Heroines of the Faith
By Charles Rush
May 7, 2006
Exodus 1: 15-22
(mp3, 2.8Mb) ]
rhaps you saw the article in the Atlantic Monthly this month that reported that our young women are doing far better than in school than our academic intellectuals would have us believe. They do better in school, speak up more often in class, develop career plans with college more often, and those who are in the ‘at risk’ category are far more likely to avoid serious trouble than are their male counterparts. If that is indeed the case, good for them. This sermon is for our daughters especially but really it is a sermon for all of who need models of bravery and faithfulness.
I say it is for
our daughters because there is a lingering chauvinism in the scriptures. We get
far more hero’s than heroines. There is a line in the story of the feeding of
the 5000 that points this out. After they distributed the loaves and fishes and
everyone was fed, the bible says “Now there were 5000 present that day, not
counting women and children.” It raises a question, why not count the women and
have suggested that at events like these women and children outnumber men on
the order of 5 or 6 to 1. 5 or 6 to one sounds about right to me, having stood
for the Thanksgiving Parade and the fireworks on the 4th of July many
times. Therefore, it seems to me, that out of respect for our daughters, we
should perhaps refer to this story from now on as the feeding of the 30,000.
We all know why
only the men get mentioned. They are the ones with money and power. Like then,
it is not too much different today. Perhaps you saw the article in the Wall
Street Journal this week that described people who have over 40 million dollars
in assets. There were some surprising statistics, not the least of which is
just how many people are in this category. I read this to my wife, who said
“Honey, a million dollars just ain’t what it used to be.” And some things
weren’t so surprising, like the fact that the vast majority of people in this
category are men.
Well money and
power are important but character is more important still. And faithfulness is
more important still. And that is what our story is about this morning.
Character and faithfulness are eternal. These we will take with us to the
grave, whereas our money and power are only a 50-60 year lease.
Our story is
that of the Exodus. We all know this story. Any child will tell you that it was
the time when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and defeated the army of Pharaoh.
Described like that it is a story about a hero who defeats an evil overlord for
God. But the story is a little more complicated than that.
In the first
place, I intentionally included a long passage of scripture this morning read
so ably by Moses, God, and our narrator. God comes to Moses in a burning bush
that does not burn up. It is like the flames that were lit in the temples of
the Ancient World that signaled the divine presence.
Moses, you may
recall, was in the wilderness because he was hiding out. He had killed an
Egyptian when he was angry and he was wanted for murder charges. So he was
hiding out in the desert. God comes to him in some profound experience of awe.
What do you
think that would be like? Secretly don’t you wish that something like this
would happen to you as well? Wouldn’t you like a direct encounter with the
numinous? How do you suppose you would respond? We are told when Moses came
down from Mount
face shined with the divine effulgence. When St. Thomas had an experience like this, he
stopped writing his voluminous Summa Theologica and stopped talking as well.
When the Buddha was in full communion, he reached serenity, even peace and
inner quietude. How bout Moses?
What we get
here in scripture is the longest kvetch in all the Bible. It is a full chapter
(ch. 4) of complaints and whining and listing reasons he can’t do the job and
worry. He wants guarantees; he wants support; he wants assurance. Come on,
already. I can get my teenagers to wash the car with less harangue. God gives
him miraculous powers with the staff. That is not enough. Moses says he can’t
speak. God gives him his brother to actually do the talking. Even after all
that, what does Moses say? “I’m going home to my people and think about it.
I’ll get back to you.” Time goes by, time goes by, no Moses. God has to go down
to Moses with his people and tell him to get back to Egypt or else.
This is not a
shining response of faith. Neither is it what you would expect for someone who
has just encountered the awe of the Creator of the Universe. On the other hand,
I’m glad it is in the Bible because it reminds us of two things. First, it is
alright to fight with God. You have issues with the way things are, take it
upstairs. God can handle it. Secondly, it is a healthy reminder that when God
moves authentically, it is challenging, there are not enough resources, and it
usually requires daring courage. Don’t say “Yes” casually. In fact, most of the
prophets in the Bible balk at God after they are called to speak to the people.
They don’t want to do it because they know it is risky. I think the same thing
in prayer each and every week I put on this stole. It is a burden.
Back to our
daughters. What a contrast with Moses we have in the story that we just read.
We have two women, ordinary women, who were mid-wives. Their names are Puah and
Shiprah. Every child should know about these women.
One day they
get a visit, not from God, but from Pharaoh. God brings blessing, Pharaoh only
brings threat of bodily harm. Pharaoh is worried about the increasing birth
rate of the slaves in Egypt. There are too many of them. He is
also worried that the Egyptians are increasing fast enough. His solution?
He tells them
to kill the boys. Why? Because boys grow up to become threats to the Empire.
