Sermon, Year A Proper 16, August 21, 2011
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber, 2011
Focus Scripture: Exodus 1:8-2:10 and Matthew 16:13-20(Listen to the sermon while reading.)
God, at least in the Old Testament, God rarely, if ever, takes much of a shining to kings, whatever they might happen to call themselves: kings, pharaohs, governors, or emperors. God’s just not really very impressed with the idea of kings or the idea of earthly rulers. Especially not in the Old Testament. Even when, if we go (chronologically) ahead from this story after Moses has led all the people out of Egypt and they’ve crossed into the Promised Land and were there for a couple hundred years. They keep crying out to God, “We want a king like all the nations around us, we want someone who will be strong and bring us together and lead us in battle” and all of these other things, and God keeps saying “no” for a couple hundred years. God kept saying to them, “No. You don’t need a king. I am your king. You have me. That’s all that you need. And because if you trust yourself to human authority, you will lose, because they will only use you for their own economic and military gain. They will never be as good to you as I am.” But the people rebelled and they forced God to give them a king. And it didn’t work out very well.
And so we have here, the story of the birth of Moses, after a period of pharaohs about 100-130 years after Joseph’s family moved to Egypt. There has been a series of pharaohs who were clearly favorable to the Hebrew people, and they have lived in the land of Egypt peaceably, and they’ve done ok, they’ve done fine. And then comes a pharaoh the text says, “who didn’t know Joseph.” Joseph was dead at this time, but certainly all of the Hebrew people would be linked to him. Pharaoh did not know Joseph. This is a telling sentence. “Didn’t know Joseph.” ‘Not knowing’ is a good place to stay to avoid embracing someone, or including them as your people or as part of your family. It is difficult to be against people you know. Or be against a people, whether a specific person or a group of people, whether a race or a sexuality or a lifestyle, whatever it is. It’s difficult to be against someone if you know them. Pharaoh looks upon these non-Egyptian people who have been growing in number, and he tries to oppress them, and immediately God steps in to thwart his plans.
Pharaoh’s earthly power is not true power. This new pharaoh comes to power. We don’t know who he is, he remains unnamed in the text, although a lot of scholars think this could very well have been Rameses II, the greatest of all the Egyptian Pharaohs, who was pharaoh for many, many decades and did an awful lot of building and try to hold together a country that was falling apart and tried to hold it together in all of the wrong ways: through abuse of power and through oppression. He was ego-centric, and greedy, and paranoid and ruled with an iron fist. Not the best guy to be under. He comes to power, and he sees this large population of Hebrews who really are doing nothing wrong. There has been no conflict with these people in Egypt at all, at least not according to the text. But Pharaoh needs a scapegoat to ensure his own position, because nothing can convince a population to give you whatever you want than convincing them that they’re threatened by someone, even if they aren’t. Pharaoh is very smart in psychology, perhaps, as have been many despots and tyrants over the years who have used The Other, fear of The Other, to bring a certain group of people together. To blame economic or national ills on the immigrants, or feminists, or the homosexuals, or the whoever it is that you want to blame all the national ills on and say if they weren’t here, we would have none of these problems.
Pharaoh says what if these Hebrew people – and I’ll add my editorial comment, these Hebrew people who have been living there for probably 130 years and never caused a problem never given any indication of lack of loyalty or anything. Pharaoh says, “What if these Hebrew people, what if a war breaks out and they join the enemy?” ... Well, what if they don’t? But Pharaoh doesn’t want to entertain that question. There is no indication that they would join an enemy. Their time in Egypt has appeared to have been quite good. They would probably think of it as home and would want to try to defend it. But Pharaoh needs a scapegoat, and the Hebrews are “different” so they are Target Number One.
