In all these texts we heard today, I see a theme – which is, how do you recognize the Holy when it is in your midst? What does it take to name it and claim it, even if the rest of the world doesn’t see it, dismisses it and you?
Maybe it can only be the ones who are on the margins, or dismissed as un-important, or considered powerless, who can actually see.
The first scriptures we heard today from Exodus seems to explore this. In the time of Moses, all Israelites were considered lesser, but women would have been somewhat invisible whether Egyptian, Israelite or Canaanite. behind the scenes, no earthly power, and we don’t know of them having some kind of “bold women” hotline for planning together, yet somehow, it was by the work of them all that a great prophet should live to become who God called him to be. In a way, they were part of Moses, these five women, he stood on their shoulders. We’ll come back to them in a minute.
In the Letter to the Romans Paul is clearly suggesting there is a humble different role for each of us in the bringing about of God’s realm – we each bring different talents and gifts, like stations on a connecting train line of the Holy. Do we prophecy? Teach? Exhort? Give? Lead? Are we cheerful or compassionate? Maybe we are the midwives who refuse to stop a new life; or a mother who wants to save her child, a sister who protects him with the help of her own enemies. A foreigner who dares to raise up new life and give it a name? And what would bridge the different parts like this? Was there something about this child that felt special, different, marked for greatness, what? Did each woman see it?
When Jesus says to the apostles, “who do people say that the Son of Man is?” he is testing what it is they see in him. And how does Peter know to give the right answer? “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says, “flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my father in heaven.” Maybe it is those whose hearts are open to the possibility of a miracle that actually find one. Maybe it is those with the courage to believe that the impossible is possible, that can change the world.
A number of years ago I heard a story of this kind of courage. It takes place between two women, connected by a man they both love, somewhat similar to the story of Moses we heard in scripture today. The man is an Israeli peacemaker and scholar, Yakir Englander, someone I have met in my interfaith work for the United Church of Christ at the regional level. This is a story he told me a number of years ago the day after it took place.
The first woman is an Hasidic Israeli. She is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Her mother and father were forced to watch as the Nazis hung their parents in Auschwitz, and bashed in their newborn son’s head. Her mother could never hang laundry again because the images evoked her parent’s hanging, and she could never hug her daughter, the Israeli woman in our story.
The other woman is a Muslim Palestinian, a director for the Kids4Peace program that works around the world to bring youth of war torn areas together, especially from the Holy Land, and build bridges between them to help them rewrite the narratives of hate between their peoples. Every day she suffers from poverty, violence and shame living in the Occupied territories as a Palestinian.
The two women came together at an awards dinner for the man they both loved, Yakir. He is a colleague of the Muslim woman, and the son of the Israeli woman. When the Israeli woman arrived at the awards evening, she sat as far away from the Palestinians as she could. After hearing Yakir’s speech about how his Hasidic Jewish faith is what gives him the passion for peacemaking, his mother decided to come over and meet his Palestinian friends. The Muslim woman, dressed in hijab (head covering) came over and hugged Yakir’s mother. Yakir describes watching the face of his mother become totally white, since subconsciously she was sure that this Muslim woman was about to put a knife in her back. When she saw that she had just gotten a warm hug, she had tears – remember, she had never been hugged by her own mother. The Muslim woman told her that Yakir was like a brother to her. The Israeli woman replied, “This means you are also my child.” Months later, at a family Shabbat dinner, one of Yakir’s relatives spoke bad words about “dirty Arabs”. Yakir’s mother pounded the table and started shouting at him, ‘How dare you? Don’t you believe that they too have the image of God? Did you ever speak with the Palestinians? I hugged them with my body and saw how many lies I was told all of my life.” *1
This the result of one hug by a Muslim Palestinian woman to an Israeli woman, a child of the Holocaust. This is what it looks like when God’s Kindom is breaking in. Two women of enemy sides who knew something special about the young man they both loved, and the Holy happened there.
It takes incredible courage to work against the forces of the world that raise us believing we are too small to do anything about it, that peace can never come, that justice can never win. Sometimes just loving one other person is the place to start.
Now I want to take a closer look at the women in our Exodus story today. When the text opens, there was a powerful edict in the land proclaimed by Pharaoh that all male Israelite children should be killed at birth. Laverne McCain Gill writes:
“Although the Pharaoh made the labor of the Israelites unbearable, the oppression was not enough to assuage his fear. . . He decided to limit the population growth by killing the male infants. Facing oppression, the Israelites cried out to God and God heard them. . . God came in an unexpected way, using a diverse collection of women who came together to fulfill God’s liberation plan. This intergenerational, interfaith, interracial group of women came together, creating the Moses event. (*2 Gill, 2003, p. 20)
Here they are, the first two women in our story: Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives who creatively disobey. We don’t know if they are Israelite or Egyptian, or some mix perhaps. Drorah O’Donnell Setel describes these two “As those who aid birth, they are the first to assist in the birth of the Israelite nation. Their work entails an understanding of the connection between transformation and risk . . .” But then, there are more women. It’s not enough that Moses survived his birth. In our text, the other three women are not named, though elsewhere the bible identifies Moses’ mother as Jochabed (Ex. 6:20; Num 26:59) and his sister as Miriam (Num 26:59; 1 Chron. 6:3). Setel tells us more regarding Pharaoh’s daughter: “Moses’ adoptive mother is never named, although ironically, it is she who names him. She serves as a symmetrical counterpart of the woman who gives birth to the child and places him in the water, as she draws him up and raises him.” (*3 Setel, 1998, pp. 34, 35)
Surely Pharaoh’s daughter knew she was drawing out of the water an Israelite boy baby – one decreed to be killed. When young Miriam, his sister, approaches to offer a wet nurse, how convenient! I can see Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam doing the nod nod, wink wink of conspiracy. Pharaoh’s daughter would have known she was conspiring across religious and ethnic lines, circumventing her powerful father by doing this.
