Sermon August 23, 2020 – Now a New King Arose… Rev. Betsy Hogan
How important, really, do you suppose one person can be?
Depends on the person, I guess, though I suspect that all of us hope that whatever contribution we're able to make will somehow be important in some way... to those around us, if not to world history...
But sometimes, I think, just one single person can be really important without even realizing it. Maybe just by being present. By being in the right place at the right time. Being met, being known, just being there.
Take Joseph, from our passage today. Not the same Joseph who will eventually join Mary in raising Baby Jesus -- this is a different Joseph, from about a thousand years before. The one who's best known perhaps, if you like musicals, for having an amazing technicolour dreamcoat and believing that 'any dream will do'.
Which isn't true, by the way – some dreams are inhumane, or violent, or patently genocidal --
But at any rate, this Joseph -- a good thousand years before the one who travelled to Bethlehem with Mary on Christmas Eve -- in the actual Bible he did in fact have a coat of many colours and he did have a talent for interpreting dreams, but the most important thing about this Joseph, in the grand scheme of world history, is actually just this: that he's well-known and well-respected by the King of Egypt.
Which is a big deal. Because Joseph is not an Egyptian. Joseph is an Israelite. He lives in Egypt -- many Israelites do -- but he's an Israelite, an outsider, and ordinarily, one assumes, he'd be regarded like all Israelites with serious suspicion by the Egyptian majority.
Except that the King of Egypt has gotten to know him. The King of Egypt has actually spent TIME with Joseph, he's gotten to know Joseph as an actual human being, and so he's realized -- and this is why Joseph is so important -- the King of Egypt has realized, by getting to know Joseph, the Israelite, the outsider, that the Israelites really aren't so very different from his own people after all.
In fact, they're actually pretty much just regular people. They're not strange, they're not different and dangerous -- there's no need for suspicion, they don't present some sort of existential threat, they're just people.
And that's crucial. Because under this King, not only Joseph but all the Israelites who happen to be living in Egypt, are able to live fairly safely. They're not treated like enemies. Because the King of Egypt has gotten to know Joseph, as a person, he's realized the Israelites really aren't so very different from Egyptians at all. He's had his eyes opened, as it were -- he can't "hate all Israelites", Joseph's his friend! He cares about him and respects him!
So for the fate of the Israelites in Egypt a thousand years before Jesus was born? Joseph is hugely important. And how do we know that? Because when that King died, a new king arose over Egypt, our reading tells us, and that new king did NOT know Joseph. And as all of my fellow Lucy Maud Montgomery fans will know, that is not a good thing.
The new king did NOT know Joseph -- he had no experience of getting to know an Israelite as an actual person instead of an outsider and a threat, and it did not take him very long before he unleashed on the Israelites both his own prejudice, and about three thousand years of violence.
Starting with an attempt to break the Israelites' bodies and spirits with hard labour, and when that's not working efficiently enough, a new plan. The murder at birth of all male children born to Israelite women.
It's a horrible story, but the King, the Pharaoh, is convinced it's the perfect plan. Or at least, it WOULD be the perfect plan except for two huge problems. Named Shiphrah and Puah. The Hebrew midwives.
Not that Pharaoh KNOWS that Shiphrah and Puah are the problem -- he doesn't actually know that at all! Instead, what Pharaoh THINKS is the problem is precisely what Shiphrah and Puah WANT him to think is the problem. What they TELL him is the problem.
Which is this: That "Unfortunately, your majesty, our Hebrew women, our Israelite women, they're just so very strong and so very vigorous that they give birth just like THAT! Like, boom: baby! They don't even call us! We never even make it to the birth! There's no chance to do what you want us to do: they're so quick!"
And Pharaoh believes them. Of course he does! I mean, what does HE know about
how quickly a baby gets born? And they do seem to be frighteningly strong and vigorous, these Israelites, so it does all sort of make sense, he guesses...
And just like that, the midwives have beaten him. Who says that just one person -- or in this case two -- can't be important? Can't make a difference? Up against the force and the power of a Pharaoh who's capable of ordering mass murder, and whose every word is law, the Hebrew midwives have triumphed. With nothing more than courage and cleverness.
It really is a great story. But at the same time, it's actually kind of sad. I mean, not sad in the sense of the male infants being saved, obviously, but sad in the sense of pathetic.
Because yes, the Hebrew midwives are amazingly clever and their take-down of Pharaoh is hugely satisfying -- but if you think about it, the reason that what they do works on Pharaoh is literally how thick-headedly simplistically prejudiced he is about the Israelites.
