Beautiful are the Hands that Work for Justice

[A sermon preached at St. James Presbyterian Church on Exodus 1:8-2:10.]

It’s always been a fault of mine that I’m a sucker for a good commercial. As seen on TV? Gotta have it. Only $19.95? Sold. Three easy payments and a bonus gift? Yes, please. Whatever the product, whatever its purpose, I’m easily hooked by a good ole television ad. But even if you’re a more discerning consumer than I am, I think we can all find some value in the recent advertisements released by Dove body products. Dove calls this series of commercials its “campaign for real beauty,” and true to their name, rather than using professional models and photoshopped images to sell beauty products at the expense of people’s self-image, the advertisements feature images of diverse women, real people of all ages, shapes, and skin color. Billboards featured as a part of this initiative say things like, “beauty has no age limit,” and “you’re more beautiful than you think.” But my favorite out of all of these ads is a commercial that went absolutely viral just a few months ago. Dove hired a forensic artist from the FBI to sketch the faces of a handful of normal, everyday women. As he drew, he would ask open-ended questions of the women, and they would describe their face to him. He could not see them, and they could not see him. Then another person, who had been waiting with the woman in another room, without any prompting, would be asked the same questions, and the artists would draw a second sketch based on this person’s description of the woman. When both sketches were revealed side by side, the women were astounded at how much more beautiful the drawings based on someone else’s description of them were than the sketches based on their own description of themselves. The commercial as a whole, like the rest of these advertisements, calls us to examine our definitions of beauty and to make sure that there is room for each of us within them.

Like the Dove campaign for real beauty, our Scripture text today challenges the traditional notion of beauty that we find splayed across billboards, commercials, and music videos alike. This is a text that features five women as the leading ladies in the opening act of the Exodus story. Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives. Moses’ mother and his sister, Miriam, and Pharaoh’s daughter. These are five women who defy expectations. Five women who defy fear, who choose to live as a spark of hope rather than giving in to darkness. Five women, upon whose disobedience the entire future of God’s people depends. Five women, some of whose names are long forgotten, some of whose names live on in our collective memory. Five women who redeem an entire people with their courage in the face of power. Five women who live in the kingdom of God rather than the kingdom of fear.

I doubt I need to tell you how unusual it is to have this many women in one section of a story. I doubt I need to tell you how rare it is to have this many women cast as heroes. I doubt I need to tell you that the number of male Bible characters far outnumber the number of female characters, and that even among the female characters, very rarely is their actual name recorded. More often, they are listed as so-and-so’s daughter or so-and-so’s wife. But in this story, we have two names. Two women whose story, whose contribution to the covenant community, is so essential and important that their names couldn’t be edited out. Two women named Shiphrah and Puah. Just the act of leaving the names in was controversial enough for the day and age in which this text was written, but the actual meaning of these names goes on to undermine cultural conventions even further. Shiphrah, in the Hebrew, means “beauty” and Puah comes from a word that means “speaker” or “to cry out.” Despite having five women in the passage, nowhere does it mention anything about these ladies physical appearance. With other important biblical women, even the tersest biblical editors feel the need to linger on their looks. Rachel is remembered for her beautiful figure and lovely face. Esther is widely considered to be drop-dead gorgeous, attractive enough to turn even the head of the king. Leah, the second-choice sister, has eyes that are tender and gentle. And the Shulamite maiden from Song of Solomon? Well, her beloved’s head-to-toe description of her beauty makes even the best of us blush. Nevertheless, with Shiphrah, whose name means “beauty,” we don’t get even a hint of what she looks like. Shiphrah’s beauty defies our conventions and norms. She is beautiful, not because of her appearance, but because of her role. She is beautiful because, as Puah’s name reminds us, she “speaks out.”

