On Friday, January 17, 2020, Rev. Jeania Ree V. Moore gave this sermon as part of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center’s Social Justice Shabbat. Thank you to Rev. Moore for sharing this with our community:
Sermon: Fear Not
Exodus 5: 6-9 and 20-23
I would like to thank the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center Social Justice Committee, Kathy Kobayashi, Anne Marie Otey, and Rabbi Carrier for this invitation; Bonnie Pais Martinez and family, who facilitated my coming here tonight and provided my first connection to PJTC years ago; Scott UMC; Drs. David and Jackie Jacobs, who have joined us in reading this evening; and the friends, family, and supporters in attendance! I also would like to acknowledge the memory of Rabbi Marvin Gross, who started the Social Justice Shabbat here at PJTC and who worked tirelessly for justice. I am honored to be with you tonight. I pray that my words might be a blessing.
In the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., there is an exhibit titled “To Pick a Bale of Cotton.” This exhibit displays an antebellum cotton sack and a thick, heavy whip, which a real slave owner used on real people. There are many horrific facts and figures about cotton picking that the exhibit shares, but one of the facts I find to be the most chilling is related to the emotional terror that enslaved black people endured. The exhibit states that “many enslaved workers remember a deep sense of fear at the end of the day when the plantation bell rang out for ‘weigh-up’ time. A missed quota often meant a severe whipping. [And] if the quota was met, it was increased the next day.”¹
So, each day, you had to pick more cotton than the day before and if you did not, you were whipped. To be clear: this was unimaginably difficult work. Every day, each enslaved person—who was often malnourished and sleep-deprived—was required to fill 3-5 sacks of cotton, each sack weighing 75 – 100 pounds. At minimum, that is 225 to 500 pounds of cotton, a day, with the amount increasing daily. If you did not do this you were whipped – and, to be clear, whippings were torture that sometimes caused brain damage or loss of limb or life.
What is striking to me is that even in the midst of this backbreaking, physical labor, what many enslaved people remember is the fear at the end of every day. This historical memory speaks to the power of fear to shape our lives.
I open my remarks this evening with this history because it connects to our scripture reading. As we heard read in Ex. 5, Pharaoh refuses to let the Hebrew slaves go and instead increases the workload by demanding that they make bricks without straw and yet still meet the daily quota. This is a striking parallel to the situation of enslaved Africans in America picking cotton. The similarities explain why the Exodus narrative became such a source of spiritual support and identity for black people, from slavery to the Civil Rights era, from Harriet Tubman to Dr. King. The similarities also include the element I highlighted earlier: fear. Fear is a perennial challenge in the fight for justice.
We are facing a lot of fear in our society today, particularly if you are a person of color, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, migrant, refugee, queer, female, poor, trans, the list goes on. And so this evening I want to spend time thinking about fear, how it affects our lives, and how scripture and Dr. King’s legacy give us a guide to move forward together.
Before jumping in – I would like everyone to take just a few seconds and think of one reality of injustice that makes you fearful today. It could be anything – police brutality, anti-Semitic violence, immigration enforcement. Something that makes you fearful. Once you have it, just keep it in mind; we’ll come back to it later.
Let’s turn to scripture. Following the Jewish annual reading cycle, our scripture is Exodus 1:1-6:1. These opening chapters of Ex. tell the story of the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt, and of Moses’ early life and call from God to liberate his people. These chapters also tell a story about the power of fear. Three years ago, when our current president was inaugurated in Jan. 2017, multiple Christian pastors I know decided to preach on Exodus ch. 1 vv. 8-11: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people: ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us, and escape from the land.’”
Clearly, fear-based politics is as old as Methuselah – or at least as old as Moses. As we see in the Exodus narrative and in our country today, a cultivated and manipulated fear drives hate, oppression, evil, and unjust policies. In Exodus and in our country today, this fear costs lives: whether it is a fear of Central American migrant children and their parents; or a fear of unarmed black people; or a fear that “Jews will replace us,” as white supremacists chanted in Charlottesville. In Exodus, fear turned into slavery and genocide. And that’s just in chapter 1.
