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Sermon and Reflections For Ordinary 21 - Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:1-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
"Saving Moses"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at fernstone@fernstone.org to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
KEEPING THE FAITH IN BABYLON
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson

Ordinary 21 - Proper 16 - Year A
Exodus 1:1-2:10; Psalm 124; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
"Saving Moses"

	
    "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, but they let the boys live."

A Zen master was invited to a great Catholic monastery to instruct the 
monks who resided there in the practice of Zen.  The holy man exhorted the 
monks to meditate constantly and to try to solve their koan or Zen mystery 
with great energy and zeal.  He told them that if they practiced with
full-hearted effort, true understanding would come to them.  "But, you 
really must put your hearts into it," he stressed.

All of the monks listened attentively and smiled politely.

Finally, one old monk raised his hand and said, "Master, our way of prayer
is a little different than yours.  We have been meditating and praying in 
the simplest fashion without effort; for we believe that a person must 
wait, instead, to be illumined by the grace of God.  Isn't there anything
in Zen about this illumination that comes from doing nothing, that comes 
to a person uninvited?"

The Zen master, when he heard this, laughed out loud and said, "My dear 
fellow, the reason we Buddhists put so much effort into prayer is because 
we believe God has already done enough!"

                                    +

Christians, it seems, have a fondness for stories in which God does things. 
You know.  Stories where God gets into the act, makes himself known, or 
gives people clear and precise directions about the kind of thing she 
wants done.  Like when God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, for
example.  "Go tell Pharaoh to let my people go!'  Parts like that.  Or, 
when Moses begins to doubt that Pharaoh will listen to him and God says, 
"When that happens, just throw that staff down that you've got there in 
your hand.  That should knock his socks off!"  In other words, stories 
where God seems to get into the action, making sure things get done, adding 
a little chutzpah of his own for good measure.  A hands-on kind of God. We 
like stories like that.  We like it when God makes things clear.

Which means - that it is easy for people like you and me to miss stories 
like this week's text from Exodus, the part before Moses even shows up. 
The part that tells us how the Hebrews got into that mess down there in 
Egypt and how it almost happened that there never was a Moses to begin 
with.

It has been about 400 years since we last left Joseph inviting his brothers 
and their families to come and live with him down in Egypt where, because 
of Joseph's pre-eminence, the Hebrew tribes enjoyed all the privileged 
benefits of honoured guests.  A lot has happened during that time and the
author of Exodus takes only a few short verses to remind us.  A new king is 
on the throne in Egypt, a king "who did not know Joseph", meaning a king 
who had no commitment to the kin of Joseph, at least not anything like 
Joseph's original boss had had and no genuine concern for their welfare.

To make things even more tense, that original family of "seventy" born to 
old Jacob had grown by leaps and bounds during their stay in Egypt "so that 
the land was filled with them." 

More numerous even than "we are", the new Pharaoh noticed.  And more 
powerful, too.  It's important to remember that Egypt had not exactly had 
a peaceful time of it during these centuries.  Foreign invaders had 
occupied the eastern part of the empire for a time, forcing Egypt to take 
a more war-like stance than usual, conscripting captured invaders into 
forced labour camps.  In such a highly charged situation, the presence of 
an ever-burgeoning Hebrew populace, as well, was simply one more threat 
Pharaoh did not need on his mind.  That is why the Hebrews became slaves 
in the land of Egypt - because the new king of Egypt saw it as a way to 
keep them in their place.  "Better to have them in chains," the new 
boss-man said, "than joining up with our enemies."  Like most of the plans 
of tyrants, however, Pharaoh's plan backfired in spades.

    "But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and 
    spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites."

Until finally, starting to feel like he was trying to hold back the tide,
Pharaoh came up with the brilliant plan (or so it seemed to him at the 
time) of shutting off the water supply.  He approached the two women who 
had been appointed as midwives to all those thousands of Hebrew women! and 
said to them, "Start killing all the boys of the Hebrews whenever you get 
the chance."

Apparently, it never occurred to this unnamed Pharaoh (whom we suspect 
was Ramses II) that, aside from being one of the worst kinds of pogroms
imaginable, it was also a pretty dumb business move.  How was he going to 
keep building all those monuments to his ego without male slaves to do 
it!?  He was not only one of the most wicked of rulers of Egypt but one 
of the stupidest!

Maybe it was that that finally convinced those two midwives, whose names we 
do know, by the way - Shiphrah and Puah - to put one over on the king. 
Clearly they were risking their lives to do the thing they did, which was 
to tell Pharaoh the whopper that they could never get there fast enough to 
give all those sturdy Hebrew women a hand before their babies just popped 
out on their own!  The way those two brave women figured it, they were 
dealing with a king who was two bricks short of a load; and, as things 
turned out, they were right.  Pharaoh bought their story hook, line and 
sinker.

Now, the old maxim, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again" may 
be nothing more than an excuse for pure stubbornness for people like you 
and me, let alone a recipe for failure, but for Pharaoh it was an addiction. 
To no one's surprise, he then commanded all his own people to take every 
Hebrew baby boy and drown them in the Nile!

