Sunday, August 24, 2014

Five Women and One Man

sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler

If you’re like me, you’ve been watching the news over the past few weeks with an increasing sense of gloom and helplessness. Just when we think the laundry list of tragedy and injustice in the world couldn’t get any worse, along comes a shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, that rips the scab off the deep wound of our country’s history of racism. We wonder what we can do. Maybe some of you have dumped buckets of ice over your heads this week—a noble act, as long as it also came with a donation to the ALS Association. Yet maybe you still wonder: “Am I doing enough? What can I do about Ferguson, Gaza, ISIS, Central America, Liberia, Nigeria?”

Our readings today present us with a variety of characters, mostly humble folks, who all have to make decisions at moments of crisis. Our story from the book of Exodus revolves around five women in trying circumstances, while our gospel reading zeroes in on one particular fisherman and his stunning proclamation.

First we hear about Shiphrah and Puah, who are midwives in Egypt. They're not exactly household names, are they? At least, I've never seen them in any children's Bible, which is a real shame. We don’t know whether they are Egyptians who are sympathetic to their Hebrew charges, or Hebrews in the pay of Pharaoh. Regardless, when they receive the order to kill all the Hebrew boys born on their watch, they exercise what may be the first act of civil disobedience in recorded history. And they do it by using Pharaoh’s own prejudices against him. They tell him, “Oh, Hebrew women are built for childbearing—not like Egyptian women. They give birth so quickly and easily, we midwives aren’t even needed!” The midwives cleverly avoid responsibility for killing newborn Hebrew boys by affirming Pharaoh’s prejudice that Hebrews are very different from Egyptians. In their creative disobedience, Shiphrah and Puah do their part to work against an impending genocide.

Moses in His Mother's Arms
(Simeon Solomon, 1840-1905)
One of the babies they save is born to a woman to whom centuries of tradition have given the name Yocheved. The way the story is typically told, we might think that Yocheved is trying to save her baby boy by putting him in a basket in the river. But how realistic is this as a permanent solution? Is it the Old Testament equivalent of leaving the baby on the doorstep with a note? I want to suggest instead, along with 12th-century Jewish scholar Moses ibn Ezra, that Yocheved has given up. She knows that Pharaoh’s soldiers will come for Moses to drown him in the Nile. She cannot bear to let them do this—so, when all her other options have been spent, she makes the agonizing decision to do the job for them. If her son will not be allowed to live his life, she will at least send him to his death with dignity. So she and Miriam set little Moses adrift in a lovingly prepared basket. At least for a time, he will be cradled by the river, not violently thrown into it.

Yocheved walks away from the river bank, distraught, not wanting her daughter to see her break down completely. Her daughter is not named in today’s story, but Miriam’s role is crucial. I picture Miriam as being about nine years old: old enough to understand the danger her brother is in, but not old enough to have become crippled with either overconfidence or self-doubt. You know the time Jesus said, “You must become like a little child to enter God’s Kingdom”? Maybe he was thinking of Miriam.

from the 1998 film The Prince of Egypt
So Miriam stays with Moses, “to see what would happen to him.” Is the basket watertight enough to float? For how long? What if her brother starts to cry? Or maybe Miriam has big ideas about rescuing her brother herself, hiding him away even against her mother’s knowledge. Maybe she plans to stay right here at the riverbank and care for him forever—she doesn’t know how. But she waits with him, because he's a baby, and he mustn’t be left alone.

And now I have a very important question for you: Who was the world’s first stock broker? Pharaoh’s daughter. Do you know why? She drew a little prophet from the rushes on the banks.

All kidding aside, God sometimes works through the most surprising people. I don’t know of any tradition that gives a name to Pharaoh’s daughter. The lowly midwives are named right in the Bible, but not the princess who goes down to the river at just this moment for a bath. I can imagine Miriam peeking through the reeds, trying not to be seen. The princess—and I’m guessing she’s about 12 or 13—finds the baby. She knows the rules, but she is just old enough to have gained a rebellious streak: “I think I’ll keep this Hebrew baby as a pet!” Of course, being a spoiled young princess, she has no skills for taking care of him.

