Well Done, Sister. August 23

Well Done, Sister

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church, and online; August 23, 2020

 

As Exodus begins, the sons and daughters of Jacob, named Israel after his encounter with God at the River Jabbok, are living in Egypt.  They came as honored guests, brothers and children and nephews and nieces of Joseph, who was an important man in Egypt at the time.  They are not honored anymore; the newest king of Egypt never knew Joseph and is uninterested in showering honor, or even respect, on these foreigners who live in the midst of his people, the Egyptians.  As tyrants have done from that time until this time, he identifies those who are different as dangerous.  He makes the children of Israel work as slaves, and then he frets that there are too many of them, and he moves from slavery to genocide, killing them to reduce their number within the country.

 

By verse 11, this new king is named as Pharaoh.  Pharaoh makes one key mistake in his series of maneuvers to subjugate and ultimately eliminate the children of Israel.  In both verse 16 and verse 22, Pharaoh only demands that the newborn baby boys be killed.  His final order of terror and murder is stated this way, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.” Ultimately, it’s the girls that outsmart him.

 

He starts with the midwives, Shiphrah and Puah.  The text is not clear as to whether these two women are Egyptian or Hebrew by birth – the Hebrew in the text can be translated “the Hebrew midwives,’ that is, the midwives who are Hebrews, or ‘the midwives to the Hebrews’; both meanings could make sense.  Pharaoh might well expect Egyptian women who worked with the Israelites to follow his murderous orders, which he intended ‘for the good of the country.’  And the midwives’ response to Pharaoh when they disobey him, ‘the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,’ might carry a tad more believability if they had attended women of both nationalities in their lifetime of service.  Scholars don’t all agree on the identity of these women; I’m inclined to lean toward understanding them as Egyptians who serve the slave population.  Whoever they are, Pharaoh’s order doesn’t work.  Midwives of all times and places devote their time, their skill, their hope, and their love and energy into delivering healthy babies.  Of all people to ask to kill babies, midwives should have been last on Pharaoh’s list.  Their response plays on his prejudice against these people he sees as different.  Women are women; birthing a baby is the same process across time and nationalities and races and creeds.  The midwives know that, and the story-teller trusts that we know that, too.  Pharaoh is outsmarted by two women who refuse to be conformed to his evil and are transformed by their understanding of goodness and of God.

 

But evil doesn’t back down easily.  Pharaoh expands his orders to kill.  Now it is incumbent on every Egyptian to drown the baby boys of Israel in the Nile.  Moses’ mother (whom scripture later identifies as Jochebed) does not disobey Pharaoh.  But she, too, undermines his genocide by placing her baby in a tar-lined basket before she tosses him in the Nile.  That skewing of the king’s order saves the baby’s life long enough to float him downriver toward the palace itself.  There one more woman intervenes to save this child’s life.  Pharaoh’s own daughter discovers the basket, immediately recognizes that this baby is precisely whom her father is determined to destroy, and decides to do the opposite.  She adopts the child, keeps his life, thereby blatantly disregarding her own father’s decree. 

 

Miriam is also named later in Exodus as Moses’ older sister, apparently the same sister who has kept a watchful eye on this basket.  She does nothing to explicitly disobey the royal edict.  She does, however, think fast.  She picks up on the princess’ decision to love this found baby and immediately offers to find the child a wet nurse, his own mama. 

 

None of these women included in this story is stupid.  Each one of them knows exactly what she is doing, what she can do according to the limits of her own power. Each of them recognizes that the royal decree to murder baby boys is wrong.  And their actions, together, save the life of baby Moses.  No one of them knows what this baby will do when he grows up.  Each of them knows his life is precious.

 

Do you remember the song in Mary Poppins about women seeking power?  Mrs. Banks sings of the struggle for women’ suffrage, for women’s right to vote.  She sings:

Our daughters’ daughters will adore us

and they’ll sing in grateful chorus,

‘well done, well done, well done, Sister Suffragette!’

 

We celebrated women’s suffrage just this past week.  One hundred years ago last Tuesday, August 18, women won the right to vote in this country.  It was a long-fought battle, involving women like Mrs. Banks and like Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth, Helen Keller, and my great-grandmother and probably yours as well.  The passage of the 19th amendment primarily affected white women; other American women had more hurdles to jump before most of them could vote.  The 19th amendment gave many women a voice in their government that they had never had before.  That voice has since allowed women to run for office.  We now have women in positions of authority that were unusual if not impossible in previous times.

 

Before the passage of the 19th amendment, which is to say, one hundred years and one month ago, and for generations before that, women did not usually find themselves in positions of authority. 

 

Scripture, however, is full of stories which make it clear that authority is not the only way things happen in the world, then or now.  The call of God over the ages has been to regular people, women and men mostly outside of the channels of power.  And God’s call and expectation is not that those who are called will sit back and say, ‘well, there’s nothing to be done.’  God asks those who are called to act.

 

Shiphrah and Puah could not rescind the Pharaoh’s order to kill baby boys.  They could refuse to cooperate with those orders.

 

Jochebed and Miriam had no influence to stop the decree that baby boys were to be thrown into the Nile.  But they refused to let their baby on the water without their creative intervention.

 

Even Pharaoh’s daughter could not undo the order to drown babies.  But she chose to offer love, under her father’s own roof, trusting that that love would keep the child safe as he grew. 

 

Evil has not ceased.  There have been other tyrants since Pharaoh, and we have no reason to believe that we have conquered the tendency of those who have power to commit atrocities in order to maintain that power. 

 

We do have some power in this world; we all, men and women, now have the right to vote, to let our voices be heard in the choosing of those who will govern in our name.  We also have the power and the responsibility to live as people of faith, guided by God’s spirit to walk in the ways of justice and love.  The Apostle Paul writes in Romans, 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.

Embedded in this word from Paul is the expectation that we will be aware of what the world is demanding of us, and that we will not let the world determine what is right.  We will discern the will of God, with the power of the Holy Spirit, which guides us to offer love.  We will not fall into the prejudice of Pharaoh, believing that people different from us experience pain or suffering easier than we do.  We will not turn away from prisoners who are treated with excessive harshness or from neighbors who have been left behind by our economy. 

 

It takes effort not to be conformed to this world.  It’s easier to go along with the flow, to follow the decrees from on high without thinking about how they reflect or don’t reflect the will of God for our lives, for our relationships, or for our society.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed through the guidance of the Spirit of God.   This is the word that scripture speaks, explicitly in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and implicitly through the stories of regular women and men who witness to God’s love and grace over and over again.

 

Shiphrah and Puah, Moses’ mama and Pharaoh’s daughter refused to be conformed to the ways of the world created by the decrees of Pharaoh.  They were creative, brave, loving, and determined to respect the precious lives of the babies born to Israelite mamas.  As disciples of Jesus, we are called to resist evil, injustice, and oppression, just as these women did.  The Spirit of God will guide us to do what is good and loving and just, resisting evil in its many forms.  We have to be willing to let go of the ways of evil in the world and be transformed to say no.  We will not engage in hatred or exclusion, racism or injustice.  We will be transformed to do good, to love, to serve.  And

 

Our children’s children will adore us,

and they’ll sing in grateful chorus,

Well done, Sisters and Brothers in Christ.  Well done!

 

 

Exodus 1:8-2:10

8Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

15The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16“When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

2Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. 2The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. 3When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. 4His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

5The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. 6When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. 7Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” 8Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. 9Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. 10When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

Psalm 124

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say—

if it had not been the Lord who was on our side,

    when our enemies attacked us,

then they would have swallowed us up alive,

     when their anger was kindled against us;

then the flood would have swept us away,

the torrent would have gone over us;

then over us would have gone the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord, who has not given us as prey to their teeth.

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers;

the snare is broken, and we have escaped.

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

 

Romans 12:1-8

12I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do 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. 3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

 

Matthew 16:13-20

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

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