Why They Stayed

Sunday sermon from September 14, 2014
Text: Exodus 1:8-2:10 
Preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

And so, after a summer in Corinthians, and after last week’s brief detour, we are resuming our regularly-scheduled lectionary cycle, which lands us squarely at the beginning of the Book of Exodus. We’re several weeks late in arriving but we’ll just do it at our own pace. We will be the Pacific Time Zone of the Lectionary. And I confess that I am elated at the chance to spend a month or two with Exodus. We will tell the story of a people in bondage. We will tell the story of God fighting on the side of justice. We will tell the story of God’s people set free. And with the headlines so full of death and despair, with the spread of Ebola and the spread of ISIS and now our renewed military involvement and with the lingering questions still hanging over Ferguson and honestly with the brokenness of the world having such a current air of inevitability about it, I plan to spend the next few months clinging to this story with every fiber in my being. I need to hear the story of God’s people set free.

But of course the task for today is not to preach the whole of the Exodus story. We will have time for that. The task today is to start, of course, at the beginning, with today’s story, the story of the baby Moses set among the reeds of the river, but even before that, a story of violence and resistance. The Egyptian Pharaoh has it out for the Hebrews, for whatever reason anybody ever decides that genocide might be a good idea, and so he gives this abhorrent order to a pair of midwives, that they should kill any Hebrew baby who happens to be born male. Now, a lot of things in this story are unclear. It’s unclear from the original language whether or not these midwives are Hebrew themselves or rather simply Egyptian midwives to the Hebrew women. Further, from a narrative standpoint, it’s unclear exactly why this particular kind of male genocide would be any kind of good idea; Egypt’s development and construction is happening on the backs of Hebrew men, and it’s not entirely clear what Pharoah’s plan is for maintaining a standard of living to which his people have become accustomed without the slave labor which has made that standard of living possible. But that’s not really the story. The story is God’s people being set free.

And at first glance surely that’s exactly what happens in this particular text. These infant boys are sentenced to death and only by the intervention of these remarkable midwives do they outlive their punishments. Ordered to commit genocide, these midwives instead let the boys live. But when Pharaoh calls them on it, when these midwives again have audience with the Egyptian king, here’s where the story gets complicated. If this is truly a story of God’s people being set free, one might expect any number of things: a righteous defense of truth and justice – “It’s wrong to kill those children, and you know it’s wrong!”; or, a proclamation of theological prowess – “After all, the God of the Hebrews is on our side and surely our God will prevail over you!”; or, in the best tradition of American self-reliance, perhaps a simple declaration of Independence – “We’ve had it up to here with you and your power-crazed paranoia! We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna take it anymore!,” after which, in my imagination, these righteously indignant midwives storm out of the palace and ride off into the sunset. That’s the story I want. That’s God’s people set free.

But it’s not what I get. There’s no truth-telling. There’s no indignance. There’s no liberation. Instead these women tell Pharaoh the only thing that Pharaoh will believe. He’s so paranoid about the strength of the Hebrews, so they tell him the lie he will most readily accept. “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” You know those Hebrew women. They just pop ‘em out, left and right. And of course, Pharaoh believes it, because he wants to believe it, because he’s already paranoid about the strength of these Hebrews and he’ll believe any lie that feeds his paranoia. But I tell you it bothers me to no end that these women have to use that particular lie. It so sours the taste of victory that it comes by repeating the very prejudice and hatred that got them in this mix in the first place. Does it really count as a win if you’ve just made Pharaoh all the more paranoid, and, by extension, all the more dangerous? Yes, we’ve bought reprieve for a night, but this whole system is fundamentally violent, it’s fundamentally oppressive; can we really call it liberation if all we’re doing is buying time by playing along with Pharaoh’s worst fears?

I don’t want reprieve, I want liberation.

More than anything I just want these women to be free.

Of course what I want is so deeply informed by the week that just was. On Monday, surveillance video went public showing NFL running-back Ray Rice striking his wife to the floor, and then dragging her body from a hotel elevator. This incident was not news; it had been bantered around the public conversation earlier in the summer, but the video corroborated the worst possible version of events, and led to Rice’s dismissal from the Baltimore Ravens and a whole host of questions about who in the league office know of his behavior and when. But this sermon is not about football and violence — not even for those of you who threw something through a window last night after Tech lost. The other conversation that emerged in the wake of the Rice video focused on Janay Palmer, Rice’s abused wife. The peanut gallery of the Internet spoke its voice: why hadn’t she left him? Why would she put up with such behavior? Even if the spotlight and the league punishment bought her reprieve for a night, why would she want reprieve when you could have liberation? Why would she stay?

And yes, I know that the women in this story are not, strictly speaking, victims of spousal abuse. But I would submit that the dynamics are fundamentally equivalent. They are domestic servants. They have no recourse but to break the public bonds of servitude that bind them to the Pharaoh. They have neither the physical or political strength to resist — ironically, given Pharaoh’s obsession with the strength of the Hebrews. And of course I want them freed, I want the story of liberation, that’s the story of this book, right? That’s the story I want for all who live under the thumb of abuse and the corruption of power. But at some point we have to admit that we as people of this book, we as people of God’s word have done a particularly unjust job joining the chorus of liberation. How many countless Janay Palmers have stayed in violent and unhealthy relationships because some preacher said “love conquers everything” or because some deacon said “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”? How many women — and yes, it is predominantly women, 1.3 million American women physically assaulted by an intimate partner this year, 1 in 4 in their lifetimes — how many women have stayed because we told them to? Is Janay then not only a victim of her husband’s brutality, but of our callousness?

After letting the peanut gallery play out for an afternoon, Writer Beverly Gooden decided to change the conversation. She herself took to Twitter and told her own story:

  • “I tried to leave the house once after an abusive episode, and he blocked me. He slept in front of the door that entire night. #WhyIStayed”
  • “I stayed because my pastor told me that God hates divorce. It didn’t cross my mind that God might hate abuse, too. #WhyIStayed”
  • “He said he would change. He promised it was the last time. I believed him. He lied.
  • “I stayed because I was halfway across the country, isolated from my friends and family. And there was no one to help me.
  • “You think you know, but you have no idea. #WhyIStayed”

After Gooden’s confession, Twitter came to life with stories, #WhyIStayed. “I kept hoping it was a phase and that things would get better.” “B/c he never hit me and I didn’t think verbal abuse and emotional manipulation was considered an abusive relationship.” “Because good church girls persevere and overcome.” As the stories rolled in, one thing became clear: for anyone wanting to judge Janay Palmer for her complicity, for not running away, for not leaving the house, for anyone wanting to judge her for choosing the reprieve instead of the liberation, we may think we know, but we have no idea. Just like with these amazing, conniving, God-fearing midwives, we may want the big victories of justice and liberation. But it’s a lot different on the inside when all you’re trying to do is survive.

I so want to jump ahead in the story. In chapter 5, when Moses goes to Pharaoh and says “Let My People Go!” In chapter 14, when he holds up his arms and the Red Sea parts and Israel between the waters. In chapter 20, when he comes down from the mountaintop with God’s word carved into two stone tablets. That’s where this story is going, liberation and the promised land, that’s where we’re going, but this morning, we haven’t gotten there yet. And as much as I want to respect the particularity of Gooden’s story, or Janay Palmer’s story, the truth is that this opening bit of Exodus gets us right in that most tragic moment of the human experience: the place where we want something different, but there’s no way out. Whether it’s a job that doesn’t quite fit the way you’d like, or a family that doesn’t quite love they way you’d like, or a body that doesn’t quite behave the way you’d like, this is the hard Gospel of the text: that the story of liberation, the story of God’s people set free, that it’s not a free pass to make our lives exactly the way we’d like them to be. Sometimes the brokenness of the world paints us into corners from which we cannot find the exit. Sometimes we’re trapped, not because God wants us to be there, but because the wheels of justice turn sometimes more slowly than we can bear. I’m pretty sure that’s the story of these incredibly midwives. I’m pretty sure that’s #whytheystayed.

Make no mistake. The Exodus journey is not a journey about giving up. Quite the opposite: as we move through the weeks ahead, you will find in this text an unmistakable clarion call to resistance, to justice, to peacemaking, to following the steepest, rockiest, most narrowly-hewn path of discipleship. And you don’t even have to jump ahead: these midwives, of course, are the bedrocks upon which the journey of resistance and liberation begins. With nothing but their wits and the circumstance of their station they stave off the homicidal urges of a madman and a genocide of, well, Biblical proportions. These midwives leave us asking ourselves the most challenging questions: given who we are, given the circumstance of our station, given what we have been given, what justice can we serve? What powers can we overthrow? Whose liberation can we seek? As it has for generations, as it did for the Hebrews in Egypt and Israel in Exile, as it did for slaves bound to the plantation and blacks marching in city boycotts, this story is a clarion call for the unfolding righteousness of God, and in these lines you can hear the voice of the Almighty: This is where our journey is going. Are you with us? Will you fight with us? Can we go together?

But on the days when we just can’t move. On the days when life has boxed us in. On the days when it feels like God’s bus has left the station and we have stayed behind. On those days this story offers something even more powerful than justice. It offers hope. Hope in a child, wrapped in papyrus and set among the reeds. Hope in a people ready to stand together, unbroken and unbreakable. Hope in a God ready to tear apart even the waters themselves for the sake of our deliverance. So to these Hebrew midwives stuck under Pharaoh’s thumb, so also to every Janay Palmer and Beverly Gooden, to every woman who knows too well the physical and psychological terror of abuse, to every woman stuck in the particular terror of a relationship from which she cannot escape, to every one of us stuck in the generalized brokenness of creation itself, for every way in which we cannot resist, for every day upon which we cannot fight back, for every moment in which the wheels of justice turn more slowly than we can bear, this story says: it’s not over yet. This story’s not over. God’s story isn’t over. The day of justice yet waits to welcome us. The day of righteousness yet waits to shine upon us. The day of liberation yet waits to welcome us, arms open.

Have hope.

God’s story isn’t over.

You think you know, but you have no idea.