“The Caring Community: Our World”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Romans 8:18-27, Genesis 1:1-28
May 1, 2016
The Word in Song: “Lord, How Great Thou Art”
“The Caring Community: Our World”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Romans 8:18-27, Genesis 1:1-28
May 1, 2016
The Word in Song: “Lord, How Great Thou Art”
by George Miller
And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the
RENEWING OF YOUR MIND, that you may prove what is that
good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
SPRING began last Sunday as we celebrated with our individual palm branches at Church, and today the MOON is completely FULL, continuing evidence of the Good Orderly Direction of our Universe, as we continue our Lenten walk to Jerusalem with Jesus.
Two years ago in our adult Sunday School, I taught a class on our respective “demons” which we individually listed, and shared how they keep us from becoming WHO WE REALLY ARE as God created us. We then burned all of the anonymous lists in the large granite flower pot behind 717.
The theologian, Richard Rohr, says in his book, The Little Way: A Spirituality of Imperfection, that addressing of our demons requires understanding and spiritual healing; not condemnation of ourselves for moral failure. He believes this is a gigantic breakthrough, and says Pope Francis gets it right when he says the Church should be a “FIELD HOSPITAL ON THE EDGE OF THE BATTLEFIELD OF LIFE.”
Neither the healing of our demons (from people, our thinking, or things (addiction, money, toys), NOR the overcoming of sin will happen by mere willpower, by just gritting our teeth to do it. He suggests that a “Vital Spiritual Experience” appears to be necessary in the process of this healing and that this parallels the teachings of Jesus. Accordingly, he suggests that the qualities of willingness, vulnerability, surrender and powerlessness keep us open to the on ongoing healing and love from God. This is also how human love relationships work: in a dance of mutual honesty and vulnerability, grace and forgiveness.
The Gospels are illustrated with many stories of demonic possession. Under these influences we also are many times unable to do what is in our own best interest – the language of “the devil made me do it” is fairly accurate. Such “demons” must indeed be “exorcised by a positive encounter with a much more powerful loving SOURCE. Jesus enters the situation, and the demons are exposed and disempowered. In moments of sincere divine communion, our demons show themselves to be false and temporary solutions to our very real loneliness and emptiness.
Most of our demons are not addictions per se, but rather repetitive patterns of thinking and reacting. Spiritual traditions at the highest levels have discovered that a primary addiction for all humans is an addiction to our own way of thinking. Eckhart Tolle now says, 98% of human thought is “repetitive and useless.” When we see how self-serving, how petty, how narcissistic , and how compulsive our thinking can be, it might even be called “possessed.”
He suggests the only way to be delivered from our demons is to find oneself inside a “body of resurrection” (Romans 6:4), In other words, experience of a deeper love entanglement absorbs all our negativity and nameless dread of life and the future. Paul’s code phrase for this positive realigned place is en Cristo, which is to live by choice and embodiment within the force field of the Risen Christ.
So it appears the only cure for our demonic possession is repossession – by Something Greater, and until we have found our own ground and connection to the whole, we are unsettled, grouchy, and on the edge of falling apart. This repossession is called a Vital Spiritual Experience. Afterward, we know rightly who we really are, that we belong in this world, and that we are being held by some Larger Force. For some seemingly illogical reason life then feels okay and even good and right and purposeful. THIS is what it feels like to be “saved.”
God, I turn my whole self over to you,
with all my demons, compulsions, hurts
fears and resentments. RENEW MY
MIND and transform my life.
by Stephen Frick
Romans 5:6-9: (English Standard Version)
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.”
Before the worship service started this past Sunday, my daughter, Melanie, asked if she could sit beside me. She could have sat by a friend her age, but she wanted to sit by me. I was quite happy that she wanted to sit beside me, and said “Sure, you can sit with me.” As if I would turn her down? It’s not like she hasn’t sat beside me before. She has several times, so why she should actually ask, I don’t know. At any rate, I felt quite honored. Did I sit by my mom or dad in church at age 10? I SHOULD THINK NOT! I was MUCH TOO OLD to be sitting by my parents in church at age 10!
After service began, she proceeded to snuggle up close to me and lean her head on my shoulder. I’m not sure why. Maybe sitting close to me made her feel more secure, or maybe it was just her way of showing love for me at that time. It doesn’t really matter, as I’ll happily accept such display of love without question. While sitting beside her, and realizing that I made her feel secure and that she loves me very much, I was reminded of the kind of love The Father yearns for from us – his creation, children of God. Perhaps there is nothing more meaningful to me than my children’s love for me. Is there any possession that I would rather have than the love of my children? A resounding NO! Absolutely nothing.
