The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 16
August 27th, 2017
The Rev. Kathleen Pfister
(Church of the Good Shepherd, Austin, TX)
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Mr. Davis sits across the table, in the brightly lit parish hall.
“Is there anything you’d like for me to pray for?” I ask, as I customarily inquire of all the visitors of our Tuesday Morning Bus pass program.
Begun in 2011, by my home parish, The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Austin, Texas, the Tuesday Morning program provides a 30-day bus pass, free transportation on the city’s bus system to those living in shelters, halfway houses and sometimes the streets.
The bus pass offers these individuals the gift of transportation — to attend job interviews, go to work, visit the doctor — or, in the 100 plus degree Austin summer – to simply get out of the blazing sun for an air-conditioned ride around town.
Mr. Davis has come to us through one of the local shelters. I’m struck by the neatness and care of his appearance. He is well-spoken and clearly educated–and I can’t help but wonder what could have happened to have led him to this circumstance. As our conversation continues, I discover many things about him and how it is he came to be homeless.
Most of his immediate family has passed on now. An economic downturn in his area of expertise led to a series of job losses. And he has encountered some prejudice in his field. There was a difficult divorce, followed by a serious illness and hospitalization. And yet, He seems almost surprised to find himself in this predicament.
Listening to him, it’s as if everything that’s wrong in the world is wrapped up right there in his story: political and economic complexities that I can scarcely make sense of, racism, the hurtful legacy of broken relationships, the fragility of our bodies. I slide the 30-day bus pass across the smooth surface of the table, with a meager smile. For a moment, the enormity of despair gets the better of me. And this flimsy bus pass seems an insufficient offering of hope.
The first chapter of Exodus describes a great reversal of fortune for the Hebrew people.
The settlement of the Israelites in Egypt, was respected in the time of Joseph, but is now brutally oppressed.
Scripture tells us, “A new king arose in the land.” And where once the Israelites were welcomed and valued, they are now ruthlessly enslaved. The Pharaoh, threatened by the strength and number of the Israelites, enacts an agenda of genocide – every boy that is born to the Hebrews, is to be killed.
God’s promise to Abraham, given so long ago, appears an impossibility. For God declared to Abraham that he would be a blessing, that indeed through him, all the families of the earth would be blessed. His decedents would be agents of Shalom, or peace. They would be an essential part of God’s intention for the restoration of the world.
The story of the Exodus as part of our salvation history, is another chapter in the epic drama whereby God reveals his unwavering love for us: God’s commitment, God’s fidelity, to restore his creation, and us, to new life in him.
But God’s promise to Abraham now hangs in the balance. The situation could not be more dire. How will God keep his promise, if all of Abraham’s decedents are dead?
And so, God begins, as God so often does, in the most unlikely of places with the most unlikely of people to bring about his dream for his children: peace and health, freedom and safety, love and belonging.
When God wants to change the world, God sends a baby. In this case, the baby Moses.
It is this baby who will one day lead his people out of Egypt, across the red sea, through the wilderness and ultimately to the promised land.
But God’s deliverer must first be delivered from the jaws of Pharaoh’s death trap. And it is a remarkable cast of female characters that God enlists to do the job.
The Hebrew scriptures do not often focus on the lives of women — but in our lesson this morning we find no less than five women. Each will play her part in ensuring that God’s promise, embodied by the baby Moses, is kept afloat.
Pharaoh orders the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to kill all the baby boys as the Hebrew women give birth. But the two women cannot bring themselves to do it. Their respect for life is too deep.
They love God more than they fear Pharoah, and so they defy him, putting their own lives at risk by their disobedience. The irony of their actions: Pharaoh, the self-proclaimed, divine manifestation of God on earth, is bested, out smarted, by these two lowly, unlikely heroes. “The Hebrew women are too vigorous… what can we do?”
But the efforts of Shiphrah and Puah are not enough to stop Pharaoh. Unable to rely on the midwives, Pharaoh instructs his people to throw the Hebrew boys into the Nile.
Once again, God’s promise, God’s dream, is in jeopardy. But nevertheless, a Levi man and woman marry and conceive a child. Once again, life resists death.
