By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, March 12, 2023
Reading: Exodus 3:21-2; 12:35-36
We’ve been spending this year so far with the Israelites in Exodus from slavery and then in the desert. These are some of the great events of the whole Bible. The split Red Sea. The thunder and lightning on the mountain top. The only God there is intervenes in history personally to free slaves. Fearsome stuff. Big picture. Hollywood loves it.
But amidst all the theatrics and pyrotechnics there are also lots of subplots and minor keys. Two weeks ago to begin Lent we spoke of Moses’ anger problem, his Achilles’ heel as a leader. Last week Pastor Lori spoke of God’s best military advice to Israel: the Lord will fight for you, you have only to keep still. Today we see another subplot: the plundering of the Egyptians. What’s this about? How do we make sense of it and live better because of it?
Plunder is a reason you go to war in the ancient world. You defeat a people not usually to take their land, you have your own. Not usually to wipe them out, genocide was a 20th century invention. You go to war with a people to take their stuff. This was considered the only way to grow wealth. Capitalism: growing wealth through trade, lending, and investing, was centuries off. The Vikings marked the whole history of Europe with 1000 years of plunder. Buildings like this one were made not just to look like fortresses but to be fortresses—you could lock a village inside and wait till the Vikings left. Then they settled down and became nice Scandinavians. From raiding to IKEA and Volvo is good progress. But we kept building the fortresses. Go ahead, try and plunder us Sven!
Israel does not plunder the Egyptians through conquest. They are slaves liberated by God. They had no weapons of their own, no military know-how, they are an abused people. Yet they come away from Egypt with plunder anyway. This never happens. People don’t give up their treasure willingly. You have to take it after subduing them. But God had promised this confounding turn of events would take place. Way back in Genesis 15 when God calls Abram, he promises this:
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years, but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.
You will be enslaved and come away rich. That’s . . . different. That never happens. God always works backwards from how we think he should.
When slaves were liberated in the US with the Civil War, they did not come away rich, but impoverished. Slavery was awful, dehumanizing, and genocidal, but often former slaves remained with their former masters after the war because, well, where else would they go? They couldn’t ever accumulate wealth or build families, so they stayed and worked for a pittance. The US government had dangled promises of 40 acres and a mule for each ex-slave, but that (shockingly) never came to pass. Greater black rates of poverty and crime in the US are directly relatable to that decision: liberation into poverty.
The Israelites are liberated into wealth. Some in the tradition have been troubled by this story. Aren’t they stealing from the Egyptians? The story says no. The Egyptians freely offer their treasure. Others say it doesn’t look so free. If I’m held up at gunpoint, I’ll likely volunteer my wallet as politely and quickly as I can to get the threat to go away. The Egyptians have faced 10 plagues, the latest most devastating one, the loss of their firstborn. The Israelites are the reason. Please leave. Here, take my watch. Just before this last, most devastating plague, God promises this: “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterward he will let you go from here; indeed when he lets you go, he will drive you away” (Ex. 11:1). Here, take our jewelry, our silver and our gold, please now leave forever and don’t come back. So it might not be coerced, but this isn’t exactly free generosity either. Already in antiquity rabbis and church fathers suggested this was back pay. Reparations. Four hundred years of wages paid in arrears. When the descendants of the oppressed in our day speak of reparations, they have these texts to point to. Coerced black labour built the wealth of the US South, how about 40 acres and a mule plus interest plus back pay, that would be a start, wouldn’t it?
The Bible is political dynamite y’all. I almost called this sermon “reparations,” but worried that sounded too radical, hence the title “repair.” I just didn’t have the courage to say what the Bible says so calmly and matter of factly. Later, a great ancestor in our faith, mighty Hannah, will pray this way:
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. (1 Samuel 2:4-5).
Her descendant Mary, mother of Jesus, learns from Hannah how to pray.
God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly;
God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1).
Those who were powerful and wealthy—Egypt, are despoiled, stripped of their treasure. That’s what happens if you enslave human beings. Those who were disregarded—Israel—are made rich. Ennobled. Their children walk out of slavery in Egypt not in rags, but in robes fit for kings. Imagine receiving 400 years of wages in a day. Egypt is bankrupt. Israel enriched. God does this sort of thing. Not just did, past tense. Does. Genesis promised it, Exodus shows it, Hannah and Mary praise it in hymns and prayers. As the spiritual sings, bottom rail going to be on the top next time. This isn’t just reparations, it’s a revolution. All hiding in plain sight in our Bibles.
Why is this so explosive? There are heirs of historically mistreated communities that speak of reparations now: heirs of slaves, of indigenous peoples dispossessed. Canadian governments and churches have made massive payouts for residential schools, but no such thing has happened in the US. Some universities in the US that owned slaves have sought out their descendants and offered reparation—Princeton, Georgetown, and others. That is, some of the wealthiest institutions in the history of the world built that wealth on the backs of forced labour and are now trying to make things right. Often those reparations are in the form of scholarships to their school rather than cash, but it’s still a good gesture. Cathedrals in England that built wealth on slavers’ donations are wondering what to do with that largesse and its interest. No one knows how this should work more broadly. What about those who never owned slaves? Never dispossessed anybody, but came from, say, Ireland later without wealth, why should their wealth be redistributed? Or those who came willingly from, say, Africa but later and who aren’t descended from slaves? The issues are more complicated still here in Canada with land dispossession. But this is a live topic in wealthy western countries now and here it is spoken to in scripture, plain as day.
