“The Fire in Your Belly”
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Exodus 3: 1-15
This Labor Sunday I’d like us to look together at the life of Moses who has been called the first labor organizer, the first liberator, the first prophet, the one whom we need to understand if we are to understand Jesus.
There are three things about Moses’ life that prepared him to be a leader and liberator of his people.
The first is that he was born the child of Hebrew slaves but adopted by a daughter of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. While he grew up in the royal palace, a child of privilege, he could tell by the way he looked in the mirror that he belonged to the group that was without privilege and oppressed.
He was blessed to grow up with a keen sense of the injustice in his world. He was fortunate to grow up with an awareness of the distinction between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.
Twenty some years ago I attended the Industrial Areas Foundation’s national training in community organizing for community leaders. IAF was founded by Saul Alinksy, and today there are dozens of congregation-based local IAF organizations like our own Washington Interfaith Network that are working for change in our communities.
The first basic lesson that community leaders learn in IAF training is that there is a tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be and that leaders live in the world as it is with a vision of the world as it ought to be. Those who can not grasp this basic truth cannot become leaders of IAF groups.
Not everyone understands that the world as it is is not the world as it is meant to be. There are those who suffer injustice and those who benefit from injustice – both – who do not understand that injustice is a violation of God’s creation rather than an aspect of its given nature.
The Bible is the story of life lived in the tension between the world as it is and the world as God intends it to be. The plot of the Bible is God’s moving to inspire women and men to move the world away from its injustice, closer to what the world ought to be. The Biblical God can be defined as the one who moves in human history on behalf of the world as it ought to be.
Although I am sure it caused him great distress and angst, Moses was fortunate to grow up with a keen sense of the world’s injustice. It was an experience of his childhood and youth. From an early age, Moses understood the tension between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.
So this is the first aspect of Moses’ life that is important. I suspect there is little God can do with us unless we can see injustice in the world. If we are perfectly happy with the world as it is, it will be hard to understand who God is and what God is about.
When Moses was a young man, one day he saw an Egyptian master beating a Hebrew slave nearly to death. Moses looked all around him and saw that there was no one else around. He attacked the Hebrew master to stop him from beating the slave and in the process the Egyptian died.
The next day Moses discovered that everybody knew what he had done. How? Who told on him? He had looked all around. He had made sure that no one was watching. Who could have told?
There was only one possible person who could have told on him. The only person who could have told was the Hebrew slave he had rescued. Moses was betrayed by the very slave whose life he had saved.
Here Moses learned another critical lesson he needed to know in order to be a leader. He learned that injustice has the capacity to corrupt those who are victimized by it as well as those who benefit from it. Injustice has the capacity to corrupt those it oppresses as well as those who participate in the oppression.
Anyone who seeks to lead change needs to know that those whom he or she seeks to help will not necessarily be grateful or supportive or loyal. Moses could have never been a leader if he had not learned this.
If we are motivated to lead because we think those whom we lead will appreciate or like us for it, we will be quickly disappointed. If we expect those we seek to lead to model loyalty and unity, we will be quickly disappointed. In one of Arthur Miller’s plays there is a character who says, “Why is it that betrayal is the only truth that sticks?” One of the themes of the Bible is the persistent reality of resistance and betrayal from the very people God is seeking to save.
The second great lesson of Moses’ life was that those he was called to lead would never appreciate his leadership or follow him without complaint or resistance or betrayal.
Moses did what many of us do when we experience disappointment and betrayal.
He turned his back on his people. He left
lived an affluent middle-class life for many years.
One day he was doing the tedious work of tending his father-in-law’s flock in the wilderness. (All work that we choose to do to avoid our callings turns out eventually to be tedious.) As he was doing his tedious job, he saw a bush that was on fire but was not burning up. It was blazing that it was not consumed.
was a student 20 years ago at IAF ten-day training, Ernie Cortes, an IAF organizer
Once we have seen injustice in the world, once we have tasted it, no matter how disappointed we have been in our efforts to address it in the past, no matter how ordinary and quiet a life we try to lead these days, there will be a fire in our belly which we will not ultimately be able to ignore forever.
In the Bible, the belly was considered the place of passion within us. The belly was the physical center of our souls. When someone had a strong feeling, they felt it in their belly. We have made our hearts the place of our feelings, but biblical people who were earthy and profoundly in touch with their own bodies knew that the center of our feelings is our bellies. It is perhaps part of the reason that Americans spent $427 million last year on Maalox, Mylanta, Pepto-Bismol, Rolaids, and Tums.
For anyone who is spiritually alive, injustice in the world burns in our bellies, even if we try to live quiet and ordinary lives.
And the fire in Moses’ belly was his path to God. The fire in his belly was holy ground…a thin place.
Addressing injustice, leading change in the world, helping move the world closer to the way it ought to be is actually a spiritual thing. It is about being whole persons in relationship with God.
The fire in our bellies is our way to God. It is a sacrament, a means of grace.
The God of the Bible – the I Am Who I Am – lives in the place between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. It is here that we meet the God of the Bible.
Moses’ call was to lead a people out of slavery. It is not the only place but work is one of the places that injustice becomes clear in our world. It is where power is often most manifest. It is where we invest much of our lives and energy. For many of us, it is the source of our livelihood as well as our sense of self-worth.
We celebrate the labor movement on Labor Sunday because it is one movement that address injustice in our world, a movement that Moses began, a way that God has moved in human history to bring the world as it is closer to the world as God means it to be.
Some of us find work to be a thing that causes a burning in our bellies. Jana is about to lead us in prayer and I want to extend an invitation this morning. If you are frustrated in some way by work in your life, I’d like to invite you forward to kneel at the altar as we pray together this morning. Perhaps you are finding it difficult to know the work you are called to. Perhaps your work is not satisfying. Perhaps you are under-rewarded or in some way oppressed by your work. Perhaps you feel over-rewarded and worried about others whose work is not honored.
If work, in any way, is a concern in your life this morning, we’d like to invite you to join us at the communion railing as Jana leads us in prayer.