They become terrorists, soldiers. Why let the girls live? Because the Egyptians
took some of them in marriage and as concubines.
The Bible says
that these were “God-fearing women”. They were in awe of God. They were God
inspired. The scripture says simply “They did not do what the King of Egypt
told them to do.” We don’t have a chapter of kvetching. They do not list out
all the dangers they are up against. They know perfectly well they could lose
their lives. They do not need in signs of power, any miraculous protection.
They do not need anyone to stand in for them to do their job, while they just
watch. They do not have to go to their people and think about the situation.
They do not have to be sought out again. Scripture says of these God-fearing
women, “They did not do what the King of Egypt told them to do.” They disobeyed
human authority. And I might add, they lied about it to Pharaoh. The scriptures
say, “So God made the mid-wives prosper.”
symbols these women are. “They symbolize birth, deliverance, freedom, life
truth, passage. What do they do? They bring forth life, they liberate, they
mediate between one world and another, they comfort… They confront evil face to
face. They keep their faith… They disobey authority. They rebel. Thus the
Exodus starts [right here]. The birth canal is opened up for a people to be
born and drawn through” (McKenna, p. 42). You may be interested to know that
there is a passage in the Talmud, probably remembering these two women, that
says that God was like a mid-wife in the Exodus, parting the waters and
birthing a new people in freedom.”
And the story
continues with one particular family. A mother has a male baby. What to do? If
it is found, the Egyptians might kill it. They might come to harm themselves.
This mother calls her sister. They find the spot where the Pharaoh’s daughter
comes to bath each day. They leave the baby in the reeds, then they sit back,
watch and wait. How like God they are in that simple action. To simply watch
and wait to see what will happen.
thing is that the Pharaoh’s daughter not only finds the baby but decides to
keep it and raise it. It is one of the puzzling, beguiling things of the Bible
that God regularly gets the enemies of God to advance the divine cause
unwittingly. First, these two mid-wives disobey the Pharaoh, then this mother
and sister disobey the Pharaoh. Now the Pharaoh’s own daughter directly
disobeys the command for the entire empire and even brings Moses to be raised
in the Pharaoh’s house. Pharaoh’s daughter joins the conspiracy (conspire literally
means ‘to breath the same air’). “She is a mid-wife too though in another way.
She saves him just as surely as him mother and sister, and she introduces him
to a new world, another culture, language, race, religion, and life. She names
him- she who has no name in the story… She opens the way for him to become the
liberator, the leader of his people. She gives him access to the culture.
Eventually he would use everything he had leaned to set his people free”
(McKenna, p. 48).
this is not a story about a man, Moses. This is a story about 5 women and a man
who started a revolution. 2 midwives, two sisters, and one daughter of the
King. “These women are a source of a new approach to life, to living with evil
and surviving danger. They are courageous. They have nothing but each other-and
God- to stand behind them. They are ingenious, they plot and plan, they check
out ahead of time, they think imaginatively and creatively, and they cross
boundaries of race, religion, economics and politics. They make bridges where
there were none before… Evil must be confronted, must be resisted; avenues must
be opened up so that newness, life, birth, revolution, and liberation can be
brought forth. Power must be used for good, for life, for the future, even in
oppressive situations. Coalitions, crossing boundaries, and pushing privilege
on behalf of others- risking, trusting to intuition, and treasuring life, even
among strangers- these are the ways of transforming reality, of opening up
liberation” (McKenna, p. 50). No, when you think about it, how like Jesus these
women really were. Indeed, the disciples could have taken a lesson or two from
them. They are the first models of non-violent resistance recorded in
scripture. They are heroines of faith.
I might remind
you that when Moses becomes fully grown, he sees an Egyptian overlord beating
an Israelite. He gets so mad, just like young men will do, that he loses his
temper, and kills the overlord.
He has been
given all this privilege and opportunity but he squanders it in a minute
committing murder, so that he has to flee and hide. And who hides him? His
mother Jochobed and his sister Miriam. God had to find him in the wilderness
because of the overcharge of testosterone in youth.
This story is a
reminder that successful revolutions are not simply a matter of guns and
cunning, although that has its place. They are also spiritual. It is the simple
and profound dignity that comes over ordinary people who refuse to live in fear
of physical pain from a tyrant any longer because they have claimed their
identity and their reason for being from a higher source. Someone once said
that when Rosa Parks sat down, the whole world stood up. And that is right.
I think Puah
and Shiprah give us one good picture of what the Spirit of God looks like when
it visits people. They refused to obey the orders of Pharaoh. They had a quiet
dignity that said “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” They
had great courage and they faced it as a matter of course. So my daughters,
don’t you take it anymore either. You are better than that, called for a higher
purpose. Mid-wife in the new world. The old one is passing away before your
very eyes. Amen.
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