When Moses’ mother looks upon her child, she sees that he is good. She sees good. She recognizes his inherent goodness. And demonstrates the simplest – perhaps most underrated – but most essential of virtues: the capacity to recognize that which is good and the desire to preserve it, as best one can, in whatever way one can.
“Tevah” is the Hebrew word used for the basket that Moses is placed in, it is the same term is used for the arc in which Noah and his family are cradled from the waters of the flood. Just as God, preserves the goodness of his creation through Noah and the Arc. Moses’ mother preserves what is good by placing Moses in his tiny arc. Casting the basket upon the waters, with hope and prayers, she keeps God’s dream for a just and peaceable world, afloat.
Pharaoh’s daughter, bathing by the river sees the basket and has it brought to her.
I imagine, her discovery of the child, tucked so lovingly, yet floating so precariously amid the currents. In her arms, she cradles a mother’s feeble hope. She knows at once, that this must be one of the Hebrew’s children and She is moved with compassion.
Pharaoh’s daughter is the only one in the story with the power and position to actually rescue this child. Her compassion moves her to action, she uses her power, she leverages her position, and rescues Moses.
Defying her father’s decree, she too does her part to keep hope alive.
Meanwhile a little girl stands at a distance, waiting to see what will happen to her brother.
By virtue of her gender and her age, she is by all accounts the least powerful figure in our story.
What can she possibly do, what power does she have?
Moses sister does the only thing she can do. She shows up and bears witness. She does not look away, or hide her eyes. She has the courage to see.
Like a child that is waving and watching a car drive off until it is out of sight, I imagine her eye on the basket, following its movement along the shore, running along after it, keeping it in her gaze until at last it is swept out of sight.
But then, miracle of miracles, a princess picks him up.
And then all of sudden, and who could have ever predicted that the girl with nothing to give, with no power or position, finds herself an agent of inexplicable grace.
“Shall I go and get you a nurse from among the Hebrew women?” She asks.
The princess agrees. And so this little girl brokers the deal that reunites her brother to her mother, and God’s promise to his people.
What does it take to keep hope alive? The answer is embodied by the women in our story.
Like Moses’ sister when we are brave enough to bear witness, alongside our brothers and sisters, even when we feel powerless to help. Our presence is made solidarity.
And when, like Pharaoh’s daughter we find ourselves in a position to make a difference, moved by compassion and love, we act, using our privilege for the sake of others.
And like Moses mother, when we recognizing what is true and good. And we hold fast to it, defying those agendas of dehumanization that would have us deny the dignity of each and every one of us.
And like Shiphrah and Puah and all of the women of this story, when we faithfully resist those powers and principalities whenever and wherever they seek to harm the creatures of God.
These are the practices that keep hope alive.
These are the virtues that resist oppression and death, in Moses’ time and in our own.
Each of these women acts independently of the other, uncertain if their choice will make a difference.
None of them knows the outcome, but all of them play their part.
Long before Moses encounters a burning bush, or parts the red sea or receives the ten commandments–five ethical, resourceful women participate in God’s purpose.
They cannot know what their actions will accomplish, but it is their willingness to do -what is within their power to do, however small—that makes the rest of the story possible.
Mr. Davis leaves Good Shepherd with a smile. Thank you so much he says, you have no idea, how much this helps. I have an appointment tomorrow with an old friend, who thinks he can help me find a job.
Hope gets the better of me. A 30-day bus pass isn’t half as flimsy as a basket.
And I know that others join me, at home and here in Rome, in keeping hope afloat.
In this week alone I have witnessed a woman receiving assistance in order to stay on life-saving medication.
A met a young woman who helpsrefugee tailors to hone the skills for future employment in a new country.
And the week after next the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center will reopen, and by its witness and work proclaim a new hope even in the midst of the bitter and the hard.
We have a long way to go before we cross the red sea, shake our tambourines and sing of God’s glorious triumph. Even longer still, until we reach the promised land. But our part in this journey, our part in this story begins, with the decision to keep hope alive. Doing what is in our power to do, however small, however flimsy it might seem.
We cannot know what our actions will accomplish, but to participate in God’s purpose is accomplishment enough. For when God wants to change the world, he sends a baby.
And baby, that baby is you. Amen.