Sermon Seeds: Be Transformed/Take Action
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 16
Exodus 1:8-2:10 with Psalm 124 or
Isaiah 51:1-6 with Psalm 138
Additional reflection on Romans 12:1-8
Be Transformed/Take Action
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by Kathryn Matthews Huey
The story is so familiar that most of our church members could narrate it from their pews. As children in church school, many of us colored in pictures of the Egyptian princess taking the little baby Moses out of the water, there on the bank of the River Nile, while his sister (Miriam, we assumed) stood by, watching. Even without deep reflection on the powers-that-be looming in the background of the pictures in our workbooks, we had a sense that the day had been saved and the cute little baby would grow up a prince – a happy ending to a scary episode! And yet this story is anything but an ending: it puts into motion the Exodus narrative, with God, behind the scenes and more powerful than the powers-that-be, taking first steps in response to the suffering of the people whose ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, so far away and so long ago, had been promised abundant blessings and a land of their own.
After the relief of Joseph taking in (and forgiving) his family, bringing them to Egypt for food and safety, the story takes a hard and heart-breaking turn. The narrator uses awful words like “dread,” “ruthless,” and “bitter” in setting the scene, where the promise God made to Abraham seems to have faded away. Yes, the people are multiplying, more numerous than the stars, but that’s the problem – like many who sit on thrones, Pharaoh feels threatened, by those robust numbers of the Hebrew people who had been living as welcome “resident aliens” in his land. Even when Pharaoh puts the Hebrew people in slavery, they continue to multiply to the point that they can rightly be called a “nation.” In fact, Scott Hoezee observes that “Exodus 1:9 is the first time in all Scripture where the Hebrew word ‘am, or ‘nation,’ has been used in connection with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob!” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). The power of that blessing given to Abraham, Walter Brueggemann says, “is received in deep jeopardy, for there is always some regime that wants to nullify it.” Pharaoh’s regime turns on the Hebrew people when it “deals” with their vitality as a problem rather than a gift. Brueggemann observes “here no romanticism about a world that is ‘user friendly’ or ‘getting better'” (Exodus, New Interpreter’s Bible).
Later, when Moses is grown, we’ll hear about the cry of the people to God for deliverance, but in this story, God acts even before being called upon, illustrating, James Newsome writes, a “strange and paradoxical grace of God…that is responsive, in different ways, to both human sin and human faithfulness” (Texts for Preaching Year A). While the people are suffering, God isn’t standing by, unmoved; this is no “watchmaker” God who sets things in motion and walks away. The Hebrew people just keep multiplying and multiplying. When Pharaoh responds with more violence and repression, God then moves.(We should be prepared, I suspect, for some readers/hearers to wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often in such situations. Is this where our theme, “Take Action,” hints about our own responsibility to be the instruments of God in the face of violence and repression? More on that in a moment.)
God’s intervention into the crisis, however, comes not in dramatic, sweeping events, but in small ones, the birth of a little baby, the cleverness of midwives, and a tiny basket-boat floating on the water. Even the people who are central to this story are among “the little ones” in society, in this case, the women. The midwives evade the order of Pharaoh out of compassion for the Hebrews (and a fear of God, an interesting way to describe their motive), the mother hides her baby and then entrusts him to God in a carefully prepared little boat, a big sister watches over her baby brother as he floats along, and a foreign (pagan) princess has mercy on a child she surely recognizes as a Hebrew baby, condemned to death by her own father and the very power structure that shelters her.
Only two of these women are named (even this is unusual in Scripture, where women tend to be nameless), but all of them face danger, all of them take risks, and all of them work around and beneath those who hold much more power than they do, at least in the eyes of the world. Because of these “small ones,” Moses, the future great leader of the people of Israel who will lead them to freedom, grows up under the roof of Pharaoh himself.
