Midwives in Ferguson (A Sermon for Proper 16A)

Proper 16 / August 24, 2014 / Year A

Exodus 1:8-2:10 , Psalm 124, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20

Preached: August 24, 2014, All Saints’ Church, Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

I’m going to start this morning with a tiny little exercise; it shouldn’t take too long.

We’re going to start with a little bit of silence. Just a few moments where you don’t have to listen to anything, you don’t have to sing anything, you don’t have to rifle through any books, or leaflets, and you don’t have to listen to me talk at you.

I’ll ring a bell to bring us in and out of the silence–and during it, I have a few questions I want us to focus on:

I want you to think about whatever it is that is troubling you this morning.
What is tumbling around like a rock in your shoe, poking and prodding you?
What is making you uncomfortable?

What is frightening you?
What is making you mad?
What is making you feel useless? Hopeless?

In other words, what is weighing on you this morning?
What is weighing on your heart?

Let’s take two minutes to reflect on these things together. 

**

I have to tell you: I have been fretting about this sermon all week, because it seems to me that there is just too much. There is too much to cover in one little sermon. There is too much going on in the world. There is too much weighing on our hearts.

And there is too much going on in the readings this morning. Too many topics to cover, too many huge stories. Too many complicated, interesting, and varied stories—

We’ve got the beginning of Exodus and Moses’ birth, his dramatic rescue from certain death. The psalmist’s despair and ultimate hope, Paul’s letter about building community, Matthew’s gospel account of Jesus and Peter, of faith and action.

There is just too much to cover.

And if you’ve been following the news this summer—any news really, national, international, it doesn’t matter—you’ve probably got a long list of things weighing on you. A very long list.

In fact, I have a little prayer list cheat-sheet that I carry around with me in a tiny notebook. Each night before bed, I read through the list, and every night it seems to get longer and longer:

Disease, depression, death. Rocket fire, terrorism, death. Kidnapping, mass execution, more death. Guns, chokeholds, brutality, more and more death.

Too many unarmed black men killed by white police officers. Eric Garner in Staten Island, John Crawford in Cincinnati, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, Michael Brown in Ferguson.

That’s not even counting all the names that don’t make the news. That’s not even counting all the illness, or estrangement, or death in our own families, the suffering in our immediate circles.

So, yesterday, I ran into an old friend who is a Baptist pastor and asked him how he was planning to squeeze all of this into one little sermon today? And he reminded me that, because he’s Baptist, his sermons are about 45 minutes long.

I don’t think that is going to be my answer this morning, but I do want us to hold all the concerns floating around this room, all the agitating rocks in our shoes that we meditated on, and though we won’t be able to name all of them in this one sermon, I want us to remember that as vast and varied as the prayers of this congregation are, even bigger, even wider, even stronger are the arms of God.

**

Turning to the texts at hand, sometimes it can be difficult to find a link between what is weighing on our hearts and what’s going on in the bible. Further, it can be very difficult to try to discern what God is trying to say to us in the bible—where the “good news” is amidst death and destruction in these stories. But today is not so hard. Today, I’ve found that the story of Moses is speaking directly to my heavy heart.

Exodus begins with a lot of sweeping history all in a short little paragraph. It is a sequel of sorts to the Jacob story of Genesis—the descendants of Jacob are in exile in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh.

Time has marched on. There is a new pharaoh. Jacob is dead, and no one quite remembers why they let Jacob’s family—the Hebrew people who will become the Jewish people—no one remembers why they let them come to Egypt in the first place.

The pharaoh is afraid of the Hebrew people—they are prospering. It threatens pharaoh’s power, so he wields what power he does have by enslaving them—forcing them to do hard labor, to serve him. And still, the Hebrew people prosper.

Pharaoh’s answer is to encourage violence against the Hebrews, especially against the boys. Is this starting to sound familiar to you? Remembering that the Egyptians and Hebrews were different ethnic groups, is this wielding of racialized power through violence and oppression familiar?

As I’m sure most of us know, this summer, at least four unarmed black men have been killed by white police officers, and no charges have yet been brought against any of the officers involved in these deaths. This epidemic has a long, long history in this country; it is tied to hundreds of years of slavery, a hundred years of lynching, and our current prison industrial complex, which unfairly targets black and brown bodies. The current national conversation has coalesced around the town of Ferguson, MO, just outside St. Louis, where 18 year-old Michael Brown was shot six times. Eyewitnesses say his hands were up; he was unarmed and he said, “Don’t shoot.” Protesters, activists, and journalists have kept a constant vigil at the site since his death on August 9; despite attempts by police to get them to disband.

