This sermon is significant to me for a number of reasons: 1. The book of Exodus is my favorite book in the bible, 2. I relied on my work in college on race as a social construction which was awesome, and 3. This sermon is the one I am using for my Provisional Membership Examination in February where the Board of Ordained Ministry of the Baltimore Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church will decide if I will be commissioned (in non-church speak it basically means that I need this sermon for a big interview that will determine whether or not I'll have a job when I graduate).
I thank both churches my family and my friends Amanda, Laura, Nancy, Kim, and Gavin and of course to my partner Aaron for their support and affirmation of my calling.
So, here's the sermon.
Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10 1
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
|Jesus' baptism using imagery from this story|
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, "When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live." But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, "Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?" The midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."
Sermon: Breaking through Fear
Good morning everyone! I am excited to be here today. The book of Exodus was the first book of the bible I read in its entirety as a child, probably because I really liked the cartoon version of the story The Prince of Egypt when it came out in 1998. Many of us are familiar with the story of Moses, or at least a version of that story, because every Easter evening The Ten Commandments is shown on TV. It is an epic story, so to preach on the birth story of Moses is challenging, but it is also an honor.
So will you pray with me?
one who has delivered us through times of trial to see your presence among us
grant that this morning we may feel that presence, that you may speak to us
through this scripture, the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
so that we might better live out your teachings. Amen.
The world that we begin with this morning is a dark one, beginning with the words, "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." At the end of Genesis, Joseph forgave his brothers and brought them to Egypt to escape famine and there they enjoyed Pharaoh's favor. For them, Egypt was a place of refuge. But many many years have passed, so many that the story of Joseph has been lost to the new Pharaoh. And so he begins to oppress the Israelites.
Dennis Olsen, a professor at Princeton seminary writes, "A tempting political strategy for new leaders, whether an Egyptian pharaoh or a Nazi Hitler, involves trying to solidify power by singling out a relatively weak minority or outsider group and calling them an enemy. Fear of others can be a powerful source of unity."2 Fear can bring people together, but ultimately it tears them apart. Fear is not a strategy that can be sustained, and it is a strategy contrary to the very life that God is calling us to live.
Living in the Norrisville area, most of us have not known this systemic fear. Many of us may have heard of it through stories of growing up black in the south before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Or stories of living under Nazis in Europe. These are stories where we can taste the darkness and the horror of what it may have been like to wake up as those Israelites, one day living normal lives and then beginning to see their dignity taken away. In these first and second chapters of Exodus, we see that first the Israelites are conscripted into forced labor, but they continued to multiply and so the Egyptians forced them into complete slavery. The fear here, then, does not just belong to exclusively to the Israelites. Maintaining a culture of fear in which to oppress one group means that the oppressors, the Egyptians here, must also be fearful. Fearful of revolt, of losing power, but mostly they are afraid because they have seen how easy it is to have your dignity taken away.
But some Egyptians and Israelites broke that cycle of fear, as we see in our scripture reading this morning. We're going to explore the Hebrew midwives and Pharaoh's daughter specifically. These women model for us our roles as the Church in the world today. We are to break through fear and move our communities to the abundant living that Jesus calls us to when he says in the Gospel of John, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly."3 The story of Exodus is a story of moving into our calling to abundant living, though the way is difficult.
Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, are the first we see to stand up to Pharaoh's reign of fear. It may seem strange that Pharaoh would summon these two women, these two lowly Hebrew midwives, and invite them to conspire such appalling and horrific genocide with him. Why not just jump straight to his order to all the Egyptian people in verse 22 to throw all the Hebrew boys into the Nile? The text does not tell us why he whispers his evil plans to these midwives, but we can imagine why. This story of the Egyptians forcing the Hebrews into slavery is not simply a story of finding a workforce, but it is the story of the construction, the creation, of a people who were once favored by another Pharaoh into a hated and feared people.
Many of you have heard me talk extensively about my experience in Bosnia. In Bosnia, Muslims and Christians lived side by side before the war, as Hebrews and Egyptians did before the rise of this new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. But after the fall of Yugoslavia, leaders like Slobodan Milosevic looking for power used propaganda to turn Christians from seeing Muslims as neighbors, coworkers, and friends to seeing them as monsters who needed to be eliminated. This also happened in Nazi Germany, and in places like Rwanda, and even in the USA in areas for instance where the KKK was prevalent. This culture of fear that functions to create a distinct "us" and "them" between people who used to be friends is common throughout history.