Shiphrah and Puah are beautiful because they are agents of justice, just like the other three women in the story. They see the injustices perpetrated against their people, and when Pharaoh demands that these midwives, these women who usher in new life, help him commit genocide by killing all the Hebrew baby boys, they know they must take a stand. And so they look Pharaoh in the eye and do the last thing that we would expect of nice, proper ladies – they lie! They don’t apologize, they don’t plead for their lives, they don’t even appeal to religion or name their God. They just tell their made up-story, and tell it convincingly enough that they leave the palace free women, able to continue their lives and their important work, the saving of many lives.

Miriam and Moses’ mother are beautiful because they are agents of justice. Moses’ mother did what she needed to do to save her son’s life. She looked Empire in the face and with all of the maternal love and protective instinct she could muster, openly defied the royal decree. She was resourceful, using what she could from the materials that she had access to in order to give her child the best shot at a full life that she could give. She sent Moses down the river, floating a frail hope on the vast waters of the world’s pain. Then Miriam, defiant in hope, used her cunning and quick thinking to intervene on behalf of her brother. She smooth-talked Pharaoh’s daughter into keeping the child, and she orchestrated a plan wherein their mother would not only still have access to him, but would get paid to be a caretaker during Moses’ early years. Miriam found a way to work within an unjust system, to undermine and subvert it from the inside in order to bring about justice and a better future for her people.

Pharoah’s daughter is beautiful because she, too, is an agent of justice in this story. Even though she is an Egyptian, a privileged member of the oppressor class, she uses her power to help the most vulnerable. She looks with compassion on Moses and chooses to protect and nurture him even though she knows that he is one of the Hebrew babies who have been sentenced to death. She openly defies her father, the king, not only in saving this child, which would be risky enough, but in taking him in as her own son, giving him the opportunity to have the best of the best, to overcome his rough start in life.

Five women. Five beautiful women. Beautiful not because of their physical attributes, but because of their commitment to justice. But the good news is, you don’t have to be a woman for this story to be about you. Egypt isn’t some far away land, it is every place where tyrants large and small oppress human bodies and human spirits so that the powerful can hold onto what they’ve got and acquire more all at the expense of the most vulnerable among us. It is every place where mothers and fathers fear for the future of their children and grandchildren. It’s every place where people commit acts of violence against one another, violating the image of God deep within us. It’s every place where the future seems bleak and all hope seems lost. There are Egypts all around us. In Israel-Palestine, in Ferguson, Missouri, in Syria and Ukraine, in Iraq and central America, in West Africa, in our families, and in our own hearts. And so it is our place to join hands with these five beautiful women. To be clever enough, determined enough, cheeky enough, and angry enough to join the small but persistent band of God’s beloved who lie awake at night trying to bamboozle the king. To work for justice, to lift up the oppressed, to hear the voices of those long silenced, to speak truth to power even if our voice shakes. Because this . . . this . . . is beautiful. Amen.

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A Broken Brotherhood

[A sermon preached at Bethlehem Presbyterian Church and Douglas Presbyterian Church based on Genesis 37: 1-4, 12-28.]

This part of Joseph’s story is hard to tell. I confess, as I was preparing this week, I found myself wanting to jump forward in the text, to bypass the tension, the family conflict, and the violence and head straight for the reunion and reconciliation that we all know is coming. But that’s not the story that we have in front of us today. The story that we have in front of us is unsettling and ugly. It’s a story about hatred and jealousy. It’s a story about favoritism. It’s a story about brothers conspiring to kill brothers, a story about betrayal. It’s a story about human trafficking. It’s a story that forces us to face the fact that the boogeyman isn’t necessarily the stranger in the dark alley; it’s the kids in the backyard. It’s a story that confronts us with the potential for violence in each one of us, a story that reminds us of the dangers even within our own households. It’s a story in which the word “God” never even shows up. And that’s exactly why it’s a story that we need to continue to tell.