Needless to say, there’s a fair measure of irony in this story, not only in Moses’ fate (ending up in the house of the ruler who had ordered his death) but in the way he reached it: the river was the very place the Hebrew baby boys were supposed to die, but the waters carried him to safety. That’s even how he got his name, the narrator tells us, because the princess “drew him from the water,” although many scholars observe that his name came from an Egyptian word for “son.” Hoezee writes that “Moses is rescued from the waters of death, which to him become the waters of life, thus setting up what will become (in Exodus as well as throughout the rest of Scripture) the baptismal movement of salvation emerging from the chaotic waters of death” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts).
While several commentaries highlight the courage of the women in this story, they share a concern for the question of God’s presence and actions in times of suffering and need. Where is God in this story? Clearly, God is at work through those “little” people, working around the edges and under the heel of power that has gone bad. Scholar after scholar insists that it’s God’s compassion, God’s faithfulness, God’s tender care that are extended by the compassion, faithfulness and care of the courageous women, including, mysteriously, the pagan princess. The psalm reading of the day, Psalm 124, confirms that it’s God who saves and protects us, otherwise, it says, “the flood would have swept us away, the torrent would have gone over us” (v. 4).
However, we read these passages about life being drawn up from the waters of death, about God protecting us from the flood and the torrent, and we remember disasters like tsunamis in Indonesia and Japan, with their unimaginable death tolls and horrendous destruction of the environment, and we mark the ninth anniversary of our own nation’s terrible tragedy in Hurricane Katrina. At one time or another, we know what it feels like to feel overwhelmed by life, so it’s understandable that a preaching commentary (in more ordinary times) would make the connection between our struggles for stability and peace and the feeling of being overcome by floodwaters, engulfed by a torrent that threatens to carry us away (see John Hayes, Preaching through the Christian Year A, for a helpful example). However, I had the experience of reading these texts, and asking those same questions about God, not long after a visit to New Orleans that included spending time in the company of one who survived the floodwaters engulfing her home. The Exodus passage, and the psalm, don’t sound exactly the same any more, and the nice little story with a happy ending (that is just the beginning of a great and wonderful story of deliverance) provokes me to further reflection on where God is, and where we are, when tragedy strikes.
They told us that the New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward looked much better than it did, but we still couldn’t take in the enormity of the destruction and suffering endured by that great city. Street after street, block after block, mile after mile, we saw empty lots, concrete steps leading nowhere, and most heartbreakingly, the marks on the houses that still remained, reporting the results of searchers looking for survivors, or victims. That night, we walked slowly up the streets of the French Quarter, hearing the music that still plays there. Walter Brueggemann has written an elegant sermon that traces the origins of jazz to its “natural habitat” in “the barrio,” among “those who go for broke every time because there is so little to lose, so much to hear and say, so much to hope….” His words are profoundly meaningful for us as we struggle with these passages, looking up from our text to recall those news reports of slow, slow, slow progress in bringing people home, in keeping promises that had been broken, in rebuilding lives and in recovering trust. Brueggemann says that we can actually “go back past New Orleans…to the very bottom of the story of jazz,” to our text today and the story of “a Pharaoh whose name we cannot remember, because if you have seen one Pharaoh, you have seen them all. This nameless ‘Lord of Egypt’ who tries to stop the music….” The courageous women are at the heart of the story, he says: “Because of their singing the Hebrew barrio became a future-infested place from which has arisen all the later daring dances of freedom, a dance of defiance and gratitude and hope” (“Variations from the Barrio” in Inscribing the Text).
Brueggemann is right, of course, because we know the rest of the story, or at least the next part, where Moses lives and goes on to lead his people to the edge of the Promised Land. But even today, years later, the people of New Orleans, and those who care about them, still struggle to rebuild homes and lives, and one can’t question their right to question. And that is why I hear the voice of Debra Joseph, member of Beecher Memorial United Church of Christ in New Orleans and a survivor of Katrina, as I sit with this story about God’s hidden but powerful hand at work, and the courageous women (and men) God uses to accomplish God’s purposes.
