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Living in the Midst of Empire

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Romans 12:1-8

Today’s scripture readings are a tremendous source of strength and hope for those trying to walk a path of spiritual integrity and of justice in a culture whose underlying values are fundamentally at odds with this.

Paul, writes to a fledgling church – a minority group whose values were out of step with the militaristic Roman empire in which it found itself. Paul had begun his life as one who terrorized and tortured this new sect who called themselves “The Way”. He had been part of the power structure, with Roman soldiers at his disposal to help clean up this radical rabble deemed a threat to National Security. Imagine what an amazing conversion it was for him to turn his life around, and become one of those whom he had hunted and tortured. The Damascus Road was only the beginning of his conversion! He had to learn to stand up to some of the very political and community leaders that he had previously worked with, and to speak a truth that was often counter-culture.

To the Roman church he says “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God.” He then goes on to tell the community to use all of its gifts oriented towards God. Be a community in resistance, he is telling them. Support and encourage one another, persevere in tough times, keep hope alive by praying regularly, connecting with the Source of your gifts, and your hope. Good advice for modern churches too.

For our day, the question is still very much alive. Whose story do you choose to live by; the story of the Rome, or the story of God? This week I had the privilege of listening to a leading American theologian and philosopy professor from Claremont University, Dr, David Ray Griffen dismantle the official story of 911. He is a person whose faith and gift of analytical intelligence compells him to speak out and raise serious questions in a climate where there is great fear to speak out in critique. Others from a faith perspective question involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan , or question our addiction to oil, or the impact of globalization on culture, environment, local economies; We still struggle with how to” not be conformed to his world, but transformed by the renewal of our minds so that our lives prove the will of God.” How to be people of loving resistance-committed to life; and to disentangle our conformity to fear-based cultural values that would destroy it? How to orient our gifts, our lifestyles, our thinking toward God values, of community, of integrity, of justice, of respect for creation. We still struggle with how to create and sustain a community of people not conformed to the dog eat dog, consumer, economism ideology, that permeates our times? The kind of thinking that suggests:
• the poor have too much , and the rich do not have enough.
• that the production of material goods and market forces are more important than the production of healthy community, healthy people, and healthy relationships- that bottom lines are more important than hospitals, or daycare or schools.
• That money is the most important value, and is a sign of political and social worth-that productive, working adults are more valuable than children, elderly, unemployed, refugees-
• that property, and people’s right to accumulate wealth is sacred and an absolute right, no matter how much it robs from community, or from our Mother the earth.
• that the strongest have the right to impose their will on the weakest.

How do we learn to stand up and say no! not to be conformed to this world, as Paul says, but transformed by the renewal of our minds, that we may prove the will of God.
Whose story will we live by? The world’s or God’s?

We get some real clues, I think, in the ancient story from Exodus. A lot has happened since last week, when Joseph was reconciled with all his brothers in that strange sequence of events that saw a tear filled reunion. – But Joseph and the power he exercised died – and all of that 1st generation and there was a new king – This new Pharoah was Rameses II. Archeologists have found an ancient stone carving which translated reads He built the city of Rameses with Asiatic Semitic slaves. This new Pharoah knew nothing about Joseph, and his role in saving the nation, but he feared that he had a problem of national security. There was a population boom among the oppressed slave nation, whose birthrate was perceived to be outstripping that of the Egyptians. Pharoah feared that in their desire to escape from slavery they might join an enemy if there were a war. NOW Pharoah wanted to keep the Hebrews for economic reasons. They were his cheap labour force. So the first solution was to try to wear them down under heavy loads and harsh task masters so that they would not have any energy left to be a political problem. He tried to crush their spirits, to have control over them.

Xenophobic fear, fear of people racially and culturally different, is not limited to Egypt centuries ago. Uprooting people, putting them in concentration camps out of a xenophobic fear for national security has happened in many parts of the world; not so different from Pharoah’s solution. Remember our own reaction to Japanese Canadians, during World War II.

And it is not only in Egypt thousands of years ago, that people are thought of only in terms of the labour that they have to offer to those in control. South Africa has been a very obvious example of this kind of a system for a centuries. It happens, in the United States with Mexican immigrants, in our own country where we used Chinese labour to build our railways, and immigrants to develop the west. Even today many work in systems that do not take our humanity into account. Companies close, dismissing longtime employees, and move to places where they do not need to worry about decent wages, benefit packages, safety of their workers or concerns of the environment. Pharoah’s system still lives in our world.

The strange thing was – the more they were oppressed, the more the Hebrews increased in numbers, a sign in their tradition, that God was with them. Egyptian fear of the oppressed Hebrews grew, and so did the oppression. The next step was a very radical form of enforced birth control, the calling together of all the midwives who helped the Hebrew women, with the order to kill any male child, born to a Hebrew woman. Pharoah, wanted security for his people, but rather than try to work for a just ordering and sharing of the wealth and power of the nation- an option that might have led to real security- he opts for the path of fear and control. He does this to the extreme case of murdering children.

