The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
August 24, 2008
First Congregational Church, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, UCC
This sermon was transcribed.
Introduction to the Scripture:
Let me take a moment to place today’s Old Testament reading into its historical context, and tell you what was going on this time in history for the people of Israel. First, and more importantly, they did not have a country of Israel. The Israelites were immigrants. They were living in the land of Egypt, which was the most prosperous land around that area. They had come there in search of economic prosperity, even survival; but what they found when they got there was that they were treated as the lowest of the low. The Egyptian economy depended absolutely upon the work of these immigrant Israelites. They were given jobs that were incredibly hard in order for the Egyptians to have lives that were incredibly prosperous – at least in appearance. Egypt was a country that was consumed with the appearance of perfection and prosperity; but that perfection came on the backs of an invisible group who were the poor, and among these were the Israelites.
There was a pharaoh who did not know that the Israelite, Joseph, had been able to protect the Israelite people somewhat up to that point. This new pharaoh began to worry that the Israelite immigrants would one day rebel or seize some kind of justice or power for themselves. So, he sent out an edict that every firstborn boy born to an Israelite should be killed. In this story, you will hear that these people, who seemed to have no power, had a lot of power when they organized together. The midwives are going to refuse to play into the pharaoh’s plan, and babies will be born, but the women will not be able to keep them. They will have to take their immigrant babies and send them on another immigrant journey, down a river to the next town, where they have no idea who will catch them.
Scripture: Exodus 1:8—2:10
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’ Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 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.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, ‘When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.’ But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. Because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, ‘Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.’
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him. ‘This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,’ she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, ‘Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Yes.’ So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.’ So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, ‘because,’ she said, ‘I drew him out of the water.’
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a lot of fun following the Olympics the last few weeks. In some ways, the most interesting story has not been the various sporting events, or who gets what medal. The most fascinating part of this year’s Olympics has been the country of China. When I lived in Hong Kong as a child, China was somewhere you could see across the water, but no westerner could possibly get past that border. China was, indeed, this forbidden city that we could look at, but had no knowledge of. To watch over the last decade as China has opened up more and more, changed so rapidly that many people from our congregation visit frequently on business trips, is mind-boggling to me, as one who thought we would never see China. Through the coverage of the Olympics, we have really seen the ways in which China has changed. China, of course, is well aware of this. They know that this is their official unveiling as “a new China,” the new power in the world. They have been obsessed, making sure that their country appears perfect; and it almost has.
The people of Egypt were obsessed with their own country’s perfection, in the days of young Moses (who would go on to free his people from slavery). They wanted to present an image to the countries around them of a nation that has “worked it all out” – where there was enormous prosperity, wealth and great happiness – where poverty, indignity, shame, was to be hidden. I felt that in China’s portrayal of itself in the Olympics; but there were a few moments where real life broke through – because no nation is perfect.
First, it broke through in Mother Nature – fighting against the pollution of Beijing. Stories came out about how difficult it was for athletes to try to train in a country that was absolutely polluted by a number of cars we cannot possibly imagine. There were things proposed, such as seeding the clouds so that rain would come, or limiting cars – but right from the beginning, we were learning that China was not perfect, that pollution was something they were struggling with. They were determined to get that pollution out of sight, covered up, even if they had to create rain in order to do it, and give that illusion of perfection.
The second indication that China was not perfect came in the fireworks of the Opening Ceremonies. If you remember, the Opening Ceremonies, everyone agreed that they were the most impressive ceremonies that they could ever remember. It was particularly painful for people in Chicago to watch those ceremonies, because we are hoping to host the Olympics one day and thought, “How could Chicago possibly pull that off?” I think every other country in the world was thinking the same thing – how could we match that level of perfection? The piece that received the most attention was the fireworks display, and those remarkable feet crossing the night sky. People said, “How did they get the fireworks to do that?” How? Animation, we found out. Next came the story that those fireworks that we watched on NBC were actually the product of one year’s worth of animation and engineering work in a small studio in China. The video feed we were receiving was not what the Chinese people were seeing when they looked up to the sky, but something that had been manufactured for us because it would be better.
Remarkably, that story was broken by a Chinese newspaper. It wasn’t broken by foreign press. The United States went along with it – even knowing it was animation – later, trying to say that they had given us clues that it wasn’t real. Everyone went along with it. It was a Chinese newspaper said that “Those were fake, and we wanted the world to know.” It was as if China had one group in the majority saying “We want to create the illusion of perfect Opening Ceremony, a perfect country;” then there was this other group of journalists who were saying, “We want to tell the truth.” “We want the world’s picture of China to be authentic.” Perfection vs. authenticity: That was the struggle.