Debra can tell you, step by step, hour by hour, the story of those terrible days and months, from the time she brought her mother home from the nursing facility for a visit when it seemed the storm wouldn’t hit New Orleans, to the much later days of return to her now-restored house. Her tone is measured and calm as she describes the water that suddenly poured down her street and inched up her porch, up through her floor. One can’t help feeling panic at the challenge of evacuating an elderly mother in a wheelchair out through rising waters, negotiating one difficulty after another, worrying about a brother a few doors away, witnessing the terror of a mother trying to get rescuers to her children, waiting on an empty interstate for an ambulance: “Everything was water,” Debra says, and some people were trying to walk through waters up to their necks.
She saw a man in a boat chopping holes in roofs so people could get out of their attics. Sleeping in the Superdome, without water or lights or basic necessities, or waiting for transportation to Houston, or sleeping in the hospital room with her mother once they reached safety, searching for her brother, returning to her home repeatedly, buying clothes after leaving her home with nothing, finding her brother at last, taking up residence for two years in a FEMA trailer…the story sounds familiar only because we are dimly aware from news reports that it happened over and over again, to so many people. Debra had to bring her mother home this time, not for a visit so her children could pamper her, but for burial, after her mother died in Houston, far away from her own home.
When Debra told me this story in her measured voice, I asked her about God. She responded, “God has always been in control of my life,” and she was grateful that her mother was saved, that the boat didn’t topple, that people opened their hearts and doors to them. She was grateful to find electricity hooked up to her property so she would have power in the trailer she lived in for two years. “God was in charge,” she said, and she feels “so blessed” for “the people God sent” into her life. She knows she has lost so much, after sorting through what could be salvaged, and letting go of what needed to go. It’s hard to lose things, even treasured things, “but what God has in store at the end of my journey will be better than I had before. I hold on to that thought so the great loss will not take over my life. This keeps me grounded, so I can give it all to God, stand firm, be patient, and let God do what God wants to do with and through me.” When I asked this remarkable woman what helped her to be so brave, she said, “Survival. I wanted to live.”
In every generation, there is a struggle for some to survive, and a struggle for others to refuse to live comfortably while sisters and brothers are engulfed by the storms of life. But there is more to it, because the story pushes us farther, opens our eyes wider, prods us to use our heads, to open our hearts, to accept God’s call to “let God do what God wants to do with and through” us. In this Exodus passage, God intervened through the actions of bold midwives refusing to be party to genocide, through the actions of a desperate mother and vigilant sister, through the compassion of a stranger. God not only answered the prayer of their hearts, but the prayer of a new nation counting on the promises that had been handed down to them.
To make our way out of our comfort zones, we will take a rough ride. Perhaps we will worry about steadying our own small boats on such a turbulent sea, if we question policies and practices that bring suffering on our sisters and brothers, especially as they so often do, on those, as Brueggemann says, who have “so little to lose, so much to hear and say, so much to hope….” The United Church of Christ has published a booklet of stories, Letters from My Sisters, from courageous women who came through the storm of Katrina, and it includes an important and illuminating letter from John Pecoul, “Beyond Katrina: A Call for United Church of Christ Awareness And Action.” Pecoul challenges us to do more than listen to the stories about Katrina; he says that we need to learn more about “the complex story of public policy and private business decisions over the previous century that set the stage for the disaster that occurred.” Even while we minister to human suffering and work to rebuild the city, we have to take a hard look at all of “Katrina’s Enablers,” and once we “know more,” we must “do more” – we must take action – to advocate for justice, for safety, and wisdom and compassion to guide our public policy rather than expediency and greed.
