Sermon: January 23, “The capacity of a strained body to recover its size and shape after a compressive stress”

January 23, 2011, The Reverend Stacy Swain

Exodus 1:15-2:10

Matthew 2:12 -22

           In the study of physics, there is a property called resilience which is defined as the “capacity of a strained body to recover its size and shape after a compressive stress[1]. Scientists can see how resilient an object is by  releasing a pendulum to collide with it and then calculating the degree of the swing the pendulum achieves on its rebound.   For highly resilient bodies, the return swing of the pendulum will be wide.  For low resilient bodies, the return swing of the pendulum will be narrow.   Rubber for instance is highly resilient.  Concrete is not. 

           Now in recent years, psychologists have found that this property of resilience is also present in people.  Resilience for us is defined as the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune or change, but unlike resilience in inanimate objects, resilience in humans is not inherent to the individual him/herself, not a specific trait like hair color or eye color, that one is born with.  Unlike inanimate objects, people are not inherently more or less resilient.  We are not born as rubber types or concrete types.  

           Instead for us, resiliency is something that is taught and learned.  Cognitive behavior researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that “our beliefs about events can mediate their impact on our emotions and behavior.”   And they have come up with curriculum for middle school and high school aged children that teach students a variety of strategies that can be used for coping with difficulty.[2]

          This research is instructive, but, as people of faith, we have an additional resource to guide and teach us.  And that is Scripture.  Scripture is full of examples of highly resilient people who have the ability to recover from misfortune even when confronted with some of the most trying and difficult times.   In Bible study we are reading the book of Job, and we marvel at how Job is not completely done in by his misfortune but instead is able to hold onto his sense of self and to powerfully engage with what is happening to him in a way that carries him through his suffering and that ultimately delivers him into new life on the other side.

           Other tremendous examples of resiliency come to us in this morning’s text from the book of Exodus.  In fact I think a whole curriculum on resiliency could be written from its teachings.  The text leads us through five distinct moments where individuals act with resiliency in the face of adversity.  In each of these examples, instead of caving under the pressure of oppression and death, these women engage subtle and clever strategies. And in doing so, move through adversity in life giving and life preserving ways.  Their examples of courage, trust, persistence, compassion and by nimble ingenuity are lessons for us all.

           Let’s take a closer look.  Resilience is first seen in the courage of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  Pharaoh had become fearful of the Hebrew people.  They were multiplying and growing strong.  Their numbers were spreading and the Egyptians had come to dread the Israelites the text tells us.  Pharaoh was worried that the Israelites would become too strong and that in their strength his authority over them would be thrown off.  For this reason, Pharaoh tells Shiphrah and Puah that they are to kill the boy babies born to the Hebrew women.  Now Pharaoh is the most powerful figure in the land.  Decisions of life and death are clearly his to make, but what do these two Hebrew midwives do?  They do not bow to the power of fear.  They do not become complicit to violence.  Instead they stand with courage that flows not from just themselves, but from their moral grounding; —  not as subjects of Pharaoh, but as children of God.  The text tells us that these women feared God, and fear in this context is understood to be awe and reverence.  Grounded in this awe and reverence these women chose to act out of their understanding of what God would have them do, not of what Pharaoh demanded.  And so they fast talk their way out of Pharaoh’s clutch by saying that the reason the male babies of the Hebrew live is because the Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women, — they give birth before the midwives even arrive! 

           The second example of resilience in the face of adversity is seen in the trust of the Hebrew woman who conceived and bore a son.   She was able to hide her fine baby for three months, but when she could hide him no longer she got this rather wild idea of making a papyrus basket for him, plastering in with bitumen and pitch, of putting the child in the basket and hiding it in the reeds on the bank of the river, trusting that even though she could not possibly know how, it would work out, that the baby would survive. 

           It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word for basket that is used in this passage is similar in root to the word arc used in the Noah story.  This act of placing the baby in the basket resonates with the echo of that great story when Noah placed himself and all he held dear inside the arc trusting in God’s promise of deliverance.