The difficulty I imagine Pharaoh had with his propaganda was the Hebrews' fertility. In most cultures and times, fertility is seen as a blessing from God. So too it was in this case, as the midwives are rewarded in this story with families. So Pharaoh wants to hide that evidence of blessing from the Egyptians, for surely it is more difficult to oppress a people you know are favored by God. He calls the midwives to make murder look like God's blessing is being taken back, so that the Hebrews will be known for their inability to keep their sons alive past birth.4
At very real risk to themselves, these women stand up to Pharaoh, rejecting a part in his evil plan. The text says that these women feared God, and that was their motivation for defying Pharaoh. There is that word fear again, and it seems to conflict with my understanding of Pharaoh's reign as one of fear and God's as a reign of abundant living. And certainly in my understanding of God, fearing God is not something I talk about much. For me, following God comes out of a love for God, not fear. But in this sense, fearing God does not mean being afraid of what punishment God will reign down for disobeying: in the tradition of the Old Testament fearing God is much more complicated. According to J. Cheryl Exum from Boston College, the center of this scriptural concept "to fear God" is a sense of God's mystery that affects our behavior, so that we are "guided by basic ethical principles and in harmony with God's will."5 These midwives have a sense of God's mystery that guides them in their daily walk. They ignore Pharaoh and continue to participate in God's blessing of the Hebrew women.
They are called before Pharaoh again, and Pharaoh asks why the boys are continuing to live. Should the midwives have spat in Pharaoh's face and denounced his evil, he would have them killed and found new midwives. This is typical of those in power even today--- if you hear something you don't like, silence them and find someone willing to tell you what you want to hear. So the midwives play on Pharaoh's own creation of the Hebrews as somehow not human. They say that Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women. They describe the Hebrew women as more like animals because they can just pop out babies without midwives, though more dignified Egyptian women need help.6 This is a lie, but it feeds into Pharaoh's own construction of Hebrews as more like animals than humans. So Shiphrah and Puah catch Pharaoh up in his own lies and go back to work among the Hebrew women, and the people multiplied and became very strong.
I read a book this summer called A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell about the end of World War II and Italian resistance to fascism. She focuses specifically on the actions of a few families living in valleys in Northern Italy at the end of the war. These were families who suffered under Mussolini, many of whom had lost sons to the war, and now they were being oppressed under the German Nazis who has moved in following the collapse of the Italian government. These were ordinary Catholic Italian peasants who hid Jewish refugees in their homes, made them part of their families. It is a story we know little about, but it is a powerful one. Mary Doria Russell ends the book talking about Hitler: "One hollow, hateful little man," she writes. "One last awful thought: all the harm he ever did was done for him by others."7 I always get chills reading that. Because the author of this novel is right. Hitler probably didn't even fire a gun--- all the atrocities he committed were done for him by other people. Pharaoh himself did not kill Hebrew babies. No, his genocidal plans were carried out for him by others. But Shiphrah and Puah stood up and refused to do harm for Pharaoh, and the people multiplied and became very strong.
Theirs is an example for us as the Church. The Church has a long and unfortunate history of being Pharaoh, but we also have a history of moments that we acted as those midwives, as those Catholic Italians did when they hid Jewish families during World War II. But when we choose to live abundantly, those relying on fear to maintain power become desperate.
Pharaoh in his desperation gives a new order to his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
In the film The Prince of Egypt, a young Moses learns of this order by looking at the drawings on the wall of the temple that depicted history. The drawing describing this order of Pharaoh is haunting: rows of soldiers hold babies by the leg preparing to throw them in the Nile, and more children are drawn falling through the water into the waiting mouths of crocodiles. And it is into this horror that Moses' mother gives birth.
She hides her son as long as she can, but ultimately she turns to the Nile, where so many have died already, and tries to subvert Pharaoh's orders. She does not throw her child into the Nile but places him in a basket onto the Nile.
And then we meet the daughter of Pharaoh, another example for the Church. She is a child of Pharaoh, so surely she knows her father's order to throw all the Hebrew babies into the Nile. Surely she knows this baby is a Hebrew. And yet, she opens the basket, sees the baby, hears its cry, and something stirs within her. Her own father Pharaoh has put so much effort into making a distinction between Hebrew and Egyptian that he believes himself that Hebrews are more animal than human. He raised his daughter to fear the Hebrews. But she sees through the fear and her heart is moved for the baby. She takes him as her son, thoroughly destroying the barrier that her own father was trying to construct between Hebrew and Egyptian.
