The Dread of the Egyptians – Lectionary 08/23/2020

Exodus 1:8-16

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore, they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.”

Sermon Text

            Shall we address the elephant in the room. Namely, that there is probably very few topics that could excite us less on a Sunday morning than talking about the topic of race and specifically a service of repentance centered on race. Our thoughts fly at what sort of accusations may be thrown our way, what political statements will be pushed, what ultimately we are asked to do that we simply do not see to be the case in our life. However, to pull back the curtain of sermon planning, today’s sermon was planned out before I ever knew this congregation. I had its title, I had its text, I had everything but the words that were put in it prepared before I would know anything about 2020 and its onslaught of events.

            Likewise, I invite us to see discussions of race, not as something dreaded, but as a necessary reality of the world we inhabit. Many of us can think to times in our life when this topic was not always so close at hand, but most of us if we were honest will see quickly that the problems discussed openly today, still existed back then. If we are honest it was only because we lived in largely white areas and because the internet did not exist that we were not always able to learn about just how real, just how pervasive, and just how deadly issues of race continue to be in the United Sates. As the world around us diversifies, as we become a more connected society, we cannot be strangers to discussions of race because it will no longer be a problem, over there, but one here among us, in our own communities and our own families.

            We must also drop our defensiveness, be willing to hear and willing to accept that we all take part in the problems around us. We must, like Ninevah, not respond to the prophet’s call against us with whattaboutism and denial, but put on our sackcloth and sit in ashes. We must understand that as long as one sibling in Christ suffers unfairly, none of us have any right to sit calmly on the sidelines. Our scripture for today demands we engage in self-reflection.

            Some passages of scripture exist as accounts of history, a record of what happened and nothing more. Some passages offer an eternal statement of hope, a glimmer that can be glimpsed even in the darkest nights of the soul. Some, and these are the most terrifying of all, are statements of judgment, towering white thrones that overshadow us and leave us to fear for ourselves – not only for our present state of being, not only the future of our earthly lives, but for our eternal soul. These are the examples of evil or of righteousness that are so striking, so profoundly plain in their implication that all we can do is behold them and tremble.

            Today is one such text. We read about a Pharaoh, which one does not matter, his name is purposefully omitted from the narrative. This Pharaoh is not of the dynasty before him, he does not know of how an Israelite saved his people from famine in generations past, he only looks out into the outskirts of his capital – to the land of Goshen – and find himself filled with malice. The Israelites, called Hebrews by the Egyptians, have coexisted and worked with the Egyptians for some time now, and they have become a prosperous people living with and beside the old Egyptian families. Yet their customs are different, their God is different, they have not fully aligned to the ways of the Egyptians, and their differences cause the Pharaoh to fear.

            This fear leads to Pharaoh oppressing the Hebrews. First, they are put to forced labor. Then when this does not deter them, they are pushed to the brink of death in the work that they are made to do. Unsatisfied with this, Pharaoh decides to cut off the problem at the root – two midwives, likely overseers of others in the same profession, are commanded to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrews. Later in the text they refuse to do so and Pharaoh instead tasks his citizens to do the job for him, commanding they kill any Hebrew boy-child on sight.

            The story is a tragedy from beginning to end, it is a story of pure hatred, that cannot be rationalized away by any legitimate metric of thought. The desire to crush an entire race of people simply because they reside alongside you, to see them as an essential threat, to see in them a future you cannot abide, a future where you are not the majority, that is a terrifying precipice to find oneself upon. If a person backs away from that precipice they may be saved, but the moment they take the step, the moment they let themselves be consumed by this kind of paranoia, then all is lost and it is very unlikely they will truly recover from such a fall.

            Yet, the program of Pharaoh was never only played out once. It has repeated itself again and again over history. Pharaoh crushed and killed the Hebrews who lived among him. Ancient humans massacred the Neanderthals who lived among them. Athens annihilated the people of Melos. Even the Hebrews, once victims of such violence themselves, annihilated the Midianites and the Amalekites. The fear of people unlike ourselves, those united to us in our shared humanity but separated from us by accidents of location and culture, this is one of the most primal of human instincts.

 It is also the most innately sinful, the most wretched and cruel, it is the evil that marks the first true villain of scripture and his inaugural address to the audience. A king who we do not know the name of, a King who is lost to history and time, but whose cruelty we know well. The Pharaoh who knew not Joseph, the perpetrator of the first recorded campaign of eugenics in history. A campaign played out, time and time again.

            An evil like this is hard to kill. It is rooted in the sin of Cain who killed his brother for fear that the younger child might overcome the older, the smaller overcome the larger. However, as God told Cain in the land East of Eden, this Sin desires to have us for itself, “but [we] must master it.” (Gen. 4:7) I say we, I say us, because the sin of Pharaoh lives on to this day and it will not cease to be until every root of it is ripped out from our hearts. We have read the scripture for today, the Judgment Seat is set before us, what happens next – repentance and pardon or reticence and perdition, that is up to us.

            We are all children of our upbringing, and having grown up myself just a few counties over, there is something of a zeitgeist that hangs over all of us. This “spirit of the world,” is found in the shared traditions that we hold, the shared community and feeling of belonging we all have in the wide valleys of our home. The fertile land watered by the Potomac that we call home is not dissimilar to the fertile silt of the Nile long ago, our insular communities nestled between hills not unlike the beacon of civilization which Memphis and Rameses would have served as for the Ancient Egyptian people.

            However, we do not only share a fertile land and insulated geography with the Egyptians. We also share a sense of dread. The homogeny which was so long a reality across our portion of the world is ending – people move in from all around the world, people of all races and creeds, all shades of skin and all languages of the tongue. The world shifts around us, the reality occurs to us that our seeming ubiquity, the universal experience we have claimed to hold onto, may be much more relative. We face an absurdity in our mind, that there are peoples unlike us, peoples who before we may have known tangentially or in small number, but that are now increasing in number around us, the whiteness of the world we have constructed around us, the American and English-speakingness of the world, begins to break down, and diversity begins to manifest to us.

            Dread, that is the word I used a moment ago. Why did I do that? There should be nothing about changing demographics to upset us, nothing about people moving from one part of the world or country to another that disturbs us, and yet a term like dread enters the conversation. It must be used because if there is any honesty among us, any willful revelation of our hearts, we will see that often the first brush we have with something new, with a change in something as small as a new neighbor is fear and even animosity. When that change goes beyond a stranger to someone we have deemed as other, then we naturally begin to dread, we naturally are overtaken by a wickedness deep within our heart. The desire to return to simpler, uncomplicated homogeny, the first seed of a dangerous weed planted within our hearts – the seed of hatred, of distrust, of murder.

            Perhaps that seems extreme, after all we all presume that we are good people here. Good church going folks who attend to the ordinances of God as best as we are able. We see ourselves as open and loving, if we allow any preference in our hearts it is a meritocracy rather than any concept of supremacy. We say in our hearts, “I give everyone their fair shake,” but we say this in the shadow of the weed that has been growing up in the dark as we looked away from it. The weed of resentment, the weed of oppression, the weed of murder. It manifests in those little phrases we all hear and excuse, the gripes that we lift-up when our audience is assumed to be sympathetic to us. It is the sort of thing that allowed a friend of mine to say of Winchester, “There used to be so many regular people who lived there, but now they’re all Hispanic.” As if the base definition of a human was White-Anglo-Saxon.

            Throughout our short history as a nation, we have been no stranger to letting these vicious choking weeds overtake us. In the United States, the fist settlers sought to systematically eliminate and displace the native population. Then we amassed legions of enslaved Africans pulled from their homes. Then we regulated their reproduction, culled those who were weak or considered a danger, and only by force were most freed. The shadow of this hangs over us especially, as we now stand in the shadow of a Church that was originally a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, a denomination within Methodism founded in support of slavery.

            As we spread West, we pushed Native Americans further and further, till now they only exist in a few scant reservations that we have forced into poverty. We hired Chinese labor and created what was essentially a new slave workforce to build our railroads and cities in the West. When we began to fear they were too numerous we expelled great multitudes from our borders. As Irish and Italians fled Europe to our supposedly safe shores, they were locked out of professions and prevented from taking jobs. As a generation or two passed, as their distinguishing marks of other-ness faded with their accents, we turned our malice back to familiar targets.

            The Jim Crow South sought to re-establish white superiority through campaigns of torment and murder. The Ku Klux Klan was a significant source of trouble after the Civil War, to be sure, but no more dangerous than the everyday citizenry and politicians who not only did nothing but would often encourage them. “The blacks, the Hispanics, the Asians, all persons who were unlike white America were to be subjugated.” So said this mentality. “If they could not be broken, if they could not be worked near to death, then the only recourse was to kill,” and kill we did. And kill we do. Hate crimes continue to rise in the United States, violence against non-white citizens for the color of their skin or their lineage still continues. An outside observer might look at our silence about ongoing cruelty, our unwillingness to examine ourselves, and might conclude we are proud inheritors of the sin of our fathers.

            Lest we pretend all this is far away from us, or that we are somehow immune to this evil. I return to the reality that put us to thinking about this topic at all. When we look around us and see that the demographics of our world has changed, what is our response. Do we start worrying we are being replaced? Do we fear our jobs have somehow been coopted by new blood entering the work pool? Do we even begin fearing our time as the majority is coming to an end? Do we dread, as the Egyptians did so long ago, that our very own Hebrews may soon outnumber us? Do we indulge in the thoughts, the meditations of the heart, that lead to Pharaoh’s great sin?

            We have to admit if we do. We have to repent if we do. Over the past hundred years, the Sin of racial exceptionalism and white supremacy has only grown. Deep within the shadows of our conversations is the idea that we are somehow exceptional, that we are somehow unique, special, original. The doctrine of the 1800s, that the white “Nordic,” races are the true heirs of civilization – that America was founded for and by whites, – it manifests in every aspect of our civilization. It is why when we have Spanish speaking neighbors move into the area we begin worrying about their immigration status instead of bringing them a welcome gift. It is the reason our ears bristle when someone speaks a language other than English in the grocery store. It is the reason we create a thousand qualifications for people to become our neighbors, when all we ever did to end up in the country and area we live in, as the race we exist as, was be born.

            The Dread of the Egyptians, the specter of racism, the underlying doubt we have of all persons unlike ourselves and all countries but our own. It is a Sin as deep and dark as Hell, and it is rooted in the most basic and wretched quality of our sinfulness. It cannot be denied because salvation is rooted in opposition to it. The Passover is a remembrance that God delivered the Hebrews from Pharaoh. Jesus died at Passover under a new Pharaoh, the Pharaoh of Rome who saw him as a criminal, who saw his executioners as justified, who saw authority as sufficient to justify murder.

            A year and three weeks ago we witnessed the El Paso shooting, a murder spree motivated by conspiracies of “White Genocide,” that white Americans were somehow being replaced. That Sunday was the first time we as a congregation discussed racisms evil together, I wonder if we’ve changed since then. The Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, again just a year ago and again motivated by the Dread of the Egyptians. The Charlottesville alt-right rally that saw a protestor run over by a car while people nearby shouted, “They will not replace us!” was only three years ago. Synagogue shootings, church shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing. All these horrific acts of evil, all are rooted in the Dread of the Egyptians, in our sin of white supremacy, in our tolerance of racist rhetoric that pits us against our neighbors.

            The failure to repent of its sin led to Egypt experiencing its 10 plagues. For the Israelites we are told unrepentance led to the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem, to the displacement of their people throughout all the world. For the sin of Assyria Babylon was allowed to conquer, for the sin of Babylon, Persia was allowed to conquer. For us today, we were given one warning. The cross of Christ, the mission of salvation and the final prophet’s warning to us to repent. We stand at a precipice; the white throne of judgment is raised against us. Are we going to take a step forward into perdition or will we repent and find ourselves saved? The choice is ours. The choice is one we must make. May God have mercy on our souls.

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