           Then in our passage from today, there is the baby’s sister who we will later know as Miriam.  The text tells us that she stood at a distance to see what would become of her brother.  The Hebrew word translated as “stood” is that which is used to connote the rootedness, the staying power of one who is to go into battle.  To take a stand, is to set oneself down, not to be moved by what may come.  There is resilience in Miriam’s persistence, in her rootedness, of not running away from or hiding from hardship but instead staying present to it. Of taking a stand.

           Our examples of resilience in the face of adversity thus far have been come from the Hebrew people, but the Bible is clear that God’s reach is larger and broader.  Pharaoh’s daughter steps into the story next, coming upon the baby in the reeds.  She sees that the baby is one of the Hebrews’ children, one of the ones that her father decreed should be killed.  But unlike the hardened heart of her father, the daughter’s heart is full of compassion for the child.  She does not give into the oppression, but instead compassion  moves her and she takes pity on the child and seeks not to destroy but to preserve him.  

           The final example of resilience comes through the nimble ingenuity of Miriam as she steps forward from her place of watching and offers to Pharaoh’s daughter that she will fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse the child.  And then full circle, Miriam brings the mother forward to nurse and care for her child.

           Through courage in the face of fear; trust in the face of uncertainty, persistence in the face of loss; compassion in the face of oppression and nimble ingenuity in the face of obstacles, these women not only make their way through the adversity they face, they not only save the baby who is Moses, but in doing so they contribute to what will be the great Exodus of all of God’s people from adversity, from bondage in Egypt to the freedom of new life with God.  Scripture makes beautifully clear how the life giving, life preserving actions of these women are in concert with and contribute to the life giving, life preserving action of God.

           Now while there is some discussion in the field of cognitive behavior research as to what particular strategies ought to be included in curricula that teach resiliency, one presupposition underlies them all.  That is, that in order for a person to learn resiliency and employ the strategies that will enable coping with difficult situations, that person first must understand him or herself, not as an isolated individual on his or her own, but a person enmeshed in concentric circles of care, of family, friends, school, community. 

           Resilience, you see, flows from the truth that we are not alone.  We are instead part of a greater whole.   As Christians we have been given the power of resiliency because we know that we are not isolated individuals.  By the grace and glory of God we have been baptized into the most resilient body of all, the body of Christ, caught up in the community of his living presence in the world and as such, courage, trust, persistence, compassion and even nimble ingenuity is ours through the power and presence of the risen Lord. 

          I want to leave you with a final thought from the gospel passage for today.  The passage from the Gospel of Matthew cautions us about assuming that there are places, and life circumstances that are outside the reach of the power and presence of God.  The Gospel makes a point to tell us that even in the most unlikely places, even in the midst of the most forsaken land, we will find Jesus and can count on him to show us the way. 

           For Jesus called Simon Peter and Andrew from Galilee, the area of Zebulum and Naphtali.  This was considered to be just about as God forsaken a place that could ever be.  For long ago, back in Old Testament times, Zebulun and Naphtali were situated along the border of what was then the northern kingdom of Israel and were the areas that first felt the onslaught of the Assyrian army.  Zebulum and Naphtali were considered places of “darkness,”  “land of the shadow of death.”  And yet, it is in the area of Zebulum and Naphtali, Jesus began this life saving ministry.  There by the shore, Simon Peter and Andrew step into new life with Jesus.  For those who lived in darkness saw a great light.  A light has dawned on those living in the land of the shadow of death.

           We are highly resilient people — we have what we need to recover from misfortune.  Not because we are inherently “rubber types”  but because our lives are caught up with the life of God.  Life circumstance cannot  lead us to a place where God is not already present.  The power and presence of the Risen Lord goes before us always, and will show us the Way.   And so let Exodus be our lesson plan, let us learn from Shiphrah and Puah, the mother of Moses, his sister and from Pharaoh’s daughter.  Let their courage, trust, persistence, compassion and nimble ingenuity be our own.  Praise God.  AMEN.


[2] Resilience Research in Children, The Penn Resiliency Project, Investigators and Co-Directors: Jane Gillham, Ph.D. & Karen Reivich, Ph.D.