Rev. Stacy Swain
Exodus 1:15-2:10 NRSV
We had our writing group this past Wednesday and as is our custom, we began our time with an opener. The intention of our opener is to help us widen our imaginations as we prepare to write. So for our opener last Wednesday, I posed the question “If you could have any kind of super power, what kind of super power would you like to have?” Some of us knew immediately. We’d like to fly. Others thought for a bit before answering that they’d like to be able to hear the thoughts of animals or perhaps to be able to turn back the hands of time.
Reflecting on it, I think I asked that question as our opener on Wednesday, because, I have been feeling like I could really use some super powers lately. I have been feeling pretty pressed upon by the enormity of all that is wrong in the world — pressed upon by all the devastation, domination, and abuse that is out there. It feels lately like we, as a human race, are devolving not evolving, and that we seem to be taking all of creation with us.
Three women and a little girl held captive and dominated by a man in Cleveland for ten years! Sexual assault in the military up one third since 2010, meaning that at least 26,000 were abused in 2012 in a line of work that is supposed to be about keeping us all safe. Bombs ripping lives apart and shaking all of us to the core and then the ugly backlash against all Muslims whipped up in horror’s wake. And that is just what makes the domestic headlines.
And then there is the interior space of our own hearts which, I fear, are burdened, weighed down by our own secret shame, anxiety, or rage. Weighted down by neglect and the disappointment of perhaps not receiving what we deeply need, leaving us struggling with an emptiness we fear will never be filled.
Everywhere we look these days, there seems to be something bearing down on us. And I don’t know about you, but “I’m feeling like my back is up against the wall” to borrow a phrase from Howard Thurman, theologian, pastor and spiritual director to the civil rights movement.
So I go dreaming about superpowers. I think we all could use a little bit of super power to get us through our days, let alone begin to change the course of our time.
And if I am really honest, there is a part of me that still thinks of God as a kind of superhero — full of otherworldly super powers. And when I examine my heart there is a place there that thinks that this superhero God really ought to be swooping in just about now to save us from all this madness.
When God doesn’t seem to show up, despite that terrible things keep happening and despite that many of us are as stuck as ever, well that leaves me, and maybe you too scratching our heads and wondering if the God we conceive of is really real after all? There just seems to be a vast distance between what we say about an active God of love and goodness and our lived experience in the world.
Well it may be some small measure of comfort to know we are not alone in our anguish and confusion. It may be some small measure of comfort to know that wishing for a little super power for themselves or a superhero God to swoop in and make things right was exactly what I bet Shiprah and Puah were thinking when they heard the latest decree from Pharaoh telling them they were to kill all the boy babies on the birth stool. These were women of faith trying hard to hold onto belief in a situation that rapidly going from bad to worse.
There was a time when it seemed God smiled on the Hebrew people, when all was good and right but that was a few centuries ago when Joseph held the respect and confidence of the then Pharaoh and was able to give shelter to the Hebrew people in Egypt during the time of famine. That is why they came down to Egypt from the land of Cannan afterall; to find refuge and they did find it, they found refuge.
But now, Egypt is not such a friendly place, and this Pharaoh is mean if not down right cruel. He is suspicious of the Hebrew people and is looking for a way sap their strength. First he enslaves them forcing them to build the supply cities of Pithom and Rameses, and then he made their “lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and every kind of field labor” (Exodus 1:14).
“And now this? Kill the boy babies on the birth stool?” I imagine Shiprah and Pual muttering to each other with tear streaked faces as they share a cup of tea. They must have been scared and furious and struggled with deep doubt that their God would let it come to this. “The only reason Pharaoh did not tell us to kill the girl babies as well,” I imagine them muttering in their grief “is because he is so sure that girls pose no threat.” And then, I like to imagine that they lifted their heads and with a gleam in their eyes, they suddenly smiled.
Some of you I see are smiling too, — for how wrong Pharaoh was. Let’s be clear, Shiprah and Puah were not suddenly endowed in that moment with superpowers, and there was no superhero God rushing in to save the day. All there was, was a couple of wizen woman who had had enough. And as it turns out Pharaoh, the superpower of the land, was no match for a couple of powerless women who were filled with a power of conviction beyond belief.
For when they are hauled up in front of Pharaoh to account for their violation of his decree, they do not go to pieces. Stop for a moment and think about the power differential here — a couple of immigrant midwives and the king of not just Egypt but most influential superpower in the region. And yet these two old women craftily side step the snare and wring their hands and lift their brows and play on Pharaoh’s complete ignorance of and indifference to the miracle of giving birth by saying something absolutely ridiculous but compellingly true to Pharaoh: “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes.”
