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Established May 2009, Little Rock, AR

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A Faithful Approach to Law, Order, and Justice

August 27, 2017

A FAITHFUL APPROACH TO LAW, ORDER, AND JUSTICE

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR

August 27, 2017 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost)

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10


8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, 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.’ 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. 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.’ 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ 19The 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.’20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then 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.’

2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. 3When 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. 4His 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. 6When 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. 7Then 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?’8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’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. 10When 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.’

 

PRAYER BEFORE SERMON

 

Your voice burns within the depths of our being,
O God of our ancestors,
and draws us into your presence and service.
Hear the cries of your people
and speak a word of comfort,
that we may proclaim to all the earth
the glory of your name. Amen.

 

Across the United States and elsewhere around the world, people are concerned about what some consider a resurgence of bigotry, hatefulness, white nationalism and white supremacy.   

 

  • We worship today two weeks and a day after a young woman – Heather Heyer – was murdered and 19 other people were injured in Charlottesville, Virginia by a white supremacy sympathizer who used a car as an instrument of terror and destruction.  
  • The evening before that tragedy, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and neo-Fascists marched onto the campus of the University of Virginia shouted racist and anti-Semitic slogans.  They surrounded a chapel where people from many faith traditions and ancestries were assembled for prayer and preparation to protest against white supremacy and racism the next day.
  • Last Tuesday evening, President Trump boldly hinted that he would issue a pardon to former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio.  Arpaio was convicted by a federal judge on the charge of criminal contempt of court for willfully disobeying a 2011 court order that required his agency to stop racially profiling Latinos.  On Friday afternoon, while national attention was understandably focused on the threat Hurricane Harvey presented to the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coastal region, Mr. Trump announced that Arpaio would be pardoned.  
  • On Thursday evening, people gathered in the Old Supreme Court room of the Arkansas State Capitol for a public meeting concerning the Little Rock School District heard Commissioner of Education Johnny Key and members of the Arkansas Board of Education declare they do not plan to restore local governance to the Little Rock School District at any specific time.  The State of Arkansas dissolved the democratically elected Little Rock School Board of Directors on January 28, 2015.  Since that time, the largest public school district in the largest and most racially diverse city in Arkansas has been run by Commissioner Key, un-elected bureaucrat and former state legislator with no previous experience or education in public education.  

 

The passage we ponder today offers helpful moral, ethical, and theological light for us about how God’s people should respond to bigotry, hatefulness, nationalism and claims of ethnic supremacy that are disguised as appeals to “law and order.”  The book of Exodus begins with this lesson about how an empire – Egypt – was led by a ruler and regime who did not know their own history and who feared the Hebrew minority population.  That collective ignorance and fearfulness motivated the Egyptian ruler and ruling regime to oppress and enslave Hebrew workers.  When they could not work the Hebrews to death, the Egyptian ruler and his regime ordered the death of all Hebrew male babies – infanticide – and commanded that Hebrew mid-wives become murderers.  

 

But two midwives – Shiprah and Puah – engaged in a non-violent and subversive protest campaign against that scheme.  At Exodus 1:17 we read:  But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  When summoned before the king to give account for letting Hebrew boys live, Shiprah and Puah claimed that “the Hebrew women … are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them” (Ex. 1:19).  So Pharaoh – the title of the Egyptian ruler – ordered that all Hebrew baby boys to be thrown into the Nile River (where they would either drown or be devoured by crocodiles).  

The first ten verses of Exodus 2 show how one Hebrew family defied that decree.  A Hebrew husband and wife did not throw their baby boy into the Nile.  His mother hid him for three months.  When she could no longer hide her son, she built a basket, placed him in it, and hid him among the river reeds.  His sister stood watch to protect him.  After the Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the boy in the basket, the sister volunteered to find a Hebrew nursemaid for him – his mother.   

 

Pharaoh’s daughter did not obey her father’s royal decree.  Instead, we read how the daughter of a ruler who wanted to wipe out the Hebrew male population paid the mother of a Hebrew baby boy to nurse him, not kill him.  The daughter of a tyrant bent on murder and infanticide became the protector and sponsor of a boy she eventually named Moses.

 

One lesson this passage offers is that ignorance, fear, bigotry, and greed work together to cause hateful and oppressive results for immigrants and other vulnerable people.  The Egyptian Pharaoh and his ruling regime “did not know Joseph.”  

 

Why did they not know how their nation had been faithfully served and saved by Joseph, the immigrant great grandson of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham?    

 

Did the regime “not know Joseph” because Egyptian historians did not include Joseph’s service in accounts of Egyptian history?  

 

Did the Pharaoh “did not know Joseph” because Egyptian educators did not teach about Joseph and the contributions of Hebrews to Egyptian society?

  

Did the Egyptian ruling regime “not know Joseph” because there were no statues to remind them about him?

 

How else could anyone ascend to lead the Egyptian government and “not know Joseph?”

