Exodus 1.8-2.10; Romans 12.1-8; Matthew 16.13-20
Our first reading this morning was the beginning of the book of Exodus. The Book of Genesis immediately prior to Exodus has set forth the creation of the world, and the stories of our great forebears in faith – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But that setting forth of the world as God’s gift, and the response of faith in those forebears, needs to be laid alongside the Book of Exodus. For Exodus in many ways is the ‘primal’ narrative of the Hebrew Scriptures, and of the people of God. It is primal because it is of the greatest importance in the self-understanding of Jews, and then Christians; primal because it is the story which brings to birth the people of God, as they understand themselves – the people of Israel. We enter here almost ‘recognisable’ history, stepping out from the shadows of creation stories, myths, and folk tales; Exodus is archetypal – it is a story which bears repeating (as is indeed done in the Passover tradition for Jews to this day) because it sets out the basic understanding of the people of Israel: that are they are made a people by the action of God in history. The action of God which overturns the lordship of Pharaoh, of the powers of this world. Exodus is, for Jews and then Christians who re-interpret it in the light of Christ, the archetypal, the primal story of liberation from slavery, of the overcoming of the power of domination by the power of God, the creative power that makes a people.
And so I invite you, as we dig together into the opening of this story, and enter imaginatively into its world, to ask yourself: what are we enslaved to? What is the liberation we long for, and that God provides?
You might have some immediate answers: we feel pretty enslaved to the Coronavirus at present; its threat, and our response, increasingly governing life and what is possible, and not possible. But beyond that, perhaps you recognise other enslavements – to a life-denying job or pattern of work; to patterns of addiction; to the pressure and our need to possess certain goods, or particular attributes? In the context of climate crisis, perhaps we are all enslaved to ways of life that outstrip the ability of the earth to sustain life: we know that we must change, but we don’t know how – we are prisoners to forces seemingly beyond our control. Our need for liberation is as pressing as ever. And so what can we learn from the Book of Exodus, this primal telling of the formation of a people by God through the process of liberation from enslavement?
The opening verses set out the themes that will follow. The values of Pharaoh, of the lordship that dominates this world are quickly established in a few lines: ‘Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.’ The end of Genesis told of the rescuing of Egypt by the Pharaoh’s right hand man, Joseph, alongside Joseph’s own rescue from the hands of his brothers, and their subsequent rescue from starvation by him – but now all of that is forgotten. The power that rules the land has forgotten its history, its debt to others, its entwined history. The language becomes impersonal, as the new king says to his people: “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them.” ‘They’ have become a people we do not know; ‘more numerous and more powerful than we’ – is that really true? Or is it the spreading of inflated claims, fake news. And so the king settles on dealing shrewdly with them, which turns out to be setting taskmasters over the people to oppress them with forced labour. These are the tactics of populists throughout the ages: the spreading of misinformation and fear, the tactics of divide and rule. ‘They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them,’ we are told.
We move from this big picture to the immediate and local. Two midwives are named as those who deal with the Hebrew women, and the Pharaoh attempts to conscript them in his crackdown. They, however, show a certain amount of cunning; they know how to tell white lies couched in terms that the king will relate to: ‘the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,’ they say; ‘for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ The claim is nonsense, but in a world where lies about us and them have spread, it is believable; fake news propagates and spreads. The midwives are the first heroes in this story, however, their vocation to bring life and not death allies them to the lordship of the God who is life, who wills his people to be liberated from enslavement to death.
And so we arrive at the birth of Moses: and a story which began by setting out the divisions between Egyptians and Hebrews, us and them, suddenly becomes about the entanglement of each, and the solidarity of women who conspire to bring life in the midst of the threat of death. Is it too much to read a certain knowingness into the actions of Pharaoh’s daughter as she discovers the basket containing this child, a basket placed there in desperation, a son literally given to the waters in fear and hope by a desperate mother in fear of her son’s life? Surely Pharaoh’s daughter knows what is going on when a girl suddenly appears and offers someone to nurse the child, she surely guesses this is the child’s mother? But Pharaoh’s daughter too decides to act in defiance of the power of her father, the power of death and destruction, to act for life. Indeed her actions are the template for the actions that God will soon take: She ‘comes down’, ‘sees’ the child, ‘hears’ its cry, takes pity on him, draws him out of the water, and provides for his daily needs that he may live. So will God shortly do, coming down and seeing the oppression of the people, hearing their cry, and drawing them out of the deeps. All this God will do, through this child Moses.
And so from the start there is something different about Moses – he is neither one of us or one of them; he is a Hebrew brought up in the Egyptian court; a son who owes his life to brave women on both sides of the divide who don’t judge him by his race or background, but risk everything to give him life. The one who is to help liberate his people is someone who is fully at home in neither the world of the enslaved, nor, as he becomes aware of his own origins, in the world of the powerful.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, says Paul in the reading from Romans we also heard. Refusing to be conformed to this world is to take that journey of liberation that Moses shortly embarks on, freeing ourselves from the patterns of domination, of that which brings death. That is not a journey of the solitary self, however. As Moses will discover, the process of liberation is about the formation of a people who stand together, who recognise their dependence on God and their need of one another – members one of another, as Paul puts it. The transformation by the renewal of our minds enables us to see ourselves part of that whole, and to live within the values of solidarity, of compassion, seeking together liberation from the worldly values which so often enslave us and others. It is about being part of the church.
I began by asking us to ponder what we are enslaved to. I suggested that the current pandemic is one immediate, whilst not the only answer, to that question. To be liberated from the pandemic and its effects will not be achieved through the patterns of domination – everyone for themselves, the rush for a quick cure that will make a profit, the blame game of fake news about who is most responsible for spreading it. Liberation requires the development of true solidarity, the sense of being in this together; the collective effort of science to seek understanding and cures and mitigation; the acceptance of necessary limits and disciplines; the compassion of protecting the vulnerable. And if we can do that together, so we should be able to rise to the even larger challenge of our climate crisis – developing the true solidarity of being a community together, bringing the best resources of technology and science and creativity to the task, accepting necessary limits and discipline, with the compassion to protect the vulnerable. That is the journey of liberation that responds to the call of God to bring life in a world dominated by the powers of destruction and death. It is the journey of the church. It is our journey. Amen.