Rebecca Heilman
(Exodus 13: 3-10)

I grew up in Valdese, NC, which is about an hour from Charlotte. It’s a small town built by French Italians known as Waldensians. The Waldensians are a religious group of people who were reformers long before the reformation – they valued reading, education, justice, and even women pastors all in the 13th century. Because of these radical belief systems, the catholic church declared the Waldensians heretics, inflicting on them harsh phases of persecutions, pushing the Waldensians to flee into the Alps where they suffered from poverty and hunger, but persevered with faith. The poverty and hunger became too much for the Waldensians, so they heard about some acres for sale in western North Carolina and traveled here in 1893. My great great grandfather and grandmother were one of the first settlers of Valdese. Valdese is its own unique place. It’s full of rich pride towards the Waldensian heritage. Nearly every street is related to a Waldensian name or cultural understanding. I’m practically related to half the town. The Waldensian Presbyterian Church, the church I grew up in, still sings French hymns, still celebrates the day of emancipation from the Catholic Church, and we are still connected to the Waldensian villages in the Alps of Italy. It’s practically a rite of passage to go and visit those villages. I have been twice. At the very heart of the Waldensian heritage is education. Education is how the Waldensians originally separated from the catholic church. They wanted to read the Bible in their own vernacular and be simpler pastors to give to and live with the poor. They wanted to spread the good news long and wide and welcome more people into that liberation of education. They created seminaries in secret and preached in caves to the Waldensian communities around them. It was and still is important for Waldensians to pass along to younger generations, traditions, as well as this understanding of a courageous faith. And academic education? That has been pushed as well over the generations, knowing it uplifts and grows a community of leaders, which is how the Waldensians of Valdese connected with the Presbyterian Church. In history, the Waldensians have faced severe persecutions, starvation and poverty (both in Italy and here in the United States), there was always this sense of wilderness for the Waldensians in what was coming next, so they turned to their rituals, their traditions, their beliefs, their desire for education, their faith, knowing they would persevere through whatever was coming next. 

This is not unlike the Israelites in our passage and extended story today. The Israelites have been persecuted and enslaved by the Egyptians for nearly 200 years, persevering through faith. Until this man named Moses, with the help of God, found liberation for them. This is when I was going to read to you the long-extended passage about a new ritual of Passover where they were to slaughter a specific gender of lamb, but let me just tell you, it happened. That’s all you need to know. God passed over the Israelites who followed his instructions and then told them to perform this ritual each year. At this point in the story, the Israelites see freedom just ahead of them. So, they gather around Moses possibly expecting this long speech before they cross the Red Sea into the wilderness.

Moses could have been pastoral and comforted the people who just found hope in their future. He could have spoken about liberty and their freedom. He could have given more details about where they were going and what this ”wilderness” would be like. But no, Moses doesn’t address those things in his speech, instead, in our passage today, Moses speaks about children, the next generation, how the Israelites are to talk about their experience of freedom, and who liberated them. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a Jewish theologian, writes about this passage. He says, “About to gain their freedom, the Israelites were told that they had to become a nation of educators.”[1] They are to tell their children about their experience, how the Lord helped with their liberation, and then create a system so that they teach generation after generation after generation.

I imagine, the Israelites were probably experiencing a form of PTSD.

from the night before, maybe anxiety or fear for what is to come and if they are trusting the right leader and even God. They are probably carrying infants and whatever else they can carry with them on their backs. As well as a staff to hold them steady on the rugged terrain. They are probably helping loved ones stay calm and prepare for the long walk to freedom. And instinctively, looking over their shoulder wondering when the pharaoh will strike back. And now, here is Moses, not addressing any of these worries, but instead, telling them it’s time for you to become a nation of educators. I think if I was there among the group of Israelites, I would say, “Moses, I don’t have the bandwidth to be an educator on top of all the other burdens I’m carrying.”  

Huh…how familiar does that sound right now? “I don’t have the bandwidth to be an educator on top of all the other burdens I’m carrying.” I don’t even have children and I feel everything in that statement and how true it is for parents, grandparents, administrators, and even the people whose job it is to educate, our teachers. Right now, education seems to be on all of our minds. Because of this pandemic, many of us are asking the hard questions, “is it safe for my child, my grandchild, my niece, my nephew to go to school? Is it worth it? How much is my child missing? How will this affect them later in life? What about my work? Where do we sacrifice? Can we sacrifice? How do I teach three-year olds on Zoom? How do I teach a class safely? Do we have the correct equipment and supplies for virtual school? Can we afford it? Do we have the emotional bandwidth to sustain ourselves through this new type of learning and pandemic? Do we have the internet bandwidth, or can we afford internet?”

