Preached by Rev. George Yando on August 27, 2017.
The Crowded Altar
One Sunday a while back, after I had been here for a few services, a member of the congregation came up to me after worship and told me how much she was enjoying the sermons. She went on to say that the first thing she did upon arriving on Sunday morning and receiving a copy of the order of service was to look at the key verse in the bulletin’s title block, then at the sermon title, and try to guess – or figure out – what direction the sermon might go.
This morning’s key verse from Romans, with Paul’s urging for believers to present themselves as a living sacrifice to God – coupled with the sermon title, “The Crowded Altar” would suggest a focus on the passage from Romans. I recall years ago, shortly after making a recommitment to Christian faith in my early twenties, listening to a Baptist preacher speak on this passage from Romans and offer the observation that, “The problem with living sacrifices is they have a tendency to crawl off the altar.” I’ve never forgotten that.
We’ll get to that comment in a few minutes, but I’d like to begin this morning by spending a little time on the story that was our Old Testament lesson. It presents the background to the birth of Moses and the drama that saw him lifted from a precarious advent among Hebrew slaves to a lofty position of advantage among the Egyptian elite.
In reviewing that story, we’ll come to discover that Paul’s impassioned plea about being living sacrifices to God resonates through the story of Moses; and in turn, that same story has something to say to Paul’s challenge to Christians in his day – and in ours – the challenge of faithful living.
First, a word about our context, about who we are as Christians living in Canada in the early twenty-first century.
For one, we don’t live under Pharaoh. Our prime minister does not have absolute power over us, nor is he revered as god. We at least hold onto the illusion of choice when it comes to our rulers. None of us are slaves. Things were very different in Moses’ day however.
In our context, it would be easy to hear today’s story from the Hebrew Bible as simply a rather charming tale about a baby in the bulrushes, and move on – and that is what many Christians do in response to this story. But to do so would be to overlook a story which contains a radically generous invitation to us all.
It’s true that we don’t have a Pharaoh. But powerful and manipulative forces do shape our lives in ways we cannot control. We all live under the domination of global capitalism. It is so big and so pervasive that the ways it affects our lives are almost invisible – but take a look around. Our elected representatives often make political decisions based not on what the electorate wants, nor on what the future holds, but in response to powerful corporate interests. How and where we shop, what we buy, what we eat, what we wear, how we travel and how we spend our leisure time are all affected by global capitalism.
Some industries, such as aerospace and automotive manufacturing, companies like Bombardier, General Motors and General Electric are heavily subsidized, while wind farms, organic growers and bicycle manufacturers do not receive the same subsidies. Much of our clothing is manufactured overseas in sweatshops which are not subjected to fair labour laws.
We swallow the myth that we are struggling, marginalized underdogs, even when it’s told to us in our homes, on enormous television sets located in the leisure and recreation rooms of the biggest houses on the planet. Meanwhile, those who really are battling – single parents, the chronically ill, students, the poor – are given short shrift in our government’s budgets; and asylum seekers are herded through a reception process like cattle through chutes and stockades as we bleat about protecting our borders, while annually thousands of air arrivals overstay their visas with little attention and virtual impunity.
None of us can control the processes and policies of global capitalism or its political minions. We are not terribly powerful. Nevertheless, we all benefit from the system. Because whether or not we feel comfortable with the idea, most of us are the rich; relative to a large segment of the global population, we are rich. We are the people who live in big houses, drive cars, have wardrobes packed with clothes; we travel for pleasure and spend more money on social or recreational pursuits than many families live on for an entire year.
This, then, is the context in which we encounter today’s story, a story that sets the scene for the Exodus, that great mass migration of a people out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. Knowing this, it is tempting to focus on the man who led them, Moses – but if we do, we miss the point. And it is tempting to focus on the idea of personal liberation, but again, we would miss the point. Instead, it is the many players who keep a baby alive who make the story relevant to us now.
The story opens with a new Pharaoh in Egypt, who decides to unite his empire by setting it against the Israelite people. He forces the Hebrews into slave labour, and instructs the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys. But Shiphrah and Puah, the first savers of life, quietly refuse.
Then there is the mother who hides her baby away as long as possible, then places him in a basket and sets him floating on the Nile. Next we meet Pharaoh’s daughter, who finds the baby and takes pity on him. Finally there is the baby’s sister, who speaks to Pharaoh’s daughter and arranges for the baby’s mother to be his wet nurse until he is old enough to be adopted, and named.
The only reason the baby lived – the baby who became Moses and led his people out of slavery – was because of the saving actions of many: the list begins with Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives who refused to follow Pharaoh’s orders, choosing life over death and the God of Israel over the god of Egypt. The baby’s mother also chose life, hiding the baby away then taking a chance with his life in a basket on the river. Then Pharaoh’s daughter, who found the baby and realised it was Hebrew, also chose life. And then there was the baby’s sister who lingered around the waterhole of the slave drivers at who knows what risk, to watch over her baby brother’s life.
This story of salvation required the action and involvement of many people. Some of them were nobodies: Hebrews, slaves, women. One of them was a somebody: Pharaoh’s daughter. Yet it was only because of their combined efforts that the baby lived.