The third interesting thing that happened for China was the little girl who sang the beautiful Chinese song. This little girl “brought the house down” by singing a beloved Chinese song. She had a voice that no one could believe – and added to that, she was absolutely beautiful – the prettiest little girl you’ve ever seen – with “star quality.” In fact, she had already appeared in several Chinese television commercials; but no one knew she could sing like that. No one knew she could sing like that because it wasn’t her singing. We came to find out (again from the Chinese press) that up until the last minute, a little girl with a fantastic voice was scheduled to sing, but 24 hours before the performance, the organizers of the event decided that she was not beautiful enough. Her voice was perfect, but she was not physically beautiful enough. In order to project an image of perfection, they had to have a child who looked more beautiful than any other girl in China, so they decided to make it up. They put the beautiful girl forward, let her accept interviews after the performance, but it later came out that the real singer was a little girl whose teeth were not as straight, whose face was not as cute, who was singing from behind a veil. Again, it’s a struggle within a nation between the image of perfection and authenticity. There were folks in China who said, “We think the Chinese culture is wonderful as it is – with its brokenness, with its imperfections – and we want you to see that.” While another group said, “We want you to see canned, animated feeds and ‘lip syncing’ children, and an image of perfection.”
In the land of Egypt, all those years ago, I believe there was a similar struggle going on. The people of Egypt were so enamored with their own image of perfection, that they had started to believe it. They started to believe that they had a perfect economic system that worked to give everyone prosperity. They had decided to ignore a number of things, one of which was that the gap between the rich and the poor was appallingly large. They focused their attention on those who had much and swept those who had very little under the rug and to the sidelines. Their economy was driven on the backs of these immigrant workers or poor folks, but they ignored them, kept them aside. When they worried that this group was growing too plentiful, they tried to cut back on them by killing their firstborn sons or pushing them further down the river to another town, out of the way.
I suspect there was another group of Egyptians who wanted to tell the truth about their community. One of these, I suspect, was Pharaoh’s own daughter. We don’t know if she had battles with her father over his inhumane policies, but we know that she resisted. There came a day when a Levite boy, Israelite child, was born. His mother, with the help of the midwives, allowed him to live – but you cannot hide a three-month-old baby in a small community. When the baby grew too loud and too big, the mother had to put together a waterproof basket with bitumen and tar to keep it safe. Her only option was to take her child and place him in this basket, put him in the river, watch it go down the river and pray that someone would pick it up. Her sister ran along the river to peer after it to see where it would disappear and saw a woman kneel down and pick up the basket. That woman was the daughter of Pharaoh – the very man who was trying to get these people off the radar. She picks up this child and brings it into her home. The quick-thinking sister says, “Daughter of Pharaoh, would you like someone to help you take care of this baby, to nurse it?” She says, “Yes, I would.” So she runs back and gets the child’s actual mother, and they go into the home of Pharaoh – all because the Pharaoh’s daughter is willing to go against the image of perfection, reach down to pick up a child to form a community that has authenticity. She rejects perfection and chooses reality.
Let’s turn to modern-day Egypt, Glen Ellyn, Illinois.
I don’t think I’d get much argument from any of you who know this community, when I say that we have our own image of perfection going on out here in the western suburbs of Chicago. We certainly have economic prosperity. We have a gap between the rich and the poor in which the poor, for the most part, are not very visible out here where we live. We have an economic engine that drives on the work of those who are paid very little, many of whom are immigrant workers themselves; who allow our t-shirts to cost very little – be they made in China or Louisiana. We have an image of perfection in that our schools are fine, our people look good, and we are seldom confronted with images of imperfection, in terms of those who suffer the most. Within Egypt of Illinois, we also have another group of people who resist this fraudulent notion of perfection as not only unhealthy, but I would say, ungodly, and admit that a culture that could get itself entirely cut-off from the people who drive the economic engines, who struggle and who are poor, would become an inauthentic society not worth living in.
We are a community, here in Egypt, divided between these two points of view. Some of us even divide it within our hearts.
Let me use the PADS program as an example. “PADS” stands for Public Action to Deliver Shelter. This program has been in DuPage County for almost 20 years, and was started in this area by our First Congregational Church. Through this program, churches will house homeless guests once a week in cooperation with other churches. Here at our church, we house homeless guests on Sunday night. We are aided by other local churches who help with the food and supervision. On Thursday nights, here in Glen Ellyn, the homeless are housed at First Presbyterian Church, just down the street, also aided by other local churches such as Grace Lutheran, Faith Lutheran, St. Mark’s and St. Petronille’s. It’s a community-wide effort. Our two churches, First Congregational and First Presbyterian house the program, and perhaps, attract a little more attention.
Lately, I have been reading the online Village website, where anyone is free to offer their opinion – particularly if they have an unlimited amount of time to do so. There has been a lot of nastiness about the PADS program – many wild accusations thrown out under the cover of anonymity. Accusations that run something like this:
“The PADS program is a disgrace to Glen Ellyn, and should be done away with.” “Other towns in DuPage County are not doing as much as we are, if you look at the map. We are doing much of the housing, therefore, we are being taken advantage of.” “The reason businesses are closed downtown is the fault of PADS guests, who, by loitering around the town, are scaring customers away who would not want to walk through a village that has the presence of poor people in it.”