No one woman in this story could have saved Moses’ life alone – it was only because they worked together, one woman’s decision at a time, each one trusting that something greater was at work than their one small act. Each woman in this story literally risked their life to do this. What difference could they possibly have thought saving the life of one boy could make? And yet, Moses would grow up to be the greatest prophet in the Hebrew bible: the one who liberates the Israelites from slavery and brings them to the Promised Land.
Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says “Well-behaved women rarely make history?” Surely that can be said of these women. What courage it takes! That is also true of so many more women of history – others whose names are rarely remembered, whose stories didn’t make our history books. Let’s hear about some of them: (read the stories . . . with the mic)
Kaahumanu first female ruler and lawmaker of Hawaii in the early 19th century
who abolished restrictive practice s and taboos against women; established women’s right to education;
Pandita Ramabai a Sanskrit scholar who challenged interpretations
of Hindu Law in order to raise the status of women, delegate to the Indian National Congress 1889;
Jiu Jin revolutionary feminist, poet, teacher in China,
Executed in 1908 for refusing to compromise her beliefs;
Maria Jesus Alvarada Rivera
who initiated the feminist movement in Peru at the turn of the century; a
women’s rights activist who was imprisoned and eventually exiled;
Raden AJeng Kartini who initiated the feminist movement in Indonesia
at the turn of the century. Outspoken against social and colonial oppression, she started a successful school for girls and died in childbirth at the age of 25.
Bettey Williams and who organized the peoples movement for peace
Mairead Corrigan in Northern Ireland in 1976 and were awarded the
Naheed a schoolgirl in Afghanistan who led a demonstration against the Soviet invasion of her country in 1980, and was one of 70 children to be massacred.
Malala Yousafzai – became an international symbol of the fight for girls’ education after she was shot in 2012 for opposing Taliban restrictions on female education in her home country of Pakistan. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17 and is still a force for the education of women and girls globally today.
Greta Thunberg – 5 years ago on August 20, she refused to attend the first day of school so that she could sit in front of the Swedish Parliament’s main building with a sign that read, “SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLAMATET” (School Strike for Climate).
Thunberg explained her action at the time by stating, “I am doing this
because nobody else is doing anything. It is my moral responsibility to do
what I can.”
Coming back to the two women and the man I started my sermon with: The Muslim Palestinian and the Hasidic Israeli, and the man they both loved, the peacemaker – they are part of the incredible, against all odds movement for peace in Israel Palestine. You talk to most Israelis and Palestinians, they cannot imagine a world in which all can live together in peace. But these two women can, Yakir can.
After this awards dinner happened, I talked with Yakir. He was heading back to Israel, taking a new position for Kids4Peace, a program both here and in Jerusalem that brings together youth from different religions and backgrounds and empowers them to be agents of change in their schools and communities, to imagine being friends with their enemies and then live it. (K4P.org)
As he prepared to head back, Yakir told me this was the riskiest job he’d ever taken. But, he said, “I cannot live in any other way, even if all I am working for is impossible.” He told me, “When I served in the Israeli military, it was my job to bring the dead bodies off the field. I carried them in my arms, both Israelis and Palestinians, and it changed my life forever. I am still carrying them both today. I do this for both of them.”
These are the stories we must tell and keep telling. We must name the nameless heroes. All of them – from ancient times to current times. Look for them and celebrate them – they are all around us! They are the ones who can inspire us to never give up – to never think peace is not possible, and that love cannot win. It is our scriptures, our faith that teach us this is God’s dream for the world – one woman at a time, one man at a time, one human being at a time. It may take five of us, or ten, or maybe 3,741,953 of us or maybe more – together, we can do it. Amen.
*Parts of this sermon are taken from a sermon I wrote in September, 2015.
*1 excerpt from “Looking Beyond the Safety of the Hate Narrative” by Yakir Englander, at http:/Islamicommentary.org/2014/07/looking-beyond-the-safety-of-the-hate- narrative/
*2 Gill, Laverne McCain. 2003. Vashti’s Victory: and other Biblical Women Resisting Injustice. Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press.
*3 Setel, Drorah O’Donnell. 1998. “Exodus”. In The Women’s Bible Commentary, Expanded Edition, Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, Editors. Pp. 30-39