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Co-Conspirators -- Exodus 1:8-2:10 (Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost)




This is the beginning of the Exodus story – the story of God’s liberating action in the world – as God hears the cry of God’s people in Egypt and brings them out of bondage into freedom. It is a story of liberation, so it’s not surprising that it begins in a world of oppression. A new king has risen to power in Egypt – he has watched this Hebrew people thrive – and their very thriving becomes for him an imagined threat. And so he enslaves them.


As we enter this story, we see a world of slavery. We see a world where a people who have settled in the land are singled out, named as different, and oppressed. We see a despot who stirs up fear of the other as a means for solidifying his own power. We see government action to kill the children of this people, a genocidal plan. And we see the systemic impact of all that – the structures of oppression that emerge – as these Hebrew people are worked harder and harder, with no wage for their work, building storehouses for Pharaoh.


And at the very beginning of the story, in the first words, we discover that one of the things that has gone wrong is that Pharaoh has forgotten his history – has forgotten their history.[1] “A new King arose who knew not Joseph.” Pharaoh forgets how, generations before, these two peoples had lived together and survived famine together. He forgets their humanity, and their story. And that allows him to re-write this other world – this world that sees the other as enemy and oppresses and kills.


So lest we forget too, it might be good for us, at the outset, to remember our history – to remember and name our own history of slavery – the slavery that plagued this nation at its inception, and whose reverberations have echoed down over the generations. If we remember our history, we might see how our dominant culture has singled out and marginalized those who are different, again and again. We might see our leaders, past and present, as they demonize those they label as foreign, to maintain their own power.


We might see how our own government cages children and kills young women and men. We might see the systems that we have put in place to keep all this going – unjust economic systems, education systems, policing systems, incarceration systems – all interconnected. If we consider their history and ours, we might see in their world a reflection of our own. If we remember.


But then also remember: This is a story of liberation. A story of how God enters into all of this and leads a people out into freedom. And this story begins with five women. It begins with the midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – and a sister, and a mother, and a daughter. The sister we know to be Miriam. The mother of Moses we will find out is Jochebed. And the daughter of Pharaoh will later be given the Hebrew name by the Hebrew people – Batya.


Shiphrah, Puah, Miriam, Jochebed, and Batya – these five women are – as my friend Rabbi Meredith Cohn loves to say – they are “the women who started the revolution.”

A king has come to power who knows not Joseph, and he becomes deathly afraid of the Hebrew people. There’s no real reason given, except that they are living and thriving and free. And so the king stirs up this fear, enslaves them, and then sets out to kill them off. He does this by inviting in the Hebrew midwives – Shiphrah and Puah – and commanding them that when they are with the Hebrew mothers and their sons are born – while the mothers are still on the birthing stool, the midwives are to kill the mother’s sons.


But Shiphrah and Puah say No. They leave their meeting with Pharaoh, and the next day or maybe the day after that, they are called to the birthing room. They coach the mother, reminding her to breathe, and when the baby is born – they hear Pharaoh’s command – and in their hearts, or maybe out loud – they say “No.” And the babies live.

Now, Pharaoh doesn’t like this one bit so he calls Shiphrah and Puah in. The stakes are high – they’ve disobeyed Pharaoh’s command – and he rages at them, demanding to know what has happened. Shiphrah and Puah give their best shrug and say, “Gosh, those Hebrew women are strong; they manage to give birth all on their own before midwives can even get there.” Pharaoh’s plan fails. And the Hebrew babies live.


Then we have Miriam, Jochebed, and Batya. Frustrated with his first plan, this mad Pharaoh comes up with a second. All of the baby boys are to be thrown into the river and drowned. Jochebed gives birth to Moses. And all Jochebed and Miriam can do is to build a little boat for him – a basket – an ark – and set him afloat in the reeds – and hope.


And there’s Pharaoh’s daughter bathing on the shore, and she sees the baby. She has her servants pull the basket out of the water – and she knows he is Hebrew – which means she knows that there is a royal command that he be killed. Then Batya sees his sister, Miriam, and Miriam asks, “Shall I find someone to nurse him?” And Batya thinks, and says, "Yes, please do.” Jochebed nurses Moses; and Batya then takes him into Pharaoh’s own palace and raises him as her own. And he lives.