We need to hear this because, domestically, most of us are nobodies. We don’t have the ear of our Prime Minister. For all the petitions and campaigns and nonviolent actions we might sign or support, we often fail to effect much change in government policies which lock up children and asylum seekers. We don’t seem to have much impact on federal budgets which penalise the poor, single mothers, students, the chronically ill, and yet which make it even easier for big business to turn massive profits. Despite our efforts, the Arctic Icepack looks destined to disappear while new potash mines are opening up on some of our prime farming land. And for all our pleas and petitions, the promises made by both parties prior to being elected have yet to come to fruition in regard to real substantive progress in reconciliation with the indigenous peoples of this land. In our context, we are little people.
As little people, it is easy to be discouraged. But this story should encourage us. It shows that the actions of little people, no matter how small, can have enormous impact. We don’t know what the impact will be, but when, like the midwives, and like the baby’s mother and sister, we reverence God more than we fear Pharaoh, when we choose life and love over personal comfort, then we too will make choices which are part of God’s plan of salvation. So we need to hear this story as the little people that we are.
But we also need to hear it because, internationally, we are big people. We are wealthy beyond measure while others suffer. Our houses are among the biggest in the world. Our wardrobes overflowing with cheap clothes are possible thanks only to the lethal conditions on Indian cotton farms, the appalling conditions of garment factories in China and Bangladesh and Cambodia, their special economic zones where normal labour laws don’t apply. Our comfort and wealth rides on the backs of countless, invisible, oppressed people, past and present, in ways it is difficult even to imagine.
We cannot opt out of all these systems of power which grant us privilege and control our lives. But we can make choices. And that is exactly what this story shows us.
The story makes clear that Pharaoh’s daughter was a member of the powerful elite. She was born into the wealthy ruling class. She had handmaids and attendants. Her house was built from bricks made by Hebrew slaves. Her clothes were fashioned from fabric woven by Hebrew women. Her wealth was built on the backs of others. It may have been more obvious in her time – she may have actually jostled up against the ones who served her, whereas we just read about them when their factories collapse – but she and we are in the same boat.
Now, the Exodus is a story told by the Israelites. It would have been easy for them to demonise their oppressors, and who could be more demonic than a member of Pharaoh’s own family? Or, instead of demonising their oppressors, they could have ignored them. It’s much easier to write them out of the story than to acknowledge their presence and name it good.
But this story doesn’t do that. Instead, it tells us that a member of the ruling class took part in God’s saving action. Pharaoh’s daughter – perhaps a spoiled brat, certainly an aristocrat and definitely the owner of slaves – took pity on a slave baby who was under sentence of death and adopted him. Who knows what the penalty would have been, had her father found out? It’s likely she took an enormous risk and yet, she chose life. So this story shows that God’s call to choose life over death extends to all of us, even those who benefit from the status quo.
And this is the beginning of a great story of salvation, of God’s liberating action in the world. It is a story first told by the underdogs, the youngest sons, the ones without land. It is a story told by the Palestinians. Now it is a story for indigenous peoples all over the world. It is a story for the Nepali men on work visas in Doha, Qatar who are constructing buildings and facilities for the 2020 World Cup Soccer championship, men whose pay and passports are being withheld by their employers and who are dying from heat exhaustion and extreme fatigue in brutal working conditions. It is a story for the garment workers in Bangladesh, and the virgins sold in the streets of Pnomh Penh, and the Kalahari bushmen of Australia forced off their land, and the African Americans living in urban slums and the refugees and asylum seekers who are turned away from borders in Europe and in North America.
But it is also a story for us, because it tells us that we are all needed: midwives and slaves, women and children and yes, the powerful, too. We are all invited to work, in ways big and small, against the powers which destroy people’s lives. The God of the Israelites is much, much bigger than one nation, one people, one clan, and God invites all of us into the work of liberation time and time again.
Our actions might be small: a letter to our MP, a name on a petition, a choice for fair trade, a cup of water to one of God’s little ones. Our actions might be big, like Rev. Lim, the Korean pastor jailed for helping the disadvantaged in North Korea, and the countless medical professionals and relief workers toiling on behalf of the desperately destitute in some of the most dangerous and war-torn places on earth. Our actions might be carefully plotted and carried out with humour – think of the way the midwives played on Pharaoh’s prejudices, saying Hebrew women just slipped their babies out before the midwives could get there – or our actions may be a spontaneous, necessary response to a situation of oppression which presents itself on a quiet weekday morning. Our actions may be individual, just as the women in this story acted alone or in pairs; or they may be corporate, such as when the whole people joined together and left Egypt for the Promised Land.
Whether our actions are big or small, national or local, individual or corporate, this story shows that we cannot know what ripple effect they might have. None of the women in this story knew that her action would lead to the Exodus. In the same way, we cannot know what God’s plan is, or who will next be set free. But when we let our hearts of stone be moved by compassion; when we reverence God more than we fear Pharaoh; when we act not out of fear, but out of love, then we too will have a role to play in God’s unfolding story of liberation.
It doesn’t matter where we are placed. It doesn’t matter whether we are the oppressor, or the oppressed – and in our society, we are always a bit of both. Because this story tells us that we all have a role in God’s work against violence and exploitation; we can all participate in God’s passion for justice. Each of us, big or little, somebody or nobody, rich or poor, is invited to step away from the powers which control us, and walk towards a new way of life.
Remember Paul and his challenge to be living sacrifices? Remember that Baptist preacher’s wry observation about living sacrifices that are tempted to crawl off the altar? The story from Exodus confirms for us that the altar is not a lonely place at all but is in fact quite crowded. For where there is community, collaboration, unity and common purpose, there is strength and heightened resolve and hope. The altar may be crowded but there’s room for plenty more. And with such sacrifices God is mightily pleased. Amen.