So he oppresses them, but in the oppression they become even more numerous. That seems to be pretty typical throughout history. People who are oppressed still tend to multiply and to continue on. So then Pharaoh resorts to male genocide, but that doesn’t work because of women. Sensible women. They know that it is evil to kill the babies, and they refuse to obey Pharaoh’s orders and they even lie to him about it. The most powerful man in the world, and they say “No”. And it’s interesting here in this story that the Pharaoh has gone unnamed. Everyone has gone unnamed except these two women who defy Pharaoh. They get a name. Their name goes down in history. They are the women who refuse to cooperate, who say a resounding “No!” to the script Pharaoh wants them to live by. Pharaoh, who is the most powerful man on the planet, perhaps, certainly one of the few if not the most powerful, his name is ignored. And his will is ignored. But we know who Shiphrah and Puah are. Their names made it into Biblical history. And we read their names today. And by not being named, by Pharaoh not being named and remaining anonymous, “Pharaoh” can also then stand in for any kind of abusive power source. From a particular person: a Qadafi or a Hitler or a Kim Jong Il, your boss, anyone who has some kind of horrible impact on your life or on the world, Pharaoh can stand in for that person. Or Pharaoh can be a personal problem that takes over part of your life: grief, addiction, pain, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations of yourself or of others. Or a social Pharaoh, cultural Pharaohs: consumerism. Greed. Obsession with body image. Or fear or anxiety for the future. One of my favorite Old Testament scholars is Rev. Walt Breuggemann. He’s a UCC minister and professor of Old Testament though he retired a few years ago. He does a lot of thinking about Pharaoh, and he says that in 21st century America, our Pharaoh is “technological, therapeutic, military consumerism”. That’s a mouthful. He’s says it’s “technological, therapeutic, military consumerism enacted through advertising and propaganda and ideology, especially in the liturgies of television, promises to make us safe, and promises to make us happy” by buying happiness or buying safety. That this is something we can achieve on our own. We have many Pharaohs in the world and likely in our lives. Who are some of your Pharaohs or Pharaohs in the world that you can think of?
So Pharaoh in this story tells the women to kill the first born males, and we see a Godly response to what Pharaoh wants in the actions of the women: they say “No.” No. “I’m not going to do that. Your narrative is not my narrative. I don’t have to follow your script.” You know, we don’t have to defeat Pharaoh, not in a military sense or in a violent or war waging kind of sense. In defeating Pharaoh we can simply refuse to cooperate. That’s the easiest way to defeat Pharaohs. To refuse to follow their script. That’s what Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. did. That’s what Shiphrah and Puah did. It’s what Moses’ sister and mother did. Sort of. Because they didn’t just say “no”. They didn’t just say “no”, they said “yes” to something better. They said “yes” to God’s narrative, and to God’s script which says that power is not something to be pursued or something to be used to benefit yourself. God’s script that says that killing babies is evil. That living a technological, therapeutic, military consumerist way in order to feel safe or happy is not a healthy way to live. Because life is not about pursuing safety or happiness, because those are things we already have. They are things that are already achievable in our lives because we have God. So it’s about being faithful and loving. God’s script of faithfulness and love. Shiphrah and Puah did what they did because, as the text said, “But they feared God.” That doesn’t mean be afraid of or scared of, or to live in terror of, but to follow, or to trust, to acknowledge the sovereignty of. They knew God, they trusted God, and said “no” to Pharaoh and they said “yes” to God because they knew that one cannot serve both. One cannot serve both. And because of this faithful disobedience of a bunch of women, the Hebrew males are saved and Moses actually ends up being nursed by his own mother, unbeknownst to Pharaoh’s daughter or to Pharaoh. Moses lives, and, as we’ll continue to read in the following weeks (but probably you already know), leads the people out of Egypt and into freedom. You cannot serve God and Pharoah both. And this is Jesus’ question to the disciples.
In the Gospel passage we read, he asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Others have said that Jesus is Elijah, or John the Baptist, or Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. But Peter says, “You are the Messiah.” You are the Christ. The One who comes from God. The One who is God.
Pharaoh in Jesus’ time would have been the Roman Emperor. There was no giant Egyptian nation or empire at that time. And so the Roman Emperor was Pharaoh in Jesus’ time. For Jewish people, like Jesus and Peter, Pharaoh would also have been some of the Jewish religious leadership who had in many ways taken all of the grace and love out of their faith and turned it into a bunch of rules and rituals to be followed; had dehumanized it, and many of those leaders were also in collusion with the Roman Empire and the Roman leaders. And Peter says “no” to all of that when he says “yes” to Jesus. He proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Not Caesar. The early Christians, those first followers of Jesus, also said “no” to Pharaoh, just as Shiphrah and Puah had done some thousand or more years before when they said “yes” to God.
And that is the choice that we face today and each day. We are faced with that question. Who do you say that Jesus is? Who do you say that Jesus is, and what does your lifestyle say about how you answer that question? Who do you say that Jesus is?
Let us pray:
God of life and wholeness, we proclaim your son, Jesus, to be the Messiah, to be our Christ. Help us to say it with more conviction today than we did yesterday. Help us to say it more confidently as we more willingly say “no” to Pharaoh so we may more strongly say “yes” to you, following in the footsteps of our brave and faithful ancestors Shiphrah and Puah, and Moses’ sister and mother, who first told Pharaoh we choose not to follow your way, but follow God. And help us to see the Pharaohs of today and refuse their agenda, to say “no” to their script for us, because we know that your plans and your way are far more glorious and good than any thought by human mind. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.
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