A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Rev. Reebee Kavich Girash, Associate Pastor
August 24, 2014
Scripture Reading: Exodus 1:8 – 2:10
Narrator: 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.”
Shiphrah: 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?”
Puah: 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.
Narrator: 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.”
Moses’ Mother: 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 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.
Miriam: His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
Pharaoh’s Daughter: 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.
Miriam: 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: 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.”
They were told by the Pharaoh to kill male Hebrew babies. Shiphrah, and Puah, this is what their instructions were. In those days in Egypt, Hebrew midwives were not powerful people. According to tradition, they were barren, slave, female and at the bottom of the pile. To disobey the Pharaoh was to endanger themselves. But these babies - there were these babies, beautiful precious babies right in front of them. And so they drew on a different kind of power, a power stronger than the Pharaoh's power, they drew on the power of mercy, the power of love, the power of God.
Pharaoh didn't know who Joseph was, didn't know the God of Joseph. Pharaoh feared the Israelites, was so afraid that he enslaved them, and tried to extinguish them. But Shiphrah and Puah: these women feared God. It's helpful to think of the fear of God, not as terror – but rather, awe and regard, allegiance with God and belief in God's goodness and abundance. They knew God and they feared God, the God of living, and they served that God, and they served life, and they could not kill those babies.
If you fear God, you cannot fear Pharaoh more. If you stand with God, you stand with God's people, all God's people, all those beautiful beautiful babies, those children of God. You don't stand with Pharaoh, and you don't acquiesce to Pharaoh in fear. If you fear God, there is nothing else to fear, because perfect love casts out fear. Because they loved and feared God, they saved those babies. One of them was Moses. This was the moment, these women's actions began the liberation of the ancient Israelites. It started with Shiphrah and Puah.
There is a reason, in this passage, the Pharaoh has no name, but Shiphrah and Puah have names: it's because they are the ones we are to remember. They are the ones we are to emulate.
Here starts the Exodus story, but these women could not have known who any of these babies would grow up to be. Shiphrah and Puah knew only that they would save any baby, every baby they could save. And Pharaoh's daughter could not have known what Moses would grow up to do. She knew only that this baby, who floated down the river to where she could reach him with her fingertips, she could save this one, right in front of her.
The Exodus story began because these women, midwives, a birth mother, a sister, an adoptive mother, saved the ones they could. No matter what he would grow up to be, this baby mattered.
It doesn't matter if he was a good student on his way to college, or a just robbed a convenience store, or both, Michael Brown's life mattered.
A week ago Wednesday, Rev. Willis Johnson, a pastor in Ferguson, Missouri, was photographed holding tightly to an African American teenager, trying to bring calm. He said: “I just embraced him. Because he was so angry, and you could feel it in his body, you could feel it in his speech. ... Something just said, "Grab him. Hold him." Maybe initially to keep him back, but ultimately to become what really is symbolic of the situation ... at hand...People who are hurting need to be affirmed in their hurt; people who are angry need to be affirmed in their anger. ”
Standing with the protestors, naming the injustice, crying out against racism and oppression, and even so, striving for peace, saving the next life: this is what people of faith from Ferguson, and those who have traveled there are doing right now.
And this is what we are called to do: to grieve Michael Brown, to stand with his community, to name injustice and confess to our own part in it, to cry out against racism and to talk about it, to examine ourselves and out culture and to strive for a just peace.
We are called to say, every mother's son matters.
Ella Baker, Civil Rights activist, wrote these words, fifty years ago:
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.
ButI know you saw the photo this week of the young woman holding a sign, “I cannot believe I still have to protest this [***].” Fifty years later, we cannot rest. Thousands of years later, our world still seems more aligned with Pharaoh and more fearful of the other; than aligned with God.
So, we need the story of Shiphrah and Puah, of Miriam and Jochebed Moses' birth mother and Pharaoh's daughter who adopted him, all the more. They found the a power beyond fear: they drew upon God's power of mercy and compassion. And the good news, is that same power is there for us to draw upon. In Ferguson, you can see it in the people peacefully gathered, determined to find justice and to keep the peace.
At our southern border, where some folks met buses full of children (all those babies, all those mothers' sons and daughters) with shouts and threats, at our southern border you can see the power of mercy in those who offer sanctuary.
In early July, one UCC congregation in Arizona saw proverbial babies floating down the river toward them. Yuma County Interfaith coalition sent a message: “16 women and children seeking refuge in the United States had been dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol in the parking lot of a local Walmart with nothing but the clothes on their backs.” Seven people from the little UCC church in Yuma came and helped. And now, their fates are tied into the those of the refugees, with a commitment as a congregation to stand with the God of life and help people in need. When word came to us, here in Massachusetts, that unaccompanied children might come, the people of this congregation were ready to step forward. Ready to draw on the power of mercy.
Our culture has become a communal Pharaoh, it seems to me. Fearful of the other; consolidating power (the power of money, the power of empire), justifying injustice in the name of security. How else to explain the outrage over the notion that we might, as a nation, give refuge to unaccompanied children. How else to explain the militarization of our local police.
But: we, people of faith, followers of the God of love, followers of the great Teacher of compassion: we can choose to be like Shiphrah and Puah. We can can overcome the power of fear with the power of mercy, with the power of the God of love. We may not know how it's going to turn out – only that from the beginning of time, God has provided. Let us remember, let us believe.
And may it be true: that when we use mercy to overcome fear, God will deal well with us, too.
 Paraphrasing Rolf Jacobson, in Sermon Brainwave, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx
 With thanks to Janee Woods for articulating this: http://qz.com/250701/12-things-white-people-can-do-now-because-ferguson/
 (An echo of Bernice Johnson Reagon, http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/remember.shtml)