I’m only my second week in here at Trinity and this past week, I dedicated a majority of my time with your Nations Ford Elementary School sub-ministry team. Nations Ford Elementary is a public school on the south-west side of Charlotte. The majority of children who attend Nations Ford is Hispanic and in lower-income families. When talking with their social worker and volunteer liaison, they made it very very clear that the biggest need their students and families have right now is just that, internet and bandwidth. However, they said, it’s way above us to fix this problem for our students. It’s bigger than us.

WFAE released on Thursday that there are 45,000 homes in Charlotte who are without broadband internet, “largely, communities of color, resulting in a ‘digital red-lining’”[2]According to the Charlotte Observer, an estimate of 290,000 students are without internet and therefore, unable to be in school in the comfort of their own homes.[3] Charlotte Mecklenburg School system have set up hotspots in school buses to help close that gap, however it’s not enough. And this means that if, and only if, a parent is able to take off work, then their children are sitting on the hot Charlotte pavements or in hot cars to save on gas, while trying to Zoom into their class. CMS has even raised a million dollars to help with the situation, but Sonja Gantt, who works for the CMS Foundation says it’s a four-million-dollar endeavor. It’s not that CMS is not doing anything, they are! It’s that it’s a massive problem. There is a digital divide in Charlotte Mecklenburg County and around the United States. How are we supposed to be a nation of educators, according to Moses, when we can’t even close a digital divide so that every student receives the education they deserve? That’s a heavy question. And I ask it, just like Steve said last week, for you to think about, read about, maybe even talk about.

I believe that this passage is about how we prepare generations after us for the wilderness ahead of us. This generational education is based all the way back to Moses, informing the Israelites after a very traumatic 200 years that they can’t stop talking about those very traumatic 200 years. Pass your experience on to your children, may the teachings of the Lord remain on your lips. It’s based all the way back to when Jesus taught on the mount and sent out disciples to preach and teach to surrounding communities. It’s based on John Calvin who advocated for common schools and universal education. It’s based within this congregation when you decided to partner with Nations Ford Elementary. Education is at the center of our faith and according to Moses, education is what sustains freedom, and as we know, builds leadership and a developed society. In the same WFAE report on Charlotte’s digital divide, Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, has been advocating to compress the digital divide and injustices around access to technology since 1997.[4] People have been talking about it for years and society didn’t start listening until now, at our most crucial moment. But it’s hard to talk about and listen to difficult, unjust, horrible systems in our world. If we don’t talk about it, maybe it will go away, right? I’m as guilty as anyone. However, a problem never truly goes away by not talking about it. No matter how hard we wish for the problem to disappear, and I’ve been known to wish, the problem always seems to intensify. We’ve experienced it in personal unsolved arguments in our own lives, as well as now seeing it on the larger scale of the civil and racial unrest in our country today. Just like Moses wanted to ensure that the Israelites were never enslaved again, we want the same freedom for the families of this country burdened by system after system of oppression. So we talk about it, we talk to our children about it, we teach it whenever there’s an opportunity. We never stop talking about it in hopes for change.

Moses turned to education, knowing it was essential for the Israelites to survive in the wilderness. As we enter into more of our pandemic wilderness ourselves, how are we turning to education as an essential tool for survival? How are we turning to education to combat racism? How are we turning to education to ensure everyone has access to education? How are we turning to education to ensure oppressive systems don’t repeat itself? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks continues in his interpretation of this text, “to defend a free society you need schools. You need families and an educational system in which ideals are passed on from one generation to the next, and never lost, or despaired of, or obscured…. To sustain [freedom] is the work of hundred generations. Forget it and you lose it.”[5] We see forgetfulness over and over again in this world and when we forget or refuse to talk about it, we then see how it breaks down families on the margins, as many of the children in Charlotte are experiencing now. As Moses wanted it to be and said to the people around him, may we wear a sign on our hand and a reminder on our forehead of all that God does for us, so that the teaching of the Lord may be on our lips. 

Pray with me.

Gracious God, we believe, help our unbelief. Amen.

 

[1] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversations Exodus: The Book of Redemption, (New Milford: Maggid Books & The Orthodox Union, 2010), 78.
[2] Chris Miller, “Charlotte Talks: Digital Divide Existed Before Covid-19; Now It’s At A ‘Crisis’ level,” WFAE 90.7 September 3, https://www.wfae.org/post/charlotte-talks-digital-divide-existed-covid-19-now-its-crisis-level#stream/0.
[3] Devna Bose and Sophie Kasakove, “The Pandemic has sounded an alarm bell on North Carolina’s digital divide,” The Charlotte Observer, September 3, 2020, https://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/state/north-carolina/article245293475.html.
[4] Miller, “Charlotte Talks,” https://www.wfae.org/post/charlotte-talks-digital-divide-existed-covid-19-now-its-crisis-level#stream/0.
[5] Sacks, Covenants, 78.