That old king—he never saw it coming. He never even knew what hit him. He had been so convinced that the threat to his kingdom would come in the form of powerful men. Military and political leaders, rebels, those who strap on armor and fight in battles. “Get rid of the boys!” He kept on commanding. He never saw this coming. He never even suspected this wily group of ordinary troublemakers, these mere girls and women working together, subverting his evil plans at every turn. The midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, whom he commissioned to do his dirty work. The impoverished immigrant mother he hoped would just go along with his cruel law. The girl-sister entirely beneath his notice. And—adding insult to injury!—his very own daughter. Troublemakers, every last one of them.
The king was trying to harm the Hebrew people. By the time these troublemakers are done, this persecuted Hebrew mother has been paid to raise her own child, under the watchful protection of the king’s daughter. And the princess named the child Moses. You know, Moses, who would one day confront the king and lead the people to freedom. The king never knew what hit him.
Katharine Henderson is the Executive Vice President of Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. In 2006, she wrote an intriguing book called God’s Troublemakers: How Women of Faith are Changing the World. In it, she interviews twenty women of different faiths who have effected change in the world around them. In each case, Henderson asks what lessons any of us—women and men alike—can learn about making a difference in the world around us, especially when it comes to suffering and injustice. Now, if Katharine Henderson could hop in a time machine and travel back into the mists of sacred history, surely she would also interview these women of this Exodus story, these ancient troublemakers of God.
What would these women say to us? What do they have to teach us? The midwives, Shiprah and Puah; the Hebrew mother; the sister, and the king’s daughter—each of them shows us a different way of being in the world. They pave the way for all of us—women and men, girls and boys—they pave the way for us to take action when we face injustice and suffering.
First, you have Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives. They are in a terrifying position, asked to use their medical expertise to end life before it even begins. But they defy the king in order to act with mercy. When they do this, they risk their own necks. They have some crazy courage.
Exodus describes Shiphrah and Puah as “fearing God.” A few minutes ago we heard Ty read to us a passage from Proverbs 31. That passage ends with this: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Some Jewish rabbis have said that that Proverbs 31 was actually written with Shiphrah and Puah in mind, since, Exodus describes them as women who “feared the Lord.”
That doesn’t mean they cowered before God. It means that they cared more about what God thought of them than what a human being could do to them. Their trust in God gave them courage to do what was right, when doing what was right could get them killed. Even as they were surely afraid, they acted with courage.
Have you ever been in a situation when doing the right thing is scary? When it takes real courage to do what is kind and hospitable? My friend Rebecca Messman is a Presbyterian minister. She works at a Presbyterian Church in the suburbs of Washington, DC. Her congregation is mostly white and affluent. Nine years ago, Becca’s congregation began an important ministry of hospitality to the day laborers in their community—mostly Central American immigrants. Becca’s church started a ministry called Lunch for the Soul. It is a free hot lunch for day laborers, hosted by church members. Over the years, Becca’s church has built up a relationship of trust with the many men who come there for lunch and a time of worship—men who often receive no other welcome in the U.S.
Recently, two men came to see Becca in her office, Jose and Antonio. Antonio showed Becca a photograph of a young man—his twenty-year-old nephew, William. The year before, William had witnessed a gang killing in El Salvador. To protect him, his uncle Antonio had smuggled William into the U.S. But gang members tracked William to his new home in Virginia, and they murdered him. Antonio and Jose were grieving his loss, and they wanted to do something. They asked Becca, “May we hold William’s funeral here? At this church? On Palm Sunday?”
The Salvadoran community would be there. The day laborers would be there. And gang members would be there. Becca writes,
I had rarely been afraid as a pastor in the leafy suburbs…but at that moment I was afraid. Still, we were church. Not just for happy community lunches…that leave us feeling proud and generous, but church that goes through the valley of the shadow of death with the community, with all the fear and risk that go along with it. If we are about anything, church is about this.
After her meeting with the two men, Becca called the moderator of the Deacons. Becca told her about the funeral plans and then said, “Maybe I watch too much TV, but do you think this is a good idea?” The moderator of the Deacons replied, “Of course. We’re their church. And in the face of the worst evil the world has to offer, we get to say, ‘Love wins.’”
On the afternoon of Palm Sunday, Trinity Church held a funeral for William, an undocumented day laborer killed by a gang. Salvadoran immigrant families sat next to affluent white church members, and together, they bore witness to this young man’s life and death, and to their hope in the resurrection.
Becca writes, “We had a chance as a church, not to just talk about Holy Week but to live it out, to feel it in our bodies, our veins pumping with adrenaline and our backbones bracing with what felt as much like craziness as courage.” Craziness and courage. Like brave Shiphrah and Puah, Becca and her church showed crazy courage. In a world where we face injustice and suffering, God works through our courage.
