Anglican Church of Canada
August 27, 2017 Proper 21
Exodus 1:8-2:10 Matthew 16:13-20
As we continue reading through the great story of the origins of Israel, we move on today from Genesis to Exodus. And we come to two of my favourite Old Testament heros. Their story is not terribly well-known; I don’t remember ever hearing about it in Sunday School, although the story of Moses in the basket was very familiar. Most people don’t even remember their names. I’m talking about Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, and their unswerving courage, civil disobedience, and commitment to protect lives.
Things have changed in Egypt. There is a new pharaoh in Egypt, one who did not know Joseph; and with him has come a new political program, and a new set of social attitudes. The people of Israel have changed, too. What we heard last week was still the story of a family: Joseph’s brothers, and their wives and children and households, moved down to Egypt. But now they are no longer just a family: they have become a nation, numerous enough to register on the scale of the politics of the kingdom. Israel as a people was born in Egypt. Now they are a minority foreign population amidst the native born Egyptians (“sojourners” is the word the Bible uses for people like that).
And so, of course, human nature being what it is, the Egyptians begin to feel threatened by them. They are different from us; they must be dangerous. They could join our enemies; they are not to be trusted. And so the people who came in peace, refugees seeking a chance to live in time of famine, are seen as dangerous enemies. Sound familiar? The new pharaoh, predictably, begins to implement new policies – no doubt they boosted his approval ratings. “Let us deal shrewdly with them”. In this case, dealing shrewdly involved turning them into slaves, forced labour to carry out the pharaoh’s massive construction projects.
When that doesn’t stop the Israelites from flourishing in the land, harsher measures are called for: the population must be controlled at birth; male children are to be killed at birth. Only the males – presumably because they are more scary. Here Shiphrah and Puah enter the picture; as the midwives for the Hebrew women, they were charged with carrying out the pharaoh’s orders.
But Shiphrah and Puah feared God: they had a conscience, and a sense of common decency, and a professional ethic as midwives to preserve life rather than destroy it – and they disobeyed pharaoh’s command. That simple act of civil disobedience makes them heros in my eyes. It took courage, and decency, and a sense that it is more important to do what is right than to be safe. These qualities are so important. Because it seems to me that whenever tyrants have succeeded, it is because of how ordinary people choose to act. The number of Nazi true believers in Germany in the 30s was only a small minority of the population; they only succeeded because of the compliance and obedience of the population at large. And so when Shiphrah and Puah fear God, and act with integrity, they are standing up to tyrants everywhere.
I love their resourcefulness, too. When Pharaoh asks why they are not killing the boys, they simple lie, and lie brilliantly. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women.” That is exactly the core of racism right there, and it doesn’t change from age to age: these people are not like us, they are not civilized or even fully human, they have something of the disturbing strength of animals, giving birth more quickly and easily than normal humans. The midwives take these nonsensical racist fears of Pharaoh and throw them back at him: the babies are born before we get there. It’s brilliant!
Well, do you really need me to remind you that this is a story for our times? Events of recent weeks have reminded us that racism is not dead in North America, not by a long shot. We have seen Nazis and the KuKluxKlan in an armed and violent march on the streets of Charlottesville – and a sitting President who cannot bring a clear word of condemnation over his lips. We see an ongoing widespread fear of refugees, and deep distrust of Muslims, across our own country. We have our own broken history with First Nations, and the deep prejudices that still exist in much of the Canadian population.
Not that anyone in this room would harbour actively racist sentiments, I am sure. But the fact remains that we have all grown up in a society where more subtle racist assumptions and feelings have been current: a fear that young black men could be violent; a casual contempt that First Nations people may be lazy or drunken; a sense that foreigners are fundamentally different and so less trustworthy than our white neighbours. These are attitudes which we would reject – I hope – when they are put to us in such a direct way; but unconsciously they will continue to influence us, unless we are vigilant and honest about the prejudices we have unconsciously picked up. We may not notice them because they don’t affect us much (although I do think they leave us morally compromised and impoverished). But these vague social attitudes, unconscious and not even really owned by anyone, nonetheless continue to affect the lives of minorities and hold them back.
