A Sermon on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
August 27, 2017 – 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
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.
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.”
Today we get to see baby Moses in the bulrushes, the beginning of the Bible’s story of the slavery and exodus of the Israelites. Moses is perhaps the greatest hero of the Hebrew Scriptures; you’ll remember from a few weeks ago that the Gospel of Matthew makes intentional parallels between this story and the birth of Jesus – because Moses’s story is simply that powerful. While Moses is a major figure of our faith, I would argue that he is not the protagonist of this story. To be far, he’s a baby at this point – his job was just to be cute. But he lives in a time and a place where his race and his social class define him so much so that his life is in danger. In this story where human lives and human dignity are at stake, I would suggest that the real main characters of this story are the women who stood up to the pervasive violence and fear of their culture – and they have much to teach us about where God would have us stand in our own world today.
The story of Moses’s birth follows the story of Joseph in Genesis. Joseph, of course, is the one with the technicolor dream coat – he’s sold into slavery, ends up in Egypt, becomes a trusted advisor of Pharaoh, and eventually brings his whole family down to Egypt to save them from a famine just as he saved Egypt from hunger. Joseph was a great hero to both the Israelites and the Egyptians. But our text begins today with “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.”” Now, this new Pharaoh’s statement is simply not true. The Hebrews were not more powerful or numerous than the Egyptians, they never have been. But Pharaoh was afraid of any threat to his social comfort, and so he stirs up fear of these foreigners in their midst, enslaving them and even killing their male children. There’s a clear parallel to Herod in the New Testament here, and make no mistake about it – both Pharaoh and Herod killing out of fear is meant to be nothing more than despicable and terrifying. Pharaoh had all the power, held all the cards – he was even considered a god. The Israelites had nothing on their side but their wits and their own God. And so what do they do? Tiny acts of intentional, brave, and holy resistance.
The midwives lie to Pharaoh, even playing to his racist assumptions about the Israelites. If Pharaoh is so afraid that this minority will overthrow him, it makes sense he would think that their women give birth at super speed – characterizing the “other” as somehow less than or more than your average human is a time honored racist trope. And you can tell their plans work – the Bible gives us their names, Shiphrah and Puah – and the Bible only gives names to the absolutely most important women. Women were so unimportant in this culture that Pharaoh doesn’t even bother trying to kill any of the baby girls – they can just be slaves. Naming the midwives tells us that they are worth remembering and honoring. Not to be deterred – after all, he has publicly declared the Israelites as the enemy – Pharaoh orders his own people to kill the baby boys. To the shame of the Egyptians, there is no record in our text of their speaking out against this - We’ll get to more of that later. And so the Israelite women simply hide their babies – they are not willing to give in even if Pharaoh’s order is technically legal, even if the Hebrews are seen as a danger to the state.
Moses’s mother hides him until he’s three months old – in other words, the time when babies start to get a lot more wiggly and alert, harder to hide from peering eyes. She puts him in a papyrus basket – in Hebrew it literally is called a papyrus ark – and floats him down the river with his sister to watch over him. Moses’s mother puts her baby in the Nile just as Pharaoh commanded – but does it in a way that he has a chance. It is safer to put her son in danger than it is to trust him to the Egyptians. But then Pharaoh’s daughter finds him – she knows he’s a Hebrew, she knows that she’s supposed to kill him – but instead, she quietly adopts him. And when Miriam suggested that she had just the perfect wet nurse to raise this baby – You know that Pharaoh’s daughter knew exactly what was up. They essentially conspire together to save this child. These were not women who were acting thoughtlessly or just reacting emotionally – these were women who intentionally resisted the culture that told them one life was less valuable than another. To characterize this story as one of coincidence or luck devalues the hard work that they did against Pharaoh.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks changed the United States. The bus driver and the law said that she had to move back on the public bus she had boarded, so that a white customer could have her seat, and she simply refused to do it. She was arrested, her arrest inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and she is now known as the Mother of the Civil Rights movement. The popular story that circulates is that she refused to give up her seat because she was tired after a long day at work. That story believable, but it is simply not true. Yes, she was returning home from work, but Rosa Parks was a trained activist. She has a high school diploma in an era when only 7% of African Americans had that much education, she was a member of the Voters’ League and registered voter in a time when it was extremely difficult for black women to vote, she was the secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, she had experienced a previous run-in with this exact bus driver several years before when he let her pay but then drove off without her, and when she was arrested that day the she stayed seated on that bus, the president of the Montgomery NAACP was the one to bail her out. What’s more, she was not the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus – she was chosen by activists to become the linchpin of the bus rights movement because she would look good in the papers and was tough enough to get through the inevitable court cases. Not incidentally, Rosa Parks was a lifelong churchgoer. In her biography, she said “People always say that I didn't give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn't true. I was not tired physically…the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Parks didn’t accidentally fall into Civil Rights, she intentionally resisted and was supported by the people around her. That’s how change happens.
