Proper 24, Year C, 2016

I was an uptight little girl. I liked order. I liked to know what was happening. I was never totally convinced my very competent parents had everything under control. And so, one of the refrains I heard over and over again as a little girl was, “Sarah, stop NAGGING.”

To nag, I learned was unattractive, annoying, and pushed people away.

What a delight, then, to find a parable in which Jesus is telling his male disciples that faith sometimes looks like a nagging woman.

In the world of the parable, there is a man in power that is so disconnected from God and God’s justice that he even says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. He owns that he is not a good guy, certainly not interested in helping a widow. But this widow, a vulnerable woman, has been wronged. And she is not going to give up. She comes to this unjust judge over and over and over again. She nags him unrelentingly. And so, finally, he gives in. She wears him down and she wins justice.

And if you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament carefully, you’ll see this is how Biblical women operate. Women in the Bible don’t have a lot of political or social power. They can’t own property, they can’t decide where they move, their stories are dictated by the men in their lives. People without power are not always able to get things done directly. People without power have to manipulate and subvert power in unexpected ways. Biblical women working behind the scenes, on the margins, brought to bear our faith story the way we know it.

My favorite example of this is how Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, manipulates her sons and her husband into making sure her favorite child, Jacob, gets the birthright. Do you remember the story? Esau is the very hairy firstborn who gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And then Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on a goatskin to trick his blind father into thinking smooth skinned Jacob is hairy Esau. She is incredibly pushy—and God uses her to get the heir with whom he wants to work. Jacob is the chosen one, and God uses Rebekeh to make that happen.

Rebekah is not the only example. In one of the weirder stories in the Bible, God comes to kill Moses, but his wife Zipporah, intervenes by touching a piece of their son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. Mysteriously, this makes God relent and Moses continues his work. I do not recommend trying this at home.

Years later, when the Israelites are trying to move into the Promised Land, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to check things out. They get discovered and prostitute named Rahab hides them on a roof under some stalks of flax.

Over and over again, women in the Old Testament use their cunning to do the work of God. Biblical women are not passive or compliant. Biblical women and tough and smart and very, very creative

And Jesus holds us this kind of nagging persistence as a model of how to pray. He says, “and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

When life gets hard or scary, when you’re not in control of a situation, sometimes it can be tempting to give up. But Jesus wants his followers to hold on and and keep asking for what they need. Jesus wants us to nag God in our prayers. Jesus wants us to tell God when we know something isn’t right, when we face injustice, when everything seems out of whack.

We can get the idea that to be a Christian woman means to keep our mouths shut, to be helpful, to be compliant. There are parts of the Epistles that can be read as an instruction for women not to teach or speak up in church.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree with that interpretation. Jesus surrounds himself with faithful men and women. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew there is a great story of a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus and is so good at arguing that he finally gives in and heals her daughter even though she is not Jewish. Jesus is dear friends with sisters Mary and Martha. And in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Jesus honors women and relates to them as individuals. Jesus knows they are an important part of God’s Kingdom.

God is still using nagging women to do his work. Mother Teresa was a notorious pain in the neck. She would berate officials until they gave her the permits or money she needed to do her work. In Ireland, working behind the scenes, mothers led the way in the peace treaty that stopped IRA violence. They persisted in building relationships across religious lines when no one thought it possible. Women in Chicago began movements to set themselves up on street corners after violent episodes to offer hugs and love to young people in order to stop cycles of violence.

These courageous women remind us that lives of faith sometimes look fierce. These women remind us that sometimes seeking God’s justice on earth can turn you into an annoying nag. Or, as the writer Rachel Held Evans would say, “A Woman of Valor.” And these women of valor are role models for each of us, whether we are men or women, to never give up on the idea that our world can look more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that faith is going to be difficult for his disciples. He knows faith is difficult for us. He wants us to hang on, to stay invested, to stay in communication with God even if we are frustrated or want to give up.

So, hang in there. Keep nagging God. Keep knocking on his door. God is listening.

Amen.

Proper 16, Year A, 2008

Welcome to Exodus!  Where Genesis is about God’s creating the world and then covenanting with a particular people, Exodus is about the liberation of that people after they become enslaved by the Egyptians.  Exodus also follows the Israelites’ subsequent search for the land promised to them by God. In our passage today, we find out how five women who did not even know each other, managed to save the tiny child who would go on to triumphantly lead the Israelites out of Egypt.

About a month ago, I realized that the lectionary was transitioning into Exodus.  I am embarrassed to admit it, but before I began working on the series of sermons about Joseph, I could not, for the life of me, remember how the Israelites ended up slaves in Egypt!  My Old Testament professors are somewhere shaking their heads in disappointment. I am very grateful to the author of Exodus for tying the end of Joseph’s story to the beginning of Moses’ story.  The author reminds us that Joseph’s brothers came to live in Egypt with him.  Over the years, they had children, and their children had children and before you know it, Jacob’s children were not just a family, they were a tribe-the Israelites. Remember, that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after he wrestled with the angel.

God’s promise to Abraham is coming true-his descendants are multiplying.  There are not yet as many descendants as stars in the sky, but his family is getting there.  But as we’ve seen over and over again in history, when a minority group grows more numerous in any given culture, they become a perceived threat by the powers that be. 

In this case, the man in power is a king, Pharaoh, who has forgotten the important role that Joseph had in saving Egypt from famine. 