Now, this seems unlikely, given that the two businesses most frequented by PADS guests, Einstein’s and Starbucks, are probably the most successful in town. There might be another issue which is that most of the shops that seem to open up in Glen Ellyn sell obscure and bizarre things that no one wants to buy, then close in six months so that someone else can come up with something else bizarre and obscure that no one else wants to buy. Hobby shops might be one issue. There are all sorts of issues going on in downtown Glen Ellyn, and we all want downtown Glen Ellyn to succeed. The presence of homeless people clearly cannot be the reason something does not succeed, but these are the things that are said.
They tell stories in these e-mails about bringing family members to Glen Ellyn on a Sunday afternoon who are so horrified by the presence of homeless people, whose children practically dissolve in fear, who say they never want to come back here again.
Put bluntly, put absolutely bluntly, the message of these people is, “If I pay enough for my house, I should not have to see any poor people.” “If I pay enough for my house, I should not have to see any poor people.” Friends, that is a godless and empty statement. It is also destined to fail.
Please understand that I am not in any way associating those remarks with legitimate issues that come up around PADS. When homeless people come into the community, they are going to bring with them the very problems that have made them homeless. Many of the homeless are suffering with very serious mental illness that is going untreated, in many cases. Many of them are recovering from substance abuse. Many are recovering gamblers – another unspoken problem in our community. They are trying to put their lives together, but they bring with them the very problems that caused them to be homeless. Sometimes we get very legitimate concerns and complaints, particularly from our neighbors who are enormously gracious with this ministry that we do. What I am talking about, though, is this current campaign that remains (for the most part) anonymous – where people have opened their doors to find signs hanging on their doors telling them to get rid of PADS – that tell them PADS is ruining the community. I’m talking about the handful of personal letters I get addressed to me that seem to indicate that I, Lillian Daniel, have invited all these homeless people into town; and now, what am I, Lillian Daniel, going to do with them in the hours between lunch and dinner. As if to imply that these adults are to be treated like prisoners who must be supervised, or like children. When, in fact, they are adults, and the last time I checked, this is the United States of America, and they are allowed to sit on the very same park benches that we are allowed to sit on ourselves.
Is it true that there is a group of people who loiter? Who are rude? Who use the “F” word? Who blow smoke in your face? Who walk deliberately slowly in front of cars? Who create a nuisance in our town? Absolutely. They are our teenagers, and we are raising them.
If we are going to apply ordinances, standards of behavior, raise the bar to what is expected in terms of manners, cordiality, and good behavior in town, let us make sure that we apply it across the board: To our homeless guests, to our teenagers, to any of us who might loiter too long. Let us think twice about what a society that strives for that kind of perfection would feel like to live in.
There are towns in the Chicago area that have figured this out that would satisfy this small group of e-mailers and letter-writers. There are towns – and you know which ones they are – where you do not see any homeless people. That is not an accident. They have a police force and a plan that keeps those people out. When I lived in New Haven, Connecticut, the neighboring Connecticut towns, so picturesque, so beautiful with their expensive homes, were kind enough to round up all the homeless people in buses and drive them into my city and drop them off.
I am proud to live in a suburban town that is not doing that, but instead, has days when they might arrive here, and we would minister to them.
We do not live independently, as the land of Egypt or the Village of Glen Ellyn. There is this massive sucking sound that comes between us and the great City of Chicago in terms of the economic and cultural benefits we get by living near that massive city. For us to then presume that all homeless people ought to stay there is really a breakdown on our end of the social contract. Similarly, there are lots of homeless people and troubled people who are right here in our area.
I want to tell you that many of the complaints that come out about some of the panhandlers in our town turn out not to be PADS guests, they are Glen Ellyn residents who are struggling with mental illness, living here, with family nearby. They are not PADS guests. Yet there is a certain stereotyping that goes on here in this community as we fall into the trap of this community of perfection.
I want us to be a community of authenticity. Being a community of authenticity means that yes, you might choose to raise your children in this area where the schools are outstanding and the kids can ride their bikes from house to house, and we benefit from beautiful parks; but I also consider it to be a benefit for my children to be in contact with people on every step of the economic ladder. I do not consider that “being taken advantage of.” When people say Glen Ellyn has more of these sights than Wheaton or Lombard, “You’re being taken advantage of,” I’m not being taken advantage of – I call that leadership. I call that leadership.
Pharaoh’s daughter is not a bad role model for anyone living in this town. Pharaoh’s daughter was raised in privilege. She lived in a society where many wanted the illusion of perfection; and Pharaoh’s daughter rejected it. She rejected it not by getting up on her high horse in a public debate with her father – she was not able to do that. She rejected it in a much more profound way. She reached down and picked up the basket of the child floating toward her.
In the PADS program here, every time we do this ministry on a Sunday night, we reach down and pick up a basket that someone else has floated our way. We could let it go and float to the next town, but it is the leader, it is the follower of God that picks up the basket.
Friends, the PADS program is not in danger in DuPage County as long as each and every one of you is willing to remember why we do it. Do not allow a vociferous minority to strive after a blasphemous ideal of perfection for our village that leaves us in poor spiritual health. Instead, stand up, make your case known, tell people, “Not only am I picking up the basket today, but I will pick up the basket again – not because I’m being taken advantage of, but because I know I’m a leader.” Amen.