For the last week or so I have been binge-watching House of Cards on Netflix. I don’t know if it’s my way of dealing with a summer of brutal news, or just a television addiction that’s moved on to new material, but I can’t get enough of Senator turned Vice-President Frank Underwood and his wife, Claire.
If you’re not already a fan, House of Cards is a political drama that follows the political career and personal life of an ambitious, and I would say sociopathic, politician. I don’t want to spoil the show for those of you who haven’t gotten around to watching it yet but still plan to. Suffice it to say, those who hinder or oppose Frank Underwood have short careers and sometimes shorter lives. He uses the full power and authority of his position in government to shape the world in his favor, giving very little thought to the lives of the people he uses and destroys along the way.
I get the sense that the story from Exodus we’ve heard this morning is an early form of this kind of political drama, as it merges the storylines of the powerful and the powerless in a way that’s intended to evoke in us comparisons to our own time and place. In the role of Frank Underwood we have Pharaoh, a title for the king of Egypt that originally referred to the royal palace, but over time came to signify the king who lived there. The word “pharaoh” literally means “Great House.” It’s very similar to the way we hear news reported as coming from the White House or the President interchangeably.
The news coming from the Great House in this story is just as horrific as anything I’ve seen on House of Cards, and just as terrible as anything we’ve seen this past summer. Power has changed hands in Egypt, and the new king has forgotten allegiances made by the former regime with the people of Israel who’d made a home there during a time of famine. They go from being guest workers to slave labor, used to build cities for Pharaoh’s empire. Again, the points of comparison to our own nation’s history of using enslaved labor to create an economy and an infrastructure that allowed us to become a world power should set us to wondering which roles we are playing in this ancient-modern drama.
Soon people begin to worry that the Israelites are outnumbering the Egyptians. The people who’d fled to Egypt looking for a better life in the face of hardship and danger in their homelands have become a threat to those in power, who fear that they will realize their advantage and rise up to claim a better life for themselves. It reminds me of exit poll analysis that showed how the growing Latino community in the United States helped elect and re-elect President Obama, and was “changing the face” of electoral politics at every level of government.
Then comes the horror. Responding to the threat of an ascendant minority, Pharaoh commands that all the boy children will be sacrificed at birth, thrown into the Nile River, which in Egyptian religion was imagined as the conduit from life to death to the afterlife. And again we hear the parallel with our own experience of this summer of tears. These young Israelite boys being thrown into the river could be young men of color in Chicago, or Ferguson, or Oakland, or Florida. We know what a culture that treats minority youth like a threat looks like, because we live in just such a culture.
But the Nile wasn’t only the watery highway to the world after death, it was also the source of all life. It was the Nile’s cycle of annual flooding that dredged up rich soil that kept Egypt fertile while the rest of the Levant starved. It was the river of life, so it’s no surprise that this story finds the hope of the people of Israel being drawn up out of the river. The child is named Moses, whose name in Egyptian means “Son,” but in Hebrew means, “to be drawn out.” He is the child of two cultures, the son of power drawn out of the water.
What is a surprise is how this future savior is spared from certain death upon the Nile. At the river’s edge, far away from the Great House, a group of women divided by race and wealth come together to save the life of a child. On one side of the river a heartbroken mother sends her child on a dangerous voyage in the hope that he will be spared the fate that awaits him if he should stay at home. She places him in a basket and sets him on the river, much like mothers who send their precious children north to the United States in search of a life they can never have at home. On the other side of the river a woman of power and privilege, a daughter of the empire, finds the child and knows that he should have died in the waters. “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she says. She also takes a risk and defies the will of Pharaoh, bringing the infant into her home. Then she brings the child’s mother and daughter into her home as well to nurse and care for the child who is, in fact, her son. An act of sedition, a strategic use of privilege, creates a new family and saves a life.
Which side of the river are you on? Where is the Great House, and who makes the rules? On what bodies of water are you floating, are you drowning, are you being drawn out?
There are so many rivers dividing us. Rivers of blood and tears on the streets where children are being shot by those sworn to protect them. Rivers that draw the borders between nations of wealth and opportunity and nations of poverty and perpetual violence.
But there are also rivers drawing us together in acts of loyalty to a law deeper than any issued by the Great House, or the White House, or whatever house tries to rule us. There are baptismal waters, waters we are dipped in and drawn out from that erase any distinctions between the privileged and the dispossessed. Waters that carry us from death into life. Waters that make us allies instead of enemies.
Where have you seen people gathered at the river, crossing the lines that divide us, acting like we all belong to one another?
I saw it just this past Thursday, as neighbors from Logan Square and across the city gathered in front of the Milshire Hotel to show their support for those who have been evicted and have until the end of the month to get out, calling on our elected officials to ensure that this location be rehabbed as quality, affordable, supportive housing so that our community might continue to be a home for all people.
I saw it online as I followed through social media the preparations and then the leave-taking of the cohort of young adults in global mission who were with us in worship last week; who, living out their baptismal call, have now shipped out to the far reaches of the planet determined to reshape the geography of power by creating lasting relationships built on love, mutuality and accompaniment.
I see it here again this morning as we welcome and commission a new crew of Lutheran Volunteer Corps workers who have gathered here from all across the country, and who will spend the next year living in intentional community as they join with a wide range of organizations building up our city for the sake of the common good.
There are all kinds of power in this world. There is the power of Pharaoh, the Great House, the halls of power where policies are made that toss real lives into the river. Then there is the power of God, that obliterates any line we might draw to separate ourselves from one another, making us one body, one neighborhood, one community, one world. In our baptism, God hands us the keys to the halls where this kind of power reigns supreme and invites us to tell a new kind of story, to become actors in a different kind of drama, where we testify with our lives to the reality of a world we have only seen in glimpses but know is breaking in. Amen.