But the story doesn’t stop with the midwives right? Their defiance sets in motion a chain of events that builds as each woman who comes face to face with death dealing domination says “no.” Who in her small and subtle ways makes room for life.
For next in the account, there is the mother. Her baby is fine and regardless of what Pharaoh says she is not about to end his life. So she tends to him, nurturing him in secret, caring for him until she can no longer do so safely and then this remarkable woman makes an ark for him, trusting the universe to care for him sending him out on the waters trusting creation to bring him to solid ground. Can you imagine her courage and her pain?
And then there is shrewd Miriam, the sister of the baby who knows what her mom is up to and knows the danger her brother faces and so she being a child who can wander unnoticed where grown women cannot, she follows her brother in his ark as he drifts down the Nile. Was she muttering a mantra all the way the he would not be eaten by a crocodile or overturned to drown in an eddy? Courageous and powerful, little girl Miriam who takes a stand ( the Hebrew word here is the same as one who goes out in battle to take a stand against one’s enemies, it carries the force of one who goes out in battle and will not be moved) she takes a stand to witness what is to come even if she has no power to change it. Which, it turns out, she does by offering Pharaoh’s daughter to get a nurse for the baby thereby restoring the baby to his mom. How beautiful is that!
Then there is Pharaoh’s daughter. What drew her out to the River in that moment? Was it a tug on her heart initiated by the prayers of the courageous mother and protective sister? What universal pull drew her out to that watery place at that moment? But she is there. She is there and she sees. She too is moved by something other than the power of Pharaoh’s degree. She feels compassion for a baby, an immigrant child washed up on a hostile shore, and she acts in a way that feels true to who she is even thought that is in defiance of what she has been told.
And then there are the women around her, her maids. They should have talked her out of it. They should have said “Can you imagine what trouble you will get into princess when your father discovers you have rescued one of the one’s he wants dead?” And they surely would have lost their jobs or worse for conspiring with this crazy plan, but they do it. Rather than turn away, they wade into the waters and draw the helpless baby out of the reeds.
All of them from Shiprah to the nameless maids of the daughter of Pharaoh defy domination and oppression and quietly each in their own way give themselves wholly and completely to love, and life. These powerless women powerfully deliver and sustain Moses; the same Moses — who will deliver the Hebrew people from the tyranny of Pharaoh and lead them to the promised land. Without them, their quiet courage and conviction, the Exodus, the central story of the Jewish people, never would have happened. These women and their acts of courage and love were like leaven that raised a nation.
And not just those woman, but there are women all around the world today doing the same thing right now. Did you know that extensive research by the UN and the World Bank has shown that as women are educated family health improves, literacy accelerates in future generations, regions stabilize, family and national income grows.
So perhaps in this mixed up confusing time when we are wishing for superpowers and scanning the sky line for a super hero, it actually comes down to us. All of us who say, enough! Enough to domination, abuse and oppression and who have the courage and conviction to take a stand for love and life. Today in the Gospel of John we hear Jesus giving his final farewell to the disciples. He tells them that his physical time on this planet is ending but that their time is beginning. He is in essence passing the baton on to them. “Love” he says. Love as I love. As God loves. In that you will find the strength and all the “super powers” you need..
Rev. June Cooper, who was our guest preacher last week, gave us this powerful image of a statue of Jesus without hands and without arms. Why? Because we are to be Jesus hands and arms. We are to be the ones who catch life, cradle it, release it, draw it in, take a stand even if that means, especially if it means, taking on powerful dominating, oppressive death-dealing forces of our time.
So where is God? Why does God seem so absent in the time when we need God most? Maybe it is because we may be absent to the time when God needs us the most. If God, who is love, entrusts love to us, maybe the degree to which we know God is the degree to which we are able to give ourselves to love. So how are we to be the Shiprah and the Puah of our time, and stand up to and circumvent the powers of death? How are we to be that courageous mother and stalwart sister? How are we to be curious and compassionate like Pharaoh’s daughter and her maids? For I believe, if we follow what we know to be good and true and right even if that means, and especially when that means standing up to death dealing powers, it is then that God is revealed.
Thanks be to Shiprah and Puah. Thanks be to the defiant power of love. Thanks be to God. Amen.