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"No Ways Tired" -- Exodus 17:1-11 (2nd Sunday After Epiphany)






The Wednesday Transitions Support Group is just finishing reading “Nobody Told Me the Road Would Be Easy,” by Rev. Floyd Thompkins.[1] It’s a book of devotions, as Thompkins describes it, “for people working for justice and peace.” Now, we know that Rev. Thompkins isn’t just an author and scholar; he’s the Pastor of St Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City and our colleague and partner in ministry.


As the title suggests, the book is written with a heart for those who work for justice – those in the midst. With the wisdom of a prophet and community-organizer and with the compassion of a pastor, Rev. Thompkins offers devotions that say true things about how hard the struggle is – and that, at the same time, offer encouragement to sustain the weary.


Thompkins says up front “the work for justice is taxing” and tiring. He describes the intense work of organizing, speaking up, fundraising, showing up, again and again – of constantly having to overcome “the inertia of acceptance of the way things are.”[2]  And then, for that work, his devotions encourage those in the midst that it's “alright to not be alright” – to be weary from wearying work – that the work of justice is communal work. Standing in the midst, Thompkins writes “the low rumble of hope is always in the background of discouragement.”[3]


The book takes its title from the gospel song No Ways Tired[4]made popular by Rev. James Cleveland, and inspired by a woman who had for too long journeyed through discriminatory systems:


I don’t feel no ways tired,

I’ve come this far from where I started from

Nobody told me the road would be easy

I don’t believe God brought me this far to leave me.

 

We hear echoes reverberate from earlier generations – echoes of Fanny Lou Hamer saying, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired[5] – echoes of Mother Pollard who, months into the Montgomery Bus Boycott, declined a ride home saying, “My feet are weary, but my soul is rested.[6] The work of justice is both wearying and worthy work.

        

As we come to this morning’s Scripture, Moses has every right to be weary.  Just look at that culminating moment, the Amalekites attack, and Moses’ task is to take this staff and hold it above his head – all day long. And, in this story, the success of the struggle depends on him holding this staff high – all day long.


And this is but one moment in a long journey.[7] Moses has carried this staff all along the road to freedom. Way back in Egypt, when he was still facing down Pharaoh, this is the staff that Moses put in the Nile, and the Nile turned to blood – one of the many ways God showed Pharaoh that Pharaoh’s power was not ultimate power.


The road out of Egypt was not in any way easy. Moses had to confront Pharaoh again and again, and when it became clear that Pharaoh would not relent – that he would not, as Moses demanded, “let my people go,” the people left in the night. They gathered their things, tucked their robes in their belts, with Pharaoh’s pursuing armies in hot pursuit.

        

And the waters parted – the people crossed over – and there they were. Free. In a wilderness. As Judy Fentress-Williams writes: “Free from bondage, the people found themselves homeless in the wilderness.”[8] As this morning’s Scripture opens, the road hasn’t gotten any easier. They have just complained about having no food, and God has sent manna in the morning. Now, the people have no water, and they complain again to Moses. // Now, I think too often we turn to this text and read it as a word against complaining – but let’s be clear: The people are in the desert with no water. They have every right to complain.

        

And so, God says, “Moses, take that staff you’ve been carrying with you all this way, and strike the rock with it – and the staff that poisoned the waters of Egypt and broke the bond of slavery – that same staff of God will send forth fresh water that the people can drink, so that they might live.  And Moses takes the staff, and does the work, and water flows forth.

        

And no sooner has that happened – than the Amalekites attack. Slavery in Egypt; fleeing Pharaoh’s army; trapped and then delivered; thrust into the desert with no water – and now another challenge, another threat. There is no rest here for the weary.


And so Moses tells Joshua to gather some of their men to defend the people, and Moses says, “I will carry this staff in my hand – this staff that God has used to bring us into freedom – this staff that God has used to bring water from the rock – I will carry it to the top of that hill – and I will raise it up.”  And Moses goes up that hill – his brother Aaron and another man Hur with him – and Moses lifts the staff above his head – and when he raises the staff and holds it up – they prevail (they grow strong) – but when he lowers it, the Amalekites prevail – (they grow strong).

        

So there Moses is – nowhere near the end of this long journey – and, if they are to fend off this latest attack, he has to hold a staff above his head, all day long. Moses has every right to be tired.