Of course, the floodwater image powerfully connects with actual tsunamis and hurricane/floods, but there are metaphorical waters of disaster and suffering that wash over God’s children in many different forms. Can our preaching this summer avoid what is happening in our cities, including the riots in St. Louis over another young person shot dead and the questions that trouble those left behind, the sense of outrage and long-endured injustice? Can we ignore children being screamed at on our borders, when they are escaping the flood of hunger and deprivation that makes their parents so desperate that they send them away to another land that will not receive them? Are we able to preach good news in a world where refugees from war are starving and people are being executed for their religion, their sexual orientation, their hope for a more just world?
We may feel overwhelmed by the floodwaters of suffering in the world, but we are still called to take action, and being together, in communities of faith, makes it possible to do something significant in the face of that heartache. I remember waking up to the news of the tsunami and feeling so powerless, and then I thought, “I have a feeling that Susan Sanders (my UCC colleague in Global Sharing of Resources) has already taken action.” And of course she had, and in the days that followed, she and our United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) sisters and brothers joined the efforts of many people of faith in extending relief, compassion and support to those who were affected by that calamity.
We claim to be a people of faith, a people of promise. We know that God loves and watches over every one of us. Such claims require faith, the kind of faith we find in Psalm 124, where, Brueggemann writes, “The power sustaining heaven and earth is mobilized on behalf of us in our particular crisis.” We live in danger today, and we’re acutely aware from the evening news how fragile our lives are. It was that way for Israel, too, but they have survived by faith. Listening to Debra Joseph speak of her faith recalls the psalm, and illustrates what Brueggemann’s claim about our lives: “Faith,” he writes, “is the capacity to read, discern, and live that life under threat, always in solidarity with God. The psalm is the voice of trust, confident about a counterlife with God, beyond threat, utterly liberated and confident” (Texts for Preaching Year A). “A counterlife with God” – what would that look like?
For further reflection:
Seneca, 1st century C.E.
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
Rebecca Solnit, 21st century, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
“We cannot wish that human beings were not subject to the forces of nature, including the mortality….we cannot wish for the seas to dry up, that the waves grow still, that the tectonic plates ceast to exist, that nature ceases to be beyond our abilities to predict and control….But the terms of that nature include such catastrophe and suffering, which leaves us with sorrow as not a problem to be solved but a fact. And it leaves us with compassion as the work we will never finish.”
Fred Rogers, 20th century
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
John Keats, 19th century
“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”
Miles Kundera, 20th century
“…for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
Ernest Hemingway, 20th century
“Never confuse movement with action.”
Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
“The future depends on what you do today.”
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”
C.G. Jung, 20th century
“You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do.”
Evan Drake Howard, 21st century
“We don’t always feel God’s presence, just as we don’t feel the sun on a rainy day. But the presence never grows dim, and the confidence that it is there and will shine again keeps us hopeful.”
e.e. cummings, 20th century
“Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”
Horace Greeley, 19th century
“It is impossible to mentally or socially enslave a Bible-reading people.”
Francis Xavier, 16th century
“Be great in little things.”
Norman Thomas, 20th century
“I am not a champion of lost causes, but of causes not yet won.”
Additional reflection on Romans 12:1-8:
Kathryn Matthews Huey
In a culture that seems to encourage, or even to require, spending exorbitant amounts of money and time on our physical comfort, health, and appearance, we still seem to suffer from a severe lack of appreciation for our bodies. As Paul builds on his theology in his Letter to the Romans, he does a “therefore” that exhorts us to consider our bodies as “living sacrifices,” living, breathing, dynamic offerings to God (the word “sacrifice” is rooted in words that mean “to make sacred”), not dead offerings but offerings still capable of transformation, of dramatic, life-altering change that brings into being God’s vision for us, God’s intention for us, God’s hope for us. But Paul means more than our bodies; he refers to our entire being, all of us, being transformed by the power of God.