I’d like to think she will always display a child-like love for her earthly father – that she will always want to sit beside me (not just at church) through all her future teenage angst and beyond, and that she will lean on me for anything or for no reason at all. Perhaps… perhaps she will, but I’m not exactly counting on it. I was once a teen and now a distracted adult who most of the time doesn’t snuggle with the Father or lean on Him when I should even though I know I should. How much would He enjoy such action if I did? Maybe Melanie will even have days that she despises me, but if she does, I will love her just the same and want her to sit beside me and lean on me no matter the reason. Always.
And so it is with The Father’s yearning for our love. Through the love I have for my own children, God’s love for me and for mankind is not a mystery to me. It is COMPLETELY and UTTERLY clear. I love my children more than my own life and would give up my life if it meant that they would be saved from harm or even just a miserable life – a life that doesn’t know God. If throwing myself in front of a car would save my daughter or son from death or injury, I would without hesitation, because the pain or death that would come to me for that small amount of time would be nothing compared to the pain that I would feel for NOT doing so. This is the love The Father demonstrated for us through sending Christ, who showed this kind of love while he walked the Earth, but also selflessly showed this love for us on The Cross, so that his blood would justify us from our sin and save us from death.
After writing this I know why Melanie asked to sit beside me, snuggle up next to me and lean her head on me. Sometimes God uses subtle things to help us understand; we just have to listen.
Prayer: Thank you Father for the love that you have shown us through Christ’s selfless act of love, sacrifice and forgiveness on the Cross. Let the meaning of the Cross dwell in our hearts and inspire us to what should be our utmost for His Highest in our daily lives. Be with us through your Holy Spirit to guide us, empower us and to know your mind so that we will be the parents, spouses and friends who will show selfless acts of love, sacrifice and forgiveness to others.
by Matt Pruitt
March 28, 2015
Romans 12:12: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
As a former journalist and longtime English teacher, I tend to pay a lot of attention to the connotation of words—those little shades of meaning and emotional values embedded in the language we use. Lately, the word “journey” has been on my radar, in no small part because of the Adult Sunday School’s book study on the journey of Jesus and his disciples in the week leading up to Easter Sunday.
I think the fact that we use that word is significant. “Journey” is a word that we reserve for a particular kind of going. We aren’t likely to pack up the car during our summer vacation and tell the neighbors, “We’re taking a journey to the beach for the Fourth of July.” We don’t journey to our friends’ house in town for dinner. We don’t take a journey through the park to let the family get some exercise and get a little sunshine on our faces.
No, “journey” implies something that’s long (in time, or distance, or both), probably arduous, and likely riddled with uncertainty or even danger. (I think of Journey to the Center of the Earth in the realm of fiction, or the real-life account of a doomed expedition to the South Pole, aptly titled The Worst Journey in the World.)
The journey that Jesus made in the days before his crucifixion was certainly worthy of the term. Not only would it have been long and physically challenging (something I think we gloss over in our age of easy movement across vast distances), but it was increasingly dangerous as his challenges to the power structure became more and more pronounced.
This was true for his followers as well. For most, the journey started with recognition of the light within Jesus, something they saw in him (or vice versa?) that made them leave their homes and families and set off on the path after him. But I’m not sure they could have understood what kind of undertaking they had signed up for. While at times they are no doubt inspired and comforted, they just as often seem weary, uncertain, and even afraid.
And so it is with us. I think it’s no coincidence—fitting really— that we so often use the term “journey” as a metaphor for life, and in particular, for our spiritual lives. The road is a long one (if we’re lucky). It’s dotted with blind curves and hills, so that’s it hard to know exactly what’s up ahead. And if you’re anything like me, it’s easy to feel that perhaps you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, or accidentally doubled back or looped around to the same place, or stalled out on the roadside. And maybe, at times, to even wonder if you really remember where you set out for in the first place.
Like the disciples, I feel tired and anxious and afraid. But I often suspect that’s because maybe I’ve missed the point. I want to see the destination clearly, to find the path that gets me there directly, and to travel it with the least amount of resistance…but that’s not in the nature of the journey. The journey requires time. It requires patience. And it requires faith.
And what I try to remember is this: faith is in the going. Faith is embracing the stops and starts and sharp turns in the road. It’s coming to love the journey.
