A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz
August 23, 2020
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church
Exodus 1:8 – 2:10, Matthew 6:13-20
Let us pray: “Everything we really love undergoes a change. So, suffering must become love. That is the mystery.” Amen.
He is known as a fool by those around him but they acquiesce because of his power and position.
He is paranoid, contemptuous of those who oppose him, ridiculing and humiliating them.
He knows little of his country’s history.
He is a malignant narcissist, who sees the world only through the lens of himself and his interests.
He has no compassion for the cries of children, separated from their parents.
He is a racist and sees his enemies as less than human.
He is a ruthless sexist …yet outsmarted by women at every turn.
“And a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” says the lesson from Exodus. This king, called a pharaoh, couldn’t pass Egyptian History 101. He had no clue that years ago the Hebrew Joseph had saved the country from famine and utter destruction.
The Pharaoh is so foolish that the very things he seeks to avoid happen because he sets them in motion by his fear. He orders the Egyptian midwives to murder all Jewish male babies because he is scared that when they grow up, they will threaten his power.
But the immediate threat is from the women around him and he doesn’t begin to see it.
“Why aren’t the Hebrew babies being killed?” he roars at the midwives – Shiprah and Puah. They just can’t carry out his orders, so they appeal to his prejudices. One scholar paraphrases their response: “Well,” they say, “the Hebrew women are like animals and give birth too quickly for us to get there… compared to our Egyptian mothers who are forced to labor harder and longer during childbirth” because they are delicate.
Then the Pharaoh orders all the Hebrews, not just the midwives, to murder their male babies by throwing them into the Nile.
But one mother’s ingenuity foils him. She sends her baby in a little ark, a basket, downriver, and it is found by the Pharaoh’s own daughter, who rescues the Jewish baby and asks a young girl standing nearby (actually, Miriam, the sister of Moses) to find a Hebrew nurse and she will pay her to care for the child until he’s grown. Miriam races to get her mother for the job. And in the ultimate irony, it is the Pharaoh’s money that is used to raise the man who will be his downfall, this Moses, rescued by his own daughter from the river.
The Pharaoh may have made a mistake in letting all the girl babies live.
I hear the words of these dark-skinned Hebrew women echo in the words of those today who rescue children and demand they be clothed and fed. I feel their spirit in the increasing visibility and political prominence of women of color, kindred spirits to the midwives Shiprah and Puah and to Jochebed – the mother of Moses, and to Miriam–his sister, and the unnamed daughter of the Pharaoh who became his stepmother.
Leaders come and go. The culture changes, our families change, we change ourselves.
Today we’re told that we’ll get through the changes inflicted by Covid because in history, we have always triumphed. But we don’t live in history. We live in the here and now and today with no timeline offering hope, no solution on the horizon, no let-up in the need for masks and hand sanitizer and distancing…. added to a national election closing in that could not be more important — plus the fires and hurricanes… with the Israelites we might ask, How long, O Lord, how long?
Is religion supposed to be a consolation? Is it working?
“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks Peter in today’s Gospel. It might be a good time to think about that question ourselves. Is Christianity a faith that makes sense? Does it have any relevance for these times? Is “church” a concept whose time has passed?
Cultural “goodness” is almost trendy right now. Driven in part by the pandemic and partly in reaction to the some of the statements of our highest leaders, love and kindness are cropping out all over! A site called “Kindness Pandemic.com” got 50,000 members in its first day. Celebrities such as actor Emma Thompson are seen online reading poems about compassion. Speeches at last week’s political convention praised courage, character and empathy.
If all this is so readily accessible in the public sphere, why does anyone need organized religion to give moral guidance, especially now since we can’t even be in the buildings we used to call “church”? “Church “is in front of a screen now, where so much of the rest of our lives takes place, too.
However, look at what the Church still is: It is a codified system of faith and belief that speaks to the basic questions of human life; a history of people seeking and finding God in the testaments of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; a community – friends, people who care about us and check on us when we’re not well, fellow seekers, those dear people who make love visible; rituals to mark the big events of life — birth, death, marriage — giving us structures and words to help celebrate and to mourn; the Sacraments – physical manifestation of spiritual mysteries – Holy Communion, Baptism, and it offers a validation of the hunger we feel for meaning and purpose. The writer Simone Weil suggests that the great blasphemy is not in doubting that God exists but in making believe that the hunger is not real. The Church will be the Church in all of its fullness again. It has been resilient for 2000 years.
