Preacher: The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Exodus 3: 1 – 15, Psalm 105: 1 – 6, 23 – 26, Romans 12: 9 – 21,Matthew 16: 21 – 28

He’s just a little old man now – his hair white, his faced creased, his once vibrant body bent with age. But his heart, especially when it comes to speaking out against injustice, and his longing for people to treat each other with love and respect, is as big as ever. As is his smile, which comes often and easily and lights up his already twinkling eyes even more. I first met him in the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, a tiny nation of tough people who, wrapped in their traditional colourful woollen blankets, are known for the way in which they traverse the steep terrain on their sure-footed ponies following the sheep that are their livelihood.

But it’s 1985 that comes to mind today. At the time I was a university chaplain and had gone down to the great hall to hear this little man speak. The place was packed with students – hundreds of them – come to hear a man who was fast becoming a household name, loved by those who had met him, loathed by those who had not had the privilege and were terrified at the power he appeared to have over people, especially those without rights or the privilege enjoyed by some.

That night he chose to speak about Moses and told, in his own words, the story we had read to us this morning – from Exodus chapter 3. As he spoke I found myself thinking – you are a Moses figure. Like Moses you fled into exile from your own country. Like Moses you had an epiphany, a burning bush experience where God spoke to you, called you to leave the new life, the new comfortable safe life, and go back. Like Moses, you made excuses – I am just one man, a small one. I am not a speaker. Who will listen to me? Like Moses you eventually listened to God and went back to the land of your birth.

On that night he spoke about history – the history of the land that both he and I shared. He spoke about his own people who had lived in the land from time immemorial, the ones the newcomers called “natives” – a name that correctly describes those who are indigenous, but that had become pejorative, insulting and demeaning. It was a name used to dehumanise. He spoke about my people who had come to the land as settlers, leaving their native land as they sought a better place, a safer place, a place of opportunity and future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. I am one of the great-great-great grandchildren of a settler.

He spoke of how these settlers had come with swords and guns, as well as seeds, and books – one in particular, the Bible. This little man held up his Bible. He spoke of the disease that came with the settlers – simple diseases like flu and measles that ravaged communities that had no immunity against them. He spoke about the introduction of taxes which required a cash economy and forced people to leave their traditional way of life on the land and go and dig gold and diamonds and coal, deep underground, in order for them to pay the taxes which enriched the owners of the mines but not their own families.

He spoke about how his own people so readily took to the ways of the settlers, copying them in almost every way – from the clothing they wore to the alcohol they consumed in vast quantities and which led to fights and abuse and hunger. They copied them in going to school and developing a hunger for education, to ‘better’ themselves. They learned to read by reading the Bible. He held up his own Bible again. We read this book, from cover to cover, and over and over again. And we looked at the settlers, the missionaries, the people who had brought this book to us – and we began to wonder. Why is it that this book, which speaks of loving one’s neighbour, of giving a drink to one’s enemy, of there being an end to injustice, to discrimination based on race, or language, or sex – why is it that the very people who introduced this book to us seem largely to ignore it?

We began to read it for ourselves, he said, and we discovered some remarkable stories. We took the Bible seriously – especially those parts of it which seemed to suggest that God wanted all people to have a better life; that God had created this earth of such beauty and such richness and such abundance for all of God’s people; that God sent his son to teach a new way of living, and even to suffer and to die as an example of a simple life lived sacrificially for the good of others. As we read the Bible, he said, we realised that the settlers who introduced it to us often seemed to ignore those parts which challenged their own attitudes and life style, picking out only those parts which seemed to justify their actions, their acts of discrimination, their hatred and fear of those who were different to them.

He spoke powerfully about the God that Moses met at that burning bush – the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. He spoke of his own people, and people across the world who lived under oppression of one form or another, finding themselves drawn to this story in Exodus 3, how they could not help but draw parallels to their own lives as virtual slaves in their own countries, and using the word Pharaoh of their bosses, those who held the power and could, it seemed, imprison or even kill any who dared to speak out against them.

This little man, with the big smile of white teeth lighting up his black face and opening to all his enormous heart, went on that night to speak of another man like Moses. He too lived under an oppressive regime. He too felt called to speak up for his people. This man knew what he was doing. He knew he had to leave the relative safety of the countryside and go to the city – the place of power. He had to speak up for his people. He had to say to Pharaoh, the rulers – this is not God’s way and God’s will. They did not listen. They plotted to capture and kill him – and they did. He was executed in a horrible and cruel way, the ridicule of all who passed by, betrayed by one he trusted, deserted even by his closest friends. His name was Jesus. Among other things, he told his disciples, his friends and followers, that they too should take up their cross and follow him.

I find myself wondering what the speaker that evening, him of the short stature, ready smile and large heart, would say today, in 2017. Actually, I know what he would say, for, old as he is, he is still saying it. He would be weeping over the news stories that flash across our consciousness so quickly we barely have time to notice. He would be weeping for the Rohinya Muslims fleeing Buddhist Myanmar; weeping over continued harassment of Palestinian Christians by Jewish Israelis; weeping over the rhetoric of lracial hatred we have witnessed in recent weeks in the Christian deep south of the USA; weeping over the suffering in Yemen, South Sudan, North Korea and all the other places in the world where powerful men (yes, they usually are men) impose their wills on others; weeping at the corruption of political and other leaders who feather their nests at the expense of the poor; weeping over closed borders to those fleeing to the wide open plains offering a new life; weeping over the plight of women who place their bodies between abusive husbands and vulnerable children; weeping for those who long only to love openly the one they feel called to share their lives with.

And he would sing, as he did in 1985, a song whose origins appear to go back to the time of the American Civil War and the underground railway network used by escaped Afro American slaves. It is a song that draws inspiration from today’s reading from Exodus 3. It is a song our choir has spent a little time working on, using a contemporary arrangement, and which I look forward to hearing them sing one day; it is a song which, I am sure, many of you will know. Join me

When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my people go.
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go

 The name of this little man with the ready smile and the big heart – didn’t I say? Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.