Exodus 1:8-21 (and following)

“Standing Up To Royal Misbehavior”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio

Rev. Allen V. Harris (1)

To hear this sermon as a podcast, click here: 110821SermonPodcast

Compassion has been given a bad rap over the eons.  This deep flowing character trait has often been equated with softness, ineffectiveness, and, well, let’s just be honest: wimpy-ness.  Caring, kind, and empathetic individuals are often relegated to the halls of futile and useless people, kind of like footnotes in the annals of history.

Case in point: today’s reading from Genesis, which has clearly been forgotten, hidden, or misunderstood.  It tells a story of not one, not two, not three, not four women, but FIVE women who understand that deep, abiding compassion is a force to be reckoned with, one that can indeed change the world.  Four women enslaved in Egypt and one, not.  Shiphrah and Puah, two Hebrew midwives, along with the woman who would be Moses’ mother and Miriam, his sister, and even Pharaoh’s daughter, all stand up to royal misbehavior with a power entirely different, but no less effective, than royal decrees and legislative mandates.  They understand that love, particularly in the service of the least, the last, the lost, and the less loved, will redeem creation.  They remind us that love, not law, will rule the day.

If you’ve been present the last few weeks you will remember that we’ve been following the story of Joseph as he moves from despised dreamboy brother to Pharoah’s second-hand-man.  Today’s text, in a magnificently concise subordinate phrase, relates today’s text with the epic story just passed.  “Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph…” All of the wisdom and courage and grace that had come to light in the story of this amazing Joseph, we are told, have been lost.  A new leader looks only to the present and future, and never to the wisdom of the past.

This should warn us to be frightened for our dear Hebrew forbearers, and we ourselves any time our leaders shun the past.  Quite frankly, I get very anxious any time I hear a groundswell of public opinion that bellows, “Throw the bums out!”  I happen to believe term limits for leaders is a bad public policy.  Learning from the past, having experience, building on work previously done, knowing the lay of the land are very good things for a leader to have.  Are there leaders who are bad?  Sure, but why have term limits when the easy – and best – way to get rid of bad leaders is to vote them out of office?  What term limits do is force the good, wise, and wonderful leaders out with the bad, ineffective, and self-serving ones so that we have no institutional memory.  Just like the Egypt of today’s text, not knowing the past will condemn the nation’s future to the wiles of the present leaders.

But I digress. I want to talk about the power of compassion.  The new king, who’s mindless of the salvation once brought to the nation through the Hebrew people, has only his own prejudices, legacy, and comforts in mind.  Like the rulers of many countries where immigrant populations have increased dramatically, this Pharaoh sees the flourishing not in terms of assets and possibilities, but in terms of threats and liabilities.  He uses their slave status against them, and increases their hard labor dramatically to build up his empire, hoping the backbreaking work would break their willpower and decrease their numbers.  The text emphasizes this as it tells us, “They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed upon them.”

This art is a little cheesy, but it's one of the only ones I could find specifically depicting Shiphrah and Puah.

But the immigrant Hebrew slaves only multiply.  So Pharaoh needs a secondary plan.  He tells all the Hebrew midwives, with Shiphrah and Puah being a representative delegation, that they are, by royal decree, to kill all the boys born to the Hebrews.  In the first act of compassionate insurgency, they refuse to be agents of violence and death.  Their calling was to bring life into the world, and they will be true to their calling.  Using his own racism and stereotypes against him, they feign an excuse by saying that the “Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women” and give birth too soon, before the midwives could get to the house.

As too many leaders who command out of fear do, the king broadens the scope of violence and calls his entire nation to be agents of death and to kill any newborn Hebrew boy.  His own maniacal fear mongering is spread like an infectious disease to the entire population, undoubtedly with phrases we hear in our own world, to contaminate the hearts and minds of his own people.  “These outsiders are going to take our jobs away from us!”  “They disrespect our culture and don’t appreciate our history!”  “They don’t speak our language!”  “They’re dirty and only interested in reproducing!”  Phrases we are hearing in 2011 all across Europe… and elsewhere.

