pensions or university endowments from fossil fuel companies. We decry unjust wages but continue to fill our closets with unnecessary cheap goods. Yeah, we cannot speak about Pharaoh without recognizing that as Americans we are often lieutenants in the Pharaonic order even when we don’t mean to be.
So when the call goes out to pray, to hear from God and to turn from our wicked ways so that God can heal our land – that call is not just to someone else, but to us as Christians and to the church particularly the church in the developed world. We need to examine the ways that we have linked “God’s House” to the “Great House.” How we have cozied up to political figures in ways that stop us from speaking the truth to power. How is our lifestyle in direct contradiction to God’s love of every human being and also every living organism including ones that we can’t even see with our eyes.
We must consider the way that our division along lines of race, class, sexual orientation, and many other fault lines has prevented us from being a prophetic voice for change in the world.
We must challenge our theologies of “blessing” that are really an excuse for over-consuming in ways that are killing our planet and that have us thinking of cheap goods as our “birthright” even when those goods are produced by underpaid and overworked human beings that are supposed to be our brothers and sisters. Or that have us overeating and under-exercising in ways that are causing us to have terrible health outcomes in our community.
Only if we are willing to ask tough questions and take bold moves, if we are willing to consider the lilies of the field, the sparrows, the Lazarus’ at our gate and the needs of future generations, then our loving and forgiving God will create a way of escape for us.
This message is not just for someone else but for me. It was not until I saw the deaths of my people in Hurricane Katrina that I started to realize that it was time to address the ecological crisis. It was when I could imagine my own neighborhood in peril that I started to take up this call. But as I have grown in my love for God’s people and all of God’s creation, I have come to a greater love for my God.
More and more, I have come to see how there is a deep connection between so many of the things that God has called me to work on in the world. Hurricane Katrina really helped me to see this, but the connections have continued to be made clearer to me. One Thursday in October 2016 I was going to the meeting of an interfaith climate group when I got the call that one of my mentees, John Peterson Cesar, had been shot in the head. John I met when he joined the non-profit, Project HIP-HOP, for which I used to be the Executive Director. He was a gifted thinker, speaker and leader and I knew that God had placed me in his life to help him walk away from his street life and into his calling. When I went into the hospital room I could feel that his spirit had left his body and so over the weekend I helped the family through the process of taking him off of life support. The next Monday I flew to Baltimore for the Green the Church conference—a gathering of Black churches concerned about ecology. It was a space where I could see God working to raise up our congregations as a voice for justice, and it lifted my Spirit. Then I flew home to deliver the eulogy at John’s funeral, my first-ever eulogy. The following week, while still working through the pain of his death, I was on a plane to Standing Rock, North Dakota to join a clergy delegation in solidarity with the Oceti Tribe who was standing against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
I was honored to give an address on behalf of the African-Americans who were there in solidarity. At Standing Rock I was reminded how this battle for the sanctity of water is really about a battle for the sanctity of life—All the forms of life that God has created. God created them and said that they were good and the question is, who are we to go against the word of God? Who are we to decide that some human lives are expendable? Who are we to exterminate a species of bird or reptile because their habitat is the most convenient place to build a strip mall?
It was the lack of love and respect for a great God, the belief that we can be gods that was at the foundation of the Egyptian system. The Pharaonic order then and now is killing our children—sometimes with guns and sometimes with pollution, but the root is the same in a system which lacks respect for God and sees lives as expendable.
Oh Lord my God – The God of Moses and Miriam, of Esau and Esther, of Harriet Tubman and Henry McNeil Turner, the God of my grandmother and the God who watches over me—Oh Lord My God.
When I in awesome wonder Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made – When I recognize that in your infinite wisdom you created this planet, and many others.
I see the stars – I look up and can’t even fathom how you imagine the solar system. In the light and air pollution of the city I forget that you created millions of stars and you know each of their properties.
I hear the rolling thunder – your sign to us that the great rains are coming to nourish the earth, the reminder that you are awesome.
Thy power throughout, The universe displayed – not just in the loud manifestations like thunder but the fact that you created microscopic phytoplankton in the ocean and even though I can’t see them they are producing half of the world’s oxygen. You had the power to create them and me and pull this all together.
Then sings my soul my Savior, God, to Thee – My soul worships you because you deserve all of my praise.
How great thou art – in my life. How great thou art – in the earth.
Then sings my soul My Savior, God, to Thee
How great Thou art How great Thou art
I am so glad that I serve a great God
A great God who can do new things—who makes a makes a way in the wilderness and brings streams in the wasteland. When we let got of the systems of our own devising then we can make space to truly love God, to love each other and to love all of the creation.