Let My People Go

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September 06, 2020

Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

They are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household… your lamb shall be 
without blemish… the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. In the name of…

In the Spring of 1988, the South African president P.W. Botha publicly condemned Archbishop Desmond Tutu for distorting what he claimed was ‘the true message of Christ’. The reason for this attack was that Archbishop Tutu was bringing the church into what the president regarded as the purely secular political debate about apartheid. Botha’s attack on the Anglican Archbishop was likely intended as the prelude to legal action against the church, which had become the de facto opposition to Botha’s hardline government after it had effectively suppressed the voice of the opposing political parties.

The force of international pressure against the South African government prevented Botha’s campaign going further, but, in truth, Archbishop Tutu was not especially concerned by the charge that he was behaving illegally by mixing politics and religion. His famous line, which I am sure you have heard before, is “When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading.”

All of which makes me ask, what are we going to do about it?

Because the situation is critical. The situation is urgent. Truth is compromised so far that it is - to all intents and purposes - simply forgotten. We are dealing with a tyrannical leader - one who, it is quite plain, does not give a damn about those less fortunate than himself.

The evidence of poverty and oppression is plain for all to see. But facts do not matter. Not any more. We are dealing, sadly, with the stubbornness and contempt of a leader who thinks he is uniquely powerful, and who is not prepared to accept the most simple facts when they stare him in the face. We are dealing with a leader who is happy to lie unashamedly, to lie and to make false promises. We are dealing with a leader who is - to use an old-fashioned word - a sinner. A frequent and an unrepentant sinner.

And, lest you should be in any doubt at all, this is not good for society. The behavior of this leader is not good for society, and that has consequences - consequences that are staring everyone in the face, even some of his own officials and supporters. There has already been suffering and there has already been bloodshed, and there is going to be more suffering and there is going to be more bloodshed.

Things will get better, but they are going to get worse before they get better, both in economic terms and in terms of human suffering, misery and death. 

But it did not have to be like this. It could have been avoided - so very easily avoided. All it needed was a small amount of respect, decency and dignity - respect, decency and dignity for ‘the other’ - for people of another culture or ethnicity or religion. But there was none - only dishonor, deceit and deliberate destructiveness. And as a result the situation has hardened and hardened, until the present, urgent crisis - when, as we all know only too clearly, it will get worse now, before it can possibly get better.

And all the time, all the time, the refrain has been repeated over and over again by God’s children - that old, old song: “Let my people go.”

But Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go. All they had really wanted - back in the beginning - was the opportunity to practice their own form of religion. But such was Pharaoh’s cruelty that the very request simply provoked a worsening of their working conditions, and an ongoing mistreatment of the ethnic community that was the underclass of Egypt.

And so the cry built up, “Let my people go”. The cry reverberates for all to hear, and is backed up by a growing body of ever more clear and painful evidence that sees Pharaoh either ignore the facts or lie about his intentions and promises. Nine times in the opening chapters of Exodus, nine times do we hear that great cry for an oppressed people.

Blood, frogs, gnats, flies, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness. And the cry gets louder and louder - so loud that even some of Pharaoh’s own court is telling him just to get on and do it.

But the cry is ignored. Tragically, the cry is not loud enough to persuade this veritable role model of tyranny to see sense, face facts, and amend his ways.

And so things come to a moment of crisis - a moment of urgency:

This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.

And so things come to a moment of bloodshed: For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt…the blood shall be a sign for you.

It’s no wonder that the day would be what the author calls ‘a day of remembrance’. Not something that would be easy to forget, so I should imagine. 

And the question remains: what are we going to do about it?

Like me, I am sure that throughout your educational journey, whether in schools or colleges or universities, there were times when you were asked to ‘compare and contrast’. And, as it so happens in our lectionary cycle this morning, we have been given about the ultimate challenge of a ‘compare and contrast’ essay, having just heard two famous passages of Scripture, both of which give us an example of how to deal with disagreement, how to deal with conflict - how to deal, ultimately, with sin.

In that reading from the twelfth chapter of Exodus, we have reached a crisis. Even some of Pharaoh’s own advisors are saying - as it were - Israelite lives matter. But it is to no avail, and the blood of the lamb will save the Israelites from the blood that will be shed as the Lord strikes down the first-born of the land of Egypt in the last and most horrific of the plagues. Plagues sent to try and persuade Pharaoh to free God’s people. Plagues sent to try and persuade Pharaoh to end oppression. Plagues that were sent as the song got louder and louder: “Let my people go.”

And some twelve or thirteen hundred years later, the Lamb whose blood will be shed to free God’s people tells the community of his followers… to sit down in a very reasonable way and resolve your differences. Ideally, do it in private, if that fails, do it within your community, using evidence and reason. And if that fails… God will smite them dead…? No - the Lamb whose blood will be shed is simply saying, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”.

And what does that mean? Are we simply saying that we don’t actually kill them, we just regard them as spiritually dead? No - not even that.

For it is in this very gospel that the eponymous tax collector is summoned from his corrupt and oppressive job to follow Jesus and become an apostle and an evangelist. And it is this same tax collector turned evangelist who tells us also of the gentile woman who so completely rebuffs and astounds Jesus in an argument about dogs and bread, that her mortally sick daughter is healed.