This is a story that we know all too well, if not from our own experience, then from our television screens and newspaper headlines. There are plenty of women, children, and yes, even men, who find themselves trapped in hostile or unsafe living environments. There are plenty of children terrified of going to school for fear of being bullied physically, verbally, and emotionally by their peers. There are plenty of people who feel overwhelmed, confused, and unsure of what to do next as they watch tension and interpersonal conflict escalating to violence in their homes or workplaces. These are all too common occurrences, even if we are unable or unwilling to acknowledge their reality or, heaven help us, their pervasiveness. This isn’t just Joseph’s story. This is our story.  It’s the story of our families and our communities, both ancient and modern, and it is also our global story. After all, isn’t this the story of Israel and Palestine? Two peoples and two religions whose heritage can be traced back to a single Father — brothers at war with one another, killing one another due to greed and conflict, jealousy and hatred.

This is a story that plays out not just in biblical stories, not just in world history, not just in our news headlines, and not just in our families, but in each and every one of our hearts. Though we may not all resort to physical violence, we all have experienced how rising tension and bitter conflicts can cause us to do, think, and say things that are mean-spirited, unkind, or hurtful. If we’re really honest with ourselves, we engage in interpersonal violence all the time. After all, gossip, rumors, judgmental thoughts, prejudice, and stereotyping are all just slightly more socially-acceptable ways of doing violence toward one another. We are no better and no worse than Joseph’s brothers. But we can’t help but wonder, when we look at the extreme conflict and violence in their story, how they ever let things so far out of hand. How could they step so far outside of God’s will for the covenant community and for creation? How could they engage in actions that threatened to extinguish God’s promises to them and to their forebears? How did they get to this point? How do we get to this point?

Of course, we can trace the conflict all the way back to Jacob. As we remember from the Old Testament lesson last week, Jacob, Joseph’s father, has never been one for protocol or propriety, and he has no problem being unscrupulous. He kicked his way out of the womb and tricked his way into the promise, and now he sees his own son as another case of the last becoming first. In his old age, Jacob dotes on this son born late to him, and he spares no expense for this special child who is more near and dear to him than the others. His favoritism is both deep and arbitrary, and the brothers definitely take notice. To make matters worse, as they plod out to the fields to do the hard labor of shepherding their father’s flocks, they learn that Jacob sent Joseph to supervise them. Now, keep in mind this is another upheaval of the traditional order of things. Jacob has ordered the youngest to supervise the eldest, and unlike the others, Joseph’s status as the favorite has spared him from ever working a day in his life. He’s always been the boy who’d rather have his head in the clouds than roll up his sleeves and lend a helping hand. He’s always been the tattle tale, the coddled youngest child, the apple of his father’s eye. We can’t help but sympathize with the brothers at least to some extent. And it doesn’t come as any surprise that Jacob’s luxurious gift of a fancy coat and Joseph’s self-important dreams would be the final straw in this conflict.

But even before they conspired to kill him, even before they threw him into the pit and decided to sell him into slavery, something else happened. There were some early warning signs that we would be wise to take notice of. Right after we’re told that Jacob was tattling to his father about the brothers, right after we’re told that Joseph was the favorite child and had been given a special coat, we’re also told that there was a breakdown in communication. In their anger and jealousy, the brothers stopped talking to Joseph. Scripture tells us that they “could not speak peaceably to him.” Isn’t this always where the problems start? When conflict arises, we get mad and we shut down. We become so angry at the other, we become so entrenched in our own viewpoints, that we close off all communication and thereby lose all hope of resolution. We choose being right over being in relationship. Without open dialogue and the ability to speak peaceably and respectfully with one another, we cannot hope to work things out, to bring healing, or to reconcile. Like Joseph and his brothers, when tension rises and we find ourselves in conflict, we forget how to use our words.  We see these breakdowns in communication in our families, in our marriages, in our government, and in our international relations. If we could just learn how to talk to one another, how to stay in the conversation even when we’re frustrated and even when we disagree, then we would be able to solve a lot of our problems before they escalate.

