The Taskmaster's Command

MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Idylwood Presbyterian Church
February 23, 2014
Exodus 5:1-12 

The Taskmaster’s Command

This morning’s text begins with the word “Afterwards”. Which leads us to ask, “after what?” To help locate us: the people of Israel are slaves in Egypt, captive to Pharaoh. Moses has been called by God through a burning bush, he has spent some time with his father-in-law Jethro, and Moses and Aaron have now united with people and given them the astonishing news that God has not forgotten them, God knows their misery and is about the work of liberation.

Now listen to this:

Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.” ’ 2But Pharaoh said, ‘Who is the Lord, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and I will not let Israel go.’ 3Then they said, ‘The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the Lord our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.’ 4But the king of Egypt said to them, ‘Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labours!’ 5Pharaoh continued, ‘Now they are more numerous than the people of the land * and yet you want them to stop working!’ 6That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7‘You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, “Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.” 9Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labour at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.’

10 So the taskmasters and the supervisors of the people went out and said to the people, ‘Thus says Pharaoh, “I will not give you straw. 11Go and get straw yourselves, wherever you can find it; but your work will not be lessened in the least.” ’ 12So the people scattered throughout the land of Egypt, to gather stubble for straw.

Several years ago, when Caroline was in first grade, our district made some changes to the bus schedule that meant that the children in our neighborhood were getting home later than they had been before. I didn’t think very much of it, but several of the other parents were bothered by it. Over time, the irritation grew into complaint, until the gaggle of parents decided that something simply had to be done. The children were getting home too late, these parents argued. They needed time to have a snack. They were going to be late to soccer practice, or violin lessons, or Cub Scouts. (Swim team. Language class. Art enrichment.) The change was simply unacceptable.

So these parents got together a petition. They made phone calls. They organized. Couldn’t something be done?, they asked Fairfax County Transportation Services. And then finally—success! The bus schedule was changed, the children started getting home earlier, and the bus stop moms—and a few dads—declared victory over the bureaucracy.

This change in schedule that had everyone celebrating?... resulted in the kids getting home four minutes earlier than they had before.

Four. Minutes.

Now if Robert were here, he would have his head in his hands because when all this was going on, I talked his ear off about how silly I thought the whole thing was. It was almost all I could talk about for several weeks because it seemed so unnecessary, until finally he asked, “Why is this so important to you?”

It felt important to me, because I realized we were raising our kids in a culture that was so busy and time-obsessed that people would petition the county government for four measly minutes of extra time in the afternoon.

I cared, because I could feel the anxiety emanating from these parents. It’s good to want to give one’s kids opportunities to learn and grow. But that desire had tipped over into an almost frantic need to cram their lives full of activities and sports and enrichment.

And I also cared because I knew that while I personally didn’t care that much about the afternoon bus schedule, there were plenty of other ways in which that anxiety had begun adhering to me. I’m not sure what the dysfunction looks like in other households. But it’s been made very clear to me that there are so many young people from Northern Virginia trying to get into a good Virginia university that they’d better find a way to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s never too early to start, I’m told by parents of elementary schoolers. A good foundation means a good college application, a good college means a good job, means success, means a good life, means I’ve done my job as a parent. That’s the message, and I’ve internalized it as much as anyone.

Now, living as we do in the suburbs of Washington DC, the type-A mentality is perhaps more acute there than other places. But as I travel around to other congregations and presbyteries and speak and lead retreats, I hear the same story. People are stressed and overworked. There never seems to be enough time. There’s always something more—something good, something worthwhile—that could and should be done.

And it’s not just a parent problem. The anxiety rans rampant in our culture. As we continue to claw our way out of this recession, there are still too many people looking for jobs and living in poverty.

And those who weren’t laid off, who have good jobs, are finding themselves expected to do the work of two or three people. Recently in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki wrote about the culture of overwork and said that thirty years ago, it was the low-paid workers who were working the longest hours, much longer than people at higher income levels. But “by 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. And a survey of professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.”[1] But that overwork takes its toll.

Meanwhile young people feel anxieties of their own, worrying about their job prospects when they graduate, to say nothing of concerns over this warring and warming world that we have bequeathed them.

And how could we forget the internet and cable news, where bad news travels around the world before good news has even put on its shoes, where school shootings and natural disasters get their own logo and theme music, where a recent interview with a congresswoman about national security got interrupted to report on Justin Bieber’s arrest. We live in a media landscape where there’s more to read and learn than we could ever get to in a lifetime, in fact where 100 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute[2]. A culture so full of information I can’t even keep track of what’s supposed to be good to eat any more. (Have you heard? Now multivitamins are bad and bacon is health food.)

