11 October 2020
Sermon preached by The Rev. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
Last week, I talked about Sabbath as an intentional carving out of temporal space from which to resist the domination system…from which we remember that we are not bound by, nor are we beholden to, the desperate grasping that propels Empire—the anxiety to offer perpetual sacrifice to the consuming principalities and powers of the world. Remember?
When the story of Moses up on the mountain gets retold in Deuteronomy, the importance of remembering is underscored, there the text reads: “…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt (you were bound by the insatiable demands of the domination system), and the LORD your God freed you from there with a mighty hand…therefore …observe the sabbath” (Deuteronomy 4:12-15, Jewish Study Bible). Remember you are no longer subject to that system; and observing—practicing sabbath can help you remember that.
But it’s hard, isn’t it?
Memory is tricky. Memory lives, not just in our minds, but in our physical bodies…we know that trauma lives in our physical bodies…and faith memory—like sabbath remembering—also lives in our bodies…and it needs to be exercised. Which is a large part of what makes our current reality so difficult, so fraught. The muscles and the techniques we have long used to enact our faith—to remember our faith—… gathering together, greeting one another, kneeling side by side, receiving communion, engaging our diaphragms to fill our lungs, and relaxing our vocal chords to lift our voices in song…all that is different now. We have the mental memories of that, but our bodily remembering is different. We miss…we long for those physical rememberings…we long for what was familiar.
Moses has been gone a long time. He’s more than “delayed”…he’s been gone for 40 days which is biblical code for “longer than we can count.” There were thunder and lightning and the mountain was smoking when he went up there, remember? and seriously…he’s probably dead. The people are alone and isolated and they long for something familiar…something tangible…Something that can connect them to this fearful divine being…something that can focus their devotion, and God’s power. Because, remember, that’s how things were in Egypt…under Empire…you made an image of something…a totem…of a cow or a bull…and it functioned as an intermediary…between you and the gods.
True, this whole episode is also an ironic commentary on the building of the ark of the covenant that occurs just before this. There God instructs Moses to collect gold from the people and build the ark for carrying the tablets of the covenant. And here it is not God, but the people who order the building, and it is Aaron, not Moses who does the collecting and casting. And yes, there is something so deeply human about it all… the ink is barely dry on the covenant that says, “You shall have no other gods, and don’t make any idols” and this the first thing they do.
Their bodily remembering hasn’t caught up with—hasn’t adjusted to this new situation. They’ve spent generations living under the domination of the empire. This new found freedom…to walk with the God of all creation…to be God’s people, and walk in the Way of life and love…is still…well…new. They need both a new memory, and to remember something ancient. And I think it’s significant that God needs this as well.
When God sees what is happening, and threatens to destroy them, Moses says, what?… “Remember.” Remember Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob. Remember the covenant you made with them…remember the history you have with them. Remember the promises you made. This new path is going to be messy, and it will take time…to rebuild that common memory.
George Erasmus, an Aboriginal leader from Canada says, “Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community. Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” (source).They have to reach back, and remember the time before Egypt—before empire—and they have to create new common memories from that ancient treasure and this current reality.
Mark Charles, a biracial Diné (Navajo) activist, builds on Erasmus and says: “For centuries our nation has experienced extended periods of deep racial unrest primarily because our diverse communities do not share a common memory. European immigrants and their descendants have one memory. A romanticized memory of God-ordained discovery and conquest, empty lands, cheap labor, Manifest Destiny, and exceptionalism. While minorities, including Native Americans and African Americans, have a very different historical and lived experience which includes stolen lands, slavery, genocide, broken treaties, segregation, mass incarceration, boarding schools, and systemic dehumanization.” (source, also see Mark Charles’ TedX talk).
I wonder if that’s part of what is going on in this parable. Is this a king who believes in a divinely ordained conquest of “empty lands” and cheap labor? Do the people have a different narrative of stolen lands, and exploitation? Has the king given people reasons to refuse his invitations, and mistreat his messengers? He’s certainly quick to send in the troops and cast people into outer darkness. Maybe the disruption of empire has broken their common memory…and it needs to be reformed. Or maybe this is a community that has lost the capacity to remember altogether. I mean, where is the Moses character, in this parable? Where is the person who stands up and speaks on behalf of the people—confronts the king—and says, “No. Don’t send the troops?” Why is there no one to plead for this one person without a robe and recall the king and all gathered to a shared memory of what being a responsible ruler and a caring community is really all about?
“Where community is to be formed, common memory must be created.” And where community is to be sustained, common memory must be nurtured and recalled. Every great religious tradition has at its core a memory of time before, or outside of, empire. A time when humans walked with God and the created world in harmony. And all human endeavor has been infected with the disease of the domination system. We long for the familiar that connects us to that ancient memory, but we have to be aware that the familiar can also be a trap ensnaring us in the fractured path of empire. And the last thing we need are more golden calves. What we do need—what we are desperate for—is more faithful memory…more truthful and reconciling common memories…based in the truth of our past and infused with the grace of God’s ancient promise.
We will gather again. We will greet one another with unmasked faces, and outstretched hands…We will receive the gifts of communion from God and one another…and We. Will. Sing…We will rejoice because we will remember that the path we walk is not one that leads back to Egypt…back to empire, but one that leads to the green and pleasant land given generously and graciously by God, and sustained by all and for the health and benefit of all.