September 17, 2017 | Exodus 1: 8-2:10 | Rev. Nancy Talbot
Today we begin our series on the story of the Exodus, one of the foundational narratives in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The next several Sundays will take us all the way from the oppression of the Hebrew people under the harsh leadership of an unnamed Pharaoh, through the parting of the Red Sea under the guidance of Moses, his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron and right into a 40 year wander through the wilderness in search of a promised land. What may come as a surprise to you as we encounter this epic tale, is that it’s one of those key stories in the bible for which there is no historic or archaeological evidence. No secondary sources contain reference to this event which is so central to our tradition.
What that tells us from the get-go is that what we are about to enter is not a history lesson. Instead it’s a story that is as true today as it was when it was first recounted, thousands and thousands of years ago.
So listen carefully because this is a story about you and me and the world in which we live today.
Now a new King arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. Those of you who were in church this summer will remember Joseph, his spectacular coat, his envious brothers and the way they sold him into slavery in Egypt. You will remember the miracle of how Joseph survived being unjustly incarcerated and eventually rose to power as the Pharaoh’s right hand man. You will remember the way he brought his entire family from Canaan to Egypt and how he promised them he would take care of them and their offspring.
When this morning’s reading begins, almost 400 years has passed since Joseph rose to power in Eygpt and his descendants in the land are now too numerous to count. In fact, there are so many of them that when the Pharaoh goes for a ride in his chariot in downtown Egypt he’s beginning to hear more people speaking Hebrew than he hears people speaking Arabic. And that makes him afraid. His greatest fear is that soon there will be more Hebrews than Egyptians in the land and if a war were to break out, he wonders if they will be loyal to him. He worries that these children of immigrants might not be as patriotic as his Egyptian born followers.
So, although there is no indication that the Hebrew people weren’t well-settled, productive and fully integrated members of Egyptian society, like other new leaders who have risen to power throughout history feeling threatened by minorities who could become majorities, this Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, uses the strategy of inciting fear of the stranger, the other, the immigrant, the foreigner, in order to maintain his control.
The only problem was, Pharaoh completely underestimated the bravery, conviction and defiance of people like the 5 women we encountered in this morning’s scripture reading who nevertheless, persisted despite his vicious plans.
As a child, I can remember hearing in Sunday School the story of mean old Pharaoh who threatened to kill all the Hebrew babies. I’m sure I had no idea why he wanted to kill them but I did know the part about baby Moses, how his mother hid him for months after he was born and then put him in a basket and floated him in the reeds by the Nile while his sister lingered close by. I’m sure no one would have bothered telling me it was actually an ark he was put in which might have evoked a memory of the story of Noah and the flood for me but they certainly told me about the Pharaoh’s daughter, the princess who rescued the baby and took him to the palace to raise him as her own after giving him to his mother to be nursed. I certainly remember the fairy tale parts of the story.
But I’m certain no one ever pointed out to me how clever Moses’ mother was to finds a loophole in Pharaoh’s edict to have all the Hebrew baby boys thrown into the Nile by conveniently placing a basket under her son thereby foiling Pharaoh’s plan to have him drowned. I don’t recall anyone drawing to my attention the radical nature of Pharaoh’s daughter who flat out disobeys her father’s orders.
And no one even bothered to tell me about the only two women in this story who are given names, the midwives Shiprah and Puah. No one ever mentioned them even though they engage in the first act of civil disobedience and peaceful protest recorded in the scriptures. I was definitely not told how they used trickery and insubordination, telling the Pharaoh that the Hebrew woman gave birth too quickly for them to get there in time to kill their babies and how it was their quick wit that made way for Moses to make it into the world; the one who serves for Jews and Christians alike as an icon of the fight for freedom for those who suffer oppression of every kind.
As a little girl, I’m sure I would have been drawn to all the women in this story, but ultimately I would have understood it was really a story about Moses.