What happens to this wealth? As one of you pointed out in Bible study the Israelites are off into the desert, carrying gold doesn’t seem as wise as carrying, say, water. Jewish people through the centuries came to specialize in trades like jewelry where you could carry wealth easier when countries kicked you out: diamonds are a bit lighter than gold. But two things happened with this gold. One, they beautified the tabernacle with it. The tabernacle was a great tent in the wilderness where God lives, with grand furnishings and beauty. Later the people would build a permanent temple in Jerusalem, but until then God moves with them in a tent. My favourite name for a start-up synagogue is one in Chicago called Mishkan-tabernacle, a sign God dwells with people and moves with them. There is something to the fact that we worship well amidst beauty. This sanctuary shows it, it draws up awe out of you, reaches down into your throat and pulls up awe before you know what you’re saying. And this is important not just for privileged people. Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker, received a diamond ring from a wealthy donor for her ministry. The next person she saw was a street person. Day gave her the ring. When quizzed she said, “shouldn’t the poor also have beautiful things?” That could have been sold and the money given to the poor! Judas said. St. Francis of Assisi, one of our greatest saints, married Lady Poverty, gave away not just his stuff but his rich father’s stuff, loved poverty. He kept one precious possession: a silver communion set, to show the body and blood of Christ are infinitely more valuable. Some churches have tried to worship in warehouses, give money to the needy instead of to the building. It doesn’t work long-term. So the Egyptian plunder went to beautifying the tabernacle and the temple, the worship of God in holy splendor.
But that’s not the only place it went. When Moses is up the mountain with God receiving the commands, the people grow restless. Where did Moses go? He’s been gone for weeks! Make gods for us, they say. So, Moses’ brother the priest Aaron goes around and collects their gold, melts it down, puts it in a mold, and makes a golden calf. He proclaims: “Here are your gods oh Israel who led you out of Egypt,” and all Israel rises up in idolatry and sexual immorality. This is a catastrophe. We Christians see original sin in Genesis 3 and the garden, Jews see the same here with the golden calf. The moment God gives the commands up the mountain, the people are breaking all of them down the mountain. Gold doesn’t just go to beautify the tabernacle, it also goes into the smelter to make the golden calf—the god we want.
It is still true that our wealth can go to glorify God, to beautify his temple, to feed the poor, to feed our families and neighbours and strangers. Or it can go to creating false idols that destroy souls. And sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which. Churches can build opulent palaces instead of feeding the poor. Pastors’ mansions and private jets have gotten appropriate media condemnation of late. And nobody does more to help the poor and the sick worldwide than the Christian church—everywhere there’s a pandemic outbreak or emergency the first people there will be nuns and Christian aid organizations. The ranks of atheists grow a little thin in those moments.
Okay, well you didn’t need a lecture on wealth and its dangers this morning, this isn’t a sermon yet: sermons announce the good news of what God has done in Jesus Christ. So, hit me up preacher, what’s the good news this morning?
This plundering story shows something important. An answer to a question. What do you say when people far outside God’s people show or teach something true and good and beautiful? Exodus often speaks of all Moses learned from the Egyptians, and also from the Midianites that he marries into. Scholars trace elements of Egyptian wisdom in the Exodus story. How did these enemies of God’s people know so much truth? Early Christians marveled at all that Plato and Aristotle knew. We figured they must’ve read some of the Bible. They didn’t. They just knew stuff. How? The person who best put Jesus’ teaching into political practice may have been a non-Christian: Mohandis K. Gandhi, who used non-violent resistance to push Britain out of India. Gandhi famously said to us, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” If your Christians were more like Christ, I’d be tempted to believe. I’m far from the only one to notice the gentleness in Buddhist practitioners. One knocked on my window when I was illegally parked in Vancouver one time. I was ready to yell, fight. But she stepped back, bowed, smiled, and I was ready to do whatever she wanted. Sure, I’ll move, in fact, you want my car? Here, take it, like Egypt of old.
What’s going on when that happens? Don’t be afraid, Christians. That’s Jesus Christ appearing where we weren’t looking. God has left traces of God’s self everywhere. God is that generous, even when we are not. As Jesus says, the sun shines on the just and the unjust alike. Non-Christian people love their children, they get subject and object and verb right in sentences, more impressively they love their enemies sometimes and we often don’t. How do we make sense of that?
