By Heather Blais (View the sermon and worship here).
In Exodus, we witness how a shifting political landscape leads to the oppression of the Israelites. As we listen to the story:
Yet I can’t help but wonder whether we are wrong to self-identify with the Israelites. What if our forebears have mistakenly woven this biblical narrative into our own American history? You know the stories as well as I do. Many of the settlers that first reached these shores did so as they fled religious or ethnic persecution. Things began to go awry when white settlers started to harvest the bounty of this land solely for themselves, and brutally oppressed the Indigenous people who were here before us. We then furthered our ambitions by supporting the kidnaping, abuse, rape, and enslavement of black and brown bodies on the shores of another continent so we might further our own economic advancements. This land, made for you and me, was built on the backs of black and brown bodies which many of our forebears oppressed, enslaved, and killed.
This is why I can’t help but wonder if maybe, white America, has much more in common with the Egyptians than the Israelites. Sure, we’re not the king, implementing cruel and unjust public policies. We’re more like middle management. We may not be out there advocating for the creation and implementation of these policies; we may even recognize the pure insanity of them. Yet we mostly just tolerate the status quo, continuing to benefit from our position, and assume leadership must have their reasons for implementing such a policy. Or maybe we’re too afraid of the cost if we speak up. Or, as is often the case when one group of people oppresses another, we buy into the fearful propaganda that leadership sells us.
I get this is not a joyful interpretation of the Exodus narrative. You probably don’t want to hear it, because who wants to reconcile with the idea that we’ve been fed distorted versions of the truth and helped prop up a system of injustice for generations. I get it, and yet the power of our loving, liberating, and life-giving God demands that we hear this text differently this time around. In fact, this particular interpretation is not even new. It’s pretty old, just not widely proclaimed. In the fight to abolish slavery, and then later to end Jim Crow laws, social justice advocates from Harriett Tubman to Martin Luther King, Jr. have compared the black experience in America to that of the Israelites’ in Egypt. At this moment in history it is the Black Lives Matter movement crying out against white supremacy and oppression, like the Israelites before them, “Let my people go”.
We can play it safe, like generations of people who have gone before us, or we can follow the example of the midwives in the Exodus narrative. These women were stuck in an impossible situation. The midwives' calling in life and their financial livelihood was all based on delivering babies. It is privileged and messy work. More importantly, it is sacred. The spirit of God can be felt hovering in the room as an infant leaves the safety of their mother’s womb and meets the harsh new surroundings of the outside world.These women were asked to do the unspeakable by the new king of Egypt.
Pharaoh felt as though the Israelites, these foreigners, were ever increasing in number and posed a threat to Egyptian rule and power. As a result, he changed public policy, creating new rules which brutalized and enslaved the Israelites. When these new policies did not adequately subdue the foreigners, the king instructed the midwives to kill every male Israelite infant. And yet, these women were wise enough to know there was still one more powerful than even this new king.
The Exodus text tells us: “But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.” These brilliant and marvelous women feared God. These midwives could not in good conscience do what was asked of them. Nevertheless, she persisted.
These women have been modeling and inspiring resistance for thousands of years. They knew deep in their bones that our God is a God of liberation. The question these midwives offer us is how will we rise up to be the midwives of our time? Resistance will look different for each of us. Though, like the midwives, it will always need to begin with a self-examination that we continue to revisit.
Maybe you are re-learning American history through the eyes of the oppressed.
Maybe you are watching webinars on how to be anti-racist.
Maybe you go to demonstrations and walks.
Maybe you have a BLM sign on your lawn.
Maybe you are intentional about shopping at black owned businesses.
Maybe you call your political representatives so often you have them on speed dial.
Maybe you are praying, every day, for racial reconciliation and healing.
There is no one way to resist. The midwives did what they could to stand up for those shoved to the margins, just as our loving, liberating, and life giving God asks of us.
What I am suggesting may be uncomfortable for some. Yet there is no pearl without the grit rubbing at our rough edges. I invite each of us to sit in a holy discomfort and wrestle with how we will be the midwives of our time. Amen.
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