Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Aug. 17, 2014
Exodus 1:8-2:10, Romans 12:1-8
God made two promises to Abraham when he called him away from his home to a life of faithfulness. First, God promised descendants; descendants that would be more numerous than the stars in the sky or the grains of sand at the shore. And second, God promised land; a home, a permanent place for God’s people to reside. For our age, an age which expects instant everything, it has been slow going this summer as we remembered the beginnings of this family to which we now claim kinship through Christ.
Through four generations – Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the family has grown to a whopping seventy and God’s initial promises have begun to be fulfilled in Abraham’s descendants. These seventy, who move into Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, are the beginning of the “great nation” promised to the childless Abraham. And we are told that, once settled safely in Egypt, “the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceeding strong.” The remaining promise to be fulfilled is the promise of land, of a home in Canaan. And that is what the book of Exodus chronicles.
In today’s reading, several centuries have passed since Jacob and his clan emigrated to Egypt to escape famine, enough time for Joseph to have been forgotten; enough time for his people to have lost their favored minority status in Egypt because of the life-saving work of Joseph. Now there is a new king in Egypt who has no memory of past blessings, but who possesses great power. He does not recall Joseph or his contribution to Egypt’s salvation, but sees instead a growing minority of people who could potentially threaten his own power. And so to make sure his imperial policies could not be threatened, he scapegoats them, identifies them as the enemy, even though there is no evidence that they have done nothing other than live peacefully among their Egyptian neighbors. He enslaves them, putting them to work in massive public works projects, projects designed to demoralize them and to immortalize him. Great monuments and great storehouses rise in the deserts – symbols both of military and economic power to all perceived enemies foreign and domestic.
In this intitial reference to these people whom he fears, pharaoh calls them “Israelites,” indicating their relationship to Jacob, who was re-named Israel, and so there is some sort of recognition of their ethnicity. However, when he moves to his next oppressive measure, he calls them “Hebrews,” a word which meant any group of “low class folks,” marginalized people with no standing and no land, and who could possibly be disruptive, and who were therefore, feared, excluded and despised.
Despite all his stringent orders to restrict and regulate the lives of these Hebrews, these despised people continued to grow and multiply. The more the Egyptians demeaned them and treated them inhumanely, the more determined they became to maintain their dignity and their identity.
And so pharaoh instituted another plan against them – genocide. It wasn’t enough to keep the Hebrews enslaved; they had to be eliminated as helpless children before they could grow up to become adult threats. All of the Hebrew boys were to be killed at birth. If there were no boys, there would be no Israel. Ironically, Pharaoh saw no threat from the girl babies; yet it is two Hebrew women who are the very ones who begin his undoing.
This all-powerful pharaoh couldn’t accomplish his goal by himself. He needed help. He needed the help of the midwives who attended the births of the Hebrew women. And so he summoned two midwives – Shiphrah and Puah, by name, to an audience with him where he gave them instructions to kill the boy babies as they were being born.
Now when the bible stops to give us the names of women, we need to take notice. Scripture was written in a patriarchal society by men for men; it was meant to be read in a public assembly of men, and so naturally most of its main heroes are male. In fact, of the 1426 proper names mentioned in the bible, only 111 are female names. Shiphrah and Puah are two of those select 111 women. They are right up there with Eve, Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah, Esther, Ruth, Deborah, Hannah, and Mary to name some of the better known of this small group. And although they don’t get as much attention as their more famous sisters, the role they play in the plan of God is no less important. It could be argued that without Shiphrah and Puah, we wouldn’t be sitting here today! Moses would probably have died at birth. There would have been no liberation, no Passover, no covenant, no gospel.
These midwives whose job was life-giving, who assisted the Hebrew women in the birth of their children, who cut the umbilical cords, washed off the babies, counseled the mothers, and assisted them in the care of their infants, were now being asked to kill the boy babies. And they had a choice to make. On the one hand, they feared, were afraid of pharaoh, who offered them job security and protection in exchange for their loyalty. But on the other hand, they feared, were awed by and respected God, the God of Abraham and Isaac; the God of Sarah and Rachel; the god who had been faithful through the generations and who demanded total loyalty just as pharaoh demanded total loyalty. And so, because they feared God more than they feared pharaoh, they disobeyed pharaoh’s orders.
Their action is the Bible’s first recorded act of civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance for the sake of justice. The midwives disobey the order and then lie to the authorities, breaking the law for the sake of justice and life. When asked why the boy babies continue to thrive, they answer audaciously, boldly, and perhaps with their fingers crossed as well, that the strong, vigorous Hebrew women just give birth too quickly before they can get there, unlike the rather fragile and puny Egyptian women.