Prayer: Lord, let me be a faithful traveler. Help me make a more beautiful path. Give me the strength and courage to see the journey through.
by Chad Clark
March 27, 2015
Romans 12:2: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I was raised in a very conservative, hell fire and brimstone, first cousin of snake handlers type of southern Baptist church. I know that sounds negative and judgemental so let me also say that the congregation was filled with extremely kind, good hearted people who meant the best and cared for me deeply. I know that many of them have prayed countless hours for me and my family and for that I will always be grateful. But some of the experiences I had there and the general church dogma pushed me so very far away from God. For 5 years from the age of 11 to 16, I spent summers laying in the alter praying to God to be “saved” and was led to believe that if I walked that out the church door that night without being “saved” then I would surely perish in hell if I were to die before I found my mystical moment of salvation. I watched as the other kids around me had these grandiose experiences and were baptized while I had to wonder what it was I was doing wrong or why God didn’t love me. Finally my dad told me that for him the experience was just God taking his burden away to be “saved” and after the fifth year I can say with confidence that the last time I rose out of the altar I had no burden from God whatsoever to accomplish anything else in that manner. So I joined the church having been “saved” and was baptized.
It was not just the revival season that started to push me away. The whole attitude of the church and others like it in the area was that they were right and everyone else was wrong and going to hell, plain and simple. That was my upbringing. So as I moved to Athens to attend UGA at the age of 18, I had a pretty narrow minded view of religion and Christianity. During my four years at UGA and the years following I met a very wide variety of people from different walks of life with all sorts of different attitudes towards religion. I became very interested in what others believed and more importantly why they believed what they believed. My world kind of opened up and I tried to absorb the best of what I heard. During this time I stopped going to church and began to form my own brand of spirituality. “Spiritual but not religious” is a term I have heard in recent years which seems to fit my thought process at the time. Eventually even the spirituality began to fade and you could just about peg me as an agnostic.
So several years ago when Jamie told me that we should find a church I will be the first to admit that I was against it. I was doing just fine and really did not see the need since my beliefs seemed so far away from any Christian church that I had ever attended. But she persisted and after some thought we decided to give Oconee Street a try. The service was so very different from what I had experienced growing up and each week seemed to inspire me in some way or make me think about something in a different light. It surprised me that I actually enjoyed attending and over time the members became like family to us. It took many years but I finally found my church home and feel much stronger spiritually than I ever have at any point in my life. I think about the term “revival” in a much different light now as I have had my own revival so very different from the ones from my youth. It goes to show that no matter your background or how far you have travelled in another direction you can always open new doors and find the right path that works for you.
Prayer: Let us always be open minded and give thanks to those who help us find our way on our journey.
by Hope Cook
March 24, 2015
Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer
Sometimes God has a funny way of answering our prayers. I was reading Sue Monk Kidd’s reflections in First Light. She tells of a time when her babies were both still in cloth diapers. She’d been praying for patience. The washing machine broke, then it began raining like a monsoon and the dryer broke. She had to hand wash dozens of dirty diapers and hang them all over the house to dry. She felt like God answered her prayer because she was definitely taught patience as a result of this ordeal.
As I read, I realized God has also been answering my prayers, but I had been frustrated because He wasn’t answering them the way I thought He should. For example, I have also been recently praying for patience with the children. Ollie is in a new stage (we hope it’s just a stage) of throwing horrible tantrums multiple times a day, becoming hysterically unglued. This has been quite trying to say the least. Likewise, Eli’s new stage of near constant potty humor has tried my patience like never before. I really didn’t want God to give me trials to teach me patience, I just wanted him to tidy up the situation so I wouldn’t need to exercise patience. I think He must have a good sense of humor.
Prayer: God, thank you for your constant teaching and molding. Thank you for reminding us that today’s hardships will be tomorrow’s strength and virtue builders.
by Janet Frick
March 9, 2015
Romans 12:1-2: 12 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
This month we are singing a song that’s perfect for the season of Lent: “Lord, I want to make a change.” Being a psychology professor at UGA who studies infant development, the topic of change and development is one that’s at the forefront of my personal and professional interests. What is it that “makes” a baby change from a relatively helpless creature, totally dependent on care from others for survival, into a laughing, thinking individual? What is the nature of development and change? Is development a gradual process (akin to getting a little bit bigger each day) or is it a qualitative process (the caterpillar becoming a butterfly?) And perhaps more relevant to our lenten considerations, how does inner change happen in our adult lives? Is it something we can just “buck up” and take on, or is something deeper required?
Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests that the key part of standing out and being distinctive — holy, set apart — is to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. True inner change, encompassing our whole body and mind (presenting our entire beings as a “living sacrifice”, set apart for God), begins with our inner being. When our mind is renewed, when we are tuned into what is good and acceptable and perfect, then the inner process will drive outer change, and our lives will be in harmony and balance.