Yet many of us encounter roadblocks to faith, especially in interpretations of our Scriptures that are so outrageous, so literal, that we are embarrassed to be identified with them. We might feel that Fundamentalist Christianity has hijacked our faith. However, sometimes asking the right questions exposes the problems.
Most of us are struggling right now with the accumulation of Covid and its accompanying loneliness, isolation, social distancing, and severe limitations on what we can do safely; the pressing obligation to learn more about race; and the pressure of the coming election and its projected aftermath. One of the worst parts of the virus for me is the lack of a timeline, a schedule, an end point that I could mark off on a calendar. Not knowing can be its own kind of agony.
I think that self-doubt also enters the picture: How am I going to make it through the winter? Will depression cripple me? Boredom? Will I get sick? What about the people who depend on me? The Greek philosopher Seneca observed that “sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
The lessons today have a kind of coherence that is sometimes not obvious in our lectionary. In both of the lessons from Exodus and Matthew, an individual person is set apart: a baby rescued from the waters, a devoted disciple pulled out of the crowd to be recognized by Jesus as the rock of the church. Neither asked for this recognition; neither “deserved: it – certainly a baby whose only accomplishment so far was to stay alive and certainly not Peter, the big, brash fisherman who would go on to betray Jesus numerous times.
God saw something in them…. And does in us, too. Enter the epistle from Ephesians: “We each have gifts that differ according to the grace given us: Prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, teaching, generosity, diligence, compassion, cheerfulness.”
I think we are especially called today to seriously consider what we can offer each day? Which of your many gifts are needed and which do you want to use?
I like to think of Hester Prynne from the 19th century Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, who was condemned to wearing a visible witness of her supposed sin every single day on her bodice: a scarlet letter – “A” for Adulteress – yet she embroidered and embellished it with golden thread.
Allow me to explain how I am struggling with this mandate myself. Four months ago, I moved from my house in Mac-Groveland to an apartment not far away. This alone has been a major transition, even without the virus issues.
I have really suffered from not having a garden, so I got permission to spiff up the barren cement courtyard my porch overlooks. To join the potted evergreens already there, I planted stuff in more pots — annuals and perennials and Hosta and ferns and Clematis and hydrangea and geraniums and impatiens. I brought a metal bench from my house and filled it with baskets of flowers.
Then, even though I’ve considered birdwatching a pretty nerdy activity, but still I put up bird feeders and these beautiful creatures are swirling around. I’m starting to name them. Maybe I should get them houses?
It’s nice. I’m still lonely here, or course, and would have been in my house, too, but everyone walks around in masks with little eye contact. This winter maybe I’ll start a little newspaper. I’m trying to pay attention to opportunities, challenges that have my name on them. To do something.
Sometimes I’m so depleted, I can hardly press the “Like” button on Facebook post. It’s too much work… I can’t….We may feel that we have less to give now but each day we can be respectful of how much all of us need affirmation, to be seen behind the screen and the mask.
I’m still struggling – we all are. But for some reason, each one of us, like Moses and like Peter, has been set apart and gifted. To know when we’re on target is in this statement adapted from the poet Robert Frost: your true gift is where your deepest passion and the world’s deepest needs meet.
I’ll close with a story about resilience, creativity and ultimately the heart of Christianity:
At age 40, the Bohemian writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who never married and had no children, walked through the park in Berlin when he met a girl who was crying because she had lost her favorite doll. She and Kafka searched for the doll unsuccessfully.
Kafka told her to meet him there the next day and they would come back to look for her.
The next day, when they had not yet found the doll, Kafka gave the girl a letter “written” by the doll saying “please don’t cry. I took a trip to see the world. I will write to you about my adventures.”
Thus, began a story which continued until the end of Kafka’s life.
During their meetings, Kafka read the letters of the doll carefully written with adventures and conversations that the girl loved them.
Finally, Kafka brought back the doll (he bought one when he had returned to Berlin.)
“It doesn’t look like my doll at all,” said the girl.
Kafka handed her another letter in which the doll wrote: “My travels have changed me.” The little girl hugged the new doll and brought her happily home.
A year later Kafka died.
Many years later, the now-adult girl found a letter inside the doll. In the tiny letter signed by Kafka was written:
“Everything you love will probably be lost, but in the end, love will return in another way.”
Prayer: from Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries, 1993.
Amy Willis, Commentary on Exodus, Working Preacher.com,
Kafka story widely available online.