The most famous origin story of the Buddha goes something like this: A sheltered young prince slips away from his father’s estate one day and is confronted with the harsh realities he has not been allowed to see: poverty, hunger, sickness, old age. Once his innocent bubble is popped, there’s no turning back and the young man must figure out how to live with the knowledge of what happens beyond his father’s gates.
I couldn’t help but remember this story as I was reading today’s Old Testament reading, from the second chapter of Exodus. In this reading, we are introduced to Moses, born a Hebrew, but raised by Pharaoh’s daughter as her own. One day, Moses sees something that he cannot unsee and it changes his life: He sees first hand — either for the first time or for the first that mattered — the mistreatment his people were suffering in Pharaoh’s labour camps. Suddenly his identity has a Hebrew and his identity as a member of Pharaoh’s household conflict as never before. Moses must make a choice.
Most of us have experienced similar moments that shatter the comfort of our status quo, that force us to reexamine our beliefs and assumptions. Sometimes, they compel us to act immediately, as Moses did. Other times, as with the young man who would become the Buddha, the influence is slower, but no less transformative, setting us on a long journey of discovery and longer term action. But it’s a call to action nonetheless, a piece of knowledge that cannot be unknown, a sight that cannot be unseen, a truth that cannot be ignored.
It’s fitting that this was the reading today, since I was reminded this weekend of one such moment in my own life, a moment that actually involved this story from the life of Moses.
Because the issue of same-sex marriage has come up again in the big way in my Church this past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own journey towards affirming and living with my sexuality in a different way. While it ultimately took the collapse of my faith to force the issue for me, looking back, I am able to see all kinds of cracks in the foundations before that: an unexpected truth while preparing for Confession here, an emotional response to a news story there. One of those moments that cracked my assumptions involved this story about Moses.
It was probably early 2010 — a few months before my crisis of life and faith began — and same-sex marriage was the hot-button issue in American politics. There were days when my Twitter feed would be filled with nothing but blow-by-blow accounts of debates in statehouses across the US. I remember sitting there reading the feed and being simply appalled at what I saw. The statements of advocates of same-sex marriage were moving testimonies to the damage, certainly psychological, but mostly very practical, the current laws preventing their marriages from being legal caused in their lives. By contrast, the words of opponents of changing the laws — almost uniformly professing Christians — were nothing but vitriol, lies and fear-mongering.
The sheer cruelty directed towards people who, one or two formative experiences and decisions aside, were just like me, shook me to my core. In that moment, I remembered Moses’ story and realized that it would be better to be outside the Church in solidarity with these people whose lives, relationships and dignity were being attacked than to be aligned with my fellow Christians. It was a realization that I couldn’t shake, even if I wasn’t in a place where I was prepared to act immediately.
It would of course be a more interesting story if, like Moses, I had rushed into immediate action in solidarity with “my people,” but there are more important things than a good story.
Moses rushed to action, but that action was impulsive, dangerous, and deadly. He killed the Egyptian overseer and ended up having to flee the country. Perhaps if he had responded less impulsively, he could have worked from the inside, using his influence with Pharaoh’s daughter to enact reforms on behalf of his people that would lead to their eventual freedom. Solidarity or no, his flight to Midian prevented him from doing anything for his people for forty years. Now, of course, God met him in Midian, and used him powerfully to free his people from slavery in the end, but I still think Moses’ story is as much a cautionary tale as it is an inspiring one.
There is a lot of injustice in the world. The Gospel reading this past Sunday asked the question “Who is my neighbour?” and this question is at the heart of all of our social and political issues today. Is the Syrian refugee my neighbour? Is the Salvadorian migrant? Is the missing or murdered Indigenous woman? Is the trans woman who needs to use the bathroom? Is the journalist who dares to expose his government’s crimes? Is the Pacific Islander whose home is disappearing under rising waters?
Coming to terms with the truth is difficult and can be a process. And that’s okay. But sooner or later, the moment of truth when we cannot deny the reality before us will come. The question before us is how will we respond boldly, graciously, and responsibly?