In addition to their inability to communicate, another piece of what got the brothers into this situation, another early warning sign, was the scarcity mindset that pervades this story. There is an underlying assumption throughout the narrative that there isn’t enough to go around. After all, if there were enough love, enough attention, enough hands to do the work, enough fancy coats for everyone, then there wouldn’t be any conflict. No one would have to be jealous of one another. No one would have to jockey for position. No one would feel the need to be greedy. If the playing field were truly equal, there would be no reason to resort to violence because there would be no conflict or tension. However, this sort of abundance is no more the case in the ancient world than it is in ours. We’re all too familiar with the scarcity mindset that we find in this story. In our daily lives, there are never enough hours in the day to get everything on our to-do lists done. In our church life, we’re facing declining numbers and shrinking budgets, and there’s a great deal of anxiety across all mainline denominations that there won’t be enough – enough resources, enough people, enough positions – to sustain us. In our global context, we worry about having enough natural resources, enough food and clean water for everyone to get what they need, enough vaccines and doctors when epidemics strike. We’re constantly worried about this thing called “not enough.” And so we do what we can to make ourselves feel secure in an unsecure world. We invest. We build our 401K’s. We hoard what we have and maintain a white-knuckled grip on our resources because we worry that one day the well might run dry. Abundance seems like a myth at best or a delusion at worst, so like the brothers in the story, we let our fear dictate our behavior. We forget that there’s plenty to go around — enough food and air and love for us all – that we don’t have to constantly brandish our fork in order to protect our particular slice of the pie. I just really wonder what would have happened in this story if the brothers realized that they had enough, did enough, were enough? What would happen if we really believed this? What would our families be like? What would our government be like? What would our world be like?

Today we are called to bear witness to the story of a broken family. A family that, seeing no way out of their conflict, resorted to great violence against one another. This text calls us to sit with the devastation that we can cause in relationship with one another. It calls us to sit with our own human shortcomings. It reminds us of the fact that the bond between us is more fragile than we think, and our own capacity to do violence is greater than we think. It reminds us that we belong to one another, and that our life together in community is never easy, but it’s essential. The community is the bearer of the promise, God’s covenant with God’s people. Within the community, there is a potential for great violence and untold suffering, but there is also the possibility of abundant grace. And in every moment, in the quiet clearing of each and every human heart, lies the decision of which possibility we will choose to live into. By the power of the Holy Spirit working in and through us, let’s choose grace. Let’s choose communication even when it’s hard. Let’s choose to live into abundance. Let’s choose being in relationship over being right. Let’s choose life. Amen.

Blessings & Bruises

[A sermon preached at Douglas Presbyterian and Bethlehem Presbyterian on Genesis 32: 22-31.]

Sometimes I wonder if the way we often begin our worship – “the Lord be with you” – might be more aptly stated “let’s get ready to rumble.” If we take seriously today’s story about Jacob wrestling with God, then I think we have to at least consider it; after all, Jacob’s whole life has been something like a WWE cage-match, and round one, believe it or not, goes all the way back to the womb.

We’re told that Jacob and Esau wrestled with one another in their mother’s womb, and though Esau emerged as the victorious firstborn, claiming the birthright as his champion’s trophy, Jacob still managed to give him a run for his money. Jacob came out swinging, grabbing Esau’s heel as if to say “we’re not finished here.” From his very first moments in the world, we know Jacob as a fighter, and we can tell that this match is far from over. In fact, Jacob gets a second chance in round two, when he tricks his father, Isaac, into blessing him instead of Esau. This time, Jacob doesn’t hesitate to hit below the belt, using his cunning and deceit to get the competitive edge in this ongoing struggle with his brother. In today’s story, though, we meet Jacob on the night before his third and final round in the ring with Esau, and the stakes couldn’t get any higher.

