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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 email@example.com 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
"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)
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