And that’s when Miriam plucks up her courage and makes her move. She emerges from the reeds: “Oh, I know someone who can take care of him for you!” It may not even have occurred to Miriam that her mother will get paid for raising her own child, the ultimate irony and slap to Pharaoh’s face. Miriam only ensures that her brother will live, and the princess only ensures that she will have a cute baby to coo over from time to time. Of course, the princess will grow up too, and as she does, she will come to love the child and take him into her own home for good. And so, Shiphrah, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, and the princess of Egypt all conspire unwittingly to save the life of the most important prophet in Hebrew history.

Having heard from these five women, let’s skip forward about 1500 years to Peter’s proclamation that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus blesses him for saying it. But in the very next moment, which we will hear next Sunday, Jesus will predict his own death, Peter will object vehemently, and Jesus will curse Peter for it. Much later, at the time of Jesus’ arrest, Peter will skulk in the shadows, and when confronted, he will deny Jesus three times. After the resurrection, Jesus will ask Peter three times, “Do you love me?” And Peter will answer, in essence, “Yes, Lord, I like you an awful lot.” Despite Peter’s alternating boldness and cowardice, his bumbling nature, his chronic foot-in-mouth disease, Jesus calls him “Rocky” and proclaims that the church will be built on this rock. I don’t know whether to feel more unnerved or reassured by that. Both, I think.

Garrison Keillor, in his 1989 performance piece “The Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra,” concludes humorously that the percussion section of the orchestra is the perfect place for a Christian. He says that percussion is “the most Christian instrument there is. Percussionists are endlessly patient because they hardly ever get to play. Pages and pages of music go by when the violins are sawing away and the winds are tooting and the brass are blasting, and the percussionist sits there and counts the bars like a hunter in the blind waiting for a grouse to appear. A percussionist may have to wait for twenty minutes just to play a few beats, but those beats have to be exact, and they have to be passionate, climactic. All that the Epistles of Paul say a Christian should be—faithful, waiting, trusting, filled with fervor—are the qualities of the good percussionist.”

I want to echo Garrison Keillor’s observation. As players in the great human orchestra, we go through our lives, doing the best we can with what we’ve been given, trying to make beautiful music out of this life. And some of us may become soloists, acting in very explicit ways to try to change the world, while others tend to stay in, say, the viola section. But a life faithful to God does not come down to how much or how little we have done in God’s name. It has more to do with whether we did something heartfelt and creative at just the right time while following the conductor's lead.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s one intractable plan, and that the universe is unfolding in a predetermined way over which we have no control. Not at all. Life presents us with opportunities, as it did for the women in Exodus, and the decisions we make can and do determine what will happen next. We can’t always predict the consequences. And even when we mean well, we may actually be at our worst. As a flaming extrovert, I can relate to Peter. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said exactly the wrong thing. But every once in a while, maybe twice in a while … I’ve said or done exactly the right thing when it counted, and God has blessed the results.

So it is good and right and proper for us to hold up Peter’s example today. Jesus commends his faith, the kind of bold faith that is able to step forward and announce, “Jesus is Lord.” And we must honor Pharaoh’s daughter, who showed compassion, even if her motives may have been a bit selfish. I hope you’ll remember the names Shiphrah and Puah, two ancient women whose ethics and cleverness stand as examples to us all.

Miriam's Song (Laura Bolter)
But I’ll be honest with you. My favorite character today is Miriam, a 9-year-old girl who might as well have been the inspiration for the famous John Milton quote: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Like a percussionist in the orchestra, like a hunter in the blind, this little child crouching in the reeds is somehow given to know that she must stay right where she is and pay attention. And then, when she has consented to be right where God wants her to be, she finds herself saying exactly the right thing, the creative thing, the compassionate thing, to change the course of history.

What does that look like for us? Do we beat ourselves up for not being more bold? Do we run around like crazy trying to accomplish good things? It’s not about the amount of stuff we do. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time. So let us live a life of attentive prayer, trusting God to guide us in our actions. We don’t have to be as creative as these ancient Hebrew women. But may we always be as ethical as the midwives and as compassionate as Pharaoh’s daughter. And like Peter, let us continue to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God—no matter where that takes us next. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment