The Book of Exodus 1:8-2:10
August 27, 2017
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Good Morning! Today we begin our readings from the Book of Exodus.
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them….said the Pharaoh about the Hebrews – or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.
Aren’t adverbs great! I mean really. Adverbs are the parts of speech that give more flavor to the verbs. An adverb modifies a verb as an adjective modifies a noun. Adverbs give us the low down on how things happen, on the story behind the happening. The verb tells us what is happening, but the adverb provides the color for the connotation. And so it is with the start of this morning’s reading from Exodus.
Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, said Pharaoh about the Israelites.
Shrewdly sets up the story that leads us straight to the meat of this book, to the Exodus. The Egyptians did not simply deal with the Hebrews, they dealt with them….well, the Hebrew word that is translated as shrewdly in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible would probably more literally be translated as wisely in most other contexts. But the NRSV translators chose shrewdly over wisely –which makes the Egyptians seem just slightly more sinister than clever. Although actually, murderously would have been a more accurate adverb.
And so we begin the story of the Exodus….a word that in the Greek literally means the “way out.” Ex-hodos. The story of the liberation of the Israelites from the bonds of slavery in Egypt.
The Book of Exodus is second in the literary order of our Holy Bible. And it picks up where Genesis leaves off. Genesis closes with our founding family, Joseph, et al, living relatively peacefully in Egypt, albeit enslaved.
Today’s reading begins almost at the beginning of Exodus. It begins with the literal juxtaposition of Israel (God’s name for Jospeh’s father Jacob and all of his offspring) and Egypt,( mitzra’im in the Hebrew – a word that literally means the narrow place.) It is a confrontation of God’s chosen ones and the tight place in which they find themselves. The time is 400 years after Joseph’s death…..20 generations later.
The Israelites are still slaves in Egypt. But despite their bondage, they have been fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, big time! They have been multiplying like bunnies, and are nearly as numerous as the stars of the sky, just as God promised. But this proliferation of the Hebrews is a problem for the Egyptians.
Now a new king rose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, Look the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we are. Let us deal shrewdly with them.”
And so this next phase of our story begins with a Pharaoh who fears the power of the people whom he has collected and oppressed.
The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites. They made their lives bitter and hard.
And shrewd dealing ensued. Pharaoh went to all of the Hebrew midwives in the realm and commanded that they kill every newborn boy in their tribe, in an effort to stem the tide of growth. (Although a smarter Pharaoh might have done away with the girls. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that crop control is about removing the seeds not the fertilizer. But that is a sermon for another day.)
So Pharaoh commands the killing of all Hebrew boys, but the scripture says that the midwives, “feared God.” And apparently more than they feared Pharaoh. Because they outright disobeyed him. Which caused a frustrated Pharaoh to summon them and ask why they had not complied with his royal decree. And the midwives tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women. The Hebrew women are more vigorous and they give birth even before the midwives arrive.
And so it was with the birth of God’s prophet Moses. Born to Israelite parents, he is hidden by them until he is too big to hide, and then he is bundled in a papyrus basket and set afloat to be hidden in the reeds on the bank of the river. His floating crib is discovered by none other than the daughter of Pharaoh. And her heart is touched by the baby in the basket, and so she calls for a nursemaid – who turns out to be the child’s own birth mother. And so Moses is raised by his own mother, right under Pharaoh’s nose. I know it sounds like a movie script, but not even Hollywood can top God’s own story!
But this is more than a great story. It is THE story. This is THE story of how God works in the world, and too how God works in each and every life that God delivers. This is the story of hope and redemption that is played out in this second book of the Torah, in the story of Moses and in the story of the Exodus.
They are parallel stories, the story of Moses and the story of the Exodus. So many similarities, right down to the rushes and reeds. The later text says that Moses parted the Red Sea, but the Hebrew word translated as Red in that passage is the same word used in today’s reading to describe the reeds in which Moses finds his own freedom from death. The saving of Moses and the saving of the Israelites are so similar, that one cannot help but see them as a sort of divine motif, a blueprint for the way that God…abides and delivers. Cosmically and personally. God is the Liberator.
This story, this Book of Exodus is about the identity of God: who God is. Who is God? God is the One who can raise a child; even a child who is born to enslaved parents, who is hidden in the weeds in a handmade basket with his very life at stake, who is discovered by the royal princess and raised by his own mother so that one day he might be called by God to part the very Red Sea in which he himself has been delivered from death. Who is God? God is the One with an unlimited imagination, and the power to back it up. God is the Creative Liberator beyond our wildest imaginations.
This is who God is. The One in whom all things are possible. The One for whom no story, no hope is too far-fetched. The One who delivers life and promises liberation to every beating heart. And the One who can deliver on that promise.
And so when Jesus asks his disciples in this morning’s Gospel, Who do you say I am? We know the answer reaches back to the Creation in Genesis and the Liberation in Exodus. We know that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Creator, Liberator and and also the Sanctifier. But his disciples do not seem to have our purview. They do not seem to know that this itinerate preacher who is their friend, is the flesh of the God of all Creation.
