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Bricks Without Straw

In the first session of our current Wednesday Bible study series, called What Is the Bible?, we did a fun activity demonstrating how the Bible has become an integral part of Western culture. We looked up a number of Bible verses listed on a handout, and guessed at what common English phrase or idiom came from that passage. Some were known to us, such as “salt of the earth” or “forbidden fruit,” but many came as a surprise; people didn’t realize such phrases as “fly in the ointment” or “drop in the bucket” came from the Bible.

I didn’t realize, before preparing for this sermon, that the phrase “bricks without straw” is occasionally used as a figure of speech. Like the phrases in our Wednesday exercise, and somewhat surprising to me, I discovered there are people who use, or read, the expression bricks without straw who don’t realize its source is this story in the Bible that Albert just read for us.

I found these examples, in an Internet dictionary, of sentences using the phrase:

They don’t give us nearly enough time or support to get these projects to the standards they should be, so we end up making bricks without straw.

You’re never going to have a championship team unless they start recruiting players who are actually any good. You can’t make bricks without straw.

Writing a report without the current data is making bricks without straw.

Teachers have become experts at making bricks without straw.

I don’t know how you expect me to cook dinner when there’s hardly any food in the house. You can’t make bricks without straw, you know.

The online “dictionary of idioms” where I found these examples defines the phrase as “performing a task without the resources that are needed for it — without the proper materials, equipment, or information.” That dictionary article does note that the origin of the phrase is the 5th chapter of Exodus — but elsewhere, I found someone who thought the expression came from the World War II era (I suppose connecting the idea to the rationing and “making do” that was required for survival in many places over those difficult years).

What’s missing from some of these examples, though, is the intent to cause harm, and the patent injustice, that is evident in the Exodus story.   It’s one thing to be frustrated by the lack of information or materials needed to complete a task; it’s another to have those needed things deliberately withheld, and then to be beaten because of failure to complete the job.

Now as you go through the Exodus story, you would perhaps think, given the powerful chapters we have read over the past three weeks — of Moses’ incredible rescue from death as an infant, and his amazing encounter with God at the burning bush, along with the confidence-building signs and reassurances that God gave Moses as part of that life-changing conversation — you would think, maybe, that Moses at least will get off to a good start, with all that power of God behind him. But that is not the case.

Of course, God did warn Moses that the Pharoah was not going to go along with the plan. In fact, the text says, many, many times, that God is the one who “hardens the heart” of the Pharoah, and that this is part of the plan, so the God will become known to the Pharoah and his people, and God will be all the more glorified. But I don’t know that Moses imagined just how brutal the Pharoah’s reaction would be, how much tougher Pharoah would make it for the Hebrew slaves, and how Moses’ own people would turn against him. That must have been a terrible disappointment and a blow to the morale — not just for him, but for the slaves, as well. Where they had become so hopeful at the sight of Moses and Aaron, and the signs they were able to perform, that they  (show Ex 4:31 onscreen) fell down and worshipped at the end of chapter 4, by the end of this next chapter, they are almost ready to throw the pair out on their ears.

The Contemporary English Version (CEV) renders the people’s sentiment in this (show Exosude 5:21 onscreen) straightforward language: ”We hope the LORD will punish both of you for making the king and his officials hate us.” Albert read for us the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), a translation that’s closer to the original Hebrew, which says, “The Lord look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharoah and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (emphasis mine). It may not be as straightforward, but it certainly is colorful language.

If they think it’s a “bad odor” now, just wait until we get to the plagues. That’s coming in two weeks.

A more modern-day way to describe their complaint would be that it’s become a case of getting “kicked while they are down.”

This week I finished reading a fascinating book I picked up at Annual Conference, recently published, by United Methodist professor emeritus Tex Sample. I heard him speak live at an event many years ago, and found him to be extremely down-to-earth and incredibly intelligent. Although he can talk and write like a college professor, he also knows how to properly “cuss” (and that’s the term he uses for it).  He’s stayed true to his blue collar roots and been a champion advocate for the plight of the poor in the U.S. His new book’s title is White Working Class Rage, and it’s an excellent analysis that presents a well-nuanced portrait of a group many have stereotyped negatively, and whose very real plight has been all too often taken advantage of, manipulated or ignored by both parties of government, as well as by big corporations and the educated elite. This is one group that has certainly experienced being “kicked when they’re down,” the equivalent of being forced to “make bricks without straw.” (Sample’s book offers church leaders helpful insights on how to work as partners with such folks toward a vision of justice for both whites and people of color, communicating a Gospel for “the common good.” It’s a thought-provoking read.)

This week I prayed with a woman on disability who’s recently learned that her brain tumor has grown larger, at the same time that her Medi-Cal status is under threat. I prayed with a hard-working young caregiver who is on multiple apartment waiting lists, hoping for a place to open so she and her family don’t have to continue living under crowded conditions with relatives. I preached and worshipped with homeless guests of the Tuesday evening “Spirit Cafe” dinner at First UMC in Santa Rosa, who paused for a moment of silence to honor one of their own, who died last week after being struck by a car.  People who are being kicked while they’re down, who are being forced to make bricks without straw, are all around us.

Why is this Exodus story here for us, of the Pharoah’s lashing out so vindictively in response to Moses’ and Aaron’s plea for freedom? Because it strikes a chord with so many who are oppressed. Those with power will not give it up easily. They will not be swayed by logic nor by an appeal to ethics. Their first response is going to be anger. Justice does not come easily. And those who lead, and who work for justice, must not be fooled, lulled into thinking that, with God on our side, things will just fall into place without protest. This work will be hard. It will not be popular. It will require persistence. It will require creativity. It will require humility. It will require, over and over again, trusting in the One who calls us, who promises to be with us, who is our Provider, and Who suffers with us. We cannot do it on the strength of our own skills and talents. We must turn, again and again, to the One who gave us those skills and talents.

After the Hebrew slaves turn on him, I find it quite interesting that Moses feels safe enough with God to turn around himself and complain to God, saying (show Ex 5:22 onscreen), “Why did you send me for this? My coming has only made matters worse!” (There are times in my ministry that have felt this way!) A note in my CEB Study Bible on this passage says, “The Old Testament has a strong tradition of Israelite leaders and prophets who boldly complain to God when life becomes difficult.” It then lists several examples, of which this instance is just the first. “In each case,” though, “God will listen patiently to Moses and provide him the help that he needs to keep going.” It is a comfort to know that God is big enough to take our laments and our complaints, to allow us to be real and human. And then God prods us on.

There is a popular “quote,” incorrectly attributed, by countless people, to Mahatma Gandhi:  “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.” (In actuality, the closest match to these words comes from a trade union organizer named Nicholas Klein in a 1914 speech, but these 16 words, even if misattributed, are an apt, succinct summary of Gandhi’s philosophy of determined, non-violent protest.) 

As we will see this story unfold in our reading over the coming weeks, persistent and steady obedience, even in the face of fearful conditions, even in the presence of some private hand-wringing and complaint in prayer, will bring about transformation. Liberation may seem slow in coming, and it will take a mighty work of God, but it will come. We are not to lose heart. We are to keep doing our part, step by challenging step, and stay connected to God. Though ignored, laughed at, attacked, kicked when down, made to build bricks without straw. Do not let the setbacks divert your focus on the vision. Call out to God, and trust that God listens. Tomorrow is coming, and God will be there. Amen.