For when Jesus gives that instruction that ‘such a one’ is to be regarded as a Gentile and a tax collector, it is not as a prelude to damnation, death and destruction. For the blood of the Lamb is no longer to be smeared on doorposts to prevent massed slaughter. The blood of this Lamb is shed because God loves the world so very, very much that God’s uniquely precious and sinless son is prepared to be slaughtered himself, so that even gentiles and tax collectors may discover the utter fullness of the love of God.

Compare and contrast indeed - and discover how over those centuries the revelation of God’s love becomes clearer and clearer to the children of God, and the blood of the Lamb becomes a new festival to be celebrated by the children of God, to bind them in community and in communion both with God and with each other.

And so the question remains: what are we going to do about it? Because the era of Pharaoh and Moses was not the only time when there has been a time of division and a time of oppression. The era of Pharaoh and Moses was not the only time that enslavement has led to bloodshed and communities have been set against each other.

As I journeyed back to Chicago last week, I chanced on a remarkable article in the British journal The New Statesmen, written by Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. He was reflecting on how the pandemic has heightened our awareness of mortality - both our own and that of other people - and the implications of this.

Drawing on the work of the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a book called The Denial of Death published shortly after his own premature death from cancer in 1974, Professor Williams explained that

Becker raised the question of “what a person would be like if he did not lie”.

The former Archbishop continues:

Not lying: it’s not a lot to ask, surely? But whenever we think we have taken this on board, the next threat constantly pulls us back into denial. If we can’t quite convince ourselves that we can become invulnerably safe, we look to people who tell us that they will do it for us – and so set ourselves up for a repeating pattern of unrealistic expectation and savage recrimination.

The challenge [he says] is to work out what our role is …

[For] if individual…freedom means a blithe disregard for the well-being of others, [that] intensifies the problem. A summons to faith, courage and energy in the face of death is…to recognize the gentle insistent pressure of a shared reality which tells us to make room for one another.

The Pharaoh with whom Moses had to contend was an archetype of someone who had a ‘blithe disregard for the well-being of others’ and who both ignored facts and lied continuously in his dealings with Moses. Lambs were slaughtered, and lives were lost, as the children of God sought to be free from the chains of oppression and enslavement.

And if it should happen to strike you that such events are - tragically - not confined to the early pages of the Hebrew scriptures, then we need to ensure that we know very clearly what our role is.

For we are the community of the Lamb who was slaughtered that his body and his blood might be shared in perpetuity, shared to draw us closer to God and each other. We are the community called to go out in truth and in peace to find the lost sheep that are gentiles, tax collectors, and any and every one else, and to assure them of that love that was lifted high on the cross, and which was confirmed and not destroyed by death. And never forget that our voice matters - yes, our voice matters. And our voice matters because the Bible and politics are inexorably linked, and have been ever since the events of the book of Exodus and the unstoppable cry, “Let my people go”.

If you think I’m joking, look back at the role of Desmond Tutu and the church in the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Look at the role of the church in the uprisings in Poland that put the first real cracks in the wall of the Soviet control of eastern Europe. 

Look closer to home, and with a different political angle, and do not fail to overlook how the electoral significance of evangelical Christians in this country has grown ever more significant since the 1980s. The voice of the community of the Lamb who was slaughtered is not without significance, which means your voice and my voice are not without significance. Because - at our best - we are people who know how to deal with division and discord and sinfulness in a manner which does not have to involve body bags, because, finally, the Lamb was slaughtered once and for all.

Some of you have had the privilege and joy of experiencing the ministry of my dear friend Fr. Lister Tonge, who has visited St James on a number of occasions. Not only has he preached here, but he led a quite remarkable parish retreat 18 months ago that touched deeply the lives of those who were able to attend. Lister is my longest-standing ordained friend, from whom, over very nearly forty years, I have learned so much about life and about faith.

Lister retired from stipendiary ministry last Sunday, having been ordained for 45 years, and at the climax of his final sermon to his own congregation in his own cathedral, he said, “This business of the Christian faith is about how we learn to give ourselves away - because it is what God is and does.” And that is why our role is - always - to seek out lost sheep, and gentiles, and tax collectors - because this God is always telling us ‘to make room for one another’.

And sometimes, as Archbishop Tutu most certainly demonstrated, this requires us to proclaim the truth when others seek to bury it with falsehoods. Sometimes, we are called to model courage and integrity when it feels in short supply elsewhere.

Because one Friday some 2000 years ago, another leader not known for his courage or integrity asked the terrible question, “What is truth?” And in the strange twilight of the darkened sun that afternoon, a Lamb without blemish was slaughtered out of love for each family, out of love for each household of the entire world. And our role - the role of those who now constitute the Body of Christ - our role is to help the world discover the unyielding truth of God’s love.

For this is the love that looks oppression and slavery in the eye and will not back down. This is the love that is the truth personified. This is the love that does not, will not, cannot lie. This is the love that calls us to stand with it, and from generation to generation for as long as it is necessary, this is the love that will keep singing the old song to new tyrants, calling us to join in the chorus and cry out, “Let my people go”.