With the country more and more divided by the day, it seems that few subjects are safe for discussion in public. Seriously, even sport is now mostly off limits. The weather isn’t safe. That fellow in the checkout line might be a climate change denier with a gun in the truck. We have forgotten how to disagree without being disagreeable. Forget “road rage.” We have “nation rage.”
But at least some things stay the same. Some subjects that were divisive years ago are still just as divisive today. Take, for example, Israel and the Palestinians. You either grant the State of Israel, its military and its intelligence agencies, carte blanche, exempting them from every international law and treaty, or you are accused of being an anti-semite. There is no middle ground, no case-by-case, no room for reflection. You either tolerate everything or you are labeled the enemy. Jews who dare question the apartheid state find themselves accused of essentially being “race traitors,” the same construct used by anti-semitic white nationalists for other European-Americans who seek racial justice for African-Americans.
American Christians have waded into this mess, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been raging for decades, choosing corners and coming out swinging at one another and anyone who gets in the way. Depending on which biblical texts you take literally, you might support justice and reconciliation between the warring sides or you recklessly support the most extreme and violent form of Zionism. Yeah, I have a side on this… Some Christians believe that restoring a united Israel, one that coheres to mythical ancient borders, and further, rebuilding the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, which would require the destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque, will usher in the end times. They may well be right that destroying the third holiest site in Sunni Islam would bring about Armageddon.
Many Mainline Protestants, including a significant number in our United Church of Christ, support justice for Palestinians, calling for a Palestinian state or any solution that leads to a just peace. and Some denominations have officially joined the BDS movement, calling on people to boycott, divest and sanction Israel and companies that profit from the occupation and the slow-going ethnic cleansing occurring on what little land remains to the Palestinians, poisoned olive trees and a poisonous blockade.
It hasn’t always been easy to get behind the Palestinians. Most of us remember with awful clarity the terrorist attacks, kidnappings and hijackings of the 1970s and 80s. Events at the 1972 Munich Olympics were broadcast live around the world. Thirteen years later came the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, which would inspire an opera by John Adams, though there are always picketers when it is performed by those angry that the piece is sympathetic to the Palestinian longing for a homeland.
Seen through the lens of 9/11, we mistakenly read these acts of terror as acts of Islamic extremism. While some Palestinians have indeed turned to extreme forms of religious fundamentalism, early acts of Palestinian terror were about justice and national liberation, with no whiff of the future caliphate. The Black September group responsible for the attack on the Munich Olympics included members of the Palestinian Marxist-Leninist party, still the second largest faction in the PLO. And they did not act alone. They partnered with the Red Army Faction, a German terrorist cell on the Left. Four years later, a splinter group of that Marxist-Leninist party would partner with a different group of German radicals, the Revolutionary Cell, to hijack an Air France flight from Jerusalem to Paris, redirecting it to Uganda, where Idi Amin’s despotic regime collaborated with the hijackers.
There, in the airport terminal at Entebbe, the Jewish and Israeli passengers were pulled aside, along with the crew, and the remainder of the passengers were released. The hijackers demanded $5 million and the release of 53 prisoners, most in Israeli prisons. They promised to kill the Jewish and Israeli hostages if their demands were not met.
Then, something extraordinary happened. The Israeli Defense Force pulled off what may still be the most daring and successful rescue mission in modern military history. One hundred and two of the remaining one hundred and six hostages were rescued. The Israeli forces suffered one casualty, Lt. Col. Yonatan Netanyahu, brother of the current Prime Minister. All of the hijackers and approximately 40 members of the Ugandan military were killed. The story will be told yet again when a new film is released next year.
We know we should not celebrate any death, should never celebrate violence, but we also understand that peace requires justice, and that terrorism, the targeting of the innocent to force the powerful to act, is always wrong. Hebrew people acting for liberation, now there’s a story.
Like this story of Exodus, with plagues that look very much like divine terrorism, the night of wailing heart-rending grief, as the angel of death passes over the households marked with blood, but strikes down the first-born of the Egyptians. Never mind the locusts and rivers of blood, which are bad, but on Passover, in house after house, mother’s held dead children.
Parts of the story are so deeply troubling, if we take it as historic fact in the received form, dating from more than eight centuries later, during the period of Exile. A God who would harden the heart of the Pharaoh? I’m better with the idea that the Hebrews, under the leadership of Moses, perceived a divine hand in events as they struggled for liberation, but no matter how we read the plagues and violence, there is a lesson to be learned right here on the mountain.
This is our story, one of the most powerful stories humans have ever told, even if embellished, for all Hebrew understanding is built upon it, and Christian understanding is built on Hebrew understanding, so that this story is the foundation of every single gathered community, every soaring basilica and every backwoods church, every synagogue and Temple, the Sistine Chapel and Mozart’s Requiem. The Jesus story would take on the royalist propaganda of the Davidic house, but in the end, Jesus is the new Moses, something made clear in the gospel traditionally attributed to Matthew. Moses and Jesus both cooperate with God in the liberation of the people of God and negotiate future relations between Yahweh and humans, creating covenants.
Yahweh is on a rescue mission, in Egypt and in Caesar’s Galilee. Some choose to believe that we are being rescued from Yahweh’s own wrath, though I choose to believe that we are being rescued from ourselves, from what our statement of faith calls “aimlessness and sin,” from the human manufacture of fear and hatred and scarcity.
We can get caught up in this divine rescue, and who can hear these stories without the imagery of Cecil B. DeMille, Charleton Heston parting the Red Sea? But if we focus on the divine power, we risk becoming passive, forgetting that God called a human and charged him with speaking and leading. Here is Moses, stuttering Moses, fugitive murderer Moses, neither fish-now-fowl Moses, for he was Hebrew by birth but Egyptian by upbringing. And that is all behind him. He is off on Horeb, married, tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. Who needs this burning bush business? Moses clearly doesn’t think he is the right one for the task. But God does. We have that strange angel-of-the-Lord construct we’ve been encountering in scripture lately, that post-Exile obfuscation, but this is not some random angel, this is God speaking through the burning bush, God who reveals God’s own name, “I AM BECOMING,” and God who says “Go and lead my people to freedom.”
God’s rescue mission involves an imperfect hero, an improbable hero, a reluctant hero.
God’s rescue mission always involves an imperfect hero, an improbable hero, a reluctant hero.
Read the stories of the prophets. They don’t go charging off, full of themselves. They are called, and often don’t want to go. Jonah, anyone? They frustrate the people in charge, kings and queens and priests. They frustrate God.
And they do God’s work.
Filled with doubt, they do God’s work.
Pouting and temper tantrums, they do god’s work.
They are, each and every one of them, an imperfect holy mess.
And so are you. And so am I.
We don’t tell the stories of perfect saints. If the story sounds too perfect, it is too perfect.
God is not waiting for you to be perfect. A rescue mission is needed. And there you were, minding your own business, minding the flocks. Flocks of sheep and goats are easy. They mostly do what you want and the dangers are clear. Pharaohs are not easy. But God is calling now, as you stutter and beg off. “Not me God. I’m not your guy. You’ve got the wrong woman.”
“I’m not ready for this.” Really? Guess what: neither was Moses. Or Amos. Or Jonah, the very embodiment of reluctance.
Two thousand years later and the saints of the 20th century were imperfect and reluctant and improbable.
Two of the greatest were bookworm theologians who spent most of their time in their heads, but found themselves leading with their bodies, and paying the ultimate price. Another martyr for the faith was with his mistress moments before he was gunned down. They each stood up to evil in bold ways, heard the voice of the divine speaking down the ages. “Resist the pharaohs of the world! The kingdom of God is at hand.”
The heroes here at the start of the 21st century have Facebook pages and twitter handles, organize resistance and make us uncomfortable, make us see on Sunday afternoon what we don’t want to see, that the cruel fist of pharaoh is still crushing God’s people. And they are imperfect, get it wrong sometimes, lash out like Moses, weep like Jesus.
There are folks that need some rescuing in Puerto Rico today, in Myanmar today, in Flint today. They need rescuing from the crushing hand of pharaoh, from the cross on which Caesar still hangs innocent bodies, broken brown bodies. And we each in our own way can participate in the rescue mission, can be a plague on the pharaohs of this world.There is a prayer to be uttered: “Lord, make me a plague!”
But there are also folks who need rescuing in Blue Hill and Surry and Brooksville. They work harder and buy more and they become more and more miserable by the day, sinking in a sea of despair no chariot can pass through. They need the good news that there is more than fear and consumption and greed. They want to hear about love and all of that hopey-changey stuff. They need to be reminded that this day is a miracle, need to be taught how to dance the dance of the created in celebration of the creation. They are living lives of quiet desperation, and we have the lifeline, are piloting the rescue chopper.
There are people who need rescuing right here in these pews… Folks shackled with chains of insecurity, of fear, of guilt, of grief.
Maybe its you. Maybe you don’t like what you see in the mirror sometimes.
So you say “Not me God. I stutter. What needs to be done is too great. Pick someone else.”
And God responds. “Yes, you. You can make a difference. You do make a difference and you are already called. I’ll go with you, and I’ll send others as well.”
The Exodus was not perfect. There would be a golden calf, and man oh man would those Iraelites ever complain. “This is too hard, Moses. Egypt was better. We suffered there, but we knew the rules.”
The raid at Entebbe was not perfect. Not every hostage made it out. Yonatan Netanyahu died.
We won’t be perfect. We will learn and grow and make mistakes. Because that’s how God rolls, calling imperfect amazing people, giving us the good news, challenging us to burn like a bush on a mountain.
Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.
Go down, Moses. Yeah you, I’m talking to you.