But I want us to focus a little further on into the story, after fear as the political M.O. has been established for a while. In chapter 5 verse 9, after Pharaoh has increased the workload, the Israelite supervisors are beaten when the brick quotas are not met. Though they cry out to Pharaoh for mercy, no mercy is shown – and so, they then turn on Moses and Aaron, rebuking them and telling them that they are the source of this pain and suffering. Moses then turns on God, questioning God and God’s plan for liberation.
In addition to costing lives, fear causes division and spreads like a virus. From Pharaoh’s fabricated fear in Exodus 1 all the way to the Israelite supervisors and Moses in Exodus 5, fear has a cascade effect that reaches out to touch virtually everyone in society. Although Pharaoh invents his fear whereas the fear of the Israelites is very well-founded, the effects of both are the same: a focus on self-preservation, apart from other people and apart from God. If we look closely at Moses, whose fear begins much earlier in Exodus, we see that this self-preservation is actually an illusion. Moses’ fear causes him to retreat not only from God and others, but also from himself and his own calling. Fear causes us to shrink away from God, each other, and our true selves.
In 1967, less than a year before he was killed, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the following: “If we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means we must develop a world perspective.”
While Dr. King was preaching against tribalism, racism, nationalism, and classism, he was also preaching against fear. He was preaching against the impulse to separate ourselves and our loyalties, which is often fueled by fear.
Think back to the fear-inducing issue of injustice you called to mind at the beginning of this sermon. Has this fear caused you to retreat from others or God or from yourself? How can you resist this behavior – what are concrete steps you can take to join together with others to address this injustice, rather than fear it? Think creatively. For me, one of the worst things about fear is the way it limits our horizons – the way it shapes what we even think is possible. In pursuing justice, we have to think beyond the confines of fear.
Doing this does not mean being blind to reality. In his sermon, Dr. King spoke about how he had seen his dream—his vision of brotherhood, love, and peace—turn into a nightmare. Things were not going how he hoped. Bombed churches, worsening inequality, poverty, hunger, war. Yet, in response, he called people to reject fear & to see even more deeply the interrelated nature of justice and of our lives together on this earth.
In Washington, D.C., I work alongside an organization called HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. HIAS is the world’s oldest refugee resettlement organization, founded in New York in 1881 to aid Jewish refugees from Russia. Over the years, HIAS expanded their work to help refugees from around the world. The CEO of HIAS has a saying that I love, and that I think echoes Dr. King’s point: “We used to help refugees because they were Jewish, and now we help refugees because we are Jewish.”² This saying makes clear what precisely is at stake in our response to fear: Not only the lives of others, but also our very selves: who we are as people of faith and goodwill. (Note: please advocate for refugees right now. We are one federal injunction away from effectively dismantling refugee resettlement in the U.S.)
On this note – Dr. King’s message speaks powerfully to us at this moment in time. King’s words about adopting a “world perspective” address not only the idea of “peace on earth,” but also fundamentally whether there will be an earth. Climate change is a wake-up call that underscores the absolute necessity of a world perspective. In his sermon, Dr. King said: “we must either learn to live together as brothers”—and I would add, sisters and siblings—“or we are all going to perish together as fools.” I think Greta Thunberg would agree that this is not an exaggeration. We should agree as well, and make the individual and collective changes necessary to heal the only planet we (and other creatures, plants and animals) have to call home.
In spite of the dire implications of climate change and the realities of many other fears in our lives, I want to remind us that one of the most repeated commands in the Bible and Torah is the command to “fear not.” This phrase appears over and over again, from God, angels, prophets. I believe, and I think Dr. King would say, that these are not just some nice comforting words from God, but rather instructions for how to live. Remember: Justice Justice Shall You Pursue!
We celebrate Dr. King today not because he was perfect—he wasn’t—nor because he achieved world peace—he didn’t—but because he laid out a path. He gave us a blueprint for how we seek this thing called justice, and improve the lives of others as well as ourselves. And our work to continue social justice starts with rejecting one thing: fear. Thank you.
1 NMAAHC exhibit, “To Pick a Bale of Cotton,” facts from William Law Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University. Visited June 2019.
2 Cf. CEO Mark Hetfield and “HIAS, the Jewish Agency Criticized by Shooting Suspect, Has a History of Aiding Refugees,” NYT, October 28, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/us/hias-pittsburgh-robert-bowers.html.