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Sunday, August 23, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
Not Whether, but What
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
“Call me Ishmael.”
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
“I am an invisible man.”
“You better not tell nobody but God.”
(“100 Best Lines,” americanbookreview.org)
According to the American Book Review, those are 4 of the 100 best first lines from novels. What makes them the best? They hook you from the very beginning, drawing you into the story and daring you to follow. Our opening line for today’s scripture passage is meant to do the same thing: “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.”
I realize that line probably doesn’t hook us immediately, but it would have drawn in the original hearers. As a matter of fact, it would have drawn them in while causing their hearts to skip a bit with fear and dread. Let me explain.
It was very bad news for the Israelite immigrants in Egypt that a new king, a new pharaoh, had come into power who did not know of Joseph or his legacy, for that meant that this new king, this new pharaoh, would not have known that Joseph had served a previous pharaoh as none other than his second-in-command.
This new pharaoh would not have known of the myriad of ways Joseph had diligently worked to save both the Egyptians and the Israelite immigrants from famine. The new pharaoh would not have known that the earlier pharaoh and other Egyptian leaders had regarded Joseph as wise, discerning, trustworthy, and filled with the Spirit of God. The new pharaoh’s lack of any understanding of that history also meant that he would not have known that because of Joseph, their man so close to the center, the Israelite immigrants in Egypt had been allowed to flourish and thrive. As a matter of fact, because Joseph, too, was an Israelite, the immigrants shared a certain status and favor.
And if this new king, this new pharaoh, who had come into the most powerful position of leadership in Egypt did not know any of that, then the Israelite immigrants would immediately be put at great risk, which is exactly what happened. This new pharaoh, the one who did not know Joseph, looked around at his new kingdom and saw all of these people he only regarded as “other” flourishing and thriving, living side by side with his people, and he did not like it one bit. All he saw in their faces was the end of life as he knew it.
After all, he concluded, if the Israelite immigrants continued to flourish and thrive, not only could they join Egypt’s enemies in war, but they might get to the point where they start to demand that it was only right for them to also have a seat at the table where the important decisions are made. They might start to demand that it was only right for them to also share power and to have more of a policy-making voice. Therefore, if he, as the new pharaoh, did not do everything he could to push them back down, they could become so used to being out of their place that they would not remember their second-class status. That possibility was unfathomable to him. He had to do whatever he could to preserve the Egyptian way of life and protect it from these outsiders.
Thus the new pharaoh set out to define those Israelite immigrants as a threat not just to him but to all Egyptians. And in order to accomplish that, he had to change the way his people, the Egyptians, regarded the Israelites. He would need to indoctrinate them that they, the Egyptians, were just naturally better than those Israelite immigrants. He would need to question if those Israelites were actually not even fully human—perhaps three-fifths of a person at most? So in order to strip them of their humanity, the king decided to ruthlessly enslave them, making them property, not people. He wanted to break their spirits and lock up their imaginations. He wanted their children to grow up hopeless and the grandparents to forget that life had ever been different. It was a truly horrific plan, an evil plan. One, unfortunately, that we ourselves know all too well from our own history as a country.
Yet even with all of his planning and scheming, that new pharaoh who did not know Joseph made a critical error. He completely underestimated or just plan discounted the Israelite immigrants’ faith and trust in the God of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; the God of Jacob, Esau, and Rachel and Leah; the God of Joseph himself. So even though that new pharaoh tried everything he knew to imprison their sense of self, he was utterly unable to do so, because their sense of self belonged only to God. Because of that foundational truth that could not be shaken, scripture reports that the Israelites continued to flourish, despite all the evil inflicted upon them.
The pharaoh was at a loss. He felt desperate to figure out how to maintain his hold on power. Therefore, this pharaoh, for whom we have no name, summoned two Israelite midwives, for whom we do have names, amazingly enough. Shiphrah and Puah were called into this new pharaoh’s presence and given the royal order to kill each Israelite baby boy as he was born. The order just rolled off his tongue. He had convinced himself long ago that those people were not fully people anyway. He did make sure to let the midwives know, though, that they did not need to worry about the girls. According to that new pharaoh, a girl’s life wasn’t much use anyway. Especially an enslaved girl.
But again, that new pharaoh who did not know Joseph also did not know the God of the covenant, and because he did not know God, he once again completely underestimated the power of the Israelites’ faith—in particular, the power of the midwives’ faith. Two different times our scripture goes out of its way to point out that Shiphrah and Puah “feared God.” And when scripture tells us that someone fears God, that does not mean they are afraid but rather that they have deep trust and reverence for God. Clearly these two midwives knew in their bones to whom they belonged, body and soul. And it certainly wasn’t to Pharaoh.
