Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sermon for Year A Proper 16

The Help:
Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s Daughter

Some of you may have seen the movie THE HELP
that is playing in theaters now.
Some of you may have read the book by Kathryn Stockett
that inspired the film.
THE HELP is a story set in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1960’s--
a time of strict segregation and rigid, sometimes punishing,
social norms.

THE HELP is the story of a diverse group of women--black and white,
privileged and unprivileged--
and their struggle --at least for some--
to do what they know is right--
but is also extremely risky,
To speak up and to speak out.
To shine a light into the darkness
and reveal injustice and oppression.

THE HELP is a well-told story.
But it is certainly not a new story.
Injustice and oppression have deep roots.
The Bible tells us so--
again and again and again.

Today we hear from the book of Exodus
about two midwives-
Shiphrah and Puah.

Those are not familiar names that just trip off our tongues.
I don’t know about you
but I don’t know anyone today who has those names.

That’s rather too bad.
Because these two women in the book of Exodus
are quite remarkable.
Exodus is a remarkable story.

In Exodus we come face to face with what it means to be an oppressed people.
We cannot read the text and deny
that some human beings
are willing to impose suffering on others.

Pharaoh, the king of Egypt,
is the king-pin of oppressors.
In ancient and in modern times,
one link that connects all oppressors
is that they are usually fearful people.
They do evil unto others before others might do evil unto them.

Pharaoh is afraid of the Israelite people.
They are a people who are doing just as God commanded in the book of Genesis--
be fruitful and multiply.

Pharaoh is afraid that these people are becoming so populous
that they may soon have enough people, enough strength
to overcome Pharaoh and his kingdom.

What if the Hebrew people align themselves with Pharaoh’s enemies?
Pharaoh has no intention of losing his kingdom,
his wealth, privilege and power.

Pharaoh is afraid.
So he sets out to take control.
Pharaoh says, Let us deal shrewdly...
(Never a good sign when someone says that in the Bible!)

And Pharaoh orders Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives,
to murder--
to kill any and every boy baby born to the Israelite women.

Pharaoh didn’t care about the girl babies.
Girls were nothing.
But boys?!!
Boys grow up to be men--
men who can take Egyptian women,
men who can align with Pharaoh’s enemies
and go to war against Pharaoh and the Egyptians.
men who know the benefits of power
and privilege.

Pharaoh has the solution.
Kill the boy babies.

Pharaoh is fearful of the Israelite people.
He sees that they are growing,
in number and in strength.
He also takes note that even under the oppression of slave labor
and harsh living conditions,
are not broken.
Pharaoh is not stupid.
He is paying attention.
He notes,
The Israelite people are more numerous
and more powerful than we [are].

This is terrifying when you are the person in power.

The text says that the Egyptians came to “dread” the Israelites.
That word “dread” is better translated
as “sick to their stomachs.”

The Egyptians are disgusted by the Israelite people.
They don’t see that they have anything in common with these people.
They don’t see the Israelites as human beings.

But the things that frightens Pharaoh the most
is that he knows he NEEDS the very people he loathes.

Pharaoh’s economy needs these immigrants.
Pharaoh is scared out of his wits by these people
yet he is even more scared
that he might lose them
and in turn, lose his wealth.

You see Pharaoh can’t fill his storehouses with grain
without the Israelites.

Pharaoh can’t continue his expansive building projects
without the labor of the Hebrew people.

So he devises this plan.
His plan is to kill off all the Israelite boy babies.
The women--who pose no threat in his mind--can still serve as slaves.
He just needs to be rid of those boy babies.

Only things don’t go as he planned.

Shiphrah and Puah do not do what the King of Egypt commands them to do.
And Pharaoh hears about this.
He summons the two women to come before him.
Can you imagine the fear those women felt
standing in front of this ruthless man?

But the midwives found their strength from a source unknown to Pharaoh.
The text says--
But the midwives feared God...

These two women
truly believe
that God is more powerful than even Pharaoh.

Who are these two women?
The text of Exodus says they are Hebrew midwives.
But we don’t really know if they are Hebrew women
or if they are Egyptian women--
appointed to serve as midwives to Hebrew women.

We don’t know.
Their names sound like Hebrew names--
but if they were Israelites
why would Pharaoh trust them in the first place?

What we DO know is that Shiphrah and Puah
feared God.

This is not the same type of fear that Pharaoh suffers.
Their fear means to be in total awe of God.
These two women believe--
and from their actions it seems they truly believe--
that no worldly king,
is more powerful than their God.

These midwives disobey Pharaoh and show mercy.
These midwives embody God’s mercy.

