Think for a moment about one thing that binds you, that holds you captive. A fear. A bad habit. A commitment that you wish wasn’t there. A relationship. . . .
And now imagine what freedom from that thing would look like. Would it be awesome? Would it present new challenges? Would it require something big from you? What would you have to give up in order to find that freedom?
If you had asked the Israelites back in Egypt what freedom would look like, they might say it would mean they wouldn’t have to make bricks for Pharaoh anymore. Their lives could be more comfortable. They could come and go as they pleased. They could eat what they wanted. They could live in their own space.
But after Moses convinces them to flee from Egypt and cross the Red Sea, and they watch as the waters rush in on Pharaoh’s army and drown the horses and chariots, they look around and say, “So, we’re free. Now what? Who’s going to tell us where to live? Who’s going to provide our food and water?” They have been enslaved for generations and have grown up being taught not to think or problem-solve for themselves.
This is some of what we’re seeing in this reading from Exodus. They’re camping at a site with no water. But instead of looking around and saying, “Hmm, what could we do about this?” they all look at Moses and say, “What, did you bring us out in the desert to die of thirst?” And it’s a legitimate question: without water, they will die. But they want someone to fix it for them.
This is not what they thought freedom would look like. It’s rather like a young adult leaving home and living on their own for the first time. Oh, the freedom of coming and going as you please without your parents giving you a curfew! But who’s going to make your meals and pay for your expenses and do your laundry? What do you mean I’m supposed to do all that now? That sounds like work and responsibility!
You may recall that Harriet Tubman was called the Moses who led escaped slaves to freedom, from the South to the North. Sometimes some wanted to turn back. She had to convince them to keep going. Apparently they thought, Better to deal with the devil you know than the one you don’t. The path to freedom was difficult and dangerous and terrifying. And once they were free, they had to figure out how to make a life in a new place, how to find housing and pay bills and all these things they had never had to do and never been taught to think about. They had responsibilities.
These Israelites actually don’t get to the Promised Land. After 40 years of living in the wilderness, many have died, and it is their children who finally reach the Promised Land. Which begs the question: What has to die in us in order to prepare the way for what is waiting to be born in us that will lead us to freedom?
There is no archaeological or historical evidence that the exodus from Egypt ever happened. Yet we continue to tell this story because so much of it is true on the level of spirit and relationship with God. It is a story of faith, transition, change, uncertainty. We’re all on that exodus journey: from what has bound us, what has kept us from full liberation as children of God, through a time of change and challenges, to a time of new liberation. This story asks what binds you? What holds you back from saying a full-on Yes to God?
Which brings us to the second reading. A father asks his two children to go work in the vineyard. One says, no but then does it; the other says yes but then doesn’t go. The vineyard, of course, is the field of God’s work—doing the work to which God calls us. And the parent in this parable is God, asking all of us children to go do the work: care for the poor, tend to the sick, etc. Jesus’ dig here is that the chief priests and elders think they have said Yes, but they are living into No. They think their seat in heaven at the right hand of God is assured because they have followed all the rules, studied the holy scriptures, and lived according to their precepts. And Jesus basically tells them, You are all a bunch of phonies, and God has your number. The prostitutes and tax collectors recognized that John came from God and was doing God’s work. They believed, and they will get to heaven before you.
A minister once told seminarians that sometimes the safest place to look like you’re saying Yes is in the church. We stand up, sit down, pray, sing the hymns, share communion. We do all the things we’ve been told are the right things. Our halos are gleaming. And yet we may not be engaged in all of the awe and wonder and joy and work and messiness of being out in the vineyard.
We hear about people who have been through addiction, gangs, prison time, homelessness, etc.—they’ve been held captive by these experiences, which weigh them down. Somehow, probably with a lot of help and second and third and tenth chances, they get through these challenges and put their lives together. Maybe it’s a come-to-Jesus moment of healing or a 12-step program that does the trick, or some key person believing in them. But then, as they look around at their newfound freedom from whatever was binding them, they see all the other people who are struggling with those same challenges. They may be able to use their own experiences to help others in the same circumstances get through them. Maybe this is some of us.
This is an example of someone who said, “No, I won’t go work in the vineyard,” but then turned things around and was able to go. How powerful is that? They recognize that their own path through the wilderness has taught them something about how to guide others, and that they aren’t free until everyone is free. We are not here to live just for ourselves. If anyone doesn’t have water in the wilderness, then we all suffer.
But then there are those like the chief priests and elders, who think they have said Yes but aren’t actually helping make the world better. If God is calling them to sing, they aren’t practicing their notes. If God is calling them to feed the hungry, they are feeding only themselves. If God is calling them to educate all the children, to welcome the immigrant, to address homelessness, to vote, to deal with climate change, and on and on, they say, “Oh, these are terrible problems, but I’m not going to do anything.”
Of course on some level this describes all of us. We can’t take on all of the problems and engage fully with each one. But each of us is called to say Yes to God fully. For one person that may mean devoting their life to addressing climate change. For another it may mean singing the most beautiful song. For another it means teaching children.
Somewhere in each of us there is a Yes waiting to be fully explored. A few minutes ago I asked you to think of something that binds you, that keeps you from being free. Now I invite you to consider what binds us as a society and keeps us from being truly free. [Fear of being vulnerable. Racism. Etc.] Until we are all free from these things, we are all living in a society that says these things are okay. Which means that we are complicit, and none of us is free until all are free.
We write to our legislators. We serve at Community Lunch. We tutor Afghan immigrants. We provide food and clothes for kids at Stevens Elementary who don’t have these basic essentials. And we do it not just for the benefit of the hungry, the immigrant, etc. We also do it as a way to work toward our collective liberation.
Recently I attended a “Weaving Our Strengths” workshop hosted by the Church Council of Greater Seattle. One of the sessions was on how institutions work to become antiracist. Institutions such as the Church. We were given a handout that showed six stages of engagement in the work. The first stage was an organization that was racist and not at all engaged in examining how to change that. Stage six was where everyone—not just those experiencing discrimination, but everyone—experienced liberation from racism. Many churches are around stage 2 or 3: engaged a little bit in the work—a book group, some good discussions—but otherwise not doing a lot. And that’s a start. But it might be like the child who says Yes but doesn’t actually engage—doesn’t actually go out in the vineyard and do the work.
These six stages could apply not just to racism but to any issue: climate change, immigration, gun violence, homelessness. Saying Yes and actually going out to the vineyard can lead us into challenges, addressing our fears, letting parts of ourselves die so that something new can be born. And opening ourselves to participate in this work leads us—all of us—to liberation. It’s not easy. It’s not always fun. Sometimes it feels as if we’re camped in the desert with no water. But if we keep looking for where God is in the journey, we will keep marching toward the Promised Land of freedom.
Remember what keeps you in bondage, and what you thought of that would set you free. Remember what keeps our society in bondage, and what could set all of us free. Hold onto those thoughts, because they could be your—our—roadmap through the wilderness. If we keep walking with God on this journey, and we will find water to restore us all along the way. Amen.