Well, apparently this loser who called himself a king had gained about as 
much respect in his own household as he already enjoyed among the Hebrew
population, for, when little Moses himself was born and was shipped down 
the Nile in that little ark his mother made for him, the daughter of 
Pharaoh found him and, realizing at once what kind of child he must have 
been, took him into her care.

This Pharaoh really had a way with women, didn't he?!  First, he's 
bamboozled by two midwives, then defied by his own daughter!  And to make 
him even more of a laughing stock, if that is possible, his daughter gets
Moses' sister (who had been watching in the bulrushes all along and had to
be the best baby-sitter there ever was!) to find a nurse-maid for little 
baby Moses.  Who does she just happen to choose but her own mother, whom
Pharaoh's daughter then puts on Pharaoh's payroll just so that she can 
nurse her own baby!  So, in the end, Pharaoh ends up protecting, raising 
and educating the very Hebrew boy-child who is going to make him sorry that 
he ever heard of the Hebrews - and without a clue that he is doing it!  I 
tell you, women, if ever there was a story that belonged to you and not 
the men, this has got to be it!

                                    +

Now, you may have noticed that I haven't said much about God so far this 
week; and there is a pretty good reason for that because in this story God 
does not seem to be one of the players.  In this critical moment in 
Israel's history when the stakes are very high indeed, when it could just 
as easily have happened (as indeed it has happened elsewhere in human 
history) that there may never have been a nation called Israel had it been 
left to the schemes of a cruel and stupid old tyrant, God is not involved
directly at all.  God seems to be out of town!  What happens depends upon, 
not what God decides to do, but what five rather gutsy women decide to do 
out of pure respect for human life and decency.  The midwives, Shiphrah 
and Puah defied Pharaoh because they "feared God", the author says, and
Pharaoh's daughter and her helpers did what they did because she "took 
pity" on a little baby.

That is how a nation got saved.  That is how there ever came to be 
anything left of the Hebrews down in Egypt before there ever was a Moses 
to save them.

Now, you may say very well indeed that God was on the side of these five 
women whether things appeared that way or not, that God was somehow 
working behind the scenes, prompting people to do the very thing that he 
would later give them a hand in finishing.  But, right here, in this 
humorously ironic little masterpiece from Exodus, we are reminded that 
before what needed to happen did it was a group of ordinary women working
behind the scenes who really made things possible.  They didn't wait for 
God to show them.  Maybe, the way they figured things, God had already 
done enough.

                               --------- 

Exodus 1:1-2:10 - One of the key questions of the book of Exodus 
is: Whom shall Israel serve?  It is a question that makes the whole 
story of what happened less a story of a declaration of independence 
than a declaration of dependence upon God.  In this unique part of the 
story, in which the plight of the Hebrew tribes is delineated, God is 
not to be found.  He is never mentioned.  Instead, it falls to five 
ordinary women to set the scene for everything that follows.  In an 
ironic vignette of the situation, the author declares that it is God who 
is dependent upon the faith, courage and vision of five gutsy women.

   1.	List all of the ironic twists you find in the story.
   2.	What New Testament theme does this bring to mind?
   3.	What is the story saying about human responsibility and 
   civil disobedience?


Romans 12:1-8 - Paul is admonishing fellow Christians; but he is 
not "laying down the law".  Rather, he is pointing out that living the 
life of grace should naturally show itself in a life of concrete acts 
of love.  This is where the most difficult challenge of loving usually
confronts us - with those intimate enemies of ours with whom we must 
learn to live.  God gives us gifts to help make community life happen; 
but we are the ones who must put it into practice.  Grace, in other 
words, should shape the kind of lives we live.

   1.	How is what Paul is saying a necessary corrective to living 
   in the freedom of forgiveness?
   2.	Along with the list of gifts that Paul indicates God provides, 
   list the corresponding challenges of community living these gifts
   were meant to address.
   3.	How well do you and your community practice the gift of 
   "overcoming evil with good"?


Matthew 16:13-20 - Matthew's story, based on Mark's (8.27-30) 
is about how the memory of Jesus was preserved and how the authority 
for ministry in the church was given.  The fact that Jesus here talks 
about building his "church", a term used nowhere else in the gospels, 
has long generated debate as to whether or not the incident ever 
happened.  We simply don't know what kind of community Jesus may have
envisioned coming out of his life and ministry, or even if he did 
envision one.  What we do know is that a community did and that it 
was begun by those who were closest to him, those on whom power was 
granted to "go and do" what he went and did.

   1.	What is your understanding of how Roman Catholic and 
   Protestant interpretations of this passage differ?  Do you think 
   Jesus would have cared?  Why or why not?
   2.	What is significant about how Peter seems to arrive at his 
   confession of faith?
   3.	How does your church live out of the memory of this story?


A PRAYER FOR THE SAINTS - When the risk and vulnerability for our
brothers and sisters is very real, O God, and where life could be denied 
and the cause of justice fail, give us the faith, not to wait upon clear
instructions, but to act upon deep imperatives that your will may be done 
and your rule begin. Amen.


HYMN 580  Faith of Our Mothers  (Voices United)
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved. Please do not copy.
FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551
E-mail: fernstone@fernstone.org

copyright - Barry Robinson 2002, 2005
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild - Spirit Networks, 2002 - 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.


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