And yet, if Shiprah and Puah hadn’t had the courage to defy Pharaoh’s order to kill the Hebrew baby boys and allowing life to flourish; and if Moses’ mother hadn’t decided to do what she could to save her son by placing him in the Nile; and if his sister had been too afraid to approach the Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest she take the baby home to be nursed; and if Pharaoh’s daughter had a hard heart like her father. If none of these women had done what they did from the humble position they had to do it from, there would be no Moses, and if no Moses, no freedom for the Hebrew people, no story of the Exodus.
As Ralph Waldo Emmerson once wrote “peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them.”
This story begins in the same way every march to freedom begins throughout history. Not in the hallways of institutionalized power but at the hands of little people who make a big difference because they fear God, more than they fear the Pharaohs of the world. They trust in compassion and goodness more than they fear evil. They desire freedom more than they are willing to live and let others live with oppression.
We tend to think of Christians as being law abiding citizens. Good honest folks who don’t tell lies. Yet here in our sacred text are stories about people lying and breaking laws and getting praised by God for doing it. That’s because in the eyes of love and justice no human law which is oppressive and life-denying is above the law of God. Sometimes breaking laws and being deceitful is the only way for greater truth to prevail.
There are many modern day examples of people like Shiprah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses family who have pulled the wool over the eyes of authorities or found loopholes in the system for the sake of bringing themselves and others to freedom.
Think of the courageous individuals who created false walls and rooms in their homes to hide Jews from the Nazis. Or the people who hung quilts out their windows with special patterns in them to signal the right direction for slaves to follow the underground railway.
I once heard a story about gay people in Sweden who in the days when homosexuality was considered an illness all decided to phone in sick to work on the same day.
A couple years ago the residents of Wunsiedel Germany decided to do something about an annual Neo-Nazi march that was taking place in their small town. They asked local businesses and residents to donate 10 euros for every step the right-wing extremists took. When the neo-Nazis arrived for their march the townsfolk showed up to cheer them on because every step they took raised money for an organization that fought extremism. In effect they turned the march into an involuntary walkathon.
The path to freedom has always been cleared by wise and daring people willing to break laws that need to be broken and defy leaders who deserve to be defied.
You may wonder how these stories of bravery and trickery connect to our lives here today. We are certainly aware of people who are mistreated and neglected due to government regulations and lack of regulations, seniors in care facilities, veterans, children in foster care, migrant workers. From time to time people do get arrested for protesting clear cuts and pipelines but for the most part we have ways of addressing those issues that don’t necessitate deception and defiance. No question people have risked and even lost jobs and friends and family members for taking a moral stand but rarely if ever do we face the possibility of losing our lives for our convictions.
And yet like the Hebrew people in the story, we live in times where fear of the other, the stranger, the foreigner, the immigrant is on the rise. We see leaders around the world feeding that fear through their policies. We see individuals and groups of people emboldened to express their condemnation of others because of it.
We may not be able to relate to the same kind of oppression the Hebrew people felt laboring under the thumb of their harsh task masters, but we know what it is like to be enslaved in systems that oppress. We know what it’s like to feel like we are trapped or held back from living our lives in the fullness of the freedom for which we were intended. We’re certainly aware of people around the world and in our own country who live with the reality of violence and oppression. We know what it’s like to feel disempowered. We feel it every time we wonder whether or not what we do and who we are in the world matters or how it is we can really make a difference. And who among us doesn’t wonder that from time to time?
And, like the Hebrew people, we still live in times where we are called to fear God more than we fear the Pharaohs of this world. We can easily get stuck on the notion of “fearing God” but it’s not so much about being afraid of God, it’s about honoring and revering life and being in awe of the power of transformation and redemption, the saving grace that is at our disposal.
We still live in times when we are called to be midwives, strong deliverers, of the ways of justice and equality, compassion, freedom, love and grace in our world.
Like Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses’ mother and sister, we may have no idea what our decisions to act in the name of love might result in down the road but when we do them out of a reverence for life and a desire for freedom we do them in the companionship of all those throughout history who have stood on the side of freedom. We do them in the company of God, Source and Strong Deliverer of Life.