But I digress.  I want to talk about the power of compassion.  And so, now that the royal edict has been sent out to all the peoples of the land, no Hebrew boy is safe.  The next section of scripture, beyond what was read today, tells the story of one such baby boy, given the name “Moses,” whose mother and older sister conspire to save the boy’s life by using Pharaoh’s own means of execution as a means of salvation: the Nile river.  In the second act of compassionate insurgency, the mother and sister act daringly, if not creatively.  Where the king instructed his citizens to throw the babies into the river to drown them, Moses’ mother puts her own baby, in a basket (the Hebrew word is the same word as “ark” used in the Noah story!) into this river.  The river, meant for death by Pharaoh, becomes a life-flowing stream of mercy and compassion.

Nicolas Poussin. Pharaoh's Daughter Finds Baby Moses. 1638. Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris, France

And who would discover the baby, floating in an ark of reeds upon the waters of death, but the king’s daughter herself!  She knows immediately that this is one of the Hebrew children.  In one of the cinematic effects that I particularly liked in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1965 film, The Ten Commandments, the baby has been wrapped in a blanket, with a particularly distinctive pattern, unique to the Hebrew people.  And in the third act of compassionate insurgence, the princess “took pity” on the baby, in a direct and outright act of criminal disobedience.  How often do we understand that pity, a fundamental element of compassion, is a strong, powerful, and life-changing force.  It is.  The daughter of the king, one who is blood of royalty and who regularly sits in the presence of the ultimate power of the land, changes the course of history with a momentary act of pity.  This is a lesson to be learned.

Too often pity, compassion, and mercy are seen as mindless.  “He wears his heart on his sleeve,” they say, as if to minimize his actions.  “She’s a pushover,” they say, as if her kindness is a shortcoming and weakness. And yet, in the ensuing events in this scripture text, we see compassion as a force to be reckoned with and kindness being sharp as a knife.  In what can only be describe as a brilliant strategy, Miriam has positioned herself near the princess when her baby brother is “discovered.”  She is quick to recommend a nursemaid for the baby, who is, in fact, his very own mother.  Pharaoh’s daughter, who I believe understood instinctively in the way that only women can, exactly what the plan was, and turned her new “son,” over to his biological mother to raise.  Thus, this Hebrew baby boy, at least, will be saved through compassion, and will then grow and live under the protection of the king’s court and commissioned with a greater mission from God.

Shiphrah, Puah, Moses’ mother, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter all act out of compassion.  Bold, bodacious, and brilliant compassion.  They are models of civil disobedience.  They remind us that love, not law, will rule the day.  Just look at Mahatma Gandhi and his us of satyagraha, or “soul force,” which, through non-violent, compassionate, and peaceful civil resistance stood up to the entire British Empire in its rule over India as well as to the white rulers of South Africa.  Just look to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his use of “soul force,” which through peaceful, compassionate, and faithful civil disobedience stood up to the deeply engrained and terribly violent racism of America in the 1900’s, as well as the virulent supporters of the war in Vietnam.  And today, we look to Mel White who, extolling the principles of both Gandhi and King, uses “soul force” to confront the entrenched homophobia and heterosexism of the American church and culture. (2)

All three of these men, Gandhi included, looked to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and compassion incarnate, Jesus Christ, as a model for how power is made perfect in love.  Paul said it best, “But [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’  So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me… For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

May you, my beloved, use the power of compassion, the strength of kindness, and the force of mercy for good in this world, for love, not law, will, indeed, rule the day.


(1) My original inspiration for this sermon came from a blog post, “Compassion over Law,” by Daniel Deffenbaugh, Seeds of Shalom, 2008. found online at:  http://www.seedsofshalom.com/2008/08/compassion-over-law.html

(2) For more information about Soul Force, go to: http://www.soulforce.org/

Check out our church’s website at www.FranklinCircleChurch.org