Monday, August 25, 2014

What Four Hebrew Women and a Pharaoh's Daughter Taught Me About Citizenship

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on August 24, 2014.  The texts were Exodus 1:8-2:10, Romans 12:1-8, and Matthew 16:13-20.

Perhaps you can remember something from a film, or a novel…a story from history, or maybe an encounter in your own life that might cause you to dwell on the fact that salvation often comes from the most surprising of sources.  It seems that saving the world through surprising means is a pattern God has enjoyed throughout God’s dealings with the world.  During the week, as I was dwelling on this story from Exodus, I was struck, pierced even, by how the entire life and ministry of Moses hinges on the actions of two shrewd Hebrew midwives, a desperate mother, an inquisitive sister, and a disobedient daughter of Pharaoh.  When reading the stories of the famous Biblical heroes, it’s really easy to forget to look behind them, to the supporting players.  Particularly with a character like Moses, so grand in stature and so revered in tradition, we forget to look behind and thus we fail to see the true heroes of his story.  And in an age where men still seem to be the norm when it comes to heroes in fiction, film, and the like, it makes it that much more important to lift up the women in this story.

It’s not just that so many women risked so much to save this child that astounds me.  It is the how, the what, and the why they did it that convicts me, challenges me in my life as a Jesus follower.  Fearing the rise of the Hebrew people, the newly-minted king of Egypt, Pharaoh, begins to oppress the Hebrews and then, out of desperation due to their continued growth, directly orders the two Hebrew midwives to kill any Hebrew boys they deliver.  The power dynamic is apparent here: the ruling authority, with all the right to exercise his dominion in Egypt, orders his two slaves to kill Hebrew children for the purpose of securing Egyptian power and protecting Egyptian interests.  It seems that these women, Shiphrah and Puah, have every obligation to obey their king, their master, their lord.  But, they refuse his order, for “the midwives feared God.” Out of the conviction of their religious identities, they cast aside their obedience to this king.  Once Pharoah confronted their disobedience, their shrewdness and ingenuity burst forth in what is essentially an act of deception. “[The Hebrew women] are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them,” they say, rather than admitting that they have chosen to ignore his commands. At this point in the story, the midwives are now guilty of civil disobedience and deception. But as the Scripture says, “God dealt well with the midwives.” The law cast aside, and truth-telling thrown to the wind, the midwives show themselves to be courageously shrewd women, willing to risk their own lives in order to save the lives of another even if that means disobeying the law and bending the truth.  In spite of their disobedience and deception, God is still pleased with them.

This same spirit of disobedience and ingenuity manifests itself in the life of Moses’ mother.  Pharaoh has now commanded that every Hebrew boy born shall be thrown into the Nile.  And, in a sense, Moses’ mother eventually complies with that request.  But rather than obeying blindly the order of her king, she chooses creativity instead of compliance: “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.” In point of fact, Moses, the Hebrew boy, does wind up in the Nile.  But rather than throwing him to certain death, she saves him through creativity and shrewdness.  Once again, someone refuses to comply with Pharaoh’s wishes. His own daughter chooses to keep the child as her own when she stumbles upon him floating in the reeds.  Moses’ sister, having kept a close eye on the boy, presents herself to Pharaoh’s daughter and, admitting no relation to the boy, fatefully volunteers to locate a suitable wet nurse for him. With cunning brilliance, she calls her own mother, Moses’ mother, to come and raise the child.

These women, underdogs in a society ruled and governed by brutal men, used civil disobedience, cunning, ingenuity, and even treason, in the case of Pharaoh’s daughter, to save this one small child.  And their reasons for doing so came down to two: love for God, and love for the innocent boy. Casting aside any commitments and ‘identity-markers’ that would call them to violence, these women chose something that fear, or citizenship, or even family ties couldn’t trump: they chose love.  Even as they lived in an age before Jesus of Nazareth walked through Palestine, their lives are striking examples of what it means to ‘bind’ and ‘loose’ as Jesus empowered his disciples to do.  They chose to ‘bind’ up the strong arm of Pharaoh and to ‘loose’ the captive child Moses.  Something greater than they guided their actions, determined their choices, and even when their choices put them at odds with the powers and principalities of their day, they chose creativity and compassion in the face of cruelty.  They saw the world through a different lens then Pharaoh’s, and they inspire us to do the same.

So, what lens are we called to look through when we gaze upon the world?  I can remember when I first heard the singer Derek Webb’s song “A King and a Kingdom.”  It struck me like an arrow, and his words still ring true to me today, nearly 10 years later: “My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man.  My first allegiance is not to democracy, or blood.  It’s to a King and a Kingdom.” Much like the women in the Exodus account, we are a people who live with competing allegiances, many of which simply can’t be reconciled. Perhaps all of us have felt the tension between commitments to a particular way or life, or life choices, which put us at odds with members of our own family.  Many of us are American citizens, a citizenship that expects an allegiance to certain ideals that sometimes conflict with the Gospel’s ideals that transcend any national or political boundaries.  These women challenge us to live lives that may sometimes conflict with what is deemed appropriate, or patriotic, or culturally acceptable.  Let us not forget that Jesus’ gift of the ‘keys of the kingdom’ and the powers to ‘bind on earth’ and to ‘loose on earth’ were rooted not in any earthly power, or deeply held sentiments of patriotism or citizenship.  Those gifts were given in response to the confession that Jesus is ‘the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’  As the Church who makes that same confession, as the people given such gifts of prophecy, healing, teaching, and the full ministry of reconciliation, I pray that we will consider what lens we choose first as we look upon the world in which we live. “My first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man.  My first allegiance is not to democracy, or blood.  It’s to a King and and Kingdom.”

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