Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on August 27, 2017
[sermon begins after three Bible readings]
Exodus 1:8-20a 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
Romans 12:1-8 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. 3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
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.
Conversation about eclipse glasses started weeks ago. Mom would be visiting from Palm Springs so she’d offered to order enough for her, my family, and my sister’s family in Arvada. Nine altogether. Glasses in hand, she received the recall from Amazon that the glasses were bogus. A kerfuffle developed in my safety conscious family until my sister the math teach connected with a science teacher down the hall. Rest assured, these new ones would work. And work they did. I was here at the church during the eclipse. My mom and I stood outside the sanctuary with our certified eclipse glasses and looked up, taking in 93% of totality beyond the bell tower. Very cool. And very fun to share this moment with Mom.
At a dinner party this week we heard from people who had seen the eclipse in totality – 100% of the moon in front of the sun. They were able to remove their glasses for 2 ½ minutes and be wowed by the ring of the sun, solar flares, and a 360 degree sunset. It sounds amazing. One friend said that there is no comparison between totality and the 93% in town. So while Mom and I were having our moment, other people were having a completely different one. Apparently eclipse viewing is not created equal. To be honest, this idea of equality has been on my mind recently. No surprise that it would come to mind related to eclipse viewing.
It all started when a young friend of mine said to me a few weeks ago that he didn’t think people truly believed in equality. Equality meaning that all people are of equal value in the human story. Before these thoughts about equality were percolating, I’d already been thinking ahead about the Bible verses in Romans 12 and the Exodus story of the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.
The Romans letter gives us familiar reminders. In verse 4, “We, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.” And, immediately in verse 5, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us.” The Apostle Paul writes that we are “many” and “one” at the same time while also reminding us that we “differ.” We can almost hear the squabbling and power plays among those Roman Christians to whom Paul is writing.
As people of faith, Paul’s argument lays down a challenge for us. Do we believe in the equal value of prophets, ministers, teachers, exhorters, givers, leaders, and the compassionate as laid out in next verses? And, if we do believe in their equal value, how do not create false moral equivalencies? Moral equivalency means that we would hear everything that every prophet, minister, or teacher SAYS as having equal value. One of the ways that we do this is by saying things like, “Well, I’m a sinner so what right do I have to call out someone else’s sin?” Or, “Who do you think you are to decide who is on the side of right?” These are important and often faithful questions, to be sure. But let’s also think about the way scripture sets these questions in tension with clear moral outcomes. The midwives in Exodus are one such example.
The midwives’ story is the alternate first reading in the lectionary for this Sunday. Shiphrah and Puah are two of my favorite Bible characters. I simply can’t resist them when they pop up on the schedule. They are Hebrew midwives commanded by the Egyptian king to kill boy babies delivered by the Hebrew women. “But the midwives feared God…they let the boys live.” The king confronts them and asks, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” Shiphrah and Puah reply, “[the Hebrew women] are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” I laugh every time I hear their reply to the king. The midwives are called to the work of life and they find a way even when the king commands them to be instruments of death. There is no moral equivalency as told by this story. The king’s demand to kill the boy babies is wrong. The midwives saving these babies is right.
God calls us into the work of life, too. Like the apostle Peter, we follow “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). When we see death, God sees resurrection life. When others rationalize people’s suffering as something deserved or beyond anyone’s help, Jesus tells us that they are God-given neighbors for whom we are to care. Sometimes resurrection life means live-births midwifed by Shiphrah and Puah. Sometimes resurrection life means giving money for hungry people to both eat and work toward feeding themselves. Sometimes resurrection life means calling out white supremacy as an egregious legacy of chattel slavery in America.
As much as the U.S. Constitution and Christianity had to do with advancing Civil Rights in this country, the same could be said in the other direction. The U.S. Constitution and Christianity also keep the 400 year legacy of racism alive and well with embedded racial biases. I have no trouble claiming that paradox because I see myself as a microcosm of it. One of the confessional claims of our faith tradition is that we are simul iustus et peccator which means we are saint and sinner at the same time. Why wouldn’t it be so when it comes to racism as well?
René Girard was an atheist philosopher who converted to Christianity through his studies of mimetic theory, scapegoating, and the Bible. He died in 2015 at the age of 91. Girard expected to find consistency between other ancient texts and the Bible when it came to scapegoating. Instead, he found the Bible unique in its rejection of it. He argued that scapegoating is a primitive urge for cathartic violence. This simply means we feel better when we get rid of our identified bad guy(s). Violence escalates as the scapegoat is more clearly identified as the problem. Peaceful feelings ensue once the scapegoat is removed or killed. Problem solved. Mr. Girard argued that Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat “condemned by all rightful authorities.” He also argues that the cross reveals scapegoating for its lie. It doesn’t solve anything.
Let’s take scapegoating in our present moment. For white supremacists, the scapegoats are black and Jewish. For other white people like me, white supremacists make easy scapegoats. By focusing on white supremacists, we absolve ourselves from the subtle ways we maintain racial bias in religion, government, law enforcement, real estate, education, and commerce. The cross lifts a mirror towards all of us – convicting us of our own sin and turning us towards our neighbors. The cross of Christ levels the ground on which we stand. When we see hierarchy and power and race, God sees children – many children who make one body and who differ in their gifts by grace.
As God’s children, it’s good to wrestle with the question that Jesus asks, “…who do you say that I am?” In fact, we are free to wrestle with that question because we are first and foremost children of God, baptized and set free. But God knows that the lives of our neighbors and, by extension, our own lives, are at stake in our answer to Jesus’ question. Later in the Gospel according to Matthew we are challenged by Jesus to see his face on the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the imprisoned, the sick, and the stranger – the scapegoats, if you will. Paul writes in Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, that you might discern the will of God…” The Apostle Paul knows that we need reminding because we forget that we have a living God who shows up whenever death is chosen over life. Jesus asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” We confess and remind each other, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”
 Exodus 1:8-20a
 Exodus 1:17
 Exodus 1:19
 Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. “The unlikely Christianity of René Girard” on November 10, 2015 for The Week (online). http://theweek.com/articles/587772/unlikely-christianity-ren-girard
 Matthew 16:15
 Romans 12:2
 Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher: “Speaking Up For A Living God.” On August 20, 2017 relating to lectionary Bible readings for August 27, 2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4955