Summer 2019: Places
June 30, 2019
Rev. Fritz Nelson
If the Israelites had taken the main road from Egypt to Israel they would have gotten to the Promised Land in about three weeks instead of 40 years. Walking. With all their children and livestock and possessions. Its not that far. Jerusalem is about as far from Cairo as Cincinnati is from Cleveland – close enough for Reds or Indians fans to take a day off from work a go to the game when their teams play each other.
Egypt. The country to the south. The country on the other side of the desert. The place of food, of safety, of refuge, of slavery. When King Herod launches a reign of terror in an attempt to kill the infant Jesus, Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt. When Abraham, camping in what is now Southern Israel runs out of water for his flocks, he goes to Egypt. When the Babylonians conquer Jerusalem many of the religious and political elite sought refuge in Egypt. The gospel finds its way to Egypt within months after Pentecost.
When Jacob runs out of grain during a famine he sends his sons to Egypt with pack animals and money to buy grain and bring it home. When they arrive in Egypt they find the official in charge of grain distribution was none other than their brother Joseph whom they had sold into slavery. Nothing underscores the Bible’s complex relationship with Egypt than the broad, sweeping story of how the Israelites became slaves in Egypt.
The story begins with Joseph, the annoying, spoiled, much beloved youngest son of Jacob, the great patriarch whose offspring became the twelve tribes of Israel. He so annoys his brothers they sell him to some nomadic traders who in turn sell him to Potiphar, a senior official in the Egyptian government. Eventually, after much drama, Joseph becomes Pharaoh’s chief of staff, adopts an Egyptian name and marries into the royal family. Joseph’s agricultural program prepares the country for famine while also enriching Pharaoh. Joseph’s authority allows him to help his family when they come seeking relief and then to move his entire extended family to Goshen, a sparsely populated region in northeast Egypt ideal for herding.
Under Joseph’s protection the Israelites prosper in Egypt. What begins as an extended family of about a hundred people turns into a modest tribe numbering in the tens of thousands. Joseph dies. The political winds shift. First the Israelites become subjects of popular discrimination. Then Pharaoh institutionalizes the discrimination for political gain. Eventually the Israelite’s land of refuge becomes a prison. Pharaoh strips them of their wealth, forces them to labor without pay, and rips their children from their arms. The place their ancestors came for refuge has become a prison.
Like many young people, my friend Emily came to New York City to find herself. Emily had grown up in West Texas, in a small town outside of El Paso. Her dad run the local stock yard, owned ranches in multiple states and was a major player in West Texas politics. She had everything a West Texas girl could want and couldn’t wait to get out. Like many young people before her and since she headed to New York City, quickly finding a welcome in the extensive network of young, southern, evangelical Christians who fuel New York City’s vibrant new church development scene.
At first Emily flourished in this new environment. She got a good job, she made friends, her new, non-West Texas life spread before her like a dream. But the friends proved shallow, the night life enticing, genuine relationships difficult to establish and her job a dead end. After a few years, New York City’s liberation became a prison. She thought more of home. She was more attracted to the family she had wanted to escape, the people she’d known since birth, high school classmates, college friends. One day she picked herself up, said good bye to New York City and returned to West Texas. Last I heard she had gotten married and had established a successful career strengthening non-profit agencies in West Texas, her days partying with Derick Jeter (yes, she did) left far behind.
As Emily eventually returned to West Texas, the Israelites would eventually return to the lands from which Jacob had come. They returned a changed people, shaped, formed and strengthened by their sojourn. As Emily returned to Texas she carried New York with her, the memories, the emotions, the resume. New York made, for Emily, a life possible in West Texas when previously such life would not have been possible. New York was, for Emily, her Egypt. A place of refuge. A place of psychological imprisonment. The initial freedom she experienced gave her room to breathe, to grow, to experiment, to find who she was apart from the systems and strictures of home and family. Her struggles once the euphoria of freedom wore off honed her, strengthened her, helped reveal important truths about herself, about home, about God. Leaving enabled her to go back. Becoming a slave enabled her to be free.
Where is your personal Egypt? It could be a geographical place or a mental place. It could be a relationship or an addiction or a job, or the lack of a job. It could be something you look back upon. Or you could be in Egypt right now. Your place of refuge may have become your place of enslavement. The place you once could not wait to be has now become the place you so desperately want to leave.
As you take some time to think or pray on these questions – maybe by using the journal page in your bulletin, I want to leave you with a snippet of a song. Its by Clyde Edgerton, an author who lived a few streets over from us in North Carolina.
Walking across Egypt
No shelter from the sun
The journey is my resting place
The journey’s just begun
My heart shall not be broken
There’ll be no delay
I’m walking with Jesus
To a brighter day