Tuesday, August 16, 2005
A sermon for Pentecost 14
Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8
By Christian Skoorsmith
(First published on DesperatePreacher.com, August 2005)
How many of you have ever broken a rule? (show of hands)
How many of you have ever broken a law? (show of hands) Honestly? (Never broken the speed limit?)
How many of you have ever broken a rule out of principle, out of selflessness rather than selfishness – a rule that was not a good rule – or yielded to a situation in which it was better to break it than follow it? (show of hands) (Have you never let someone younger or smaller than you win a card game or a race, even though you could have?)
Look at this! Look around you! Look at the revolutionary potential we have in this room. This is great! This is why we come to church – to remind ourselves that there are values higher than our culture or government or economy or tv-commercials would have us believe, and to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in this struggle. And a Sunday every now and again we’re reminded of how inspiring and inspired these usually quiet and obedient people sitting next to you can be. Deep inside ourselves a part of us knows that oftentimes the only thing that can change a world desperately in need of being changed is the breaking of some rules – and here we have a whole room of people who join you in that awareness, and have even on occasion done it themselves. Now that’s exciting!
Of course, there’s a difference between letting a child win a game, and running afoul of your culture or your laws. No one stares or turns their heads if you don’t win a race with a five-year-old. When people start to challenge bigger problems, more deeply woven into our culture or state, things get uncomfortable.
Now, of course, some rules are good, like traffic laws, and so we follow them. (Mostly.) But if we were racing to get our sick child or parent to the hospital, well turn-signals and speed limits be damned! Some things are more important that following the rules. So laws aren’t good just because they’re laws. Just because our leaders, or our politicians, or our bosses, or our parents say something, doesn’t make it true, or right, or wise, or just. Right? (Really – am I right?) And some laws are easy to break – so I drove 66 miles-per-hour on the interstate on the way here, no big deal. But sitting in and being arrested for civil disobedience to end segregation or violence – that’s tough. A key to understanding principled rule-breaking is the motive – is it done out of selfishness or selflessness?
Let’s name some good lawbreakers? (Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriett Tubman, Eugene Debs, Henry David Thoreau, Rosa Parks, Hugh Thompson… Jesus) That’s right! Straight from the big guy himself – lawbreaking and rabble-rousing, agitation and excitation, speaking truth to power and knocking over tables in the Temple, comes very highly recommended!
But our noble tradition of throwing mud in the eye of the rulers is much longer that just 2005 years. Today’s scripture from Exodus tells a story of some tremendously courageous and creative resistance by some very unlikely people.
How many people know who Moses was? Quite a hero – wasn’t he? (He challenged a few rules in his day, that’s for sure.) How many people know the story of his childhood? How he was born a slave and raised as a prince? Well, in that story there is this remarkable chapter that we often overlook in our eagerness to get to the action scenes. It’s worth taking a closer look at.
At this point in the Bible, where are the Hebrews at this time? Right – they’re in Egypt. What are they doing there? Right – they’re slaves, and have been for many years. Who rules over them? Right – the Pharaoh. But the old Pharaoh dies, and….
(Continue while reading from Exodus 1:8-2:10.)
(1:8) “A new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” There’s always a new king, isn’t there? Always a new ruler – someone who wants to rule over people, influence people, command people. Say hello to the new boss, same as the old boss, right?
But this new Pharaoh doesn’t remember Joseph. Who was Joseph? He was a Hebrew who guided the earlier Pharaoh in national policy that helped save the country in spite of a seven-year-long drought and famine. So Egypt owes him and his people a debt of gratitude – the wealth and power and life-style they enjoy was created and saved by these slaves.
But this new Pharaoh doesn’t remember that. He is the Ruler. He owes nothing to no one. Everyone owes everything to him. (This is how rulers often think.) And what do rulers think about? Like every new ruler, the first thing Pharaoh thinks about is what threatens his hold on power.
(1:9) “Look,” he says, “there’re so many Israelites that they outnumber us. If these slaves ever figure out that, they could overthrow us!” Now why would he worry about being overthrown? Because the rulers aren’t treating the people under their control very well – they never do. The people are slaves – in his mind the people exist only to make him powerful, to make him rich, to make him greater than just a man, to make him more like a god. He doesn’t want to lose that.
So what is his strategy for avoiding revolution? (1:10-11) “Let us deal more harshly with them. Let’s treat them even worse – so they won’t ever dare to rebel against us!”
Now think about this for a second. This doesn’t make sense. If you want to make someone like you (you, right there in the second row there), would you start being more mean to them? No! But kings and presidents don’t care if the people they oppress like them – they only care that they won’t rebel. Fear is more compelling to kings and rulers than love. You see, this is the logic of Empire. This is the rationale of the rulers, the language of the lords, the reason of Empire.
