8.30.20 | Rev. Ben Campbell


I am fascinated by the confluence of our two lessons this morning. One is the story of Moses in the land of Midian, keeping sheep, encountering the angel of God in a burning bush. The other is the story of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Hermon, realizing that it is time to go to Jerusalem. These are powerful moments – the critical turning points in the lives of these two men, — critical moments in their actions to liberate the human race.

Both stories describe moments of pause – kind of times between time – times before some very significant steps are to be taken. Keeping sheep way out in the desert of Sinai; talking with disciples at the foot of Mount Hermon, north of Galilee. Moments of call, awareness, and commitment – before the irreversible step is taken.

I don’t know if these moments are similar, or simply bear a superficial sense of similarity, to the moment in which we find ourselves. We are quarantined against a deadly virus, waiting for the economic shoe to drop, anticipating a wild election, seeing police violence and crowd violence on television, and underneath it all, we feel the rumbling of ancient, unfinished issues of race.

From the experience of Moses in Midian and Jesus at the foot of Mount Hermon, we can learn something about God’s presence. We can identify three facts about God in a time such as this, a time between times. And then, we can take a brief look at this moment in metropolitan Richmond.

From the experience of Moses and Jesus, we identify three facts about God:
1. In the midst of confusion, God makes clear his particular agenda and invites participation.
2. God’s agenda is rooted in his very being – and therefore is inescapable.
3. With the call comes the promise.

1. In the midst of confusion, God makes clear his particular agenda and invites participation.
God’s Agenda is human liberation, human equity, human justice, human love. God’s reason for acting, the angel told Moses, was “the misery of [his] people” and “their sufferings.” “I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters,” he said. God’s agenda was to end the oppression and victimization of the Israelites. Were the Egyptians racists? Probably no more than anybody else then and now – but they were caught in a racist system from which they too needed to be liberated.

Jesus went from Caesarea Philippi to Jerusalem, Matthew says, to challenge “the elders and chief priests and scribes,” who were oppressing the people and claiming God’s license for doing so. God’s agenda was human liberation and equity — the spiritual and ultimately, the social liberation of his people. In the midst of confusion, God makes clear his particular agenda and invites participation.

2. God’s agenda is rooted in his very being – and therefore is inescapable.
Moses asks God whom he should say sent him. God gives this wild answer, which has echoed through thousands of years: “I AM WHO I AM.” “Who I am will never be satisfied until justice and equity are established on the earth.” God is the inescapable reality.

Jesus and his disciples were in conversation at Caesarea Philippi, a beautiful rural area at the foot of Mount Hermon, and they could not imagine that he would leave that place of conversation to confront the authorities in Jerusalem. But Jesus knew that God’s reality was inescapable. Jesus responded to Peter’s suggestion that he stay away from Jerusalem with the most violent language he used in his ministry: “Get behind me, Satan!” he exclaimed. “You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” God’s agenda calls for truth, love, and equity to challenge falsehood, hatred, and indifference. God’s agenda is rooted in his very being. It is inescapable.

3. With the call comes the promise.
Moses was a stutterer and had murdered someone. He may well have been of mixed race – at least he was raised by the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. He was way out in the desert, hundreds of miles away from his people. He was puzzled by the burning bush, and skeptical of the voice he heard. But it had the inescapable ring of God’s truth, striking deep in his soul. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” he blurted anxiously. God replied simply, “I will be with you.” With the call comes the promise.

Jesus told his disciples he had to go to the city to confront the authorities, and would almost certainly be killed within a few days. He invited them to come with him. When they reacted with shock he promised that whoever might lose his life for God’s sake would actually find it. He was not talking simply about being killed – he was talking about getting into good trouble, seeking to challenge oppression and inequity with fidelity to truth. With the call comes the promise.

And what about us, what about now?

We are still out there in the desert of Midian, the trackless waste, the time between times. We are still in the hills above Galilee, wandering with Jesus as he teaches and heals.

