An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Salvation takes the work of many

A sermon on Exodus 1:8 – 2:10 by Alison Sampson

We don’t live under Pharaoh. Our prime minister does not have absolute power over us, nor is he revered as god. We at least get the illusion of choice when it comes to our rulers. None of us are slaves. Things are very different to Moses’ day.

In our context, it would be easy to hear tonight’s story from the Hebrew Bible as a rather cute narrative about a baby in the bulrushes, and move on – and that is what many Christians do.

But to do this would be to overlook a story which contains a radically generous invitation to us all. First, however, we need to put it in context.

It’s true that we don’t have a Pharaoh. But powerful and violent forces do shape our lives in ways we cannot control. We all live under the domination of global capitalism. It is so big and so pervasive that the ways it affects our lives are almost invisible – but take a look around. Our elected representatives make almost all their decisions based not on what the population wants, nor on what the future holds, but in response to powerful corporate interests. How and where we shop, what we buy, what we eat, what we wear, how we travel and how we spend our leisure time are all affected by global capitalism.

Some industries, such as coal, corn and road transport, are heavily subsidised; while wind farms, organic lettuces and bicycles do not receive the same subsidies. Our clothing is manufactured in sweatshops which are not subjected to fair labour laws. We swallow the myth that we are struggling battlers, even when it’s told on enormous television sets which blare into the lounge rooms of the biggest houses on the planet.

Meanwhile, those who really are battling – single parents, the chronically ill, tertiary and public school students, the poor – are cruelly treated in our federal budget; and asylum seekers are locked up in hellholes as we bleat about protecting our borders, while sixty thousand air arrivals overstay their visas.

None of us can control the processes and policies of global capitalism or its political lackeys. We are not terribly powerful. And yet we all benefit from the system. Because whether or not we feel comfortable with this idea, most of us are the rich. We are the people who live in big houses, drive cars, have wardrobes stuffed with clothes, travel for pleasure, and turn stories of salvation into texts for personal development.

This, then, is the context in which we encounter tonight’s story.

Tonight’s story sets the scene for the Exodus, that great mass migration of a people out of slavery and into the Promised Land. Knowing this, it is tempting to focus on the man who led them, Moses – but if we do, we miss the point. And it is tempting to focus on the idea of personal liberation, but again, we would miss the point. Instead, it is the many players who keep a baby alive who make the story relevant to us now.

The story opens with a new Pharaoh in Egypt, who decides to unite his empire by setting it against the Israelite people. He forces the Hebrews into slave labour, and instructs the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys. But Shiphrah and Puah, the first savers of life, quietly refuse.

Then there is the mother who hides her baby away as long as possible, then places him in a basket and sets him floating on the Nile. Next we meet Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds the baby and takes pity on him. Finally there is the sister, who speaks to Pharaoh’s daughter and arranges for the baby’s mother to be his wet nurse until he is old enough to be adopted, and named.

So the only reason the baby lived, the baby who became Moses and led his people out of slavery, was because of the saving actions of many. Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders. They chose life over death, the God of Israel over the god of Egypt. The baby’s mother also chose life. She hid the baby away, then chanced his life in a basket on the river. Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby and realised it was Hebrew – yet she also chose life. And the baby’s sister lingered around the waterhole of the slave drivers at who knows what risk, to watch over her baby brother’s life.

This story of salvation required many people. Some of them were nobodies: Hebrews, slaves, women. One of them was somebody: Pharaoh’s daughter. And it was only because of their joint efforts that the baby lived.

We need to hear this because, domestically, most of us are nobodies. We don’t have the ear of our Prime Minister. For all the petitions and campaigns and nonviolent actions we might sign or support, we don’t appear able to change government policies which lock up children and asylum seekers. We don’t seem able to change federal budgets which penalise the poor, single mothers, students, the chronically ill, and yet which make it even easier for big business to turn massive profits. Despite our efforts, the Great Barrier Reef looks set for destruction and new mines are opening up in our richest farming land. And for all our letters, the education funding reform promised by both parties before the election is not going to happen. In our context, we are little people.

As little people, it is easy to be discouraged. But this story should encourage us. It shows that the actions of little people, no matter how small, can have enormous impact. We don’t know what the impact will be, but when, like the midwives, and like the baby’s mother and sister, we fear God more than Pharaoh, when we choose life and love over personal comfort, then we too will make choices which are part of God’s plan of salvation. So we need to hear this story as the little people that we are.