Today, in our culture, if we conform to the world around us, we think we can expend a lot of effort (and time and money) into “making something” of ourselves, improving our looks, our minds, our habits, but Paul exhorts us to remember who it is who is really at work in our lives and by what power we are truly transformed. We can read all the self-help books we want, watch Dr. Phil, join health clubs, and search the Internet for valuable tips on self-improvement, but it is the same God who put the stars in the sky and called the planets into being, the same God who shaped us in secret, in our mother’s womb. The words “self esteem” in our culture (the empire, John Dominic Crossan suggests, that we live in) have taken on a distorted importance, even though many have sincerely sought to overcome the effects of childhood neglect and emotional deprivation. (One comedian has reassured us that each one of us is “special, just like everyone else.”) It’s refreshing to read Eugene Peterson’s translation of this familiar passage and to hear its meaning leap to life: “The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what [God] does for us, not by what we are and what we do for [God]” (The Message).
We also live in an age of individualism, in which the needs and the power for good that the community holds have been diminished in favor of each person’s value, role, needs and wants. How do we find a balance then that respects and honors the worth of each individual, but lifts up the common good, too? Think, for example, of our public school system or our health system, both suffering from rampant disparity between what the poor receive and what the rich enjoy. How would these systems be transformed if we sought what was best for the whole community?
Again, Paul calls us to a profound appreciation for the beauty and workings of a body whose parts function together, each with its own role and importance. In the same way, we are all part of the Body of Christ, each with our own gifts and abilities and our own important role in the unfolding of the Realm of God. John Dominic Crossan has written extensively about Paul’s contrast between the Roman Empire and the Realm of God, the former staking its glory on peace through victory, the latter holding out the dream of peace through justice. (One excellent book of Crossan’s, written with the biblical archaeologist, Jonathan L. Reed, is In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Roman’s Empire with God’s Kingdom.) Instead of being consumed with one’s own interests and needs, as one pastor has said, “Put yourself out there for the sake of something else and someone else, and lay your gifts on the altar of justice.” It is a different way of thinking of sacrifice than the ancient cultures had, but Paul is urging his readers, then and today, not to conform to the thoughts and ways around them.
How do the folks in your church see themselves not only as gifted, but as gifts themselves? Do people come to your congregation in search of transformation, or better, do they articulate a hunger for transformation? How have you experienced transformation because of the gospel? What great heroes and heroines of your church, of the United Church of Christ, of the church in all times and places, do you think of when you read this passage? How is the Stillspeaking God calling your church to new life, to a renewed and transformed existence? Do most of the people in your church hear the word “sacrifice” as “giving something up” rather than an offering to God of something living and joy-filled? Do they think of their lives as offerings, not just the things they “sacrifice,” but every joy and accomplishment, every ordinary act? Again, Peterson’s translation: “Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering.” How might this be a sacrifice, a “making sacred” of our lives, very different from a painful “giving up” but much more likely to lead us to a wholly different way of being, a transformation of our whole lives?
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, 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.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and 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.
The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “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.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The 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.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then 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.”
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him for three months. When 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. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The 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. When 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. Then 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?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’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. When 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.”
If it had not been God who was on our side
— let Israel now say —
if it had not been God 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 Sovereign, our God
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 God,
who made heaven and earth.
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
and to the quarry from which you were dug.
Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
but I blessed him and made him many.
For the Lord will comfort Zion;
he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
thanksgiving and the voice of song.
Listen to me, my people,
and give heed to me, my nation;
for a teaching will go out from me,
and my justice for a light to the peoples.
I will bring near my deliverance swiftly,
my salvation has gone out
and my arms will rule the peoples;
the coastlands wait for me,
and for my arm they hope.
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens will vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and those who live on it will die like gnats;
but my salvation will be for ever,
and my deliverance will never be ended.
I give you thanks, O God, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down towards your holy temple
and give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;
for you have exalted your name and your word
On the day I called, you answered me,
you increased my strength of soul.
All the rulers of the earth shall praise you, O God,
for they have heard the words of your mouth.
They shall sing of the ways of God,
for great is the glory of God.
For though God is high,
God regards the lowly;
but the haughty,
God perceives from far away.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,