This new king’s first concern is not helping people, not sympathizing with people, not changing the relations of production and resources and wealth and power to answer the material needs of the oppressed. No, the king’s first concern is securing power. Pharaoh’s answer to people resisting oppression – or even potentially resisting – is to oppress them more! It’s nothing new – it was the case for Pharaoh, it was the case in Jesus’ day, it was the case on American slave plantations in the 1800’s, it has been the strategy of kings and tyrants and power-holders for thousands of years and still commands the politics today! Saddam Hussein used fear to control his people. Osama bin Laden uses fear to control the Western world. Bush uses fear to control us here in the US.
But that’s not the whole story – oh no. (1:12) What is also the case is that the more this Pharaoh oppressed the Israelites, the deeper their resistance grew. As the Pharaoh worked them harder, still deeper their resentment grew. (1:13-14) The Israelites grew in size and so did the threat they posed to the empire, so Pharaoh grew to hate them even more, and he worked them even harder. And still, the spirit of those oppressed people would not break entirely.
Finally, Pharaoh went after the women – because that’s how rulers and bullies think, they always try to find the people they think are the weakest and pick on them – and Pharaoh told the midwives when they help deliver children, if it was a boy kill it, and if it was a girl let it live. (1:15-16) But this is the other thing about rulers – no matter how much they think they know who is weak and who will not resist, they don’t really know. Pharaoh didn’t know who he was picking on when he started in on these women - these Hebrew midwives don’t stand up and protest Pharaoh, but they also don’t do as he said. (1:17)
(1:19) Pharaoh brings them in and demands to know - why aren’t they killing the baby boys?! What do these poor, weak, frightened women say to this great and powerful man? Showing surprising creativity they say “the Hebrew women are too strong, and they have the babies before we can get there!” So what’s Pharaoh to do?
(1:22) He says, “throw the baby boys in the river, then! Just get rid of them!” And he probably threatened to kill the midwives, too, if they didn’t obey. (Rulers are always the ones instigating violence, you see, and always decrying it’s use by others – remember that this all started with Pharaoh not wanting the people to rise up against him, against the system, against the Establishment and the status quo. That violence would be bad. But power-holders hardly ever make the connection to the violence they initiate. The logic of Empire is twisted, indeed. But back to the story.)
Despite all this, still the Hebrew women resist! (2:2-3) They hide their babies, feed them in secret, hush them when the guards are near, smile at them and nuzzle them when they are alone. All the while, Pharaoh’s command loomed over them – throw them in the river.
Finally, when one woman could hide her son no longer, she took the Pharaoh at his word and prepared to put the child in the river – but she wasn’t going to let her baby go without some protection, and she built a small basket, an ark, if you will, and set the baby child adrift in the river. Even this last act of a mother stands in defiance of the cruelty of the Pharaoh. A tragic end to a tragic story… or is it?
Suddenly, there’s an unexpected turn of events – the baby is discovered by none other than the Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on it and decides to adopt it. (2:5-6) The baby’s sister is hiding in the reeds and sees this – and then showing some quick thinking of her own, she asks Pharaoh’s daughter if she wouldn’t need a nurse for the child – meaning of course the child’s own natural mother. (2:7-10) Amazing!
And we know who this baby is, of course. When he grows up, he will lead a massive rebellion that will liberate his own people from bondage. Yet another example of how the seeds of a ruler’s undoing are nursed right in his own house. Oftentimes kings and tyrants are their own grave-diggers.
It also shows us that successful resistance movements will have a few allies in the ruling class – in this case, Pharaoh’s daughter – and that the way we will win them to our side is through their love. She saw a helpless little child adrift in the river, and raised him as her own son. She named him Moses – because, she said, the name meant “drawn from the water.”
When there’s oppression about you can’t help but respond by resisting in surprising ways – siding with those with which one isn’t supposed to side, seeing the world as the oppressed see it, loving those one isn’t supposed to love – be careful what you drink, around oppression there’s always something in the water.
Let us turn to today’s New Testament reading, Paul’s letter to the Christian in Rome, Chapter 12. (12:1-8)
(Read 12:1 again) – A living sacrifice – present your bodies – this is your spiritual worship. Listen to the language here. Living. Bodies. This is your worship. Not prayers in church. Not tithes. Not reading your bible or singing praise songs. Worship is not sacrifice at the Temple – but getting your bodies in the streets and ending injustice! If there is poverty, don’t stop at giving to the poor – end poverty! If there is illness, don’t stop at caring for one sick person – make sure everyone has health care! If there are strangers and foreigners with no place to stay, don’t stop at giving one migrant worker a ride to her job – end the economic privation and injustice that forces people to leave their homes and live in squalor in foreign countries just to earn enough to eat.
(Read 12:2) – Do not be conformed to this world, but be so moved by this world and by your vision of what it ought to be, what it could be, that you can see both how it should be and how you can make it that way, how you can bring about Zion, Heaven on Earth, the Good and Acceptable Year of the Lord.