At first, this king enslaves the Israelites and forces them into hard physical labor.  But this did not stop the Israelites.  The text reads,

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

In his translation of the Pentateuch, Robert Alter points out that the imagery here is that of swarming.  The Israelites are industrious, even when oppressed, and they keep having babies, which makes the Egyptians very nervous.  So, the king develops a devious plan.

Pharaoh pulls aside the two head midwives and instructs them to kill all boys born to Israelites. 

If all Israelite boys are killed, then the people would not be able to reproduce, but the king could still have Israelite girls and women to do his bidding, at least for a generation. 

But what the king does not count for is the brilliance, nurturing spirit and outright trickery of women empowered to do the work of God.

The first women that rallied to save Moses did not even know Moses existed.  The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, smile and nod before the king, agree to kill the male babies, and then leave his office and continue to do their job as they have always done it. We are taught in Sunday School to always tell the truth, but here Shiphrah and Puah lie heroically and gloriously in order to save the Israelite children.  When the king asks why they have not done as he instructed them, they completely play to his ignorance and stereotypes about the Hebrew women and tell him that they are like animals and don’t even need midwives when they give birth. 

These midwives remind us that morality is complicated.  Most of the time it is wrong to lie, but if you’ve got Anne Frank in your attic, or Rwandan refugees in your hotel, or escaped slaves in your basement, suddenly it becomes your moral duty to lie your head off. 

The midwives’ trickery keeps the Israelite children safe for a time, but the Pharaoh will not be stopped.  He invites the people of Egypt to participate in genocide-to kill every Hebrew boy they see.  We have seen enough genocide in our lifetime:  in Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia and for some of you in Russia and Europe to have some sense of how terrifying this must have been. 

The narrative lens focuses now and we go from fearing for all the Israelite babies to fearing for a particular baby, Moses, born of the tribe of Levi. 

Luckily, this is a boy with a very courageous mother and a very creative sister.  Mama Moses was able to nurse her baby for three months and keep him hidden, but she needed to do something drastic before Moses began to roll over or heaven forbid, crawl!  There is no hiding a crawling baby.  There is no one she can give him to where he will be safe, but there was a small chance he could be found by someone, someone who did not know his ethnic background, and that they would take him in and raise him safely.

So, Mama Moses puts her baby in a basket, waterproofs the basket, says her prayers and sends him on his way.  His sister, Miriam, has a little less trust in the universe and keeps her eye on her baby brother.  She follows him along the riverbank until he is rescued by who else but Pharaoh’s daughter!  Pharaoh’s daughter is no fool.  She immediately identifies the baby as a little Hebrew refugee, but that does not stop her heart from going out to him. 

If Pharaoh was not such a murderous dictator, I could almost feel sorry for him.  He is the man with the most power for hundreds of miles around, and yet, lowly women, Hebrew women, even his own daughter are aligned against him all to preserve the life of a child. 

In a wonderful twist, Miriam thinks quickly, and persuades Pharaoh’s daughter to let her find a wet nurse for the baby.  Miriam fetches her mother and so Moses’ mother gets to see her child grow, even if he is unaware of her identity.  Again, lies abound, but they abound in such a way that Moses grows up safely, and not only safely but with a deep knowledge of how the powerful Pharaoh thinks and works-perfect for a man who will one day need to confront him.

The five women who help Moses are acting out of human kindness and maternal drive to save one kid.  But in saving one kid, they are saving an entire nation!  By defying authority and risking their own safety, and doing what they think is right, they are setting in motion events that will liberate the Israelites from their bondage and in turn creating a story that will give hope to every generation that has been in bondage, particularly American slaves. 

Women-and men-are still in the business of rescuing children.  Last year, on an episode of, Oprah, I heard about the story of Lysa and Art TerKeurst.  Lisa and Art are the parents of three young girls.  One day Lysa went with the girls to hear a choir of Liberian boys sing.  After the performance, the audience learned that 12 of the 14 boys were orphaned and homeless after the recent war in their country.  They also learned that there were hundreds of more children in the same situation in their home country.  After the concert, Lysa had a long conversation with the boys and then called her husband.  She says,

“I had to get in the car and call him on the cell phone and say something like, ‘Hi, honey. Do we need milk? And by the way, there are two teenage boys from the other side of the world now calling me Mom.'”

Sure enough, the TerKeurst family ended up adopting two of the boys, but that is not where the story ends.  The TerKeursts live in North Carolina, and Lysa’s four best girlfriends were totally appalled by what seemed to be a spontaneous decision.  After all, who in their right mind suddenly opens their homes to teenagers from an entirely different culture?  Lysa invited her friends to a concert by the boys, and each one of her friends was so moved they each made the decision to adopt as well.

Yes, all five families now had taken in Liberian children.

And still, the story is not over.  After all was said and done FOURTEEN families in this North Carolina community took in homeless Liberian children.  They reached past their comfortable lifestyles, prejudices, and fear and opened their lives to the lives of others.

We don’t know what long term effect these adoptions may have on the boys, but we do know these families have given the children safety, security, education, love:  all the tools they will need to make a difference in the world. 

And they remind us to keep our eyes open, because we never know when we’ll have the same opportunity.

 


http://www.oprah.com/slideshow/oprahshow/oprahshow1_ss_20070129/6