By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 26, 2023
Reading: Exodus 2:11-22
My wife Jaylynn saw the Prince of Egypt movie about the Exodus with her nephew when he was little. As the burning bush scene began, Jaylynn said out loud, “ah, the burning bush.” She’s always too loud in movies. Her nephew whipped his head to glare at her and asked, “Aunt Jaylynn—you said you hadn’t seen this movie before!” He didn’t realize the story is a little older than Disney. It’s even older than Charlton Heston.
But our reading for this morning is not one that turns up in Hollywood portrayals or in children’s bibles or Sunday School lessons.
This is the first Sunday of Lent, the first of six Sundays in which we repent of our sins and prepare for the cross. Lent is not about giving up cussing or chocolate, something pious and trivial. Lent is about aligning our lives with God’s way—which is what the whole Christian life is about. I’ve heard of whole churches that give up alcohol for Lent and put together a spirits fund (get it?) to support Mothers Against Drunk Driving or AA. Lent is the church’s way of tricking us all into greater faithfulness. And our point of focus this Sunday is anger.
The great Frederick Buechner gives this image about anger:
Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back--in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.
There are other so-called “deadly sins” as the church listed them in the middle ages. Pride, greed, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. They’re called deadly because they kill souls. Our age almost calls them virtues! It’s a good list of things that corrode our inner life and hollow us out from the inside. Anger is especially good at this. Ever been sitting in traffic or in line somewhere or in bed . . . and come up with the perfect zinger response . . . for someone who insulted you decades ago? That’s anger, like a worm eating through the imagination. Someone wise said bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.
Moses shows us a flash of anger in this story and it’s not the last time that will get him in trouble.
This is Moses’ first story where he’s all grown up. The first one where he shows agency. Before things happened to him: his birth in a genocide, his trip down the Nile in a basket, his growing up in the royal palace of Egypt. Now Moses is an actor in the play, not just a prop. He goes out and looks and he sees. Now, this is a great thing. Moses notices. Later he’ll notice the bush on fire that isn’t burned up. Here he notices an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave. He didn’t have to do this. What it means to be wealthy, to grow up in a palace, is you don’t have to go out and look. You don’t have to see who’s suffering to prop up your lifestyle. Moses chooses to go and do a thing he could have easily avoided. And he’s to be commended for that. Most of us don’t see how people live who provide our food, make our clothes, fight our wars, police our streets, empty our garbage. Our life is so dependent on others.
But Moses sees injustice. Some of the rabbis say until this moment Moses didn’t remember he even was an Israelite. But as he sees this fellow being beaten, he sees who he is. This man is him. He is them. Moses is not separate from this enslaved people. An injustice to this slave is an injustice to humanity. So Moses acts. He intervenes. He brings justice. Moses strikes.
Now, the first thing to say is that not all anger is bad. To be angry at an injustice is a good thing. The church calls this “righteous anger.” Anyone who’s visited a former Nazi death camp in Europe and not been angry there has no soul. There are many places of misery around the world: in Rwanda, in Ukraine now, in the US South, in Cambodia. We human beings do unbearable things to one another, and God is angry. We should be too, there’s a place for righteous anger. Spousal abuse or child abuse are always wrong. And we’re right to be angry when the strong harm the weak anywhere.
So, Moses is right to be angry here. God is angry at Pharaoh enslaving the Israelites, angry enough to pour plagues on them. Jesus gets angry at times too.
Moses sees, and grows angry, but then, his anger gets the best of him. He kills the Egyptian. There are many things Moses could have done short of this extra-judicial execution. He could have stopped the beating. Stood in between them, intervening. He could have appealed to his adopted grandfather Pharaoh for mercy. Moses is a prince in Egypt. He could have used that power to stop this injustice. It might not have worked, but it wouldn’t have been murder. The very first story in the Bible of Moses as a grown man in public shows him as a murderer. A spur of the moment, unreflective spasm of violence. He hides the Egyptian’s body in the sand. Maybe his lawyer could’ve gotten him off with a manslaughter plea. But let’s be clear here Moses is deeply in the wrong. I often say several of my best friends are murderers. King David. St. Paul. Moses. There is hope for all of us. Bryan Stevenson who relitigates murder cases in the US for racial bias argues against the death penalty this way: “No one should be reduced to the worst thing we’ve ever done. No one.”
The next day Moses goes out again. He’s clearly not that chastened by what he’s done, or he’d be hiding. But he struts out in public, and he sees a fight between two Hebrews. These slaves may have internalized the racism against them: disregarding their own humanity the way the Egyptians have done. As Moses intervenes one asks if he means to kill them the way he killed the Egyptian yesterday. The thing is known. And so, Moses must flee.
There is so much here.
How is the thing known? Did the Hebrew whom Moses defended tell on him? We don’t know. The man who asks this accusing question puts it this way: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” Uh, God did. Moses will be God’s agent for freedom and salvation. This is also a glimpse of what it’ll be like for Moses and the people. They’ll murmur. Grumble. Complain. Because that’s what we do. The relationship will be contentious. Moses will appeal to God often, hey, these people are ready to murder me! They want to kill me and hide me in the sand the way I did with the Egyptian. In other words, the Hebrews are no better than the Egyptians. The Egyptians are no worse than the Hebrews. We’re all made of the same frail stuff.
One English preacher in the 16th century saw a line of condemned prisoners headed to the gallows to hang and famously said, “there but for the grace of God go I.” He’s no different. His life could’ve ended up at the end of a noose just as theirs had.
The rabbis point out that Moses . . . has a bit of an anger problem. It flashes out at key moments in his life. Later when the people are grumbling about their thirst in the desert, God tells Moses to speak to a rock, it’ll provide water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock with his staff, twice and water flows and the people drink. But God is displeased. Moses had been told to be gentle, speak softly. Instead, Moses angrily strikes. It’s his old anger habit. Because of this, God says, Moses won’t lead the people into the promised land. He’ll only get to see it from afar before he dies. Seems like a harsh punishment, doesn’t it? But anger is Moses’ great flaw and it means his life will tragically end just short of what he’d hoped. I wonder what your or my flaw is? What’s going to hobble us spiritually? The list of deadly sins might include it. Or it might be something else. Usually, our flaw is pretty close to our gift, or even the same thing.
Anger is pretty high on my list, on lots of our lists. I mentioned last week a prayer from an early church monk. Another brother asked him for help getting back at a brother who’d hurt him. So, the monk said “my brother let us pray. Oh God, we have no further need for you, for we can take revenge all by ourselves.” And the first monk groaned, ugh, you’re right, anger is wrong. To be angry is to put ourselves in the position of God, to judge who’s right and wrong, even to make things right like Moses does. But the judgment seat is already occupied. But it’s really, really hard to give up on anger, especially the more someone’s hurt you. One wise older monk tells another in the desert he’d spent 70 years asking God for the grace to control his temper. Hadn’t happened yet. Seventy years is a long time for one prayer.
As they say in the black church, God doesn’t always come when you want, but God is always on time.
We’ve been living in the Exodus story for these last few months, and will continue through Lent and Easter. We’re bouncing around a little on the timeline: last week we were on Mount Sinai with Moses receiving the commands, this week we’re back in Egypt before Moses ever flees. Many of you are reading Exodus along with these sermons, let me encourage more of you to do the same for Lent. You’ll notice a few things as you read.
One God is really, really, really patient with us. More patient than we think he should be. God didn’t choose the Israelites because they were particularly good people. They quarrel, and fuss, and fight. So, when we aren’t good, when we fight, hey, there’s a long history of this. It’s what God’s people do. We’re in good company all the way back to Moses. And two Moses is not ready yet. He cannot lead yet. He has to flee. He has to go into the wilderness himself for 40 years to prepare. Moses will lead the people to freedom, but it will take decades to get ready. For reasons unclear God waits till the Israelites have been enslaved 400 years before acting. Then lets Moses mature for 40 more years. Four hundred and forty years is a long time for a people to be enslaved (just think what your ancestors might’ve been up to in the year 1583, 440 years ago). Yet God does act through Moses for the people against Pharaoh and Egypt. God just takes his sweet time about it. No idea why. It is just so.
Moses’ time in Midian is not wasted. He marries a Midianite woman. Zipporah will often be blamed for things by the Israelites, this foreign woman, from a wrong religion. Her father is a priest in Midian, Jethro, who will be helpful to Moses. I love this. Israel is not Israel without Midian. The Midianites are another religion, another race, another people, Israel will fight them often. Israel is always tempted to either fight its neighbours or to marry them. Very human. But Moses, Israel’s greatest leader, has his wife from this other race and religion. This foreign father-in-law blesses Israel. Moses is not Moses without Midian. We are not us without others. God chooses sides, friends, Israel is God’s beloved. But God doesn’t choose Israel to be against other peoples, or better. God chooses Israel to be for all the others. God draws on gifts from Midian and makes Midianites like Zipporah and Jethro integral to God’s people.
And look how Moses gains this Midianite wife. He advocates for justice again. For the third time this morning. First, against the Egyptian torturer. Second, between two Israelites. Third, on behalf of Midianite women against someone keeping them from the well. Moses’ thirst for justice knows no racial or national bounds. He doesn’t lack for courage—give him that. Discretion maybe. Courage, no. The girls’ father is aghast they didn’t invite their defender home for hospitality. That is, the Midianites are more grateful than the Israelites for Moses. Zipporah bears a son and they name him Gershom: which means stranger in a strange land. The firstborn of Israel’s greatest leader is a reminder . . . of being an outsider, not included, different.
Sometimes outsiders ask me what folks at TEMC are like. They assume I’ll say rich. Snobby. Entitled. Nope. I say everyone feels like an outsider. Even people here for decades feel that way. That this church is for someone else. I just sort of snuck in. That’s the trick. That can be our superpower. When our neighbours feel like they don’t belong here, we can say, hey, me neither! But you won’t believe this, they’re awesome in there. Come and see, let me show you. The only requirement is that you don’t think it’s for you.
Back to our story. What we’ve seen here is Moses’ growth. This is a portrait of a leader as a young person. First impetuous in his anger. Stronger in body than in soul, resulting in bloodshed. Then intervening more patiently, stopping violence without bloodshed. That’s progress! Then intervening again in a way that lends to friendship, wedding bells, community between strangers. I hope for similar progress for all of us, spiritually speaking. Someone joked that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re old you have no brain. We all change, hopefully becoming wiser, gentler, without giving up love for justice. Oh, and Christians are both conservative and liberal. We preserve treasure from the past to give it away generously to strangers. I hope that crosses up your boundary lines. One luminary when asked whether Christians are liberal or conservative said, “I don’t know, Jesus is raised from the dead. You figure it out.” I hope even more that we make progress against the violence in our own hearts.
I was talking with one of you this week who came to our church via our AA group that meets in the basement. That’s an uncommon road: recovering addicts take to AA and other recovery groups because they are places without judgment. They can feel more judged up here in the sanctuary, even if no one is actually judging, only welcoming. It takes courage to come up those stairs. And you told me about a key step in the 12 steps to recovery: cataloguing all your bitterness and anger. Addicts often use substances to dull anger and rage. But once you express all that makes you angry, spill it out, vomit it out if you will, you can let it go. You said you noticed later, after cataloguing, you didn’t want to drink. Miracles happen in our basement y’all. They happen in this sanctuary too.
I’m struck how much of our current politics is driven by rage. Donald Trump was elected president of the US basically because he sounded mad. And some 45 percent of people said, hey, he’s mad too, I’m with him. Fox News serves up daily doses of vitriol, amplified by Twitter. Anger does motivate people politically to vote or give money or spread outrage. The thing is, it has diminishing returns, it’s not sustainable. And it’s usually a good sign you’re not being reasonable. A nun I know says, “there is nothing harsh in God.” Nothing. By contrast there was a professor who died, and in his papers in the margins occasionally of his lectures he’d written, “argument weak. Yell like crazy.” Now this isn’t just the US where rage moves the dial, my fellow Canadians, we did elect Rob Ford before Doug, we did have the Freedom Convoy, anger sells in Canada too. I just wonder in an angry political moment whether we can be a people of hope? Whether we can say, hey, anger’s cool at a base level. It gets people moving. You know what’s better, more mature? Patience. Mercy. Grace. Anger will flame hot and burn you up. Grace will make you live forever.
Reading Barack Obama’s autobiographies, you barely meet his father. That’s because his father headed back to Kenya from the US a broken man. He’d intended to make his name and fortune but instead felt a failure. He died soon after. It’s striking to think that he was quite right. His name and his fortune would be made. Just not in his generation. Rather in his son’s. Patience can be the answer to anger. Don’t evaluate things ultimately just yet. The next generation, or several after that, you may arrive precisely where you want to be.
Now careful with this patience thing. Those in power often preach patience to those unjustly mistreated. Those crushed by injustice aren’t into patience, they’re hungry for justice, now, and they’re right to be. Moses was right to see injustice. To act on it. He just shouldn’t have done so with murder. Even so, God used this sin to make Moses who he is. Moses is always a leader with a limp. A mover of masses who was also a murderer. Someone who could never pretend he was perfect, far from it. Yet someone God could work through to bring grace and justice to the world.
There’s a story told about St. Francis of Assisi in the middle ages. At a village named Gubbio there was a wolf eating people. Francis said he’d talk to the wolf. Gubbio begged him not to: he eats people! Francis said, no problem, I talk to animals. He approached, and asked, Brother Wolf, you’re eating people. The wolf nodded. You’re hungry, aren’t you? He nodded again. So, Francis led the wolf into town. The townspeople were frightened. Francis reassured them, the wolf is just hungry. He’s agreed not to eat anybody if you guys feed him. He's sorry. Right wolf? Villagers you’ll feed him and in return he’ll guard you, okay? A good story: violence, anger, come from hunger, lack. A good pious legend, right? Except when the modern city of Gubbio was redoing its roads, they discovered an immaculately buried coffin containing a wolf.
Anger can do a lot for you. It can motivate. It can agitate for good. Anger is, Buechner again says, like a fist. It can fight. It can protest. What it can’t do, is open, join hands, pray. So let us do that now. Gracious God, drain us of our anger, of everything that rots from within, and fill us instead with your Holy Spirit. Amen.