So as we travel through this season of reflection and renewal, let us vow daily to allow God to help us to change, starting from the inside out. It is God’s mercies that draw us ever closer to him.
Prayer of reflection: Lord I’m ready for a change, only you can make me change… please help us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, not being conformed to the hustle and materialism of the world, but being tuned into your love and spirit, walking and living in harmony with you. Amen.
By Hope Cook
Feb. 27, 2015
Romans 12:1 ESV — I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.
One of my coworkers, whom I’ll call Sue, has an enlarged thyroid with a nodule on it. She is preparing to have surgery to remove her thyroid gland, nodule and all. She has been told that there is a “definite possibility” that the nodule is malignant and will require additional treatment after the surgery. Sue has also been told by the surgeon that he can’t guarantee there won’t be damage to her vocal chords since the thyroid is very close to the chords. She has a wonderful singing voice and has sung opera as well as in a gospel choir that performed at Carnegie Hall.
Sue has seemed really stressed and upset lately, but she isn’t one to complain. When she finally mentioned her upcoming surgery, I asked her what she needed prayers for specifically. I was thinking that if it were me undergoing a scary surgery, I would want prayers for 1) benign results 2) no complications 3) no anxiety over surgery and especially, 4) a competent surgical team. She surprised me with her answer: “I just hope I am a good witness to others through this experience”. I stood there for a minute, thinking, “huh”? She explained further, “I want God to be able to use me and this surgery and whatever comes after it for His purpose, whatever that may be”. Wow. I blinked back tears as I told her that just by her words she’d already done that with me, just now.
Prayer: The words of this song came to mind: Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. And with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary, for you.
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Sept. 21, 2014
Audio not available for this sermon.
For the past several evenings I have found myself glued to PBS for two hours watching the Ken Burns’ series on The Roosevelts. When I first heard about it, I wasn’t sure I’d be too interested, but most everything Ken Burns does is worth watching, so I tuned in the first evening, and I was hooked. The three Roosevelts Burns focuses on – Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor – all face incredible trials in their lives, trials that would probably make some people just want to lie down and die. All three tended towards depression anyway, and then added to that was the death of Teddy’s wife in the early years of their marriage, Franklin’s paralysis as a result of polio, and Eleanor’s fearful nature and conviction that she was deep down simply unloveable.
But instead of succumbing to the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Shakespeare might have called these challenges, each one responded positively and in a way that not only allowed him or her to succeed on the world stage, but also to be of great service to their country and to other people. Quite amazing, really. It took incredible concentration, energy, dedication, and persistence to overcome their personal demons. It required self-sacrifice and pain. But they never gave up – came close a few times – but they never gave up.
That kind of concentrated effort is similar to what Paul speaks about in his letter to the Romans where he stresses the importance of Christians focusing their minds, bodies, and spirits on one thing, to present ourselves “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is [our] spiritual worship.” And to do this, he challenges, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Being a Christian isn’t easy. It is one of the hardest things anyone can want to do. Will Willimon has written that the stumbling block for many people “isn’t that we’ve listened to Jesus and found him incomprehensible. It is that we’ve listened to him and found him darn difficult.”[i]
Why is Jesus so difficult? Why is living the Christian life such a challenge, the challenge of a lifetime? It is in part, perhaps, because life puts many obstacles in our path and encourages us to take the path of least resistance, often the most obvious and most approved and most popular. The “real world” as we like to all it, presents us with a version of reality that is far different from the reality of God’s kingdom as Jesus describes it. The “real world” calls us to conformity, calls us to go with the flow, with whatever everyone else is thinking, doing, or saying. It tells us that achievement lies in security and, happiness in having control of our lives, and success is gaining approval and being popular with the majority.
The difficulty comes because Paul tells us that we are to present ourselves as living sacrifices, and somehow that phrase “living sacrifices” doesn’t sound much like our desired goals of security, control, or popularity. Naturally enough we don’t like it; we get defensive; we get anxious. We want to be free to do whatever we choose, whenever we choose. We treat our lives as our own possessions, doing with them as we see fit. But as followers of Christ, our lives are to become instruments of God, used by God for God’s purposes whenever God sees fit. Letting go of all the things we thought we had to have in order to be content is the transformation that Paul describes as the “renewing of our minds.” It is truly beginning again at square one, erasing all the old files, rebooting, starting over, starting fresh, without judgment, without prejudice, without assumptions, but with an open mind, emptied of all the impediments.