This last week we learned that when we return to this building, we will see out in the street, painted in the block between 8th and 9th Streets, the enormous words BLACK LIVES MATTER. Here they will be, between St. Peter’s Catholic Church and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, aimed directly at the historic Capitol built by Thomas Jefferson. Among our forefathers, he was the one who most fully expressed the hypocritical inner conflict of the American Revolution. He wrote, “All men are created equal.” And yet he most obviously profited from the enslavement of human beings based on their race.

Soon after that Capitol opened in 1788, a congregation began meeting there every Sunday, led alternately by the Episcopal parish priest, the Rev. John Buchanan, and the Presbyterian minister, the Rev. John Blair. The parish church of St. John’s, across the muddy valley to the East and up Church Hill, was inconvenient to the gentry. Services were held there only three times a year.

That Capitol congregation met weekly for 26 years, from 1788 until 1814. Then it moved to the new Monumental Church on Broad Street, built to honor the victims of the Richmond Theater Fire. And then, in 1845, the entire congregation moved here, to this newly-erected church building.

The congregation’s move to St. Paul’s was emblematic of the beginning of Richmond’s West End. We moved here because we lived here — Richmond’s gentry had moved here, to the West side of the Capitol. And we moved here because the neighborhood around Monumental Church had changed in those 31 years. Across the street, barely 100 yards away, the First African Baptist Church was growing, with more than 2000 free and enslaved African Americans filling Broad Street every Sunday. Down the muddy hill, less than three blocks away, dozens of slave merchants were rapidly assembling the largest slave market on the East Coast, with at least five major slave jails imprisoning and actually selling non-white Americans.

Now, this month, 175 years later, in front of our church, in the white West End, away from the long-hidden Slave Market, the massive words BLACK LIVES MATTER will be painted on Grace Street. Now, here, on this side of the Capitol, the beautiful, rock-hard truth will be proclaimed.

One could say – one might even hope — that this is our Burning Bush for a deeper racial equity — that this is our Turning toward Jerusalem. I am not saying we would not welcome it. It would signal that Virginia would finally address the original hypocrisy – to right original wrongs and claim original opportunities, — a time to seek true Reconciliation at last. The statues have come down, but the massive inequities they stood for are baked into our economic and political structure. They are revealed as COVID strips the economy. The Black Lives Matter movement was sparked by people being killed, but its roots go deep. The street turmoil diverts attention from the inequities that enable it.

I don’t know if this is truly a Burning Bush moment. But I do know that, in any case, we can count on three facts about God that Jesus and Moses revealed:

First, In times of confusion, God makes clear his particular agenda and invites our participation. God’s particular agenda is now and always the freedom and salvation of his people, the relief of human oppression, and the establishment of justice and equity. The centuries of racial oppression continue today in deep, fully accepted inequities in employment, housing, criminal justice, education, transportation, jurisdictional privilege, taxation. God makes clear his particular agenda and invites our participation in the salvation of his people.

Second, God’s agenda is based in his nature. It will continue to break through until it is fulfilled. Jesus had to go to Jerusalem. Moses was told simply, “ I AM WHO I AM.” That will not change.

Third, with the call comes the promise. Moses said, “Who am I, that I should do this?” And God said simply, “I will be with you.” Jesus said if we join him, we will in fact be finding our own souls.

This is a strange moment, a kind of time between times. They are about to paint BLACK LIVES MATTER in front of St. Paul’s, on the West side of Jefferson’s Capitol. I am wondering – and I invite you to wonder with me… I wonder if our inescapable, delicious, faithful God is somehow responsible for painting a Burning Bush on Grace Street out in front of this church. If he is, how can we join with Moses in the liberation of our long-afflicted people? How can we go with Jesus to this Jerusalem? How can we, in God’s Name, establish at last the long-delayed equity proclaimed both by our faith and by our American Revolution?

How can we get in good trouble? AMEN.