So Shiphrah and Puah engaged in what we might call a quiet act of creative disobedience. In today’s parlance we might say they became a part of a silent resistance. Though they must have spoken with each other about it, we do not know what they said, how they made the brave decision. If they were caught, he would kill them. No doubt about it. Yet in order for them to be who God had created them to be as children of God, they had to move forward with their creative deception regardless of any possible consequences. As Rosa Parks once remarked, “I have learned over the years that when one’s mind is made up, this diminishes fear; knowing what must be done diminishes fear.” The midwives knew what must be done, and their trust in God was far more powerful than their fear of Pharaoh. Because they quietly refused to do what he had commanded, the pharaoh noticed that the Israelites kept on growing in numbers and in a sense of spirit and community, despite all of their pain and suffering.
Yet when the Pharaoh called them to account, those two brave, brilliant, beautiful midwives innocently claimed that it was not their fault. The Israelite women, they said, were just so much hardier than the delicate Egyptian women that the midwives kept missing the moment. And he bought it—hook, line, and sinker. He believed that tired, old stereotype. However, since his taste for destruction and domination had not been quenched, he decided to no longer just control the Israelite immigrant population; he now needed to eliminate it. He demanded that every Egyptian was to participate in his death-dealing plan and kill each baby Israelite boy they discovered.
But again he underestimated the power and resilience of faith, for when a particular Israelite woman became a mother to a son, she and the baby boy’s sister decided they, too, would creatively disobey and hide him for as long as possible in order to save his life.
And when they knew they were running out of time, they then took a chance that someone else might also see his beautiful humanity and keep him safe. So they placed him in a basket and hid him on the river, in the reeds, all the while surely praying that the God of creativity and life would somehow intervene. As we know from the story, God did.
This time, however, God intervened through a woman from within the new pharaoh’s own house—his own daughter. She saw the basket, and when she heard that baby’s cries and saw that baby’s face, she knew in her spirit that the baby was precious and needed to be treasured like all babies do. So she, herself, Pharaoh’s own daughter, decided to engage in a bit of creative disobedience of her own! She summoned the baby’s own sister, all the while acting like she did not notice that this young woman seemed very intent on preserving that particular baby’s life, and asked her to go and find someone who could nurse the child.
When that young woman came back with the woman whom surely Pharaoh’s daughter recognized as the baby’s mother, the new pharaoh’s very own daughter became even more creative in her resistance, giving the baby back to them for safekeeping for a while, even paying the mother and daughter money to care for the one she must have known was their own. If her father had found out, who knows what might have happened.
But for whatever reason, only God knows, even the woman of privilege, from inside the very house of threat and fear, acted out of a sense of creative disobedience, silent resistance. And as we will hear over the next couple of Sundays, years later God would call that same baby, Moses, to lead all of his people out of that land of terror, slavery, and oppression into freedom and a new future.
All of it due to those initial acts of creative disobedience, small decisions of faithfulness, intentional choices to not let fear win, embodied commitments to trusting God, and faith-full desires to become some of God’s coconspirators of mercy. And the world changed because of them. It changed.
Would you like to change the world? I am being serious, not speaking with hyperbole. Actually, let me reframe that question. What if I were to tell you that something you do this week could very well change the world. Would you believe me?
Here is how Lutheran pastor and former seminary president David Lose once phrased it:
Two women once made a decision, took a chance, and changed the world. It was simultaneously a small gesture and heroic act. The things we do this week—our actions, decision, choices—will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or the damage of the world. The question isn’t whether, but what . . . what will we do this week to make a difference in the world. Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives. In today’s reading it’s Shiphrah and Puah, quietly standing up to a bully and tyrant. Who knows whom it will be today, this week, this year. (David Lose, “The Butterfly Effect,” workingpreacher.org)
Again, as Lose points out, the question isn’t whether, but what. What will we do this week to make a difference in the world? For how we interact with people in real life and online; the ways we spend our money; our choices to demonstrate or not demonstrate care for ourselves and our neighbors; what we prioritize as good uses of our time and energy; whether or not we regularly do all we can to trust God more than we fear pharaoh; our willingness or unwillingness to become some of God’s coconspirators of mercy—this biblical story reminds us that it all matters.
When we take our cues from Shiphrah and Puah, from Moses’ mother and his sister Miriam, even learning from the compassion of Pharaoh’s own daughter; when we act out of a deep trust and reverence for God, the only one to whom we belong body and soul, despite what anybody else might tell us, then God will use us for God’s ongoing project of liberating and transforming this city, this country, this world, our own lives.
Make no mistake about it—God has given us that kind of power, that kind of agency. We are not mere spectators in this drama of life. We are actors, whether we want to be or not. We have a God-given agency, even in the middle of a global pandemic. So are you ready? Are you ready to change the world? I dare say God is waiting. Amen.