        

And then Aaron and Hur – remember them? – they roll up stone so that Moses can sit. And then Aaron and Hur get on their knees, and they come up under his arms – one on one side, one on the other – and they help Moses hold his arms up. And they hold up that staff together. They share the burden. And together, the community prevails.

        

As we read this Scripture today, as we observe MLK weekend in a predominately white context, it’s important to start by saying this: In this story, read in this context, we are not Moses. In the American systems of racism that MLK opposed, we are not the ones who endure daily the indignities of those systems. We are not the ones who know the struggle best. We are not the heroic leaders. It’s healthy to start with a word of appropriate humility and necessary awareness: In this story, told in this context, we are not Moses.

        

In fact – as Rev. Yolanda Norton pointed out when she preached here just about two years ago – in this story, we may first need to take a careful look to make sure we aren’t Pharaoh. In the complexity of racialized systems of power-over, for white folks, the first task is to look at ways we might be participating in those systems – how we might be complicit in those systems – how we might be aiding and abetting Pharaoh – and where we are – as Professor Norton says – Stop. Just stop.

        

As we encounter this Scripture this morning, in this context, we are not Moses. We need to take care that we aren’t Pharaoh – and where we are, to stop. And this morning, I want us to think some of what it would look like for us to be more like Aaron and Hur.  Aaron and Hur – the ones who get on their knees and work to support those who have long been in the struggle – to support, and to sustain – to help do the work – so that those who have been harmed the most don’t bear the burden of the work alone – so that they don’t have to be so weary.

        

Back in November, I reported that I’d participated in a gathering convened by the Marin City Ministerial Alliance – the pastors and congregations of Marin City. The Ministerial Alliance convened clergy from across the broader Marin Interfaith community for a day of conversation so that we could learn and talk about how we could come alongside the Marin City community in ways that are actually helpful. Community leaders came in and shared with us the history of Marin City, and spotlighted several pressing issues.


At the end of the day – we named together that one of the main learnings of the day is that white Marin clergy don’t know much about Marin City – its history, the bigger issues the community faces. We don’t know much even though the issues we talked about that day have pretty regularly been in the Marin IJ.  We named that. And we paused there.

        

I don’t know if anyone said it this pointedly, but this truth was before us: “You can’t really help us if you don’t know us – if you haven’t taken time to get to know our community and the challenges we confront on a daily basis.” The invitation to work together was there – but there was clear work for us to do – the white clergy and the broader Marin County community. Yes, come help. But before you come and help. Do your work – (1) the general work of anti-racism, and (2) the specific work of learning, with some humility, about the folks whom you feel called to help. If you don’t – if we don’t – we can actually come in and create more work for those who have been working and living this for so long – we actually might create more harm. First things first, go learn about Marin City.

        

Maybe you’ve heard the broad contours of Marin City’s vital history.[9] Marin City grew into its fullness in World War II – as workers were recruited from across the nation to come and work in the ship-building industry. Many of those workers were Black folks who moved here from the Deep South. A good number came to live in what was then temporary housing in unincorporated Marin City.[10]


At the end of the war, white folks who worked in the war effort could take the money they had made to go and buy homes throughout Marin County and elsewhere. But in Marin County, and across the country, discriminatory practices like redlining and restrictive covenants kept Black folks from buying homes, from creating family wealth that could be passed on.  Few of the Black folks who had migrated West wanted to return to the Jim Crow South, and many remained in Marin City. Marin County’s current segregated housing patterns flow out of that history.


A vibrant community continued to grow and thrive in Marin City. But significantly, the County and its Board of Supervisors retained control over Marin City. Because the County consistently fell short in its obligations to Marin City, the grassroots community there formed the Marin City Community Services District – a collective effort to provide support and care to meet the needs of the community.


At our November meeting, Marin City leaders highlighted three pressing issues currently facing the Marin City Community:


·      There is the longstanding struggle of Golden Gate Village residents to secure fair and habitable housing.[11] Golden Gate Village was a public housing development built about the same time as the County’s Civic Center, designed by a student/colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s on the historic register. But over the last couple decades, the County and the Board of Supervisors have let Golden Gate Village fall into disrepair – what some have called “demolition by neglect” – which resulted in a lawsuit over the County’s continuing failure to provide habitable housing. The County again and again has tried to push forward redevelopment plans without listening to resident and community input – and so the community has to work relentlessly just to be heard.


