Exodus 1:8-14, 3:7-15
September 29, 2019
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley
“Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The first chapter of Exodus picks up the storyline from the end of Genesis. The history of the people of Israel continues to unfold, but this simple sentence alerts us to a major plot twist.
We remember that Joseph was the favorite son of Jacob, the one who had first been taken to Egypt as a slave. But, as he spent years working for the Pharaoh, he earned a place as his second-in-command. By having the foresight to store surplus crops in the years of abundant harvest, he protected the Egyptians from famine. As the famine went on and people had less money with which to purchase food, Joseph, on behalf of the Pharaoh, accepted their livestock and their land in exchange for food – adding substantially to the wealth of the already rich and powerful king. When Joseph’s father and brothers and their families fled their homes in Canaan because of the hunger there, there were 70 people who came to Egypt as resident aliens. The grateful Pharaoh rewarded Joseph by providing them a holding in the best land in Egypt. These immigrants gained a certain favored status because of their relationship to Joseph.
But time has moved along and now a new king is in power, a king who did not know Joseph. A king who did not know his history. A king who found it convenient to forget the terms that Joseph had negotiated for the welfare of the Hebrews as resident aliens. A fearful king who thought that the Hebrews posed a threat to the Egyptian way of life.
In this part of the story, the word Hebrews is used instead of Israelites. The term Hebrews is more of a social category than an ethnic group. It is related to a word used outside of the Bible that means “dusty” or “dirty” and is applied to people described as rebels, outlaws, raiders, servants, slaves, and laborers. Hebrews “refers to any group of marginal people who have no social standing, own no land and endlessly disrupt ordered society. They are ‘low-class folks’ who are feared, excluded and despised.” 
Perhaps you can think of some similar social categories, of devalued persons who are seen as a threat or inconvenience to established power. Perhaps you can think of someone like a king who doesn’t know history, someone who, say, has no idea of the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980 which was intended to provide flexibility to respond to rapidly changing humanitarian crises around the world. Someone like a king who wants to receive no more than 18,000 refugees from desperate situations across the globe in next year, someone who must not know or care that the lowest number we have ever received is 27,000 and that was in the year following the attacks on September 11. Perhaps you can think of someone like a king who found it convenient to forget the terms negotiated for the welfare of foreign children, laid out in a document called the Flores Agreement. If you can think of someone like that, then you will understand this story very well.
In the midst of this tremendous on-going suffering, a Hebrew baby is born. He is descended from Abraham and Sarah, the great-great grandson of Jacob. The baby is Moses. He will eventually lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt.
We know the end of the story, but what I’m most interested in is what it’s like at the beginning or maybe the middle of the story. What is it like when you don’t know where you are in the story and how or when it will end?
That’s where we meet Moses – in the middle of the story. He was born as a marginalized Hebrew, but rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up in the royal household, with most of the attendant privileges. But one day, as an adult, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and he intervened and ended up killing the Egyptian. Pharaoh heard about it, so Moses fled, to the neighboring area of Midian.
At the well in Midian, he defended some women from the shepherds who tried to push them aside and take their turn first. Later, one of those women told her father that it was an Egyptian who defended them. He must seem more Egyptian than Hebrew to her.
We picked up the story where Moses is married to that woman and they have a son named Alien. Moses has settled into life as a resident alien in Midian. Maybe the Midianites aren’t sure whether he is Egyptian or Israelite, but he has settled in Midian where he is safe. He has a family and a livelihood as a shepherd. His life in Egypt is long ago and far away. It seems to be over, as far as he is concerned.
Until the day that God gets his attention through a burning bush. Some might say that’s when the story starts. But I wonder. We tell this long story of Moses and the Exodus as if it’s a fast-action thing, but really there are years and years where nothing happens.
Moses is 80 years old by the time he tells Pharaoh to “let my people go.” He was just a young man when he identified with the marginalized, when he chose to intervene on the side of the less powerful, those victimized by Pharaoh’s brutality. Why didn’t the Exodus begin back then? Why did it take so long?
What I’m most interested in is what it’s like when you don’t know where you are in the story and how and when it will end. The word for this place is liminal. It is not a word that I use every day. It comes from the Latin word limen, which means threshold. Liminal space is the space on the threshold, the time of transition between one thing and the next. It’s the space in the doorway, the space between moments, the space between before and after. Liminal space is that place in the doorway. In a lot of ways, that’s where I find us these days.
You’ve probably seen this image of Greta Thunberg from a year ago. She’s on strike from school protesting for protection of the environment outside a Swedish government building. A year ago, she was alone.