In the Exodus story, we can see these protestors represented in my favorite unlikely biblical heroes: two women who subvert Pharaoh’s death-dealing instructions and insist on preserving life.

Shiphra and Puah are the Hebrew midwives who refuse to follow Pharaoh’s order to kill the baby boys. The text says that it is because they fear God, a biblical way of saying they know God, or they love God, or they have some sense of how God is guiding them. Shiphra and Puah have little power in Pharaoh’s Egypt and a lot to lose; yet they stand up to pharaoh directly—this fear they have for God must also give them strength. As they refuse to kill the little boys, the story tells us that God rewards them with families. More life subverting death, and the story makes no equivocation about which side God is on. God is always on the side of life. More life.

It is a recurring theme in the broader Exodus story; God hears the cries of the oppressed and God works, through God’s people like Shiphra and Puah, to end oppression.

**

Yesterday, along with a big group put together by the advocacy group Faith in New York, I went to Staten Island for the We Will Not Go Back March and Rally for Justice. We marched from the site where Eric Garner, an unarmed civilian, was killed in a chokehold by a police officer. His last words were, “I can’t breathe.”

The march was co-sponsored by the National Action Network, the NAACP, and the United Federation of Teachers, the latter of which received a lot of criticism for what was perceived as partisan activism.

Michael Mulgrew, the union’s president, took the stage at the rally and stood by his decision to be there. It is the teachers, he said, who are going to come back to school next week and have to teach the children about what happened to Eric Garner and to Michael Brown. “The Teacher’s Union is here because it is time to teach,” he said. “We still have a problem that needs to be solved, and teachers need to tell their children that it will always get better.”

Where does this kind of hope come from in the face of so much despair?

In the Gospel story, we are presented with another tale of occupation, as the story opens in Caesarea Philippi, a land ruled by Caesar where the Jewish people live without power or capital. The disciples, especially Peter, believe Jesus to be the messiah—a new kind of power, similar to the redemptive power of the midwives’ God over and above the Egyptian pharaoh. If Jesus is the messiah, then, Peter hopes, there is a possibility that Rome will no longer wield its swords.

Jesus’ response is to give Peter the keys to heaven. We have a Hollywood version of heaven in our heads, with puffy clouds and cherubic (and worth noting, very white) little angels playing harps, but Jesus is really talking about a just world. A world where God reigns, where there is no human power over and above other humans. No oppression, no more senseless, violent death. When Jesus gives these keys to Peter, he is giving them to all of us. Jesus is giving the keys to this justice to us, and now we have to use them.

In the face of so much suffering, in the knowledge of all the little pebbles in our shoes, or full on rocks, or maybe even boulders, it can be hard to figure out what to DO. It can be hard to figure out where God IS in all of this. And, of course, there are no easy answers to those questions.

Our bishop here in Long Island, Bishop Provenzano, sent a pastoral letter this week encouraging the churches in this diocese to engage with the work towards justice and peace as people of faith. He wrote, “If we remain focused in faith, we will recognize that the Gospel of Jesus Christ calls us to be people of peace. Peace can only be obtained with justice. Justice can be attained by confronting, naming and reducing fear, prejudice, and inequality.”

In a Joint Statement on August 18 of Heads of Historic African American Church Denominations, denouncing The Brutal Killing of Michael Brown, these black faith leaders call on all churches to memorialize Michael Brown this Sunday, and to call for an end to the cutting down of precious God-created lives like Michael Brown’s and so many others.

The alternative to cutting down can be found in the call to all of us, to every one here assembled, to be midwives. To be Shiphras and Puahs and to reject the death and oppression that is handed to us by our culture, to bring forth life, to pull it up from the reeds. As Episcopalians, we find the strength and hope for this work—we find that good news—in the bread and wine we share at the table every Sunday, in the sharing of food as a community committed to more life, and not death. And so I invite you today, as we enter into celebration of Holy Communion, to bring your pebbles, your rocks, your boulders forward with you to the table.

I invite you to come and be fed, to be supported by all of us here and by God in your work as someone who insists on justice, on peace, and on life. AMEN.

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