It’s no wonder that anxiety specialist Dr. Richard Leahy has said that “The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s.”[3]

I have no way of verifying that statistically. It does make a good soundbite for a sermon. But I know that anxiety is rampant. Though it may not be unprecedented. Because as I read today’s story from the book of Exodus, I see a culture that positively reeks with anxiety.

It’s anxiety that goes all the way to the top, to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who has enslaved the people of Israel and has bound them to him in crippling servitude. For Pharaoh, there’s only one reason why the people would be asking for time off and that’s laziness. And the cure for laziness is more work. He tells his taskmasters: No more handouts. Let them gather their own straw and make brick upon brick upon brick until that is all they see. How dare they ask for three days to worship “God,” whoever that is!  

Pharaoh is so captive to his own fear that he doesn’t know God, can’t know God, because he knows only the contours of his own power and his fear of losing that power. There is no place for God in an empire fueled by anxiety.

But the people of Israel are caught in their own anxiety too. There is no freedom, no relief—just the constant lashing of expectations: do more, produce more, build more. But they are also captive to a distorted view of God. Did you notice what Moses and Aaron say to Pharoah? “Please let us go observe our festival or else God will fall upon us with pestilence and sword.” Their despair is so great that it infects everything, even their view of God. They are so imprisoned by Pharaoh that they see God as just another taskmaster, threatening punishment if they don’t comply.

…I wonder if there’s an anxiety that is holding you captive today.
I wonder if the problems our world faces seem so insurmountable, like a wall built brick upon brick, a wall so high that you can’t possibly see around it, let alone break it down.
I wonder if the spiritual life has become just another thing to do, another obligation in an already overcrowded schedule.
I wonder if you are feeling high on stress and low on joy. 

If you are, I urge you to read the rest of the story. Because it doesn’t end here. It ends with God bringing the people out of the land of Egypt, flinging aside the waters of the Red Sea and letting the people pass to safety, and then giving them a peculiar gift, tucked in the middle of the ten commandments: the gift of Sabbath. A day every week on which the people rest, slaves no longer. A day in which the people exclaim to the world,

We are not slaves to the empire anymore!
We do not have to work, day after day after day without relief,
We are free!

God is not just another taskmaster, saying “Worship me or else.” God is leading us out of our captivity with the gift of rest and renewal, with the gift of what Jesus called abundant life.

Our family has been on a journey of Sabbath-keeping for many years. I wrote a whole book about it, to try to make sense of this practice that seems so easy but turns out to be hard, to try to help people find ways to live the practice more fully. And there turns out to be a lot of practical tips that I can offer, and you can read about it those in the book, but here and now I want to say only this. 

Sabbath starts to mess with you, because Sabbath comes from God, and God likes to mess with us.

Our family started observing a day of rest because we were tired and needed a little R&R each week. But the practice is more than that. It changes everything. You start to see the anxieties of the empire and in your own heart—the fear of not having enough, the despair that seems built into the system. And you realize, Sabbath isn’t about being well rested so you can go back to Pharaoh’s job site. Sabbath is about realizing that you don’t want to make Pharoah’s bricks anymore.

It’s interesting to me that Moses and Aaron are right about one thing. They’re right about God bringing pestilence down—the plagues are coming. But they’re not raining down on the Hebrew people, but on the entire sick system of too much work and not enough freedom, too much anxiety and not enough joy. Pharaoh’s empire cannot stand, it is too rotten at its core. It will go crashing into the sea. And good riddance. 

Our God is one who is not content with personal self-improvement… though self-improvement has its place, that’s not what the gospel is about. Our God is about nothing less than the complete transformation of our lives and our world. Our God is about setting captives free.

I would be remiss in a sermon about our anxious culture if I didn’t say that some people are plagued with an anxiety that is diagnosable, and that God works through doctors and medications and treatment for that anxiety. But I’m also here to say that as followers of Jesus, we can be a voice of calm in an anxious culture. 

The economic issues are real, the pressures are real. We have work to do. Important work. Kingdom-building work, and bill-paying work.

But the message of a Sabbath-gifting God is this:
We should not be content with captivity.
God has something deeper in mind for all of us than endless and joyless brick-making.


[1] “The Cult of Overwork”, James Surowiecki, The New Yorker, January 27, 2014.



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©2014 MaryAnn McKibben Dana. These sermon manuscripts are provided here for personal use, and are not to be redistributed or otherwise reproduced without permission of the author.