And so it is easy for us, we who know Jesus to be the Messiah, to think the disciples foolish when they do not seem to know the radiant identity of the Divine in their midst. They know the story of the Exodus, the story of the power of God. But they cannot see the true identity of their Rabbi. They cannot see him parting the Red Sea, delivering their ancestors from bondage, shining like the Son of God. They cannot see what we, who know the full depth and breadth of both Testaments, know. The disciples do not yet know Jesus for who he is. They only know what they see.
I suspect it is not unlike the cosmic dance that created the total eclipse of the sun earlier this week. A rare total eclipse when the moon obscures the light of the world, entirely even, if only for a moment. But in that moment when the world is dark, the sun is still the sun. It is not different because it is behind the moon, not something else because we cannot see it for its brilliance. If, over the course of the eclipse, the sun were to ask Who do you say I am? We could reasonably answer simply a sliver a light, or even, at the apex when the sun is completely hidden, who’s there? Nevertheless, the sun is still the sun; the sun is still the source of all light and life.
Likewise, Moses was always the liberative agent of God, even when he was hidden in the reeds. And Jesus was always the messiah, even when he roamed the desert as a homeless vagabond. Just as the sun was always the light of the world. Always.
Identity is not based in perception. Identity is based in God’s imagination. God’s imagination, not ours. God’s imagination knows the truth of our Identity with a capital I.
And so for us, the salient question may not be who do we say we are, but who does God know us to be? Who are we in God’s wildest imagination? The God who can raise a slave child from a floating crib in the river reeds to the top of Mount Sinai. The God who can raise a homeless child born in the stench of a manger to everlasting life. Only God’s imagination knows our possibility.
And so the practical question may be: How can we live into God’s imagination for us?
And what would we answer?…..individually and as a beloved community of God? How can we live into our identity as Christians? Not identity with a small “i”…..our identity as an inclusive caring worshiping community that values music and youth and formation and the food pantry and all of creation. But Identity with a capital “I”…..our Identity as followers of Jesus Christ who sacrificed his own body for the life of the world. It is the difference between what we choose to do and who we are called to be. It is the difference between our imaginations for ourselves and God’s imagination for the way we fit into the world.
Who does God say we are? We who will welcome a family seeking sanctuary into the heart of our community, literally into our physical body, this very week. It will change our community life, but it will not change our Identity, with a capital I. It will change who we say we are, how we identify ourselves. Because now we say we are a sanctuary site. But it will not change our Identity as Christians. Because by our baptism, this is who we have always been. We have been born to respect the dignity of every creature of God, not by choice, but by birth.
So are we a sanctuary site, as a new ministry we have chosen to pursue, or are we truly living into our mission as God’s sanctuary? Are we a sanctuary site or truly a sanctuary?
I know it might sound like splitting hairs. But the adverb makes all of the difference. If we are truly sanctuary, we will be willing to walk in the very shoes of our friends and neighbors who are in need of it. Willing to put our own dignity on the line, as their dignity is on the line. Willing to put our own children at risk as their children are at risk. Willing to walk in their vulnerable shoes, and not just beside them at a safe distance.
It is a question about our level of commitment. Like the old adage about eggs and bacon. The chicken is supportive, but the pig is all in. So which are we? Are we supportive of this ministry, or is this who we are? Are we okay with this ministry because we got our kitchen painted and a new fire door installed; because we are now collaborating with a dozen other faith communities in a meaningful way? Are we supportive because this ministry is delivering other things that we care about? Is sanctuary a means to other ends?
Or are we offering the gifts of our very body to honor the dignity of God’s creation? Are the benefits that come with this work the results or the reasons for our being sanctuary? Is sanctuary a ministry or a mission? Is it what we are doing or who we are? Are we the eggs or the bacon?
I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I do know that they are more than well worth asking. Over and over and over again. And this will be the theme for our coming program year. Who do we say we are? Who does God know us to be? And I look forward to plumbing the depths of these all important questions, together, and continually.
In the meantime, in the wake of this week’s eclipse, on the precipice of a life-changing embrace of sanctuary, and in the company of this beloved community, I leave you with the wise words of Thomas Merton from his New Seeds of Contemplation.
If we could let go of our own obsession with what we think is the meaning of it all, we might be able to hear His call and follow Him in His mysterious, cosmic dance. We do not have to go very far to catch echoes of that game, and of that dancing. When we are alone on a starlit night; when by chance we see the migrating birds in autumn descending on a grove of junipers to rest and eat; when we see children in a moment when they are really children; when we know love in our own hearts; or when, like the Japanese poet Bashō we hear an old frog land in a quiet pond with a solitary splash–at such times the awakening, the turning inside out of all values, the “newness,” the emptiness and the purity of vision that make themselves evident, provide a glimpse of the cosmic dance.
So my friends, let us go forth prayerfully, faithfully, and honestly and take our place in that dance.
© August, 2017 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw