The New Pharaohs?

KIng Tut mask
KIng Tut mask

This sermon was delivered at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Jan. 18, 2013.

The best way to be hospitable is to allow guests who come into your home to be fully who they are. For us, coming from Turner Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Church, to worship without calling upon the name of Jesus is like Jews worshiping without Torah. For that reason, I greet you in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. That is how we worship. And we respect the wonderful ways that you worship God is this holy place.

Larry already stole my very smart Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel quote. I brought another just in case. When he compared the worship of Jews and Christians, the great rabbi said, "Christians build cathedrals in space. For the Jew, Shabbat builds a cathedral in time." During Shabbat we hallow time, withdraw from work, and we reflect upon who God is and who we are as God's people. We give thanks and praise to God for the beauty of Shabbat on tonight.

I will not stand before you long. Never, ever trust a preacher who says that. That's like a kleptomaniac assuring you that he will not steal.

The story assigned for our reading tonight is the Exodus. This story is an affront to thoughtful, modern readers because it challenges us to consider whether we are of the house of Pharaoh or the house of bondage.

My late granduncle, Walter Alfred Lamar, Sr. (1930-2008), lived a compelling life of faith. He was a man of great wisdom and sparkling charm. During the autumnal years of his life he lost his daughter, Cheryl, and his wife, Alice, to cancer. Uncle Walt eventually succumbed to the "emperor of all maladies" himself.

One of his sayings was, "Many people read the Bible. Few people allow the Bible to read them." Tonight I want to use the Walter Alfred Lamar, Sr. hermeneutical principle. Let's allow the Scripture to read us.

When we read this passage, Jews and African Americans see ourselves as those in bondage. I want to flip the script tonight. I want to challenge us to think of ourselves as Pharaohs. [Congregation is dead silent.] Hmmm. I knew that wouldn't be popular! [Congregation laughs.] Walk with me for just a moment.

You can Google and find signs that read, "No niggers. No Jews. No dogs." No niggers. No Jews. No dogs. No niggers. No Jews. No dogs. There was a time when we could not go to certain places. We could not attend certain schools. We could not be members of certain social organizations.

A very interesting assimilation has occurred. There is a book I commend to you entitled, "How the Irish Became White." The author makes an argument about the Irish that could be made of Jews in America. Like the Irish, Jews have not always been white. But today the wonderful gifts of whiteness have been bestowed upon Jews. I don't have to come back here on Sunday. I will be at Turner! [Congregation laughs.]

But it is interesting that ethnic Europeans who came to the United States as Italians, Irish, Jews and Catholics were assimilated into whiteness because it was in the best interest of the American white supremacist power structure.

If you look like me, that assimilation will never occur. The gifts of whiteness will not be bestowed upon us. But I must say something about us. We may not ever be elevated to whiteness, but some of us have achieved modest levels of economic affluence and educational attainment.

Here we are tonight, Black American church folk and Shabbat observing Jews. We are the children of those who suffered in the sweltering house of bondage. And many of us have become Pharaohs. We have power. We have influence. And we delight in our power, influence and affluence. But we will not set free those who are in bondage in our day. Immigrants. Homosexuals. Those who do not speak English. We watch them languishing and do precious little to set them free.

I told Rabbi Shira that I am tired of Martin Luther King, Jr. worship services, Shabbat services and prayer breakfasts. I think we come together to remember Martin King so that we don't have to do what he did.

Dreamers aren't worth assassinating. But one who calls America to account for her injustice has a target on his back.

Tonight, we must ask the God that we worship to reveal to us where in our lives and communities we have become Pharaohs. Tonight, we must ask God to set us free. We must use our gifts in the service of justice, truth, beauty, and mercy.

In my faith tradition, my ancestors did not uncritically receive these texts from their oppressors. They refused to allow slave masters to interpret these texts for them. The great theologian Howard Washington Thurman's grandmother was enslaved. She could not read. When Thurman read Scripture to her she refused to hear the writings of Paul because Paul did not condemn the practice of slavery. She refused to let anyone, even the great Apostle, challenge her humanity. Jefferson's bible excluded the miracles of Jesus. Thurman's grandmother excised Paul. She would be obedient to no master. Our tradition is not passive acceptance; it is active acceptance of God's radical love and in-breaking reign.

When my ancestors heard the Exodus story centuries ago they did something theologically bold and philosophically sublime with the text. They decided that they were not objects that belonged to earthly masters but subjects of the "love divine all loves excelling." They read your story and made themselves subjects of God's liberation.

When they sang "Go Down, Moses" they cried out for their freedom, my freedom and your freedom. They fought for the fruit of liberty. And they died without tasting that fruit.

If they could talk to me today in my comfortable middle-class blackness they would tell me that I am more Pharaoh than Moses. I am afraid that your ancestors would say the same to you. What are we doing to destroy the system that creates houses of bondage for the "wretched of the earth"?

I am looking for Moses to come and to set us free. And Moses looks a lot like you.