 

A second lesson in this passage is that ignorant, fearful, and hateful people will rely on “law and order” claims to justify wicked policies and practices.  The Pharaoh used fear of being overpowered by the Hebrew immigrant population to motivate Egyptian society against them.  Hebrew immigrants were considered national security threats, not neighbors.  

 

The fear-mongering, bigotry, discrimination, and violence against immigrants we read about in Exodus 1 are in keeping with the attitudes used to justify the policies and actions of Donald Trump, Joe Arpaio, Adolf Hitler, and other nationalists across human history against marginalized people.  Fear of being dominated and the obsessive desire to dominate others are foundation rocks for every “law and order” reaction to demands for liberation and justice.  

 

This passage also highlights the role of women as leaders in the movement for justice.  The Hebrew midwives – Shiprah and Puah – conducted the first non-violent subversive protest movement against tyranny that we find in the Bible.  The mother and sister of Moses concealed him and guarded him.  Pharaoh’s daughter had compassion for him and financed his care.  His mother nurtured him until he was old enough to be delivered to Pharaoh’s daughter, who reared him as her son.  

 

Women are not secondary characters in this account of the early life of Moses.  The heroes in this account are heroines – “she-roes.”  Women paved the way for Moses.  Without the courage and cleverness of Shiprah and Puah, there would have been no Moses.  Without the determination and resourcefulness of his mother and sister, there would have been no Moses.  Without the deliberate  decision of Pharaoh’s daughter to defy her father’s order to kill Hebrew boys, there would have been no Moses.  

 

Shiprah and Puah protected Hebrew boys because they feared God.  That’s important to remember.  They engaged in social protest because they feared God.  They did not obey the law – they were law breakers, not law followers – because the justice of God is always superior to legal rules imposed to dominate and oppress others!  

 

Shiprah and Puah disobeyed the law because they feared God.  They shielded Hebrew families from losing their sons because they feared God.  They misled ruling authorities because they feared God.  

 

Think of Shiprah and Puah as forerunners of the Black Lives Matter movement.  Remember Shiprah and Puah not only when you think about Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Coretta Scott King.  Remember Shiprah and Puah when you think about Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, John Brown, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jeremiah Wright, Jr.!

 

Remember Shiprah and Puah when you think about other women who refuse to “go along and get along” with ruthless men and oppressive schemes.  When preachers try to talk you out of following the unction of the Holy Spirit, remember Shiprah and Puah.  Acknowledge that you are competent to hear and understand God’s will without a male filter.  Trust that the same God who inspired Shiprah and Puah to confront and out-think an empire can and will inspire you to become an agent for love, truth, justice, peace, and hope. 

 

In the same way the Egyptian Pharaoh and his regime “did not know Joseph,” many religious people do not know Shiprah and Puah.  Preachers and other religious people who provide cover as tyrants oppress vulnerable populations based on bogus fears about threats to national security and “law and order” do not know Shiprah and Puah.  Bible school teachers and counselors who say women and girls must obey and submit to abusive male leaders and tolerate misogyny do not know Shiprah and Puah.  

 

But more than that, they do not fear God!  They do not reverence God as author of life, love, and liberty for all persons.  They do not reverence the divine command that we love God with all our being and love one another –including persons who are different from us – as ourselves.  

 

Politicians and preachers who claim the right to lead based on maleness not only disregard the Biblical role of women in the life of Moses.  They disregard God’s influence in devout women to produce justice and liberation.  

 

The good news is that God works to produce justice in subversive ways – not by “law and order” – but in subversive ways!  We live to obey the subversive God of Shiprah and Puah!  We serve the subversive God whose love inspired a Hebrew mother and daughter to protect and defend Moses.  We are people of the subversive God who inspired a noblewoman to defy her father and the rules of his realm as being part of a conspiracy to save the life of a Hebrew boy.  

 

In the name of that subversive God, do not be afraid to resist the tyrants of our time who are oppressing immigrants and other marginalized populations.  

 

In the name of that subversive God, do not be afraid to work for justice for transgender persons.  In the name of that subversive God, rise up and resist President Trump’s order to ban transgender persons from military service.  In the name of that subversive God, resist his plan to discriminate against service members who are transgender.  

 

In the name of our subversive God, resist the effort to deny equal access to higher education to children of undocumented immigrants.  

 

In the name of our subversive God, let us live for justice and liberation for all persons.  In the name of our subversive God, let us stand against every law, resist every ruler, denounce every movement, and bravely overcome any threat and force for hate, fear, ignorance, and oppression.  

 

We are God’s subversive people.  We are subversive because God is subversive!  We are subversive because justice is always subversive to tyranny.  We are subversive because truth is always subversive to propaganda and deceit.  We are subversive because God’s love is always subversive to hate.  We are subversive, and in the name of the subversive love and justice of God witnessed by Shiprah, Puah, and the other women in this passage, let us work for justice and overcome the forces of “law and order.”

 

Amen. 

 

©Wendell Griffen, 2017