They do not see the Israelite women as “those people” or “the other.”
They see these women--and their babies--
as fellow human beings,
all created by one God,
all loved by one God.

But Shiphrah and Puah do have
a marvelously crafted excuse for Pharaoh.
They explain their disobedience
by describing the Hebrew women
as giving birth so quickly that they, the midwives,
don’t arrive until after the babies are born.

Too late for the delivery, too late for the cunning killing of the baby boys.

It is probably a believable story to Pharaoh
because it fits with Pharaoh’s mindset that the Hebrew people
are nothing more than animals.
They are not like Egyptian women who give birth normally--
taking hours and hours of labor.

So Pharaoh’s plan has gone awry.

But oppressors almost always have a plan B.

If the baby boys can’t be killed at birth,
then Pharaoh decrees that
Every boy that is born to the Hebrews
will be thrown into the Nile.

But interestingly enough,
the next person who disobeys Pharaoh,
is Pharaoh’s very own daughter.
(Don’t you just love God’s sense of humor?!!)

When Pharaoh’s daughter finds this baby floating in a basket down the river,
she KNOWS he is a Hebrew baby
But she takes the baby and has compassion.
She takes the baby as her own son
and hires a conveniently present Hebrew woman--
as his wet nurse.
Pharaoh’s daughter just happens to hire the birth mother of Moses.

An Egyptian woman and a Hebrew woman come together
on the side of hope and life.
Moses is the son of BOTH of these women.

God has a way of bringing together the unlikely.
God often uses those who appear to have the least power
to do the most good.

Pharaoh is a person with immense worldly power.
He lives a life based on fear, exclusion and loathing of others.
Sadly, this is a model followed by too many
and too much of the world.

If you can make people afraid, you can control them.
If you can pit one group of people against another,
you can likely control all the people.

If you can make one group of people think they are better
than another group,
if you can portray the “other” as disgusting, non-human,
you can stay at the top.

Bullying is a small-scale example of Pharaoh’s model of relationships.
Turn on the evening news or pick up the New York Times
and you can find example after example
of Pharaohs still actively at work.

But God offers another way.
Certainly, as Christians, we recognize Jesus as one who walked a very different
path than Pharaoh.
But God was already revealing the other way long before Jesus.
Look at Shiphrah and Puah and Pharaoh’s daughter--
compassion, inclusion and risk.

Throughout history there has always come forward
some one or some small group of people
who refuse to do what they know is wrong.

Someone steps forward--often risking their own well-being, their very life--
someone steps forward and offers another way,
a vision that speaks of God’s dream for the world.
A vision that is comprised of risk and compassion and inclusion.

When she opened [the basket], she saw the child.
He was crying, and she took pity on him.

This must be one of the Hebrew children...
and she took him as her son.
But the midwives feared God.
They did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them...

Regardless of the situation or the time period,
when you decide to face and oppose Pharaoh’s kingdom,
you cannot expect things to be easy.
You cannot even expect that you will come out alive.

It’s why so many of us do not take those risks,
do not stand up or speak out for what we know is right.
It is much more difficult to oppose oppression
when we are not the oppressed.
It is also difficult
when we have a lot to lose ourselves.
None of us dislike having a comfortable life,
having privilege and power.

But we need to look at the lesson offered by Shiphrah and Puah.
We need to live in awe of God.
Not in awe of any other human being or any system of power.

We need to live by the model of Pharaoh’s daughter--
willing to risk for the sake of compassion,
willing to open our arms and hearts
to those who are being shut out and shut off
because we know that is wrong.

As baptized Christians,
we have made a covenant with God to follow Jesus.
Jesus who said--
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven
and whatever you loose on earth, will be loosed in heaven.

Life is not about just hanging around
waiting for the pearly gates of heaven to spring open.
What we do here on earth matters.
How we treat one another matters.

God gives us choices.
We can choose a path that offers life to all--
or we can choose a path that sacrifices some people--
in order that a few might live extremely well.

God gives us choices.
Mercy or massacre?

God gives us choices.
Jesus came to remind us again.
Choose compassion.
Chose mercy.
Choose life.

God HAS spoken to God’s people.


Diane said...

Beautiful! I am bookmarking this for the next time this rolls around in the lectionary!

Diane said...

(I realize that my comment might be construed as planning to re-preach it... that's not it at all... it just gives me lots of food for thought! Just a gorgeous meditation!)


Thanks so much, DIane, for you kind words. I love the book of Exodus. THere is so much there that seems to relate to our own spiritual journey right now.