As the Church, this breaking of barriers is also our work, despite history as the constructors of those barriers. Ephesians 2:14 reads, "For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."8 We are supposed to open the basket, know the baby is a not one of us, know that society is telling us that we should shut the basket and leave it there among the reeds, and instead allow ourselves to be moved by compassion to make that baby our own.
The story of Pharaoh's daughter reminds me of the ministry of a church in Tucson, Arizona, a ministry called No More Deaths in which volunteers provide food, water, and medical care to save the lives of people crossing the treacherous border between the USA and Mexico.9 Earlier this summer, volunteers from this church found Gonzalo lying barely conscious on the side of a remote road. He was severely dehydrated from drinking contaminated water from a cattle tank, and he was going to die. But volunteers from this Tucson church found him and laid him in the back of their pick-up. He asked if he was dreaming, and then after being assured he wasn't, he asked, "Are you angels?"
Are you angels? Perhaps that would be what baby Moses would have asked if he had been old enough when he saw Pharaoh's daughter's face.
Now, No More Deaths volunteers have been arrested before while transporting immigrants like Gonzalo to receive medical aid, and some have been stopped by police and interrogated just for leaving water for weary travelers to find. After being treated, Gonzalo was deported--- but he was alive because of the love of these No More Deaths volunteers. They were like the Pharaoh's daughter--- these volunteers opened the basket floating down the river to find Gonzalo, a person they have been told they cannot help at the risk of arrest. But they have compassion. They saw that Gonzalo was a child of God and so they reached out to him.
And so we have seen who we are supposed to be in this story. But who are we now?10 No one here is really like Pharaoh, but almost all of us, myself included, can be like all those Egyptians who may not have come up with Pharaoh's horrible ideas but who still do his dirty work for him from time to time. Sometimes this is just because we afraid for ourselves or our families, sometimes it seems simpler to follow orders, but most of all it is that sometimes the fear we live in tells us that there is no other way to live.
But God pokes a hole in our fear. God strengthens us when we act as those midwives, choosing to honor God rather than fearing Pharaoh, or when we act as Pharaoh's daughter, moved by compassion to use our own place and power for justice and love instead of for fear.
1 Exodus 1:8-2:10, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).
2 Dennis Olsen, Exodus 1:8-2:10 Commentary on Alternate First Reading by Dennis Olsen, "Exodus 1:8-10: From Welcomed Guests to Suspected Terrorists," Working Preacher, Lectionary for August 24, 2008, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=8/24/2008)
3 John 10:10, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
4 This idea came from reading Scott Morschauser, "Critical Notes: Potters' Wheels and Pregnancies: A Note of Exodus 1:16," Journal of Biblical Literature 122, no. 4 (2003): 731-743, in which he argues that the Pharaoh was really asking the midwives here to forcibly abort children, to kill them without the mother's permission while still in the womb. This explanation is heavy on language and history in a way that would not be accessible for the congregation in this format, but I thought I could still draw from the work to introduce my conclusions about the interpretation in this sermon.
5 J. Cheryl Exum, "'You shall let every daughter live:' A Study of Exodus 1:8-2:1," Semeia 28 (1983): 73.
6 Renita J. Weems, "The Hebrew Women Are Not Like the Egyptian Women: The Ideology of Race, Gender, and Sexual Reproduction in Exodus 1," Semeia 59 (1992): 28-30.
7 Mary Doria Russell, A Thread of Grace (New York: Random House, 2005), 413.
8 Ephesians 2:14, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version.
9 This story is paraphrased from "Awakening Compassion on the Border," Congregational Stories, Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, last modified 29 July 2011, http://www.uua.org/immigration/stories/124825.shtml.
10 This question comes from the Global Board of Discipleship Lectionary Planning Helps: "Now turn the conversation around. To what degree might your congregation be taking on the role of Pharaoh, trying to take action to preserve itself against 'outsiders'? Or to what degree are you known as 'midwives to revolutionaries' in your community? Or how might you be more like the daughter of Pharaoh -- with ins to power that can make a difference, if you use them prudently for the cause of compassion and justice?" General Board of Discipleship, "Exodus, The Way of Deliverance,” Worship Notes, Lectionary Planning Helps for Sundays, August 21, 2011, Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3879973/k.9C35/Lectionary_Planning_Helps_for_Sundays.htm