In speaking of this process, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote “We are called to be people of conviction, not conformity; of moral nobility, not social respectability. We are commanded to live differently and according to a higher loyalty. . . . As Christians we must never surrender our supreme loyalty to any time-bound custom or earth-bound idea, for at the heart of our universe is a higher reality—God and [God’s] kingdom of love—to which we must be conformed.”[ii]
Another problem with being a living sacrifice, of course, is that unlike the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament where animals were killed before they were given to God as offerings, the Christian who offers himself or herself to God is free to move about, and hence is sometimes quick to jump off an altar. Especially when the going gets tough; when the heat rises and threatens to consume. Perseverance is not our strong suit. People who designate themselves as Christian have about the same habits of those who do not so identify – watch the same TV shows, go to the same movies, read the same books, give about the same percentage of income to charity, face the same temptations and disappointments, and have children who get in the same kinds of trouble as other children, as those who do not claim the name. The worldly pursuit of power and status, wealth and comfort lure those who like to think of themselves as following Jesus far from his path, to an altar where they unknowingly wind up offering themselves up “on lesser altars before smaller gods.”[iii]
It happened even to the disciples. Maybe you remember how Peter was very quick to identify Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God,” when he assumed that Jesus would defeat the Romans and bring back local Jewish control; when he assumed he’d be on the side of the majority, and he’d be one of the ones to benefit from association with this powerful Messiah. But when Jesus told him what it meant for him to be the Messiah, that he would “go to Jerusalem, undergo suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” Peter didn’t want any part of that. “God forbid it Lord! This must never happen to you!” he said to Jesus. But Jesus tells him if any want to become his followers, then they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. And that somehow, crazy as it sounds, if we work too hard to save and protect our life, we lose the life that really is life in the process. But if we are willing to give that all up, lose that false life for his sake, then we will find the real life.
There is always a great temptation to prefer comfort to transformation, to prefer the seductive language of some popular theologies that tell us God wants us to be rich, and God is happy when we are happy; theologies that erase from their vocabulary any reference to surrender, loss of privilege, or non-conformity; to standing against the status quo, or seeking transformation of the systems that foster one privileged group over another. Theologies, according to Dr. King, that “sacrifice truth on the altar of self-interest” rather than requiring the sacrifice of self in the interest of others.[iv]
There is also the great temptation simply to stop during the first part of transformation, stop at standing against the status quo, shaking our fist at the evils of the world, criticizing and condemning behaviors that are unworthy – pointing out scornfully the evils of materialism, nationalism, racism, sexism, elitism, all those other –isms that seek to hold one group down to favor another.There are those who spend their lives being angry, caustic and critical, disdainful and judgmental.
It is relatively easy to tear down; there is so much material to work with. Everywhere we look there is something that could be better, something that’s not working. And it is relatively easy to get stuck there. The challenge is to move from this first necessary part – standing up to and identifying and calling out the wrong in the world, to the second and even more necessary part, offering solutions and being part of the solution. Dr. King has a wonderful statement in his sermon entitled “The Transformed Non-Conformist.” He writes, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”[v]
There is a big difference between being destructively maladjusted and being creatively maladjusted. Creative maladjustment requires living sacrifice, requires being individually uncomfortable first for the sake of greater comfort for more later. Dr. King referred to having to endure his six year old daughter’s question, “Daddy, why do you have to go to jail so much?”[vi] For us as individuals and as a church it requires living sacrifice as well; not only pointing out the problems, but also finding ways to be a part of the solution, even when we don’t feel like it; even when it means risk; even when it means cost both in terms of time and treasure.
In these last weeks and months, we have been introduced to many examples of where work needs to be done, where things aren’t the best they can be, where suffering or want exists that is not being addressed adequately. But we cannot waste precious time in time in anger, or criticism, or blame. Nor can we afford to become depressed and overwhelmed by the vastness and variety of the problems we have encountered. These reactions wouldn’t do anybody any good. Instead, we are called to be creatively maladjusted, identifying issues and situations where we can make a difference and then becoming part of a transformative effort. It won’t be easy; it will involve risk and sacrifice on our part.
However, in whatever actions we choose to participate, either as individuals or as a church, we can take heart from the example of Christ, who, scripture tells us, “for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the cross.” And perhaps we will find for ourselves as well, that we don’t give up joy or happiness in our lives when we deny ourselves, take up our own cross and become living sacrifices; it is, in fact in that commitment that we discover what true joy is really all about.
[i] Will Willimon, “Who Do you Say that I Am?”, Duke Chapel, august 22, 1999.
[ii] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Transformed Non-Conformist,” Strength to Love, 1968, 11.
[iii] Robert A. Bryant, “Romans 12:1-8,” Interpretation, Vol. 58, No.3, July 2004, 288.
[iv] King, 15.
[v] King, 17.
[vi] King, 18.
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.