I’ve been thinking a lot about my inner taskmaster ever since Kate’s sermon last week.
Over a period of several weeks, we’re reading the story of the Exodus – Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery and away from Egypt. And through that story, Kate invited us to look in and around us at what taskmasters we find ourselves beholden to.
And it’s true, we often don’t have to look farther than our very selves to hear the voice of the taskmaster saying, “what did you do today? What did you produce? What did you accomplish?”
Still, the story of Moses and God’s deliverance of the Israelites out slavery in Egypt is explicitly about external taskmasters. Enslavers, to be exact. And the Hebrew Scriptures tell us plainly why the Egyptians, so favorable toward the Israelites in one generation, turned against them in the next: fear of how numerous and powerful the Israelites were. The new pharaoh felt his power threatened. So he enslaved and oppressed the Israelites.
It’s a shame St. Paul wasn’t alive yet to give them his beautiful and timeless words of exhortation: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Live in harmony with one another.” (Come on, Pharaoh.) But those words wouldn’t come to us until many centuries later, after God entered the world in the flesh and showed us what true redemptive power looks like.
Taskmasters – enslavers – have sadly always existed. Systems of exploitation have always existed. The fight for what resulted in Labor Day was a fight for better treatment of the American worker. Over a century ago, the systems of labor in this country demanded a lot of American workers with very little accountability. And so workers organized, and labor activists pushed for a federal holiday to recognize the many contributions workers have made to America’s strength, prosperity, and well-being.*
But even as we celebrate Labor Day, and rest for the American worker, we cannot forget that exploitative employment was fought against long before the labor movement resisted it. For centuries, enslaved African workers on this soil fought for and desired rest from their unpaid and oppressive labor, with no response or reprieve from their taskmasters. And it doesn’t take much to see that the systems that allowed slavery to thrive as long as it did still have a strong hold on our common life. The pandemic revealed labor disparities exacerbated by the gig economy and our thirst for on-demand delivery of everything and anything, yet these systems have only proliferated. Tomorrow, many of us will still order food for delivery, hail a ride share to go to a friend’s BBQ, or expect to be able to go to a variety of retail establishments for our convenience (or be frustrated that they are closed for the holiday). Your Uber driver or Seamless delivery guy or local grocery store isn’t getting a day off. Tomorrow, many of us, especially people of color, will not get a day off to rest from their labors.
If you were in a small group this spring, you read the book Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann. It examined the commandment to keep sabbath: “the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns” and showed us how much we have to resist that’s all around us in order to take the sabbath commandment seriously.
Just to contextualize this – notice we’re reading from Exodus 3 today. The 10 commandments come to us in Exodus chapter 20. In other words, these commandments are given once the Israelites have escaped the Egyptians and reached freedom from slavery. I imagine the commandment to rest was a very welcome one indeed.
One of the profound takeaways for me in the book was how Brueggemann links the sabbath commandment to the first commandment.
“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.” THAT is who God is. The one who delivers from slavery. From oppressive systems that demand constant production. Because of that identity, we rest. Not just because of what God commanded us to do, but because of who God is. God worked and rested. So must we, if we actually believe in the same God who revealed themselves to Moses in that burning bush, the great I AM, whose identity is not enslavement, exploitation, or incessant demand of goods and services, but of deliverance, freedom, and rest.
And yet there is a central tension here that is the struggle of faith. God is the one who delivers from slavery – yet enslavers have always existed. God is the one who promises abundant life, yet suffering has always existed. There is a tension in believing in the I AM whose identity is deliverance, but whose created world will never be rid of its taskmasters.
There are moments along the path of following Jesus when we are faced with this reality, and we say what the disciples did. “Forbid it, Lord! That must never happen.” Moments when we feel like the suffering that is so unthinkable is the worst thing imaginable, and therefore should never be allowed to happen if God is in charge. Moments we realize our faith might no longer be insulation from suffering, but necessary immunization to help us withstand the suffering we are about to encounter. But what Jesus tells us is we’re being too shortsighted when we think that the pain, the suffering, the grief, is the end of the story. You’re setting your sights on human things, not divine things.
But often, the Christian response to suffering offers one of two unhelpful ways:
On the one hand, it digs in and buries its head in the sand and simply blames the victim: “If you truly had enough faith, you wouldn’t be suffering this much. God would relieve your suffering. You must not be doing this faith thing quite right.”
Or, it simply resigns itself to the inevitability of suffering and our powerlessness to do anything about it, so try to focus on the positive in the midst of it. “Well, Jesus said we’d always have the poor with us, so suffering is just a part of life, but don’t worry, God loves you. Just remember God is love.”
Both of those paths are shallow. Both of these responses fail us. And neither is the way of Jesus.
The way of Jesus is the delicate dance of hope, resistance, and perseverance.
Hope in a better future yet unseen.
Resistance to atrophy, to simple resignation to suffering.
And perseverance in prayer, seeking justice, and demanding a more godly way of life. The courage to boldly proclaim that the suffering around us now is not God’s way.
To feel the horror at suffering and cry out, “Forbid it Lord” because we also look around us and are also emboldened to cry, “Forbid it, Mr. President. Forbid it, Senator. Forbid it, Mr. Mayor. Forbid it, Bishop. Forbid it, Your Honor. Forbid it, Mr. Chairman. This must never come to pass. It is too horrible.”
Certainly, God knows, there will always be suffering.
And the task of our faith is to trust in the hope of deliverance from it. Good will overcome evil. Resurrection will follow death. That is the Christian story. Not that God prevents suffering, but that God does not let suffering have the final word.
It’s the kind of hope that fueled labor organizers, fueled enslaved Africans seeking freedom against all odds, fueled my own ancestors as they lived through genocide, fuels movements today that refuse to let greedy economic systems or a few trillionaires have the last word.
It’s the hope Jesus lived. Because it’s who God is – the one who delivers. If anything, my friends, let us rest in that knowledge – and let it be our food for the days to come. And if our inner taskmaster stirs anything in us, let it be the choice to live in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. To not lag in zeal, be ardent in the spirit, and serve the Lord. To not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.