Vicar's Sermon - March 6th
Exodus 2. 1-10
The film ‘The Last king of Scotland’ is not about James VI, later to be James 1st of England and Scotland. It is about Idi Amin. It tells the story of a young medical student turned doctor who finds himself as Amin’s personal physician during his rise to power as President of Uganda back in the 1970s. The young doctor played by James McAvoy enjoys the prestige and the access that it brings to the highlife of Kampala...but then everything turns sour. By the end of the film you don’t know whether he will live or die. The dictator is in turns full of charm...and then horrifically violent. Those around him live in fear for their own lives and project that fear into dreadful acts of torture against others and murder. As the lights come up in the cinema you know that you have looked into the heart of darkness.
Joe was friendly, avuncular even. Except that ‘Uncle Joe’ Stalin could, with the stroke of a pen consign a whole community to life in a Siberian Gulag. Broad smiles, a big cigar...who would have thought? Underneath a viciousness that took no prisoners. Further west Herr Hitler was generous to his friends. He seemed to enjoy the simple ‘Arian’ life of the German Volk...but he of course was capable of dreaming up the Final Solution that saw the deaths of millions in the ‘work camps’ of Poland.
What happened? Where did these horrors come from? The thing is, they were not new. After the events of the 1930s and 40s, even after the events of the pogroms in Russia earlier in the century that saw Jewish communities uprooted and scattered no Jew can read the story of the Exodus without thinking ‘this is still happening’.
Something switches in the mind of Pharaoh and he is driven by fear andparanoia ...and then a whole community that has been simply getting on with living, working at jobs that the host nation (Egypt) doesn’t enjoy (tending flocks of sheep and goats in the Goshen area of the country)...suddenly this people is seen as a threat....an enemy within...a danger to national security. And with this fear comes violence and suspicion.
The undercurrent of today’s reading is one of terror. The story of Moses in the bulrushes is told in bible story books complete with bright pictures but it comes straight out of a nightmare. The antidote to Pharaohs fear as he sees it is scape-goating and death. The plan is conceived with no less efficiency than that decided upon for Europe’s Jews in the 1940s. Every male child is to be killed: the male line of each and every family is to come to an end. These people, the Hebrews, have lived in Egypt for generations. They know the language, they have lives and homes and families. They have neighbours who are Egyptian and there has been no problem....but now, the landscape has changed and they must be herded together into one place, they must be humiliated and their families broken by the power of the state. No wonder asylum seekers in Middlesbrough don’t want their front doors to be painted the same colour. In our story we can draw parallels with Vichy France – families of Jews living in fear, protected by neighbours at risk to themselves. We are in the Netherlands with Anne Frank hiding in an attic. This is a modern story as well, lived out by Yazidis and Christians in Iraq: marked by ISIS for death on the sole basis of their religion and ethnicity. The fear within Pharaoh has percolated down to every level of society: good people, talented people face are spat at in the streets as the ghettos are created and hard lines are drawn between Jew and Egyptian.
Acts of resistance are futile. No one knows who to trust. Read Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin to understand how this feels. Would you want to find yourself up against Amin?...what courage would it take to oppose Stalin of Hitler? Get real. But one woman...a mother...does what she can and she finds help from the most unexpected of places. She puts her child in an ark, a basket, and sets it loose on the River Nile. It’s no accident that the word for Moses’ basket is the same as that for Noah’s ark. Both ark and basket, against the odds, carry the hope of God’s purposes winning through - Noah and his family surviving the deluge to help rebuild the world, Moses coming through the darkest of times with his people to lead them to a new place – but at the darkest moment Hope appears walking by the river.
Down by the river a woman sees the child and rescues him – that woman is one of the most courageous in all of the scriptures: and she is Egyptian, not Jewish, not one of God’s people at all. She is (like the Good Samaritan in the New Testament) someone who is from the ‘other side’, ‘the enemy’. More than this, every day from this day this woman will stand in the presence of her Pharaoh father and protect the child she calls Moses (an Egyptian name by the way, not a Jewish name) against his will and command. On the surface she appears to support her father’s murderous policies but (at risk to herself) she is actually acting against them. From this point on she will be walking on egg shells every day of her life. She is accompanied by others by the river – any one of whom might report her for treason. Her actions – striking a deal with the child’s sister, entrusting him to the care of a ‘wet nurse’ who she knows (as do we) to be the child’s birth mother – her actions show that her compassion was not a passing feeling but a conscious choice to act humanely – these things set her apart as a remarkable young woman. There is a Jewish saying ‘to save a life is to save the whole world’: this she does, and without her the whole of history would have taken a different turn.
As we salute her what do we do with this reading? What do we make of it now as children are washed up not on the banks of the Nile but on the shores of Europe and find themselves separated from their parents in the camps that stretch from Greece right up to the coast of France? How are we to view the strangers in our midst? ...the eastern Europeans, the people with different customs, their different foods, different religions, different languages to us?
For a start we should be watchful of those who stoke up an environment of fear: for this story shows us that fear will set one group against another, fear will take us towards force and violence being the answer to our problems and will stifle creative and imaginative solutions to the issues we face. Watch what you say therefore and how you say it for as the Pope reminded Donald Trump the other week ‘Christians are in the business of building bridges not walls’. Do not succumb to fear for that way leads to disaster.
And remember that within every community we can find common human values of compassion and courage. Moses’ birth mother and his adoptive mother found themselves speaking the same language despite their backgrounds and class: the person on the TV who might appear to be so different is, in all likelihood just like you. They want security, a place to live, a place for their family to be safe and to flourish: is that so bad? They are not the enemy. The enemies are the abuse of power and the warfare that this has produced: not the people these things have displaced.
So where are you in this story? I suspect many of us find ourselves rather uncomfortably in the shoes of the Egyptian Princess...what will we do? For here is a child before us. Here are many children...will we look the other way, blame them for the mess they are in, assume they are someone else’s problem...Pharaohs daughter refused to do these things. We don’t know her name but at risk to herself she held on to her humanity: that takes courage and hers is the example we are called to follow.