Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. Exodus 20: 2-3
I’ve told you that I like to read with my twins. Their mother and I have always felt that our love for reading is the most significant gift we can pass down. Last summer my daughter and I read one of my favorites, George Orwell’s 1945 classic Animal Farm.
The story begins with a revolutionary old boar. This boar decides that it is time for animals to break free of human oppression and exploitation. The animals wanted to be free. Some calculating pigs led the revolt. They kicked the original landowner, Mr. Jones, off the farm. And the pigs systematized their radical vision of freedom and equality into a political ideology they dubbed “Animalism.” The farm animals were “free.”
Nevertheless, hierarchies soon developed. As imagined, the pigs became the decision-makers and leaders. Horses and cows provided the labor with little input. And there were slogan chanting sheep that would repeat whatever political propaganda the pigs provided. All the while, the cunning and conniving pigs moved into Farmer Jones’s house. They began wearing Farmer Jones’s clothes. The pigs even started walking on two legs like humans. The pigs do this, of course, while threatening the other animals with the repeated lines, “You don’t want Mr. Jones back do you? We will keep you free. We will keep you safe.”
Animal Farm is a moral fable which thinly veils a blistering political critique. For Orwell, it was the Russian Revolution of 1917. Orwell was blasting the cruel dictatorship of Stalinism. Yet the power of Orwell’s allegory is how it captures so much of the human condition. It captures how even the noblest ideals are susceptible to becoming destructive ideologies; the most well-intentioned leaders can be given to greed and pernicious will-to-power over time; and even those of us who deem ourselves thoughtful, intelligent, and otherwise independent thinkers, can start sounding like mindless sheep spitting out the ideological talking points of ruling pigs.
There is a reason that I cite this allegory in relationship to today’s text. Many scholars of the Hebrew Bible view the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, similar to Animal Farm. Rather than a true narrative, these books provide us with narrative truths. Rather than verifiable figures of human history, these legends provide us with verifiable tendencies of the human condition. Comb through Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. You will find stories that document human temptation, fear, anxiety, greed, and cultural insecurity. You will find legends and lessons about life, God’s love, and care, and our inevitable need to create idols for ourselves. And, as recorded in the book of Exodus, you will find lessons about the high price of human freedom and the great level of responsibility that comes with it.
Let me give you an example. Between the years of 900-500 BCE, the nation of Israel struggled under their oppressive leaders and foreign domination. The Hebrew prophets began to express God’s particular concern for the most vulnerable. In oral narratives and subsequent writings, Egypt came to represent and embody all forms of oppression. And God’s people were called to “welcome the stranger, for you were once strangers in Egypt.”
Similarly, God’s power to deliver the Hebrews from Egypt may have carried a special message for a nation living in exile in Assyria, Babylon, or Persia. Don’t look to local gods for your safety and security. Don’t bow down to other deities in hopes of care and comfort. Fight the temptation to turn away from the God who has brought you and blessed you. Hence, God’s commandments begin with a clear reminder and warning: “I am the Lord thou God who brought you out of Egypt; you shall have no other Gods before me.”
The prophets are clear. Times may be difficult for us as a nation. You may feel vulnerable and alone. And you may even feel like your options are limited—we can either die in the wilderness or return to bondage in Egypt. But it is at these moments when you feel deep down in the valley of despair; at the moments when circumstances have you feeling worn down and beat down; and during these times when those in power seem most corrupt and plain low-down, that is when you must look to the hills from whence cometh your help; you must realize that all of your help comes from the Lord.
Though shall have no other gods before me.
In many ways, I can hear what the prophets are telling the people. They are using this narrative in Exodus to convey the sentiment of American poet and literary great James Weldon Johnson:
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way.
Thou who has by thy might, led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet, stray from the place our God where we met thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world we forget thee.
Though shall have no other gods before me.
If we are honest, so many of the problem that plagues our world today is a result of our making false idols of worship. The late great theologian Paul Tillich defined the sacred as that in which we place our ultimate value or ultimate concern. God, or the ground of our being, is where we direct our greatest energy and effort in claiming or defending. Whatever we desire the most, cling to the tightest, or cherish as most precious represents our ultimate concern. It is our God.
Unfortunately, when we look at world history, most of the greatest tragedies were a result of human actions—humans who valued something so much that they were willing to kill, steal, and destroy in its name.
Consider Native American genocide in the name of conquest. Greed and avarice so fueled the Spanish Crown that they were willing to enslave and exterminate up to seventy million native inhabitants of the Americas in the first half of the 16th century. The expansion of empire became their ultimate concern. The land became their god. And conquering sheep just kept repeating, “They are savages. They need our civilization, our cross, and our crown.” Thou shall have no other gods before me.