A lot has happened in the twenty years since Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright and fled his homeland to escape his brother’s rage. Jacob is now a middle-aged man with a lot to lose. He has numerous wives and children, a large family with an even larger herd of livestock, and plenty of servants to go with it. He’s wealthy and successful, a man who seemingly has it all, but he’s still estranged from his brother and unable to return home. This, as I’m sure you can imagine, feels a lot like defeat. Jacob has to do something about this, but he also knows that reaching out to Esau is a major risk: the last he has heard, Esau had been plotting to kill him. Despite the generous gifts and bribes he has sent to Esau to try to de-escalate the situation, when we meet Jacob in our story today, all hope for a peaceful reunion seems lost. He’s received word that Esau is coming for him with 400 of his men, and Jacob is terrified that he’s about to get a good, old-fashioned butt-kickin’. It’s the night before the championship round, and our star player is starting to look a lot like an underdog.

So, Jacob sends his family ahead of him across the river, and prepares for what he surely believes will be a sleepless night as he anticipates this meeting with Esau. He is left alone to confront his worst fears and his own sense of guilt, and the darker it gets, the greater his anxiety. It always seems to be the case that when we’re all alone in the middle of the night, the truth that we’ve run from during the day catches up to us. Surrounded by family, friends, tasks and possessions, it is easy to pretend. It’s easy to give glib answers that don’t really suffice, to plan in the face of uncertainty, and to think our way out of bad situations. But when we’re all by ourselves with the darkness descending around us, we’re confronted with questions we cannot avoid and fears we’ve tried to push away.

And it shouldn’t surprise us that this is exactly the place where God enters into the story. I mean, haven’t we all had those nights? You know the ones I’m talking about. Those nights where the shadows lengthen until we find ourselves in complete darkness, and suddenly, those cares and concerns that seemed manageable during the daylight hours all come flooding to the forefront. Those nights where the worst-case scenarios seem all too possible, and we toss and turn as our worries threaten to overwhelm us. Those nights that we’re so preoccupied by what-ifs and if-onlys that it is all we can do to close our eyes. These are the nights that we call upon God, that we lift up our confusion, fear, and raw emotion, praying for any kind of relief. These are the nights where we yell at God, accuse God, question God, despise God. On nights like these, we like Jacob, wrestle with God, fighting this way and that, until finally we collapse in utter exhaustion. Remarkably, though, instead of turning away from God in these moments, we often find ourselves clinging even more tightly to him. Like Jacob, we refuse to let God go until he blesses us. We realize that we cannot be our own saviors anymore, that we cannot make it apart from God, so we ask to be changed, to be renamed by grace, to be broken and then healed by love.

That is what happened to Jacob when he found himself alone, confronting his own worst fears in the dead of night, and wrestling with God. This story testifies to the fact that our encounters with God are not always comforting, peaceful, or affirming, but we can be sure that they will be transformative if we can just hang in there. Like Jacob, our faith struggles leave us with both blessings and bruises, and this story reminds us that God’s steadfast love for us doesn’t necessarily preclude knocking us out of joint and sucking the wind right out of us from time to time. But we endure the struggle for the sake of the gift.

This struggle was a transformative encounter for Jacob, and through it, he received the gift of a new life. The man who had formerly deceived his father by telling him his name was Esau now gives his true name, Jacob, revealing himself as someone who grasps and grabs, and owning his greediness for that which is not rightfully his. The man who had formerly tricked, deceived, cheated, and lied to get what he wanted, now asks openly and truthfully for the desired blessing. For once, instead of manipulating situations and people to get what he wants, he confronts who he has been and he accepts his own lack of control. Clearly, his name is not the only thing that has changed. He is bruised but blessed, and as he limps into the daylight, he is able to meet his brother, for the very first time, without pride, without trickery, and without deceit. His struggle, wounds and all, allowed him to bring about healing and forgiveness in his relationship with his brother, and the two were able to receive each other with open arms. Definitely not the ending we expected, but an ending in which God is deeply present, creating a new beginning for this reconciled family.

Thanks be to God for those long, dark, scary, life-changing nights. May we all be so wounded . . . and so transformed.