But we also need to hear it because, internationally, we are big people. We are wealthy beyond measure because others suffer. Our houses are the biggest in the world. Our wardrobes overflowing with cheap clothes are possible thanks only to the lethal conditions on Indian cotton farms, the appalling conditions of garment factories in China and Bangladesh and Cambodia, the special economic zones where normal labour laws don’t apply. Our fancy phones are manufactured from rare earths mined from the traditional land of the Kalahari bush people and other indigenes, who have been herded into urban slums. We live in this land only because of the systematic oppression and killing, by shotgun and smallpox, of the original inhabitants. Our comfort and wealth rides on the backs of countless invisible oppressed people, past and present, in ways it is difficult even to imagine.

We cannot opt out of all these systems of power which grant us privilege and control our lives. But we can make choices. And that is exactly what this story shows us.

Because Pharaoh’s daughter was a member of the powerful elite. She was born into the wealthy ruling class. She had handmaids and attendants. Her house was built from bricks made by Hebrew slaves. Her clothes were woven by Hebrew women. Her wealth was built on the backs of others. It may have been more obvious in her time – she may have jostled up against the ones who served her, whereas we just read about them when their factories collapse – but she and we are in the same boat.

Now, the Exodus is a story told by the Israelites. It would have been easy for them to demonise their oppressors, and who could be more demonic than a member of Pharaoh’s own family? Or, instead of demonising their oppressors, they could have ignored them. It is much easier to write them out of the story than to acknowledge their presence and name it good.

But this story doesn’t do that. Instead, it tells us that a member of the ruling class took part in God’s saving action. Pharaoh’s daughter – that spoiled brat, that aristocrat, that owner of slaves – took pity on a slave baby who was under sentence of death, and adopted him. Who knows what the penalty would have been, had her father found out? There is no doubt she took an enormous risk and yet, she chose life. So this story shows that God’s call to choose life over death extends to all of us, even those who benefit from the status quo.

And this is the beginning of a great story of salvation, of God’s liberating action in the world. It is a story first told by the underdogs, the youngest sons, the ones without land. It is a story told by the Palestinians. Now it is a story for indigenes all over the world. It is a story for the Nepali men in Doha who are building ready for the 2020 World Cup, whose pay and passports are being withheld by their employers, and who are dying from heat exhaustion and extreme fatigue. It is a story for the garment workers in Bangladesh, and the virgins sold in the streets of Pnomh Penh, and the Kalahari bushmen forced off their land, and the African Americans living in urban slums, and the teenage asylum seekers who are being rounded up and sent back to detention in Adelaide and Darwin.

But it is also a story for us, because the story tells us that we are all needed: midwives and slaves, women and children, and the powerful, too. We are all invited to work, in ways big and small, against the powers which destroy people’s lives. The God of the Israelites is much, much bigger than one nation, one people, one clan, and God invites all of us into the work of liberation time and time again.

Our actions might be small: a letter to our MP, a name on a petition, a choice for fair trade, a cup of water to one of God’s little ones. Our actions might be big, and I think of the families who are currently risking jail by giving sanctuary to the teenagers who recently escaped immigration detention. Our actions might be carefully plotted and carried out with humour – think of the way the midwives played on Pharaoh’s prejudices, saying Hebrew women just slipped their babies out before the midwives could get there – or our actions may be a spontaneous, necessary response to a situation of oppression which presents itself on a quiet Wednesday. Our actions may be individual, just as the women in this story acted alone or in pairs; or they may be corporate, such as when the whole people joined together and left Egypt for the Promised Land.

Whether our actions are big or small, national or local, individual or corporate, this story shows that we cannot know what ripple effect they might have. None of the women in this story knew that her action would lead to the Exodus. In the same way, we cannot know what God’s plan is, or who will next be set free. But when we let our hearts of stone be moved by compassion; when we fear God more than we fear Pharaoh; when we act not out of fear, but out of love, then we too will have a role to play in God’s unfolding story of liberation.

It doesn’t matter where we are placed. It doesn’t matter whether we are the oppressor, or the oppressed – and in our society, we are always a bit of both. Because this story tells us that we all have a role in God’s work against violence and exploitation; we can all participate in God’s passion for justice. Each of us, big or little, somebody or nobody, rich or poor, is invited to step away from the powers which control us, and walk towards a new way of life.


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