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Exodus 1:8-2:10
Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8
Matthew 16:13-20


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.

Well, here’s the ruthless truth: Summer, my dears, is coming to an end. It’s still
hot and humid and all of that, that’s not ending anytime soon. But the school year is looming, already begun in some parts of the country. Staff here at church are coming back into their offices and making plans for fall programs. Labor Day is right around the corner, and the taskmasters are getting ready. So how was your summer?

Our family had a summer of constantly changing plans. It seemed like whatever
we intended to have happen, something came along to change it. Hosting old
friends that we hadn’t seen for years? No, I got COVID. Seeing my brother as we drove through Spokane? No, our daughter got sick. Backpacking in the North Cascades? No, there was wildfire. Backpacking in the central Cascades? No, the stove stopped working. Join our friends on an island in upstate New York? No, Jim busted his kneecap. Some of these changes meant disappointment, not getting to do what we wanted – but we found ways to work around that, for the most part. But the main result was extra time, time without a plan or agenda, time in one place when we thought we’d be moving on, a lot of hanging around. Now, that should sound good, right? Don’t we all want more free time to just relax? Well, I struggle with this. If I’m not accomplishing something with my time, then what good is my life? My inner taskmaster is relentless. What are you producing with your time right now? Anything? If you’re not experiencing something new or deepening relationships with loved ones or crossing things off the to-do list or for goodness’ sake, relaxing the way you’re supposed to, then what are you doing? Fretting, that’s what. At least you should be reading something! Welcome to my internal dialogue. My taskmaster has a lot to say, all the time.

We all have these kinds of taskmasters, whether they be internal or external.
Internal monitors for how we should be and what we should do, sparking
constant uncertainty about whether we’re measuring up and doing the right
thing? – that’s the very definition of a New Yorker right there. It’s what drives so much of our culture, makes us people who are always striving for more. Those internal pressures, you could paint them as improving energies, what pushes us to do better. Even some of those external forces that constrain our lives and shape our very identities, the boss’ expectations, the deadlines, the teacher’s requirements, you could say they’re helping us grow.

But our taskmasters aren’t just relentless ruiners of vacation. Sometimes they’re ruthless oppressors. There are taskmasters who aren’t at all seeking our growth and well-being – those voices within us and outside of us that set us to hard labor, exploitation, bitterness. They might be internal voices left over from trauma or abuse. They might be external actors from all those -isms at work in the world, assailing us for our race, our age, our gender and orientation. Then there’s the powers of consumerism and capitalism, and the partisan categories for how we should think, the addictions, the dysfunctional families. And on and on. Every one of these forces pressures what we do and don’t do, how we live. Every one of these tries to direct us, and not for our benefit.

And yet Jesus says, I am here to bring life, life abundant. The good news is that we are God’s beloved children, made to live in the Promised Land, in freedom. But we find it so hard to get there.

It has ever been thus. Right there from the very beginnings of the formation of
God’s people, there’s the struggle to be whom God created them to be. When
Moses brought the people out of slavery in Egypt he had to fight against all these taskmasters. And they weren’t just external. A wonderful community organizer named Ernesto Cortes IAF likes to say that it took God one day to get the Israelites out of Egypt, but it took 40 years to get Egypt out of the Israelites. (He’s quoting the writer Michael Walzer.) We are such prey to those voices of oppression and death, the taskmasters and fearmongers at work in and on our minds. But as today’s story from Hebrew scripture shows us, it doesn’t have to be this way. This story, from the very beginning of the Israelites’ oppression, shows how it was before the oppression got into their heads.

The patriarchs and matriarchs of the original 12 tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and all his brothers, find their way to Egypt in order to survive famine and death. Things start off well for them there – but then things change. From honored servants of the king in prominent positions of power, the Israelites become enslaved laborers. The Egyptians are threatened by them, and in the timeworn traditions of despots everywhere, they try to overpower them: kill the boys, capture the girls, and so assimilate them out of existence. No more Hebrews. But like despots everywhere, they underestimate the women. Midwives, Pharoah said, be part of our nefarious plan – kill off those boy babies before they’ve hardly breathed their first breath. But the midwives Shiphrah and Puah, they pay no attention to this order. (And you know when a woman is named in Scripture she’s particularly important, these two names handed down all those generations because they saved the Hebrews from mass extermination.) Cleverly they tell Pharoah, oh, these Hebrew women, they’re like animals (which we know you think they are), just giving birth left and right, we can’t stop them. So then Pharoah says, then everyone has to be part of this, all Egyptians: kill those boys, throw them in the Nile. And yet a few months later, it’s his own daughter who disobeys him, falling in love with that little bitty baby that she knows very well is a child of the Hebrews, adopting him as her own. His smart older sister Miriam immediately makes sure that her mama gets to raise that boy after all – let me get a wet nurse for you! she says, and Pharoah’s daughter is wise enough to say yes. And so Moses gets his start. And so God’s people survive, and God’s blessing to the world begins to grow. Transformation begins.

They’re all so strong, these women – the midwives, Pharoah’s daughter, Miriam
and her mother. Somehow they haven’t yet internalized the tools of their
oppression. They still have the power to choose life instead of death. Given the
explicit order to kill and destroy, an order given by the supreme authority of the
land, they choose to save lives instead. How do they find the power to do this,
these women in this hard, cruel culture? They choose life instead of death
because that is what a midwife does, bringing a baby to birth and ensuring it can live. They choose life because that is what the heart leans toward, acting on their tender feelings for this helpless child there before them. They choose life because right there in front of them is new possibility and hope and they want to make a way for it. And their choice becomes key to the transformation of all the Hebrew people, because their choice means Moses survives and grows and becomes the leader God calls him to be, and through him, the people of Israel are transformed from oppressed and enslaved masses into a kingdom of priests and leaders. Choosing life instead of death opens the way for more life. Hope begets more hope.

So are these women braver than other people? Stronger, made of different stuff? Are they superheroes, supremely gifted, unlike ordinary folk? We don’t know that. All we know is what the text tells us: that the midwives do what they do because they feared God. More than any earthly ruler, they fear God – they know what God would have them do, and that is their ultimate authority for how to act. It’s the story of ordinary heroes throughout time and eternity, the civil rights leaders in this country, the saints and elders we have known, the upstanders and all those who live with quiet goodness in this world. God made them to live abundantly and to bring forth life, and that is how they live. Just as God makes each one of us. To live, and to bring forth life.

Paul writes, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the
renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God– what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The taskmasters are strong and they wield a lot of power over us. Some of them
we know are puny and just inside our heads. Others are them are frightening and truly might destroy us. But these women have some suggestions for how to deal with them: Say no when something is wrong. Disobey the oppressor’s voice, even when that voice is inside us. Let the heart lead. Allow others to help. And above all, choose to believe first in who God says we are, and what God says we are for. Choose life and possibility. And so make way for life and possibility and hope in this world. Transform it.

God wants for us full and abundant life. We are made to live in freedom, in the
Promised Land. We know the way. Because our help is in the Name of the Lord,
the maker of heaven and earth. And therein lies our strength.

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