·      And, there’s the 825 Drake Ave project – the County’s unilateral action – without consulting the Marin City community – to crowd more high-density housing into one of the most densely populated parts of the county.[12] The Marin City Save Our City movement is leading the efforts to stop that project,[13] and to insist on Marin City’s right to self-determination. They currently have a preliminary injunction in place. 


·      And, then not long before that November meeting, some white Tam High School students had posted a video with racial slurs, which called into question whether the school district was doing enough to prevent and correct that kind of racial harassment – and which laid bare the racism that persists in Marin County.[14]


The Marin City community has every right to be weary. Even so, they persist in the worthy work of justice – working to change systems, and to help those who are hurting. And we have much to learn. If we are to come alongside that work in a meaningful, helpful way, we have our own work to do. Think on that Scripture:


·      First, we need to check the ways we might be too enmeshed with Pharaoh. We need to name clearly the systemic racism that persists in Marin County – the ways we benefit from and participate in that – and then: Stop – and engage the work of dismantling those systems.


·      Second, we need to have the humility to acknowledge that we are not Moses. The leaders and residents of Marin City are the experts here. We take their lead. We look to their wisdom.


·      And third, like Aaron and Hur, we need to do all that in a way that doesn’t make more work for our Marin City neighbors – that doesn’t make them more weary – but that takes direction – that is willing to get down on our knees and help support and sustain.


But Scott, you may ask, “What can I do now?” and that is a fair and good question. And since you asked... In the Friday email there are several immediate opportunities:


·      For general anti-racism learning, next Saturday, there’s an anti-racism training at Calvary in SF, co-led by Joanne Whitt.


·      If you want to thoughtfully experience the Marin City community, you can join their MLK day events, tomorrow, starting at noon.


·      You can google and start reading about Marin City agencies and non-profits that are doing the work, what’s important to them?


And then, there are a couple of emerging projects:


·      Rev. Thompkins and others who are envisioning a project for table/meal conversations.


·      There are some clergy who are working to come up with volunteer education, so that Marin City leaders don’t have to keep educating us about Marin City (we’re doing that in accountability to them though).


In this morning’s Scripture, the road to freedom that Moses and the people undertake is indeed no way easy. And at every moment God is present with them, saving, nourishing, sustaining – bringing them up out into freedom. And so the gospel singer can sing both – “nobody told me the road will be easy” – and “I don’t feel no ways tired.”


Let’s take a breath – say true things about power and privilege. Then, with mutuality and humility – let's take direction from those who have been harmed the most, and move into the hard work for freedom, in ways that also help create some rest for the weary.




© 2024 Scott Clark




[1] Floyd Thompkins, Jr., Nobody Told Me the Road Would Be Easy: Devotions for People Working for Justice and Peace (E-Book ed., 2023), https://www.amazon.com/Nobody-Told-That-Road-Would/dp/1667888757

[2] Id. p.20.

[3] Id. p.64.

[6] See Townsend Davis, Weary Feet, Rested Souls: A Guided History of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Norton & Co., 1998), p.16.

[7] For general background on Exodus and this text, See Walter Brueggemann, “The Book of Exodus,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), pp.816-823; Judy Fentress-Williams, “The Book of Exodus” inThe Africana Bible: Reading Israel’s Scriptures from Africa and the African Diaspora (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), pp. 80-88.

[8] Fentress-Williams, pp. 85-86.

[9] This general history is drawn from the history related on the website of the Marin City Community Services District (MCCSD), https://www.marincitycsd.com/history-of-marin-city , and in Nikki Silverstein’s interview with Felicia Gaston, “80th anniversary festivities uncover forgotten stories from the community’s rich legacy,”Pacific Sun, August 10, 2022, https://pacificsun.com/marin-city-history/

[12] See Resolution of the Marin City Community Service District, dated June 27, 2023; “Listen to Marin City Residents,” Pacific Sun, https://pacificsun.com/housing-brouhaha-listen-to-marin-city-residents/


Photo Credit: Tijs van Leur, used with permission via Unsplash

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