Last week, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world joined her cause. If we look at just that slice of history, it might seem like there was a lot of progress in just one year. But if we remember that Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962 and people like her have been urging care for the creation for decades, then we might ask “why is it taking so long?”
Most of us have now heard the idea that every 500 years, the Church goes through a rummage sale where it cleans out the old ways of ordering spirituality and replaces them with new ones. It’s a way to describe the huge shift we are experiencing in churches, the shift that has been happening for a while now. Phyllis Tickle published that idea and made it popular in 2008, eleven years ago. That might seem fairly recent, but come on, how long does it take to put on a rummage sale?
Every day, it seems, we hear new stories of human desperation and exploitation, of terror and violence, of systematic cruelty, corruption, and indifference. It happens at our borders and within our neighborhoods and in war zones and places of relative peace, and we wonder how things will ever change.
In so many ways, we find ourselves in liminal space. And most of us, as we stand in the doorway, we want to know what it will take to move across the threshold.
What did it take for the Israelites? The book of Exodus highlights two things. First, the people cried out to God. In their suffering, they groaned and cried out for help and God heard their cry. It is Israel’s voice of hurt and rage that sets things in motion. Walter Brueggemann says “it is difficult to imagine a more radical theological statement that this; it is voiced grief that mobilizes God to act in saving ways.” He goes on, “against an etiquette that prefers peaceful waiting, Israel is vigorous and bold, insistent and importunate. Israel shatters the docile silence, asserts its hurt and its hope. In doing so, it not only terrifies the empire, but it mobilizes holiness on its behalf as well.” 
And so, I wonder as we stand on the threshold, can we hear the insistent cries of those who suffer, the voiced hurt of victims of gun violence, and weary migrants with no safe place to rest, and people of color in a racist world, and those traumatized by one calamity after another? Do we hear the pain of those who have lost faith because of the church’s failure to love? Do we perceive the groaning of all creation? Like the ancient Israelites, can we hear the lament and raise our own voices, troubling heaven loudly, boldly, vigorously, until we mobilize holiness to action?
The second thing that moves the Israelites into Exodus is Moses. Moses attends to the bush which burns but is not consumed. Moses takes off his shoes because he realizes he is standing on holy ground. Moses listens and hears the voice of God, the voice of the God of his ancestors, the God of his oppressed and marginalized people. Not the people of Midian where he now lives. Not the elites of Egypt, the residents of the palace where he grew up, but the people with whom God has been in covenant for generations. The second thing that moves the Israelites across the threshold is that Moses takes up his true identity. Moses does not do that easily. He resists God’s call and makes excuses. I don’t blame him.
I’m reading a book called How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going by Susan Beaumont. It was just published a week ago. Too late for Moses, which is too bad, because I think the title sums up his predicament. What God is calling him to do is completely unknown and seems impossible. This brand-new book, just published, is intended for church leaders as we stand on the threshold right now. The title alone explains so much.
The book also offers another image of liminal space. Instead of a doorway, it suggests the image of a trapeze. Liminal space is “a time when you’ve let go of one trapeze with the faith that the new trapeze is on its way. In the meantime, there’s nothing to hold on to.”
I’ve only read the first quarter of the book. So far, it is more descriptive than prescriptive, but I have found one useful idea, which is the concept of surrender. Now, in everyday use, surrender often means to accept defeat, to give up, to give in. It’s not a term we usually embrace. It doesn’t seem especially helpful when you’re free-falling from the trapeze.
But Susan Beaumont is writing as a spiritual director and she says that in the contemplative spiritual tradition, surrender means something else. “To surrender is to yield, to submit to the powerful reality of what is, to take a long loving look at what is real, to welcome the situation in front of you. Surrender means accepting the past for what it was, embracing the present reality, yielding to the mystery of the future and the mystery of God in that future.”
I think surrender is a great description for what Moses eventually does. He takes a long look at the burning bush and submits to the powerful reality of God, the great I-AM, the One who is and has been and will be. He accepts the past for what it was and yields to the mystery.
Beloved ones, it seems we stand on several thresholds. Maybe it even feels like we have let go of the trapeze and there’s nothing to hang onto. Perhaps we can hold onto this:
“At the heart of our tradition is the radical idea that God calls God’s people into a new future, that God is the one who agitates and disturbs us and makes us uncomfortable with the status quo.” May we surrender to that call, accepting the past, submitting to the powerful reality of what is, yielding to the mystery of God with courage and commitment. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 695.
 Brueggemann, p. 707.
 Susan Beaumont, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leading in a Liminal Season, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), p. 12
 Beaumont, p. 43.
 This beautiful sentence is from a sermon by the Rev. John Buchanan, also called “The Journey” http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2005/091105.html