Sermon: Institutional Rebels

August 27, 2017
Exodus 1:8-2:10
Matthew 16:13-20

There is a notion among Christians that we are good, solid citizens, law-abiding and tax-paying people, who don’t cause trouble and don’t break laws. The Apostle Paul even recommended it in his letter to the Romans. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities,” he wrote in chapter 13, “for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”

American pastors have used this text recently to justify a threatened nuclear strike against North Korea. Which makes me wonder where Paul wrote that American governing authorities are appointed by God, but North Korean ones aren’t.

Well, let’s leave that question for another time, if only because the answer is, “Paul didn’t.” Our Scripture texts today display a much more complicated relationship between authority on the one hand, and the ancient faith of Israel and the faith of Jesus Christ on the other, than simple obedience. In fact, it shows us to be institutional rebels.

Let’s start with Exodus. In this story, a new ruler comes to the throne of Egypt. He doesn’t remember the good things that were done for his empire by Joseph, which was after all four hundred years before, give or take, and as we’re all too aware, politics is all about, “What have you done for me lately?” Looking at the growing number of Israelites, descendants of Jacob who’d taken the name of Israel, he feared them. “They’re going to take over!” he said.

So he enslaved them. And he tried to kill them.

The entire enterprise was founded on a lie. It’s highly unlikely that the Israelites outnumbered the Egyptians. Pharaoh’s campaign against them sounds more like a bid to consolidate his own power using a public relations campaign based on racial prejudice and nationalistic chauvinism. It’s something the descendants of Israel kept experiencing in their history (and you’ll find evidence in the Bible that they did it themselves from time to time, too).

Certainly Pharaoh was not the last to seek to consolidate his power through racial prejudice and nationalistic chauvinism. We’ve seen it time after time after time through history.

Evil, I must say, is not creative. It does the same thing over and over again.

So what did they do, the Hebrews? They were threatened with spending their lives in bondage, and with the murder of their children. Did they simply accept it because God gives authority to the rulers?

Well, some did. Many bowed to the threat of violence, and lived as slaves. But the ones in this story – Shiphrah and Puah the midwives, and a mother and a sister (all women, you’ll note) – they resisted.

They persisted.

Shiphrah and Puah are members of a very small club in the Bible: they’re women whose names we know. They were remembered for their deeds, and their names were remembered for their deeds. So many Biblical women were remembered only for what they said or did and their names lost (like the Canaanite woman from last Sunday), so when a Biblical writer makes sure to include their names, put a great big circle and arrows and underlines and stars around it. Because when we know their names, that says, “What these women did was important. Remember them.”

They resisted. They persisted.

They did not accept that God-given authority extended to slavery and murder. They did what they knew was right, and when Pharaoh called them to account for that, they found a way to continue doing it. They lied. Hebrew women didn’t give birth any faster than Egyptian women, but they found a story Pharaoh would believe. They played right into his racist prejudices, but it worked. They were able to keep doing what they’d been doing.

Until Pharaoh brought in the rest of the population, forcing the mother of a baby boy and his sister to place the infant in a basket on the river, and hope that when they’d placed him where Pharaoh’s daughter would find him, that she’d preserve his life.

Anna pointed that out in Bible study this week. If you put a floating basket in a river, the current will take it away – but not if you put it among the reeds of the papyrus. They’ll hold it still. Right where Pharaoh’s daughter comes to wash. Right where sister Miriam can keep an eye on things. 

This was no accident. Moses’ mother and sister planned this.

These women resisted. They persisted.

As Amy Merrill Willis writes: “Unlike the later chapters of Exodus, in which God takes direct action against Israel’s opponents, this story reveals God’s workings to be more subtle and indirect. In the work of the midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Moses’ mother and sister, God’s agency aligns and intertwines with human agency to accomplish salvation.”

These women resisted. They persisted. And they made a difference.

Thirteen hundred years or so later, Jesus asked a question of his disciples. “Who do you say that I am?” he asked. Only Peter, the one who was usually first with the wrong answer, offered a response.

“You are the Messiah,” he said, “the Son of the living God.”

For once, maybe the first time in his life, he was first with the right answer.

And that was the statement of a rebel.

“Messiah” was a religious title, but it was also a political one. “Messiah” means “anointed one,” but the anointed one in Israel was its monarch. “Messiah” was a declaration that the Herod occupying a throne under Roman oversight was an illegitimate sovereign. “Messiah” was a declaration that the Roman Empire did not belong in Israel.

“Messiah” was a rebel. And “Messiah” led rebels.

Jesus the Messiah, I observe, died of crucifixion, the death Rome reserved for rebels.

We are institutional rebels.

In 1934, the Church in Germany had an identity crisis. A good part of the Church had adopted a new constitution the year before, which both adopted Nazi ideologies and gave governing power to the state. In the Barmen Declaration, those who would come to be known as the Confessing Church declared that they would be guided by Jesus Christ, by Scripture, and by the Holy Spirit. They would test the state by these.

In 1936, a letter to Hitler protested the German government’s antisemitism, anti-Christianity, and interference in the Church. Hundreds of pastors were then arrested.

They resisted. They persisted. They did not change the course of history, at least not much. But one of them, Martin Niemöller, wrote this poem:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

We need to continue to speak this week. We need to speak for the people who had been abused by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and insist that these abuses cease and not be repeated. We need to not find ourselves saying with Martin Niemöller, “They came for the Mexicans, and I said nothing because I was not a Mexican.”

We need to speak for transgender persons who have served honorably in our military and for others who very well could. We need to not find ourselves saying with Martin Niemöller, “They came for the transgender persons, and I said nothing because I was not transgender.”

We need to speak for the Compact of Free Association, which needs renewal in order to maintain the relationship between the US and the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau, which boar so much of the fighting in World War II and the burden of nuclear testing afterwards. We need to not find ourselves saying with Martin Niemöller, “They came for those from Micronesia, and I said nothing because I was not Micronesian.

We need to speak for our Muslim neighbors, because vandalism of mosques and meeting places has risen in the last months. We need to not find ourselves saying with Martin Niemöller, “They came for the Muslims, and I said nothing because I was not a Muslim.”

Or who will speak for us?

David Lose writes: “The things we do this week – our actions, decisions, choices – will, in fact, ripple out with consequences foreseen and unforeseen, for good or for ill, for the health or damage of the world. The question isn’t whether, but what… what will we do this week to make a difference in the world.”

We are institutional rebels, guided not by ignorant obedience to authority, but by a determination to do what is good, and right, and just. We are those who honor Shiphrah and Puah. We are those who honor Peter and Paul (they both took their faith to executioners under Nero). We are those who honor the Exodus, and who honor Moses.

We are those who honor Jesus the Messiah, whose authority surpasses all others.

We will resist. We will persist. We will make a difference.


The image is Alexei Tyranov’s painting of Moses’ mother and sister (public domain). I would have liked to use a painting of Shiphrah and Puah, but to my dismay, I could not find one available online. I hope some artists have honored their faithfulness and courage, and that more artists will.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , , , | Posted on August 27, 2017

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