These five women resist Pharaoh’s genocidal plans. They save the Hebrew people. The save Moses. There is no Moses without them. There is no Exodus without them. They are “the women who start the revolution.”


Now, how in the world do they do that? Well, to answer that, we first have to do our power analysis – we have to understand the power at work here to understand how it is resisted and dismantled. And we have to do that using the lens of what law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw has called “intersectionality.”[2] Intersectionality recognizes that there are always multiple forces of power and privilege at work (race, gender, economic status), and you’ve got to name and understand how they are at work before you can do the work of unravelling, resisting, and dismantling.


So here, all five of these women are... women. They are women living in a patriarchal system – so that is a first system of oppression that is at work against every one of them.


· Shiphrah and Puah the midwives, are also Hebrew. They are women in a patriarchal culture, and they are women living in slavery. But, in this story, they are also given a sliver of power and privilege by Pharaoh. Pharaoh assigns them a task, and gives them power over the lives of newborn Hebrew children. They are Hebrew women, but they have this power of life and death over that child, a power that the child’s Hebrew mother and the Hebrew child do not have.


· Then you have Jochebed and Miriam. They are women, and Hebrew, with no special privilege – they have the least power and privilege in these systems of oppression – so, in this story, their action of resistance, floating the baby in the reeds, it comes with the hope of connecting somehow with some power.


· And there is Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter. She is Egyptian and royalty. She has privilege. She has almost as much privilege as one can have. But. But, keep in mind she is still a woman. And make no mistake – a woman who disobeys Pharaoh’s command will have no place to hide. She will surely be killed, just as readily as Shiphrah, or Puah, or Jochebed, or Miriam.


These women, living within systems that subject them to or give them different kinds of power, they resist and start a revolution.


How do they do this?


They conspire. They agree together to act together to save life – using every bit of power they have – against every bit of power that is trying to hold them back – at the risk – each of them – of all they have – of their very life.


The word “conspire” comes from the Latin meaning “to breathee with” – to breath together.


In that moment at the birthing stool, when that baby takes its first breath, and Shiprah and Puah hold his life in their hands – they breathe together, with that baby, and the mother – and they act together to save life.


In that moment, where Miriam watches Pharaoh’s daughter pull the baby out of the water, and as Batya holds that baby in her hands. Batya’s eyes meet Miriam’s eyes – and they know – they know what is at stake here – they know what will happen to this Hebrew baby. And they breathe together, and they act together to save life. They conspire.


They are co-conspirators.


The word “co-conspirator” has taken on a particular meaning within the movement for racial justice – the movement for Black Lives.[3] For a long time in justice movements, we’ve learned the term “ally,” someone who stands with. “Co-Conspirator” carries with it a critique of “allyship” when “allyship” doesn’t go far enough.


Activist scholar Dr. Bettina Love explains it with this story: She reminds us of Bree Newsome.[4] You remember -- Bree Newsome is the Black woman who climbed a flag pole to take down the confederate flag from the South Carolina State Capitol. She did this eight days after Dylan Roof murdered black folks praying at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.


Bree Newsome and others got together and said, “That flag is coming down, and a Black woman is going to take it down.” So they came up with a plan. Bree Newsome learned how to climb a flag pole – she trained. They arranged bail money. And early that morning, she and James Tyson—a white colleague – sat in a car in an IHOP parking lot and waited for the call. When they got the all-clear, they headed to the Capitol and the flag pole. And Bree Newsome climbed the flag pole, just like she had learned and practiced, as James Tyson stood lookout right below.


Now, as Dr. Bettina Love tells it, Tyson didn’t stand outside the gate and just keep watch; he stood right there. The police approached, saw what was going on, and they came up with their own plan. The police decided that they would tase the metal flagpole – while Bree Newsome was still up at the top – and they would bring her down like that. And Tyson, standing right there, reached out, and grabbed hold of the metal flagpole. Dr. Bettina Love says, “Tyson understood – in that moment – he understood why he was there – he knew that the police would not tase that pole with a white man holding on to it.” She says that Bree Newsome and James Tyson are co-conspirators – they risked their lives for each other – and for the dismantling of this unjust system – centering a Black woman as she took down the Confederate flag.


