Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 23, 2020
[sermon begins after two Bible readings; hang in there with the Exodus reading – it’s worth the story]
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 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.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 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. 15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “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.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 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.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 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.”
2:1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3 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. 4 His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
5 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. 6 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. 7 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?” 8 Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9 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. 10 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.”
Matthew 16:13-20 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
Why doesn’t Pharaoh know the history of Joseph? You know, Joseph, his father’s favorite son and the recipient of that fancy coat; Joseph, the Israelite who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers; Joseph, who ended up second in command to the Pharaoh back in his day and ended up saving the Egyptians and others in the region from starvation. Why doesn’t the Pharaoh of this new time in Egyptian history remember Joseph? Someone, or many someones, stopped telling Joseph’s story and a key piece of the history between the Egyptians and the Israelites was lost. Their relationship that once centered on shared interest in mutual survival became one of fear. Our Bible reading from Exodus begins describing a king who “arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” This new king, the new Pharaoh, devised a plot to set taskmasters over the Israelites to “oppress them with forced labor.” Only it didn’t work. The Israelites grew in number. So Pharaoh concocted an even more diabolical plan. He ordered the Hebrew midwives named Shiphrah and Puah to kill the boy babies when they were born.
Pharaoh didn’t know who he was dealing with in those midwives. Shiphrah and Puah were God-fearing women. The two of them concocted their own plan to let the baby boys live. The most powerful person in the land was undermined by two of the least powerful. I wonder if they found courage in each other to continue letting the babies live. Imagine being called before Pharaoh to answer for the living, breathing Israelite babies. Their response to him is a much needed moment of comic relief and a good reminder to laugh in heavy times. The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives come to them.” Such a clever team, those two midwives. And “God dealt well with [them]” for their efforts. Notice that God’s action was in the least powerful people in the story.
The story goes on to describe Moses’ birth, his mother placing him in a basket in the river, his sister watching over him, and the Pharaoh’s daughter saving him through adoption. Each woman had a significant role in making sure Moses lived. Each woman found themselves doing the next right thing which was against the wishes of their king. Here’s where interpretation gets risky. There’s this term that been coined called “Disney Princess theology.” It describes reading scripture and placing ourselves in the hero or princess role rather than in the villain or clown roles. I don’t know about you but I want to think of myself as one of those scrappy midwives doing anything I could to save those babies. But it’s important to pause before we start down that road of Disney Princess and wonder about what lives in each one of us that is more like Pharaoh and the Egyptians. That there are times when we are more the people who are worried about our own children before we worry about anyone else’s children. More like the people who are in power than the powerless aided by God. More like the people who may not like the Pharaoh’s plan of oppression and forced labor but what can we really do about it anyway.
It’s easy to feel powerless to make change so we ignore what may need changing. Let’s take the mostly hidden, contemporary example of prisons. We may drive by them as there are a few in Metro Denver. Many are tucked away in rural towns of Colorado. The prison population in the United States in 1985 was 40,000, by 1997 it was 500,000, and is now approximately 2.2 million. Our country has 4% of the world population and 25% of the world’s prisoners. The prison rate has grown faster that the country’s population. There were laws passed in the 1980s, especially related to drug use, that swelled the prison population. Laws that our legislators enacted on our behalf. And don’t get me started on the racial inequalities related to incarceration where black and brown folks are imprisoned well beyond their percent of the population. And don’t get me started on money made by corporations on prison labor, laboring people who receive little by way of compensation or benefits.
We’re in a country that has this prison system and we’re in a faith tradition in which Jesus says to release the captives and let the oppressed go free. How we reconcile those competing realities is on us. Laws that our legislators enact are on us. Incarceration is one example of how easy it is to ignore the power we have and don’t use on behalf of people who are considered throw-aways by society. This is what I mean by taking the example of Pharaoh and the Egyptian people and wondering about parallels in our 21st century way of living.
We are not left only in the Pharaoh’s side of the story though. We also have the examples of those wonderful women who are doing the next right thing within their power to thwart the power of Pharaoh. The midwives deliver the babies anyway. The Levite mother saved her baby by hiding him in a basket on the river. His sister followed him, watched Pharaoh’s daughter find him, and concocted a plan for him to be nursed by his birth mother. Pharaoh’s daughter went against Pharaoh’s power to keep Moses alive and ultimately raise him as her own. Each woman did the next right thing in her power and the Israelite baby survived his childhood to deliver his people from slavery into freedom.
These five women are great examples of being faithful in the moment, of doing the next right thing. This powerful story in our faith history can call us into what it means to be faithful in the moment as we try to do the next right thing. Our view of the next right thing as faithful people has a lot to do with who we think Jesus is. That’s why the question Jesus asks his disciples in Matthew is a good one for us to answer as well. First, he asks about the latest gossip when he asks, “Who do people say that I am?” There’s a smattering of answers – John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Then Jesus asks, “Who do YOU say that I am?” Peter gets an A+ answer for once when he replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter was with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry. He had time with Jesus and his teaching. He was also going to deny his relationship with Jesus as things heated up around Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Peter’s confession of Jesus’ identity over time was as imperfect as Peter. It’s important to remember his imperfection because not getting things right doesn’t change Jesus’ identity. Not getting things right keeps us humble as we wrestle with how we describe Jesus and, frankly, may offer comic relief and laughter along the way of faith.
The scripture ultimately turns Jesus’ question towards each one of us. Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” It’s an important question. It’s also important to remember that our trust in Jesus, our faith in him, rests on who Jesus actually is and not what we say about him. Even though Jesus is still Jesus despite our imperfect confessions about him, who we think Jesus is, means something about our next faithful step as individual people of faith and as a congregation who cares for our neighbors as we care for ourselves. We know and confess our faith congregationally that Jesus frees us from sin and death into new life through no doing of our own but simply by the grace of God. In that freedom given by Jesus, we are liberated from our perceived powerlessness into the power of God. This freedom is for God’s sake, for our own sake, and for the sake of the world. And, like the midwives, the mother, the sister, and the daughter, we’re empowered by God to do the next right thing and trust that something wonderful is being born. For this and for all that God is doing, we can say thanks be to God and amen.
And now receive this blessing…
Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
You are held by God in the name of the Father, ☩ and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
 Luke 4:16-21