I grew up in Mississippi. While not the backwater that it is usually thought to be, I grew up being taught that Rosa Parks wasn’t necessarily one of the good guys. Martin Luther King, Jr., was definitely thought to be one of the bad guys. To be fair, I was also taught that racism was bad and Civil Rights were good, but that activists upset the comfortable order of things. I was taught that the only way to respond to racism or prejudice was to ignore it, I was taught that being confrontational was a sin, I was taught that God kept quiet about politics and so should the church. I’m not criticizing my family, mind you, I was taught these things in school. This was the predominate culture I grew up in. And so when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville a couple of weeks ago, I initially didn’t think much of it. Racist demonstrations aren’t new for me. I was, of course, horrified watching these things...but I honestly can’t say that I was surprised. Our world is incredibly broken.
Surprised or not, the kind of language that got thrown around in Charlottesville and has been thrown around since is something we can’t ignore. I am concerned by the number of people with my skin color that honestly thought our country was past racism; I am concerned by the fact that there are politicians and media outlets who even waffle on whether or not white supremacy is an defendable worldview; I am concerned by the fact that 9% of Americans say that holding neo-Nazi views is acceptable – a clear minority to be sure, but come on y’all, we’ve had an actual war against the Nazis already – that much should unite us. I am concerned that a group of clergy gathered to hold a worship service in the name of peace during the Charlottesville demonstrations, and had to be evacuated because protestors – some of whom identified as Christians - surrounded and threatened the church. It disturbs me that in 2017, people, even Christian people, think that racism and anti-Semitism should be anything but resisted.
So, let’s be clear and united on this front: God’s people all the way back to Moses have resisted prejudice and oppression and hatred. The Presbyterian Church condemns racism. Trinity Presbyterian Church welcomes everyone regardless of race or ethnicity or background. I, personally and as your pastor, will not quietly ignore a world that says some people are inferior while others are superior. That is a lie, it is evil, and it is contrary to God’s design for the world.
The Egyptian people stayed silent. The church cannot. If you are a person of color in this congregation, hear me say now that I do not assume I know what it is like to live in your skin – but I do know that people on the margins who manage to resist evil, even in small ways, change the world. Resistance is holy work. Just like Rosa Parks, just like the midwives Shiphrah and Puah – your identity is valuable and worthy of honor in God’s Kingdom. Whenever people have been shoved to the side, God stays with them. When we draw lines in our culture and say that some people are on the outside, God is outside the line as well. If you are white, like me, our job is to do better than the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants have a good start – without question they rescue baby Moses. Without question we, too, should step in to defend those who might be threatened by hatred and fear. But we can do better than just that. When we are together, we actually have more power than even Pharaoh’s daughter. We have the power to unite our voices and say to people that we are not afraid of anyone who is different, that we welcome and love and embrace diversity. We have the conviction to declare that every human being alive is made in the image of God. We have the responsibility to speak up and to act, even if it’s uncomfortable. It seems that most things that happen these days gets immediately framed in political terms. But there are just some things that transcend politics. We worship a God who worked through ancient activists to save a little baby, because God’s ultimate plan for the Hebrew people was liberation.
And so what do we do? We start by declaring that prejudice is wrong and unchristian and that we won’t stand for it. We start by going and selling funnel cakes – no, I’m not kidding – and showing everyone on the Independence Square that in our church, and in our booth, everyone is treated with dignity and radical welcome. There are enough churches in the world who shut people out that a church who is enthusiastically welcoming to everyone is a powerful witness. We also start by being humble enough to work on our own hearts, our own prejudices. And we start by coming to the Lord’s Table, where we are reminded that we are connected with believers of every time, place, race, orientation, income, education, you name it – we are connected as one body of Christ. And if part of the body hurts, we all gather to care for it. So, come to the table. Be united with all of God’s people. Come to the Table, where liberation is proclaimed. Come to the Table, where we are all equal in God’s eyes. Come to the Table, where we remember God’s faithfulness from Genesis until tomorrow. Come to the Table to be nourished, because God has a lot for us to do in this world. Amen.