Dr. Bettina Love says, “You can’t just stand at a distance and agree. You’ve got to put something on the line. Take a risk. Take a risk for somebody.” You’ve got to be a co-conspirator.


When Shiphrah and Puah watch that baby being born, as they hold him in their arms – they know what is at stake – they know the risk – and they look at that child, and they breathe together, and they say to that child, “We choose your life.”


When Batya – the daughter of Pharaoh – and Miriam – the daughter of Jochebed stand there – across a chasm of privilege and power – Egyptian princess Batya holding that Hebrew child in her arms – Miriam and Batya look into each other’s eyes, and they know what is at stake – they know the risk – and they look at that child, and breathe together, and say to that child, “We choose your life.”


In just a few minutes you all will convene a congregational meeting to discern whether to call me as installed pastor. There are many things that have led me to discern my way to yes – among them is the sense in this community that we must engage the work of anti-racism as an essential part of our Christian life.


And so, I need to tell you that I come to this work with a lot of whiteness. And what that means is that I come with so much that I don’t know. And the more I learn, the more I see all that I don’t know and all that I haven’t known. The more I learn, the more I begin to see all the ways that I have moved through life – and continue to move through life – in systems that advantage me and that disadvantage others.


And, I also come to this work, a gay man – a gay man in the United States, and in the Presbyterian Church USA, and I have known moments in my life – in my life in the Presbyterian Church USA, when I have needed someone to reach out and grab hold of that flagpole – to put something at risk – for me and for people like me. I have known that here.


Now, I want to be careful not to appropriate that sense of “con-conspirator” because we are talking about racism, and I am white. But those experiences, those moments, those memories convict me of times in my life when I have not stepped up and grabbed hold of the flagpole for others, and they challenge me and call me to do better.


I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me 53 years to realize that this being a co-conspirator is really at the heart of what it means to try to live the life of Christ – to live life together, to breathe together, with something on the line, with humility to listen to those who have been harmed most, and to put something at risk for the life and the well-being and the freedom of others.


That is the heart of the life of Christ. That is, in fact, what God has done for us and for the whole world, in Jesus Christ. This summer, we have been remembering that God created us and all that is in love. That God stood back and beheld all that God had made, and said, “This is good.” God created us for life in beloved community and with freedom. And with that freedom we have gone our own way.


· When we – or any part of us – have found ourselves in bondage, God has come to bring us out into freedom.


· When we’ve found ourselves in exile, God has sought us out and brought us home.

· And when we have oppressed and neglected the most vulnerable in our midst, God has sent prophets to call us to account, and to tear down what needs tearing down, so that something new and free can be built up.


And when we needed God most, God came to us in Jesus Christ – God put something on the line – something at risk – God’s own self – in our flesh, living with us, suffering with us, knowing our pain and the deep pain of the world. And Jesus taught us and healed us – journeyed with us through the whole of life, even unto death – and showed us the way to even more life – Resurrection Life – then, breathing into us the very Spirit of Christ – to see visions and dream dreams – every one of us. In Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of Christ living in us, God continues to save us and the whole world from everything that does us harm.


This is the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.


In our anti-racism work, in the midst of wildfires and pandemics, the work that is ours to do – humbly and soberly – is to breathe together – and to live together a life where something is at stake – a life full of healing, compassion, and love – a life that makes meaning in the world – that takes its place – our place – in God’s loving, persistent, co-conspiring work to set the whole world free.

© 2020 Scott Clark

[1] See Walter Brueggemann, “Exodus” in New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol.i (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), for general background on the text. [2] See https://www.ted.com/talks/kimberle_crenshaw_the_urgency_of_intersectionality?language=en ; Bettina Love, We Want to Do More Thank Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), pp.191-92. [3] Bettina Love, We Want to Do More Thank Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom (Boston: Beacon Press, 2019), pp.115-19. [4] See Love, pp. 115-17; Dr. Bettina Love tells this story in a panel interview at https://www.c-span.org/video/?c4844082/user-clip-ally-vs-conspirator-means-abolitionist-teacher

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