The actions of Shiphrah and Puah give three other women the opportunity to act as well. When enlisting the midwives doesn’t work, pharaoh then commands that all Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile. In this situation, baby Moses is born. His mother hid him for several months, and then put him in the river, not to drown, but within a water-proof basket to float on the river in hope that he might be found and cared for.
He is found by none other than pharaoh’s daughter. She has pity on the crying infant; she recognizes his humanity and need and acts on it. Moses’ sister Miriam, watching from the riverbank, offers to find a nurse for the baby, and so Moses is returned to his mother, but he grows up under the protection of the pharaoh’s daughter even before she officially adopts him and brings him into her home so that he grows up a child of both worlds, and becomes eventually a unique agent for the exodus of God’s people from bondage and lead them to the promised land.
The midwives because they feared God, Moses’ mother because she loved and hoped for her child, and pharaoh’s daughter because she had compassion, were aligned against the forces of death and oppression, and with God’s own life-giving work, proving that no action is too small, no effort is too meager for God to work through.
It is not too great a stretch of the imagination to see this pattern repeating itself through history as rulers at various times have sought to strengthen their political base by identifying a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for whatever current problems plague society. One of the ongoing manifestations of our human sinfulness is our tendency to define “ourselves over and against others, and in the process to deny others their essential humanity, their status as children of God.”[i] Today in our country, we scapegoat the “illegals,” the “undeserving” poor, the Muslims, and African-American males – the 21st century equivalent it sometimes seems—especially right now in light of the situation in Ferguson, MO — of the Hebrew boy babies – they too often are seen as a danger that must be destroyed.
And it continues to be what one person has called “acts of faithful subversion”[ii] that change history. I watched State Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson bring about some degree of calm to the Ferguson, MO community as he walked and talked with demonstrators instead of arming himself against them Thursday night. It was a simple act of great courage and he continues to be a force for peace in the midst of chaos.
Rosa Parks is another example from the not too distant past. I doubt she thought she was doing anything particularly significant, when she said “no” to injustice. She, like Shiphrah and Puah, was being faithful, following the leading of her heart, and listening to the call of her conscience. All of these persons, from ancient times to the present, have demonstrated in their actions personal integrity and dignity, and shown a quiet grace and courage when they took their stand, knowing that there could be personal consequences for their actions. But they did it anyway.
God calls for people who fear God more than they fear power, calls for people who are ready to take a stand for life, for justice, for peace, for compassion. Paul says in our reading from Romans today, that we are to “discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And we are to celebrate the many gifts of each of us within the body of Christ for ministry, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and showing compassion and cheerfulness. I wonder what might happen if we began each day with the prayer, “God, what are you doing in the world today that I can help you with?” I imagine it would take many shapes and forms as we begin to respond to the needs around us according to our individual gifts and graces within this body. I think it is this prayer that has motivated our Missions Committee to bring various individuals and groups to our attention over the last year.
For a long time we were called as a church to the ministry of Our Daily Bread as our primary focus. Now we are in a new time. The ministry that began here has gone on to another location and prospers because 25 years ago, this congregation was faithful with a few simple sandwiches and a desire to help the hungry and homeless they saw around them. Now as we ask again, “what are you doing in the world today that we can help you with,” we need to remember how small actions can have a big impact. This is true for us as a church and for each of us individually. As we explore the variety of opportunities to be of service, each of us will respond according to our gifts, which gives us an amazing opportunity to be active in many different ways and places. We will need to remind ourselves from time to time that whatever God calls us to, individually or as a church, we will have to be willing to take some risks, learn through trial and error, develop lots of patience, and give up our sense of predictability and control, and our notions of how things “ought to be” in order to embrace the messiness of lives in crisis – whether those crises involve poverty and homelessness as they have in the past, or those crises that are less visible, but no less significant in the lives of those involved – access to education, employment. acceptance, inclusion, and equality.
When we were baptized, we were asked “do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” And when we respond to a need we stand with Shiphrah and Puah, and countless of others who chose to honor God and accepted the call to live in faithful subversion of the way things are because we hold fast to the hope of the way things can and will be. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] David Lose, “The Butterfly Effect,” workingpreacher.org, August 14, 2011.
[ii] Howard Wallace, “Year A: Pentecost 16,” hwallace.uniitingchurch.org, August 21, 2011.