Recall the North Atlantic Slave Trade. The trafficking of human bodies could increase profits and hasten the development of the American colonies and British territories. Maximum profit was their ultimate concern. Thus, the enslavement of other human beings was just an uncomfortable, though necessary reality. Profit was their God. Can’t you hear the sheep? “The African was born to be a slave. They are cursed descendants of Ham. Slavery is the natural order.” Thou shall have no other gods before me.
Or think about those today who kill wantonly in the name of Allah; a name they have so perverted. It seems that their fear of liberal democracy coupled with appeals to concentrated theocratic power leads terrorists to commit unconscionable acts in the name of an angry God. Fear becomes the object of these individual’s faith. Thus, dread becomes their God. Can you hear the sheep? “Freedom of religion and equality of women are the work of the infidel. Only we know what God desires.” Thou shall have no other gods before me.
Last week when we discussed Moses’s defensiveness, we attributed it to his temporary inability to empathize with the people. He failed to see that their cry for water was about so much more. Their cry was about their anxiety. Their critique was about their uncertainty. Their lashing out was about their fear. Rather than acknowledging the source of their pain, Moses replied, “Why do you attack me? It’s not my fault.” He failed the first test of leadership. He failed the test of empathy.
Yet this week we should not let the Children of Israel off the hook. They needed another god. They needed a new source of security and protection. This is why they kept threatening to return to Egypt. This is why ultimately, they created a golden calf to worship. Rather than have faith in the God that brought them out of Egypt, and rather than have faith in one another, they turned toward their self-centered ends. They let fear trump their faith.
Is this where we are as a nation? Is this who we are as a country? There is a critical mass seeking a tough-talking “strong man” to fix our problems. He promises safety. He promises security. But in the words of Amos, “They trample on the heads of the poor and deny justice to the oppressed.” (Amos 2:7) Thus, too many continue to languish on lonely islands of suffering. How long before we realize that we cannot put our trust in golden calves with empty promises? Thou shall have no other gods before me.
There are those who have put their trust in weapons and warfare. They have allowed the NRA to feed them talking points that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Yet of the more than 30,000 deaths by guns last year, only around 3,000 were of a defensive posture. Not to mention, studies show that people who own guns are more likely to be victims of gun violence, whether by a break-in, domestic disputes, or suicide. All the while NRA leaders use their dues to pay Congress to roll back background checks on the mentally ill, promote more liberal concealed carry laws in public venues, and, even right now, fight for the legalization of militarized technologies such as gun silencers. And for those who the NRA cannot buy off, they terrorize and intimidate with the most violent and aggressive sheep among their ranks. Our society has become “One Nation Under a Gun.” Thou shall have no other gods before me.
And there are others of us who, out of fear and cynicism, have begun to hoard resources for ourselves. We want to drain public schools of valuable resources; we want to close the gates of our institutions of higher learning in the name of “merit” and “standards;” and we want to privatize every dimension of our lives from little league, to trash pick-up, to healthcare. We have to hold on to and protect our privilege. We have to build tall walls around our elite access. We make false gods out of our perceived social status. We even make gods out of ourselves. We must remember the first commandment: Thou shall have no other gods besides me.
This was the message the prophets sought to provide a wayward nation. Exodus provides the allegory that the prophets employed to warn Israel of its wanton ways. Don’t give in to despair. Do not give in to cynicism. Your only options are not bondage in Egypt or dying in the wilderness. You have more options than worshipping Pharaoh or worshipping your golden calf. You and I have more options today. We have more options than concentrated wealth and extreme poverty. We have more options than blind allegiance to the political left or the political right. And we have more options than either defending the 2nd Amendment or allowing guns that can shoot over 500 people at the rate of one person per second.
There are other options. We have help. Your help and my help comes from the one who loved us enough to hear our cries in the land of Egypt. Our help comes from the one who told us what is good and showed us how we should treat one another—do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly. And our help comes from the one who showed us what it means to embrace the stranger, care for the most vulnerable, and provide a preferential option for the poor and suffering, not the rich and powerful. All of our help—and our capacity to help ourselves—comes from the Lord. For if we want to lead one another through the dark night of suffering and the cold, cruel days of corruption, then we must look to the Lord. We must look to the one who always loves us when we are at our lowest. And then we must love one another the same. For love will lead us out of this wilderness. God’s love is our Exodus.