Exodus: Holy Liberation

Mary Magdala Community

3rd Sunday in Lent —  March 3, 2024

Rev. Jim Ryan, M.Div., Ph.D.  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Pastor,  Mary Magdala Community,  maryofmagdala-mke.org

This Lent I have been taken with the Exodus story.  Chapters 1-14 of the book of Exodus tell the story of the liberation of the Israelites.  That’s what the Jewish people were called in those days – days that saw the progression from their living as slaves in Egypt, to wandering 40 years in the desert, and eventually to crossing the Red Sea into freedom.

So, I studied chapters 1-14 and this is my take on what I read there about emancipation.  Let me first acknowledge that being a white man who lives in one of the most affluent countries in the world, and who holds graduate degrees that have served me well in being employed in careers that not only interested me but that contributed to a reasonable income,  means that I am already emancipated, let alone privileged, to a great extent.  In my life the barriers to emancipation were in no way comparable to what far too many people in this society and in this world experience even to this day.

I must read chapters 1-14 of Exodus paying very close attention to what it takes to overcome barriers to freedom.  For example, I may, from my privileged position, think and declare that it is unethical and immoral to lie.  I could be very self-righteous about this, confident that religious formation and instruction back me up on this.

Then I read in Exodus, chapter 3, where God says to Moses,

“I have come to rescue the people from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and gracious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”  (Ex. 3:8)

In short, this rescue assures the people of   a future someplace else.

Yet, this is what Yahweh told Moses he should say to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, the one named Ramses:

“YHWH, the God of the Hebrews, has sent us word.  Permit us to go to a three days’ journey in the desert, that we may offer sacrifice to YHWH, our God.”  (3:18)

So, this emancipation, this exit from slavery, starts out based on a lie!  What is so holy about a liberation that starts out with a lack of truthfulness?  Sometimes, it appears, one overcomes barriers to freedom by resorting to lies.  And that is just the beginning of this story whose goal of freedom is riddled with lies.  It seems that Moses and Ramses could not negotiate without lying to each other.

It may be that the details you recall of the Exodus story involve plagues, such as frogs, locusts, gnats, hail and staffs that turn into snakes.  You may also recall the killing of the first-born, human and animal alike, but not the first-born of the Israelite children and animals.  For me, though, beyond the imagery, I find the relationship of Moses and Ramses, their constant lying to each other as they negotiate, to be most interesting.

On the one hand is Moses who dares to address Pharaoh, this god among the people, with counter-proposals instead of groveling at Ramses’ feet and obeying.  At a time when Ramses was exasperated from nine plagues, he summoned Moses to let him know that the people could go and do their 3 day religious festival.  But not the animals; they could not go.  Moses’ counter proposal was to say that they wouldn’t know which animals God wanted to be sacrificed until they were actually at the site of their religious festival.  So, all the animals had to go with them.

In all this negotiation larger strategies become apparent.  Moses says there will be a 3 day religious event, but he knows and we know that this is a lie.  The plan is, once under way, the people will keep moving away from Egypt.  Pharaoh knows that too.  That’s why his offers include holding back something of value, e.g. wives and children when he says only the men can go, or to hold back animals when he says only people can go to such a religious event in the desert.

By the time that all his advisers, his magicians and sorcerers have abandoned him or tried to convince him to let the people go, Ramses arrives at the decision to not only let them go, he expels them.  The larger divine strategy thus is revealed.  There is only one God who is not the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Liberation includes not just the impulse to be free, nor also the action of going.  Liberation also requires that the barriers to freedom be overcome.  The people must be free: 1) to acknowledge YHWH as God over all, and 2) to worship YHWH in freedom.  In other words the people must be free to be a holy nation of priests. (Ex. 19:6)  The Israelites were being prevented from doing both, which meant their call to holiness was being denied.  This was the barrier that needed most to be overcome.

As reluctant as you or I may be to claim this call to holiness in our personal lives, we must acknowledge its longevity in Judaeo-Christian history and practice.  This same call surfaces in Matthew’s gospel, only here holiness is translated in a word that we are probably also just as reluctant to identify ourselves with, when Jesus says “In a word you must be made perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)

If we are reluctant to accept the call to holiness, I would say this prevents us from acknowledging the justice and freedom that is integral to that holiness.  The injustice perpetrated against the Israelites was to deny their freedom, particularly their freedom to worship.  The acts of freedom showed the holiness of the people – even as Moses lied to Ramses and held back the full truth of the divine plan.  The final contact between Moses and Ramses was for Ramses to expel the people, not to give them permission to leave.  Permission would mean dependency on the rule of Pharaoh.  As we heard at the beginning of this reading from Exodus, “YHWH said, ‘I am YHWH who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.’” (Ex. 20:1)

So, Lent brings us this call to holiness.   For me Exodus, chapters 1-14, reveals that being holy is also a call to negotiations, messy and perplexing as they may be.  Remember, as the story goes, God sends Moses to lie to Ramses.

The Exodus story calls us to a holy liberation.  It teaches us that we are free to, 1) Affirm the All-Holy One, and 2) Honor the Covenant.  All the rest are details that depend upon negotiation and change  After all, we learned from Jesus, by way of St. Paul that 1200 years of keeping the Covenant through celebrating Passover is only one way to honor the covenant.  Just think of all the barriers that remain, barriers that get in the way of affirming the All Holy One and Honoring the Covenant.

Liberation is an act of holiness.  Social justice, which honors this liberation, is based in holiness.  Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  What we have covered so far is that emancipation is about acting on the impulse to freedom and breaking through barriers for the sake of that freedom. 

This is far from being a fully formed liberation theology.  We haven’t even explored forgiveness and reconciliation yet.  And we certainly haven’t addressed the question of, while we may have done the leaving, what, in God’s name consists of entering into what we believe we have been promised.  

Exodus is about leaving, roaming, and entering.  Today we have covered leaving.  We still have time this Lent to consider roaming in the desert and entering into the promise.

Mercy Prayer  Reader 1 (R1),  Jim

Adapted from Thomas Merton’s Journal entry of August 7, 1960

  Lord have mercy.  Have mercy on my darkness, my weakness, my confusion.  Have mercy on my infidelity, my cowardice, my turning about in circles, my wandering, my evasions.  I do not ask anything but such mercy, always and in every thing, mercy.

  Lord have mercy.  Guide me, make me want again to be holy, a person of God, even though in desperateness and confusion.  I do not necessarily ask for clarity, a plain way, but only to go according to your love, to follow your mercy, to trust in your mercy.

   If I am to be condemned by others, make me strong and quiet under their condemnation and above all show me how not to condemn them in return, but to forget any harm they may have intended.  Perhaps I want to seek nothing at all if this be possible, but only to be led without looking and without seeking.  For thus to seek is to find.

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