It's pathetic. He's built up this picture in his head of All Israelites as frighteningly strong and vigorous -- a sort of nameless, faceless threatening wall of scary -- and that's what it is that takes him down.
That's ALL it is that takes him down, in fact. A couple of clever midwives who are smart enough to capitalize on it. “Oh Pharaoh, the Hebrew women are just SO STRONG, they have their babies in no time.” And Pharaoh never has a chance. His prejudice completely blinds him to basic good sense.
How about THIS piece of good sense, for example: If Hebrew women have their babies so quickly that they don’t need midwives, why are there Hebrew midwives???!! Really, Pharaoh is not thinking this through.
In fact, he’s not really thinking at all. He’s let his prejudice do his thinking for him and so he gets tricked by the midwives. It's pathetic.
Not that I'm saying we shouldn’t be cheering from the sidelines. This is a good news story – of course it is! Pharaoh is not a good man and the midwives take him down. It's a VERY good news story.
But it’s also a cautionary tale. Because I think though we may WANT to identify completely with the midwives, and why not?, the truth of the matter is, I think we all have a little Pharaoh in us too.
Presumably not the genocidal Pharaoh. At least, I sincerely hope not.
But the Pharaoh of pre-conceived notions and broad-based assumptions? The Pharaoh of subconscious prejudices? As careful as we may be, as thoughtful as we may try very hard to be, I bet we do carry a few of these around. They may not have to do with race or nationality or even gender – or they may.... They may have to do with age, or level of education, or economic class. They may even have to do with ourselves – what we assume deep down to be our limitations.
And whatever they are – whenever we allow these assumptions, these prejudices, to rise up and be our filter as we look out into the world or indeed into our own selves – they do exactly what they did to Pharaoh. They become a weak point. They cause us to jump to conclusions, they stop us from thinking things through, blind us to basic good sense or even experience.
And that’s a shame. Sometimes it’s a shame in the colloquial sense, it’s too bad, it’s a loss. We make assumptions that someone's too old for us to have anything in common with them. Or we assume they're too young to learn how to wear a mask properly. We take one look and think "Oh, they're probably like this." Or, "this would never be their cup of tea." So sometimes it's a shame in the colloquial sense, because it means a lost opportunity or lowered expectations or an overlooked possibility.
But it can also sometimes be a shame in the true sense. Not an expression of our best self, and shameful. It can be letting the assumptions and prejudices we carry around in our heads do some kneejerk thinking for us, in relation to other people, and it's diminishing. It's diminishing to them and it's diminishing to us.
It's also really tough to break down. There's been one of those internet things going around that I've found really striking. It's kind of a short video documentary of people who are homeless in Orlando, Florida. And it's just each of them holding up a card that says a fact about themself. "I was a figure skater" one of them says. "I have a biology degree" says another. "I'm recovering from open heart surgery", "I had a baseball scholarship" -- there's an extraordinary variety. Just on the streets of one city, and a crucial reminder that there's no such thing as a nebulous blob called "homeless people" who are all the same. Our quick kneejerk assumptions are diminishing.
And they're a shame. In the very real sense of being shame-full – and needing to be poked at. Because how else are we going to shake ourselves out of the tendancy to immediately recognize that a fourteen-year-old white girl is obviously in danger when she's been been taken by a 47-year-old man – while apparently not getting that if the girl is Mi'kmaw?
It's really tough to shed those prejudices, particularly when they're subconscious. And it's diminishing. It's diminishing to others, but it's also diminishing to us.
Because it really is too easy to just dump all the shame on Pharaoh for the obvious egregious hateful prejudice that sets this whole story off in the first place. He's not "gotten to know Joseph" as an actual human being, so he hates the Israelites and orders this mass murder of newborn Hebrew babies. IT'S appalling, HE'S appalling, and the only good news is that the Hebrew midwives are so clever and so courageous that they manage to fool him.
But there's a less obviously fraught cautionary tale here too. Pharaoh's prejudice isn't just huge and hateful and almost cartoonishly outsized in a way that probably none of can relate to. It's also – just day to day on the ground – it's also his weakness. If we let our assumptions, our preconceptions, our prejudices do our thinking for us, we can miss a lot. We can miss a lot in others, we can even sell ourselves short. It can be a real shame.
Because just one person – just one person US, stretching ourselves beyond to connect with someone, or just one person we let ourselves actually get to know as a human being -- just one person can really be important.
Thanks be to God who reminds us to always keep thinking. Amen.