Scripture readings: The Hebrew women save baby Moses from drowning, Exodus 1:8-2:10. Simon Peter tells Jesus, “You are the Messiah,” Matthew 16:13-20
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come.
There are some mightily courageous women in our first reading today, aren’t there? I’m not going to refer to it as our Old Testament reading: there is nothing old about their testament.
Who were these women? Puah and Shiphrah, the Hebrew midwives. They disobeyed Pharaoh’s order to kill the newborn boys. Isn’t their excuse marvelous? “The Hebrew women’s bodies are strong and the infants pop out before we get there. Let me explain how that works….” We can just imagine Pharoah and his satraps and prefects saying “OK, OK, never mind, that’s fine. Don’t give me too much information. I don’t want to hear about that.” And so these women, who did life-giving work, used ther loving knowledge of the glorious messiness of life to protect their peoples’ lives. Exodus tells us their fear of God gave Shiprah and Puah their own families, their own gift of life.
We can connect our experience with human life with theirs, and understand and laugh about how they exploited the squeamishness of those rulers. But, they were in mortal danger without doubt. That deception of theirs took that rare kind of courage that knows that life is the only possible choice.
Who were some of the other women in this passage? There was Moses’s mother, the daughter of a priestly family. Her name was Jochebed. When her baby was born, she kept his little life a secret as long as she could. She too took a mortal risk. She risked a lot when she floated him away, and even more when she went to Pharaoh’s household to nurse the child. Like Shiphrah and Puah, she had the kind of courage that chooses life over death. The same goes for Moses’s sister Miriam. She had the chutzpah to walk up to Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest she pay the baby’s own mother to nurse him. This was an audacious and dangerous act, but a life-giving one.
Let’s not forget Pharaoh’ daughter and her servants. They too had the same kind of courageous streak of disobedience. We know from the Genesis account that Egyptian rulers were merciless with their own households as well as with their slaves. It was dangerous to deceive Pharaoh and resist his will. But they did.
Amid the patriarchy of Hebrew culture it’s amazing that their acts were preserved in the Torah. The Bible contains the names of midwives! Astonishing!
What’s not astonishing? That these courageous folks were all women. They faced a life-threatening genocidal situation, a threat to their families and they simply coped with it. They weren’t doing what they did because they knew they were part of God’s plan. If somebody said told them they were heroic they would have been puzzled. They did what they did because it was who they were.
There’s another group of strong women in this story. Their names are known only to God. But they’re just as audacious as Shiphrah, Puah, and Jochebed. They’re the ones that helped Jochebed keep the secret of her baby for so long. They’re the ones who closed ranks to protect the midwives. But they’re also the ones whose children did not survive the genocide. They’re the ones who gave their own lives to protect their families. They were every bit as strong and courageous as the ones whose names we know. Miriam and Jochebed were nurtured by the courage of the unnamed thousands. Their collective courage helped save the one child, but that one child’s miraculous story is steeped in the sadness and horror of all the other tears shed and lives cut short.
Midwives and mothers go through this kind of sadness every day. They do what they have to do. They take the risks they have to take. Even so, their children suffer and die. But their courage continues unchanged. This strong community of women, the community of women who know grief and loss: all together these are the people who are strong right arm of God. God’s plan for all God’s people worked through them back in Egypt, and we know it is still working through them today, right here in this city and in this room.
This kind of focused courage is something we men can learn from. To avoid too much stereotyping I’ll speak for my own self: In similar situations (but far less dangerous) I don’t just do the right thing. I start wondering about abstract things. Is it right to commit a deception for the good of a family? I treat it as a moral problem: one the one hand, on the other hand etc.
For example, a friend – the one whose mortgage was foreclosed last winter – called me recently. She said, “I’m trying to rent an apartment. But my ex-husband has stopped paying me as much as the child-support agreement says. Do you think I’ll get in trouble if I don’t tell the landlord that?” I heard her question as an either-or. “Is it right to deceive my landlord by not telling the whole truth? Should I do it or not?” So I started talking about the one hand and the other.
It turned out that was not what she was wondering. She set me straight pretty quickly. She didn’t see it as a choice. She knows it isn’t perfectly right, be she also knows she has to do it. What she wants is reassurance that she’s a good person even if she doesn’t tell the whole truth. She needs to know she’s not alone. She needs to commit a life-giving act of deception, to put a roof over her family’s head for the coming school year. She wants assurance of forgiveness. She knows better than to hope for permission. She has the courage of Shiprah and the chutzpah of Miriam, and her family is thriving nicely just like theirs. Let’s pray that it continues to be so.
The question is, where do we — women and men alike –get that kind of spiritual focus? Where do we get the courage to commit life-giving acts? I know both women and men get it from the Holy Spirit. Can it be that women receive it more easily than men? We do know that one man in the Bible, Simon, struggled more that others to get the spirit. But Jesus didn’t give up on him.
Jesus asked Simon: who do YOU say I am? He had an inspiration of the truth, and answered. “You are the anointed one, the son of the living God”
In that moment his life’s focus became clear. He became Peter, the rock. He’s still Simon the fisherman, but after this point Matthew and Jesus call him Peter.
Then Jesus goes on … “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
I’ve always wondered what this symbol of the keys really means (It’s a guy thing, I suppose, I’m driven to understand things). The Bishop of Rome – the Pope – has a coat of arms that includes a black key and a white key, based on this passage. Some say the keys are the power to remind each other in God’s name “we are forgiven and freed from sin”. And that’s true. We all have the power to do that for each other. But that explanation never quite satisfied me.
Last week I spent some time with a bereaved husband. He showed me his beloved wife’s journals, and in one of them she had copied out a passage by an 18th century Jesuit mystic and priest named Jean-Pierre de Caussade. Father Jean-Pierre’s words opened my eyes and my heart. Let me read you what he wrote:
Come, then, my beloved souls, let us fly to that love which calls us.
Why are we waiting?
Let us set out at once,
Let us lose ourselves in the very heart of God and become intoxicated with His love.
Let us snatch from His heart the key to all the treasures of the world and start out right away on the road to heaven.
There is no need to fear that any lock will hold us back.
Our key will open every door.
There is no room we cannot enter.
We can make ourselves free of the garden, the cellar, and the vineyard as well.
If we want to explore the countryside, no one will hinder us.
We can come and go;
We can enter and leave any place we wish,
Because we have the key of David, the key of knowledge, and the key of the abyss that holds the hidden treasures of divine wisdom.
It is this key that opens the doors of mystical death and its sacred darkness.
By it we can enter the deepest dungeons and emerge safe and sound.
It gives us entrance into that blessed spot where the light of knowledge shines and the Bridegroom takes His noonday rest.
There we quickly learn how to win His kiss and ascend with surety the steps of the nuptial couch.
And there we learn the secrets of love-
Divine secrets that cannot be revealed and which no human tongue can ever describe.
Here’s the key that opened every door for Jochebed, Puah, Shiphrah, and the unnamed multitudes of midwives and mothers. Bereft of their children and steeped in sorrow they never stop joyfully giving life to their families and to the world. Here’s the key that opened the door so Peter might return to his Lord’s side after denying him three times.
Here’s the key that our lord Jesus yearns for us to snatch from his heart. Here’s the key that, I pray, may open all doors for you and me and admit us to that place where we learn the secrets of love.
In Jesus’s name.