Well, anytime we see a truth outside of God’s people, we give thanks. God is generous. And we receive it, dust it off, and put it to use beautifying the temple. Don’t hesitate because it has a non-Christians source. That’s God’s truth, wherever God left it for us. Now don’t take it and make an idol out of it, it’s not for making golden calves. It’s for beautifying God’s worship. But don’t take it in bad conscience either. When Plato teaches beautifully, or Muslims live beautifully, or indigenous folks today pass on wisdom, give thanks without anxiety. That’s how generous God is. And then put that to use.
Outsiders or skeptics like to point out that Christmas trees aren’t in the Bible. Neither is gothic architecture or stained glass. Neither is Lent. Neither is lots that beautifies our faith. We can agree cheerfully. Yep: plundering the Egyptians again.
In the ancient church missionaries would ask bishops, um, the people have become Christian, so, do we destroy this pagan shrine they used to pray at? Leadership said no. They’re used to praying there. Just consecrate it. Make it a church. Put an altar there and pray to the triune God there. People’s previous attraction to God in that place is holy. Now crown it in Christ. Christian truth doesn’t bulldoze what came before. That’s what the Taliban does. That’s what some kinds of capitalism does: turn that site into a theme park and sell hamburgers there. Christianity hallows what came before. Sanctifies it. Takes away the idols and leaves it a house of God. We failed at this at times, but this is what we teach and practice at our best.
Asian Christians from Buddhist contexts sometimes struggle with a specific practice: ancestor veneration. Buddhist peoples will go to a cemetery and light incense and bow to their ancestors. Some Chinese Christians I’ve known don’t go. That’s idolatry. Stay away. Others go to show respect but don’t bow or light. But some do bow. We believe in the communion of the saints too: the dead aren’t gone, they’re worthy of our respect. I don’t know how to adjudicate that, but you see what they’re wrestling with: how do we honour this tradition while also worshiping the one true God alone, to whom we have turned in Christ? Here’s another very different story: at a monastery in my home state, North Carolina, there is a baptismal font made from a former slave trading auction block. A grotesque place of devaluing black bodies has become a place of liberation to make daughters and sons of God. That’s plundering the Egyptians.
A friend of mine is not a Christian. She is a medical doctor. And her hospital in the interior of BC has a practice she loves. When a new baby is born, they ring bells throughout the hospital. Everyone stops and rejoices a little. A win for humanity. She suggested a quite Christian thing I think, plundering the Egyptians a little. She also wants to ring bells when someone dies. A loss for us all. You won’t be surprised she has had no luck in getting this going. Seems macabre, it might disturb someone. Ernest Hemingway, also not a Christian, borrows a line with his great book For Whom the Bell Tolls: ask not for whom it tolls. Don’t ask who’s died. It tolls for thee. When someone dies it’s a loss for humanity. That’s plundering the Egyptians: wisdom seen by outsiders, God showing us who he is through a stranger. Karl Barth, greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, suggested God raised up Gandhi to say, ‘hey, if my people aren’t going to practice non-violence, I’ll see that someone else will.’ God won’t leave himself without a witness. Later God raised up Martin Luther King Jr, inspired by Gandhi. This rabbi from Nazareth isn’t just otherworldly—this stuff works.
Here’s another tack. The great Paul McCartney wrote one of our greatest songs, “Let it Be.” “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be. And in my hour of darkness, she is standing right in front of me.” McCartney insists he wasn’t thinking of Mary, mother of Jesus. McCartney’s own mom’s name was Mary. But he grants a song can be about more than what its author means. And for millennia when Christians prayed, they said Mary responds. Liverpool is one of the most Catholic parts of England, where McCartney grew up. And his mom has that name because it’s the most common name for Christians to name their daughters. Is this plundering the Egyptians then or Israelites remembering we’re Israelites? I don’t know. But it’s certainly God bearing witness to himself without the one witnessing knowing what’s happening. It happens all the time. If you ever despair of the church getting so much wrong, and I sure do, remember God raises up witnesses far beyond our midst. That’s how creative God is. The centre of our faith is a Roman cross, a torture device to execute human vermin, to reduce people to sub-human ghastly sites of horror. God uses it to give life to the world. If God can do that with the most detestable symbol of pagan Rome, what can’t God use for his glory, for our good?
Lots of you tell me of folks you love who aren’t Christian, who you worry about, no time for church, no space for God in their lives. This story tells us not to worry about outsiders. Egyptian wealth can become beauty in God’s temple. Maybe worry about us, insiders: God’s people can use gold to make ourselves a calf, a god we like. The true God is impatient with that. But don’t be surprised to see our creative God breaking out and flowering in the lives of those who think they’re not Christian. We really can’t keep God out of any life, any more than we can keep the sun, the rain, love, or fear out of our lives. Jesus shows God is really kind to outsiders and very hard on his friends. No wonder he has so few. When you worry don’t look at our behaviour or others’. Look at how merciful God is. And watch if you don’t see that mercy breaking out everywhere. Especially where it isn’t “supposed” to be, or “can’t” be. And when you see it, give thanks, shake your head, and say, there God goes again, making a way where there is no way. Amen.