Cunning, Compassion and Courage
Sunday, August 23, 2020
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 16)
Cunning, Compassion and Courage
God of Miriam and Moses, you are our help from age to age. Accept our worship, our living sacrifice, and transform us by your Spirit, that, being many members of one true body, we may dare to pray together in the name of Christ the Lord. Amen.
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.”
All readings for the week:
Exodus 1:8-2:10 with Psalm 124 or
Isaiah 51:1-6 with Psalm 138
1. Where do you find God in the worst of times?
2. Who are “small” people who do big things that transform situations?
3. How do you think God works in difficult situations?
4. How would you describe the role of water in this story, and in the life of faith?
5. Who might be “Pharaoh’s daughter” today?
by Kate Matthews
The story is so familiar that most 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!
Only the beginning of the story
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 numbers (more than “the stars in the sky”), overflowing blessings and a land of their own.
Even though everything seemed hopeless, the situation will be transformed through the acts of God, and in spite of the opposition of Pharaoh: God, working through the defiance of women of courage. As so often happens with God, the transformation will come in unexpected, surprising ways, through the most unexpected, surprising people.
A sudden turn after a happy ending
After the happy 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, in this case by those robust numbers of the Hebrew people who had been living as welcome “resident aliens” in his land.
Losing control of the situation
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 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.'”
God takes action
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.”
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. Perhaps we wonder why God doesn’t intervene more often in such situations, but we could instead consider our own responsibility to stand against the forces that harm God’s children, to be the instruments of God in the face of violence and repression. More on that in a moment.
God moves, but in small ways
God’s intervention into the crisis 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.
Women with names and a future leader
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.
Waters that bring life not death
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.”
Scott Hoezee even makes the claim 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.”
Where is God in this story?
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 is indeed 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).
Overwhelmed by the waters
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 can’t help thinking of those who suffer the effects of terrible flooding (often with lives lost) from storms and hurricanes and tsunamis, but also from environmental degradation and rising seas. We may give these disasters names (Katrina, Maria), but they are impersonal and merciless in their destruction.
At one time or another, in one way or another, we also know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by life, so it’s understandable if we 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.
Stories of survivors
However, I had the experience of reading these texts, and asking those same questions about God, not long after a visit to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Our visit there included spending time in the company of a UCC church member who survived the floodwaters engulfing her home.
The Exodus passage, and the psalm, don’t sound exactly the same to me 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 had, 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.
So much still needs to be said
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 (in a similar way, the people of Puerto Rico have waited for assistance after Hurricane Maria).
A nameless “lord”
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” (His sermon, “Variations from the Barrio,” is in Inscribing the Text, a wonderful resource for prayer and reflection).
That “dance of defiance” works well with our theme this week of cunning, compassion and courage.
The right to question
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 and defiant women (and men) God uses to accomplish God’s purposes.
Remembering the terrible time
Debra could 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 was measured and calm as she described the water that suddenly poured down her street and inched up her porch, up through her floor.
“Everything was water”
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 said, 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.
God, always in charge
When Debra told me this story in that 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.
Debra 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 felt “so blessed” for “the people God sent” into her life.
She knew how much she had lost, 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,” she said; “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.”
What does God want to do through us?
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 courageous actions of a desperate mother and vigilant sister, through the cunning and 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.
Our own rough waters
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 published a booklet of stories, Letters from My Sisters, from courageous women who came through the storm of Katrina, and it also includes an illuminating letter from John Pecoul, “Beyond Katrina: A Call for United Church of Christ Awareness And Action.”
From listening to 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.
Images of suffering and pain
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. As we reflect on this image of being overwhelmed by floodwaters, can we possibly forget what is happening in our cities, with protests and suppression of protests, voices raised against the persistent violence visited upon people of color in this nation?
Can we pretend that unmarked vans and unidentified troops are not being sent into our cities, in order to silence people who are making “good trouble” (as Congressman John Lewis called it), expressing their outrage over the deaths of countless people of color, over the brutal injustice of mass incarceration, over the often quiet but painful indignities in everyday life that violate the personhood of each of God’s children?
An ongoing, endless struggle
Three years ago, we were struggling with the tragedies of Charlottesville and Barcelona, where hatred had resurged in deplorable acts of violence. This year, throngs of protesters have risen up in our city streets after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others. Heather Heyer, the young woman who lost her life while protesting the Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, posted just before she was killed, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”
Heather’s courage and witness (and her mother’s) are an excellent illustration of our theme of cunning, compassion and courage in the face of great evil. How then can we not pay attention to what is happening around us? How can we not respond?
Will we refuse to go back to “old,” imaginary times that were somehow “better” (at least for some)? The death, the terrible loss, of Civil Rights icon Congressman John Lewis reminds us of those who have gone before us in courage: will we walk in those illustrious footsteps?
Feeling overwhelmed by injustice
The sins of racism, misogyny, greed, homophobia and bigotry–and religious extremism of every kind–seem to take on new life in each generation, and the roll call of terrorist attacks sweeps over us like a tidal wave.
There is also everyday, grinding injustice, especially toward people of color and people who are poor, systemic injustice that does not often inspire demonstrations but really ought to. (Someone has properly called poverty and economic injustice “violence in slow motion.”)
The cries of the suffering
Can we ignore the cries of children whose mothers are torn from them and deported? Can we turn away when refugees seek the same safety and deliverance Moses needed so long ago, when children are escaping the flood of hunger and deprivation that makes their parents so desperate that they send them away to another land–one that will not receive them?
Are we able to share good news in a world where children in countries torn by war are starving and people are being executed for their religion, their sexual orientation, their hope for a more just world?
Defying suffering together
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 many years ago and feeling so powerless, and then I thought, “I have a feeling that Susan Sanders (my UCC colleague then 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 partnered with many others in the efforts to extend relief, compassion and support to those who were affected by that calamity.
Faith is required
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.
“A counterlife with God”
Listening to Debra Joseph speak of her faith recalls the psalm, and illustrates what Brueggemann claims 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.”
“A counterlife with God”–what would that look like?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles and additional reflections) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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.”
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