A Facebook post that showed up yesterday: two contrasting pictures, one of ordinary Canadians lined up at a border crossing; the other of “potentially dangerous illegal immigrants” strolling across the border without any controls – and the caption, something is very wrong, Canada. Now I am not saying we don’t need policies and a debate about immigration and refugees – of course we do. But then, we do – those people crossing the border will be subjected to much more rigorous screening than we can imagine. But the creator of this little message tipped his hand with the phrase “potentially dangerous”. Anyone is potentially dangerous, I suppose – but statistically refugees in Canada have a lower crime rate than native born Canadians. To be more accurate, then, it is the first picture of people returning from Florida that should be labelled “potentially dangerous”. But of course people have a feeling that these foreigners, who speak a language we don’t understand and have strange customs, who look different than we do, must be dangerous. That feeling, that unspoken distrust, is what we call racism. It is what motivated Pharaoh; and it can still motivate us today to do callous and unjust things.
Let us remember what today’s Old Testament story is about. It is about the origin of God’s people, Israel, which came as strangers and sojourners to Egypt, and grew there from a chosen family into God’s chosen people. The chosen people was born amidst oppression, racism, and slavery. That is why, when Israel returned to the Promised Land and was given a law, they were cautioned always to remember the foreigner, the slave, the poor, and the weak with special concern. Later, when the prophets were sent to challenge the powerful in Israel, it was to remind them again of their origins, and of their special duty to the marginalized. This is the foundation story of Israel – and as such, it is the foundation story of our faith as well. When God came among us in Jesus, it was as a Jew, born to a poor family. When he walked the land, teaching and healing, it was again to demonstrate God’s special care for the weak and the marginalized, without prejudice, with particular attention to those whom society despised. And when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, it was to call all nations – all nations, of every language and culture and race – into the community of God’s chosen people.
It should be so obvious that it doesn’t need saying. But in these days, when even Nazis feel emboldened to stand up and air their hatred as though it were a serious political stance, we have to say it out loud: there is no place in Christian faith for these kinds of prejudices. On the contrary, these stories remind us that we are to give special care for the weak, the despised, the foreigner, those who suffer prejudice and hatred.
These stories are not fairy tales – they tell us who we are, who we have to be, if we are to follow Jesus.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus asks the disciples a question. He asks them the question, the key question in our faith life as Christians: who do you say that I am?
I think it really is the key question. Many Christians place a lot of emphasis on confessing the name of Jesus as the most important thing – just confess your faith in Jesus and you will be saved. Well, the thing is, a name is just a name. As the Bible well knows, it is perfectly possible – common, in fact, to take the name of the Lord in vain. Just confessing the name of Jesus is not enough – people are advancing all kinds of agendas through the name of Jesus. The more important question is, who do you say Jesus is? How did he live, what did he teach, what attitudes did he model for us? And how do we ask those questions in the face of what is going on around us in our society? How do we respond to those around us who are preaching attitudes that run exactly counter to the Jesus we know: attitudes of racism and intolerance and hatred and fear?
We might start with something as simple as the church sign I saw a picture of this week: “As followers of a brown, Middle-Eastern Jew, we say no to white supremacy.” Who do you say that I am? Well, a brown, Middle Eastern Jew is a place to start, and would bear much reflection.
The thing is, we have so long been taught to think of our faith as a private matter, a question of our own personal salvation. And that fits very nicely with an attitude that wants to keep faith out of the public realm, that says that faith has no place in politics. Well, if faith is only about the narrow self-interest of the church, then it should stay out of politics – why should the rest of the country care about that? But if faith is about a vision for humanity, for deeply held convictions about God’s will for our society, a society where all are included, where the weak are protected and the marginalized supported and honoured, then of course it belongs in the public sphere. How could we not speak of our deep convictions before others, when the voices of hatred and intolerance are so loud and shrill? One thing to be said of these dark days we live in: the Christian faith is relevant in the public sphere, more so than ever before, in my lifetime anyway.
So let us not let go of this question Jesus asks us, a question that makes a claim on the whole of our lives: “Who do you say that I am?”