But then we catch a glimpse of God power; power not based in fear and control! – very different from Pharoah power, as we hear in this amazing resistance story. Midwives close to the miracle of life, routinely witness the sacred experience of birth. So when Pharoah gives the midwives orders to kill the Hebrew male children right at birth, THEY REFUSE. No big demonstration or a strike; That would have only got them killed. They simply, quietly, but very intentionally refused to obey the political, lawful authority because it was against their own wisdom and belief. By this simple act of civil disobedience, this courageous act of resistance, they turned around the course of history. Two poor women making the choice for LIFE in their own context- taking on their power, rather than giving into the fear and harrassment which they certainly experienced. Two women saying NO when they had been ordered to say yes, by the ultimate authority in the nation. Two women who knew that Pharoah was not God, and that his order was contrary to God’s will. Two lovingly defiant women, who refused to be submissive and obedient. Almost makes you think of Cindy Sheehan.

The action of these two women Shiprah and Puah, midwives who refused to kill babies, saved the life of Moses, who later became a great leader who would lead the people out of slavery. When called on the carpet because the population of Hebrews still continued to grow, they told a story about how they just couldn’t get to the births fast enough because the Hebrew women gave birth so quickly. And Pharoah, racist that he was, apparently fell for it.

But it was not only these midwives who showed courage and resisted. Moses’ mother Jochabed, kept her tiny son alive and hidden from the authories as long as she could. When it became too dangerous, she fashioned a little basket, a tiny ark like Noah’s, and set him among the reeds. Miriam, his courageous sister, faithfully kept watch over him. When the Egyptian princess found the child she reached beyond the boundaries of her culture, to defy her father and to receive into her own family, a Hebrew child. Miriam showed how resourceful she was, offering the princess a wet nurse for the boy. And so the boy child Moses, not only escaped death, but was raised in the court of the very ruler who tried to destroy him, raised as Pharoah’s adopted grandson with the woman who was his wetnurse and nanny none other than his own mother. This is God power- with an incredible ironic sense of humour no less.

Compassion in the court of the oppressor- a daughter of power who refused to obey her fathers order, who refused to fear and reject a child because he was of a different race- Two midwives who chose life and refused to cooperate with evil. And a courageous mother Jochobed and resourceful sister Miriam, all subverted injustice by taking on their power in ways that were possible for them. Women who chose to live by a story that was life-giving rather than Pharoah’s story. The movement for liberation from slavery, began long before the adult Moses appeared on the scene.

Whenever my courage gets low, or I am feeling overwhelmed by Pharoah’s ways, I remember these women of courage and the many other men and women of courage since then who have refused to go along with unjust authorities – Archibishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador , Dom Helder Camara of Brazil, Women like Nobel prize winner Rigobertu Menchu from Guatemala who continued to work for her people despite death threats and the murder of all of her family- The mothers of the disappeared in Argentina who refuse to be silent about their disappeared family members- Or the mothers of Chile who chained themselves together at the place where their government made decisions because these decisions were hurting their families. When the police came to unlock their chains and force them to leave, they gave them flowers. Or Ghandi who by his civil disobedience ended British rule in India. Other civil resistance movements that have led to the fall of the Berlin wall, and autocratic communist regimes in East Germany, Ukraine, Romania. The courageous resistors of South Africa Steven Biko, Nelson Mandele, Archbishop Tutu and many others too numerous to name who suffered imprisonment, and risked lives for justice. People like Christian theologian and minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer who died in concentration camp in Germany rather than collude with evil, or the Christian women of Germany who protested against Hitler’s order to divorce their Jewish husband, and won! or Raoul Wallenburg who saved thousands of Jews. or Rosa Parks in the Southern USA who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus and catalyzed the civil rights movement under Dr. Martin Luther King with its many named and unnamed folks who changed the world by life-giving disobedience. Today there are Christian workers in the Phillipines who are continuing their ministry and critique even though over 27 have been assassinated, or earlier this year, the resistance of the Buddhist monks both in Burma and Tibet. Or the 2 women of China we heard about this week who have been sent to reeducation camp for applying to stage a legal protest in Beijing. The list could go on. Ordinary people, with ordinary lives who have engaged in life-giving disobience and each in their own small yet significant ways whittled away at the power of the greatest empires on earth.

We may not be like these people we think of as heroes, but here in our own communities we are people of resistance when we value the marginalized; when we support empowerment of refugees and poor people in Montreal through our missions. We are people of resistance when we choose to buy fair trade products rather than products made in sweat shops. We are people of resistance when we value and support African grandmothers raising children of the AIDS epidemic, or when we build schools and wells in Africa through our Youth in Action group. We are people of resistance when we chose to value and care for our sick and elderly, when we take choices to reduce, refuse, reuse, recycle, when we make choices for LIFE rather than choices that lead to death of the planet, of our souls. Like these midwives who chose life, like Paul’s Roman church, we too find ways to not conform to this world, but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds, so that you may prove by our lives and our choices, what is the will of God.” The question is Whose story will we live by? The empire’s or God’s?

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