(Read 12:3) – Do not think more highly of yourselves than you ought to think…. Ask yourselves whether you deserve more than others, or whether others in other parts of town, in other counties, in other states, in other nations, in vastly different parts of the world deserve less than you. I am truly convinced that if we are to see this Great and Acceptable Year of the Lord, we rich Americans will have to begin to give up many of our ridiculous luxuries, live more simply so that others may simply live.
Do not think more highly of yourselves…. Do we as a people, as a nation, have the authority to tell other people how they should live? What values they should have? How they should create meaning among themselves or govern themselves? These are the questions we have to ask ourselves, our culture, our government. These are the questions we have to ask as Christians, and as human beings confessing a faith in something greater than ourselves.
(Read 12:4-5) – Now this is really exciting. We don’t all have to be the same. We’re all different. But we can be united to fight for common causes. Jesus doesn’t care whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, as long as you are genuinely fighting to end poverty, end wage slavery, end exploitation, end social and economic class distinctions, end privilege and preference, and give more power to those denied power by the present way of things. Why should we do this? Why should we come together to work for these radical, progressive causes? Because we many are one body in Christ. And when we realize we are all one body in Christ, we realize we are members of one another. An injury to one, my friends, is an injury to all. If there is injustice anywhere, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it is a threat to justice everywhere.
In the words of Eugene Debs, but I can imagine it coming from the mouth of Christ: “If there is a lower class, I am in it. If there is injustice, it is done to me. If there is a criminal element, I am of it. While there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
In Christ we are not Americans. In Christ we are not white or black. In Christ we are not English-speakers or Spanish-speakers. In Christ we are not Democrats or Republicans. In Christ, sisters and brothers, we are all people – we are Mexican and Cuban and Iraqi and Iranian and French and Afghan and Sudanese and Bosnian – we are Christian and Jew and Muslim and Sikh and Buddhist – we are rich and poor and feasting and starving – we are young and old and healthy and sick and being born and dying. We are one world, united by Christ, united by the one power we hold above all others – that of Love. And love calls not just our enemies to risk and change, it calls us too.
We all have different gifts, and live in different countries, run in different circles. Some are ministers, some teachers, some givers, some leaders, some compassionate. But we must unite, and realize the true worship of God, to borrow from the prophets, is not worship in the Temple, isn’t allegiance to the state, it is the way we live our lives, where we put our personal and communal resources – whether we sacrifice them at the altar of patriotism (which would have us believe we are not the same as other people in the world), or whether we would make them a living sacrifice.
Well, you say, that story’s all well and good – Pharaoh was obviously cruel and deserved to be resisted. Paul lived in the Roman empire, which was certainly bad news. But we don’t live under Pharaoh today. We don’t have a king. We live in a democracy! We don’t need to resist anymore. … And yet, Martin Luther King felt it necessary to resist. Rosa Parks resisted. Gandhi felt it necessary to resist – and he lived in a democracy, too. Slaves a century ago and poor people a generation ago resisted. Who can honestly say that these is no injustice, no cruelty, no inequality… even in our own land.
How many of us are willing to look at our own laws right now, our own customs here and our own military campaigns abroad, and genuinely ask if they might not serve justice – and if they don’t, commit ourselves to resisting them?
Ahh… these questions get tougher and tougher to answer. We don’t want to rock the boat, seem impolite, lose our less radical friends, perhaps go to jail or worse. So it is easier – far, far easier – to just stay home, just go to work, just vote every couple years and let the rulers decide what’s what.
But it helps to remember the Hebrew midwives under Pharaoh, and Paul in Rome.
At our best, what do we do when faced with unjust laws, untrue statements, bad values? You, me, we Christians? We resist. A tradition as old and treasured as history – resistance is a precious duty we Christians are especially beholden to. Our faith is one oftentimes of standing against our cultures, our governments, the world. Being not conformed to this world, but transforming it. Let’s not forget this. Saying no, saying this is wrong, saying I will not participate, saying I can imagine a better way of being, is a sacrament demonstrated by Jesus himself – and a longstanding demand of our faith.
It isn’t easy. Isn’t comfortable. Isn’t profitable. But, I think if we look inside ourselves we’ll all agree, that following Jesus isn’t about being comfortable, making profit, or taking the easy way. And I think we’ll also agree that we are all one body in Christ – and a body doesn’t starve one hand to feast the other, doesn’t sacrifice one limb to clothe the other in finest silk, doesn’t force one to labor harder in order to spare the other. When we realize that we are all one body, the world changes… or begins to change. Jesus didn’t transform the entire world – he started small and struggled against great earthly powers. In a lot of ways, the path of Jesus hasn’t changed all that much.
I pray we will be able to join him in the struggle, and see the liberation of all slaves, the drawing of all children out of the rivers that threaten to drown them, and do away with all pharaohs. A-men.
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