Then there is the mother of Moses, who lets go of her child so he can live. She makes an unimaginable sacrifice to preserve the life of her son and of future generations. In her book, Katherine Henderson outlines some characteristics of the women she interviewed. Among them, she names “a counterintuitive move to embrace pain and suffering in order to redeem it.” A counterintuitive move to embrace pain and suffering in order to redeem it. In other words, if you’re going to do any good in the world, get ready to face some pain. In her own way, this is what Moses’ mother does: she accepts the pain of sacrifice to give her child a future.
New Providence Community Church is a congregation in the Bahamas. It has designated a part of their island “Sacred Space.” Today, it looks sacred. It is pristine, and marked by hand-carved wooden statues of Jesus and the disciples. But once it was an environmental wasteland. It was littered with trash and old tires. And not only that, but this beach marked the historic site where slave ships used to dock. It was a place that marked desperation, cruelty, degradation.
New Providence Church decided to redeem this beach. They had a vision for its future. But the job before them was enormous, and redemption was slow in coming. For two years, members of their congregation spent days and weekends removing the trash. Two years of trash bags and plastic gloves, bad smells, vacation days spent sifting sand, money spent on cleanup. They sacrificed their time and resources so that sacred space could emerge, so that children could have a place to play. Like Moses’ mother, this congregation sacrificed to change the future. In a world where we see injustice and suffering, God works through our sacrifice.
Then there is Moses’ sister. What can she do to help? I mean, really! She’s a little girl! What can she do? Well, she pays close attention to someone else’s suffering, and then she connects that person to someone else with resources.
I have a friend I will call Anna. When Anna was in graduate school she learned about the problem of human trafficking for the sex trade—a problem that was just barely making the news at the time. Her heart was broken at the plight of the girls and young women she read about. After grad school, Anna went to work for an organization that combats global human trafficking.
A few years into her work, Anna met a young woman from South East Asia who had been rescued out of a brothel and resettled in the U.S. Anna writes, “When she arrived, Ruth spoke no English. She had suffered truly unspeakable trauma beyond what any of us could ever imagine.” But this Ruth had a vision for her life. She wanted an education. She wanted to help other girls and young women find a life.
Anna and her husband invited Ruth to come and live with them in their home. While she lived with them, Ruth worked and studied English. Most of the money she earned she sent home to her family, who relied on her for support. If she was going to fulfil her dream of going to college, Ruth would need financial support for herself and her family. But her needs were greater than Anna and her family could supply.
Anna and her husband realized they needed a bigger network. They needed to connect Ruth to others who could help. They set up a non-profit fund for her through a church and invited everyone they knew to contribute to her fund so that she could attend school. Over the past seven years, over $100,000 was given to support Ruth. These funds allowed Ruth to support her family at home while attending college. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology, and then she went on to earn a Master’s degree in social work this past May. This girl who was a victim of unthinkable injustice—she is now an educated woman bringing healing to others. Ruth’s life was changed forever because, like Moses’s sister, Anna paid attention to others’ suffering, and she connected Ruth to others with resources. In a world where we face injustice and suffering, God works through our connecting.
Finally, there is Pharaoh’s daughter. Unlike all these other women, she has real power and resources. She could stay in her own insular world, but she sees the basket, sends for it, and opens it. She doesn’t just stop with pity. She uses her power, position, and financial resources to do something. This church, the Union Church in Waban, is a place where there are many resources. We have a lot of years of education represented here. We have a lot of money here. We have power, privilege, and position. This story from Exodus shows us what we’re supposed to do with those things. Not to hoard our power and privilege, but leverage them for others’ good.
One of the central ministries here at Union Church is our partnership with the Russell School. The Russell School is a Boston school that faces serious challenges. Many of its children receive free lunches, and many of their parents struggle to make ends meet. Union church has a partnership with this wonderful school, in which we share our resources, advocate for its programs and its children, and learn from the families and staff there about what works best for them, about how we can best partner with them. Talk to someone here who volunteers with the Russell School, and you will see their face light up. This church is learning the joy of advocacy—the joy of taking what we have been given and using it responsibly, for the blessing of others. In a world where we see injustice and suffering, God works through our advocacy.
So: courage, sacrifice, connection, and advocacy—this is the path these women of Exodus pave for us. Pharaoh thought only military and political leaders could upset his kingdom. He never expected that a group of crazy, courageous, ordinary troublemakers would bring all his plans to naught. He never suspected that God—a God of justice and of mercy—might be at work in these bit players of history. And here’s the thing—when we walk in these women’s footsteps, we also walk in the footsteps of Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, God’s pre-eminent troublemaker.
So today, may we make some holy kind of trouble.
May you act with crazy courage to do what is right.
May your sacrifices bear fruit.
May you connect those in need with those who can help.
May you stand with the vulnerable, advocating for them.
And may we all come to see that under and through our efforts, God—our God of mercy and of justice—is truly at work, redeeming the world.