Proper 16 A, Aug. 21, 2011
Exodus 1:1-8 – 2:10; Psalm 124
Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20
Over the past few years we have noticed piles of rocks in lovely places in the Adirondacks – along the edge of the Hudson River, on small islands in Indian Lake, even in front of people’s houses. These artful, whimsical creations, are cairns, a word from the Scottish highlands, I believe, where stones had to be used to mark a trail when there were no trees to mark a blaze.
These are precarious things, these cairns, these trail-markers. They look like they could topple over, but they stay in place. They show the way. They use the most ancient things we have to point us the way to the future.
Is this the kind of rock Peter is? Sometimes steady and sometimes a little precarious? Many people have commented on the “rocky ground” that is Peter. Many have noted how curious it was that Jesus seemed to pick a disciple who let his flaws hang out to be the foundational leader of the church. God is like that – using the people who are on hand to do God’s most important work.
And Jesus gives Peter a LOT of power, the power to bind and to loose. Binding and loosing, as the rabbis teach us, has to do with the law. Someone with this power – and with this power of discernment – can decide how strictly to apply the law. This is a small example: years ago we lived next door to a Jewish synagogue, and a family who attended services there had small children, too small to walk the distance from their house to the synagogue. So with the permission of their rabbi, they hired my daughter as a pusher; the parents could not push the stroller – that was work – on the Sabbath, nor could they handle money, nor could they really ask someone else – even a non-Jew – to do work for them on the Sabbath. That is the law. But the rabbi suggested they “loose” the law a bit – arrange ahead of time for Laura to help with the children, let her know that the money would be there for her on the sideboard. The law was still the law – it still bound the faithful Jew to observe the Sabbath – but it was loosed a bit, so they as a family could attend services.
Our reading from Exodus comes, of course, from before there was a law for the Jews to follow. This is the story of the birth and early salvation of Moses, how he was protected as an infant so he could become the one who would receive the law from God and give it to his people. There is plenty of law in this story but it is corrupt and unjust. Gone is the generosity Joseph, who served as the Pharaoh’s steward, was able to show his family. There are now more Jews than the Egyptians want. The world in which the Hebrew people now live is hostile, oppressive, death-dealing. They are forced to choose between death, by following the law of kingdom in which they live, and life, as they subvert the “law” and follow the life-giving “fear of God.”
Where is God in this story? Much later come the mighty works, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the manna in the wilderness. Now all God has to work with are the powerless, the vulnerable, the people on the edge. In order to live in this crazy, death-dealing world of Pharaoh, the Hebrew people, in the persons of these courageous women, use deception. These midwives had no rabbis to guide then, to suggest which laws they could loose, which they could adapt. In order to give the Hebrew people a future – this is before, even, they were the “chosen people” – God blesses their deceptive tactics. God uses these women to subvert the oppressive, deadly, and unjust law of Pharaoh.
The roots of the English word “midwife” is “with woman.” Midwives are with-women, witnesses to the future, as they are witnesses and helpers in the birth of a child. These Hebrew midwives, these witnesses to the future of their people as God’s people, present to Pharaoh the face he wants to see, and then they go about living the way God would have them live. All of the women in this story took enormous risks – all of their lives were in danger – the midwives who lied, the mother who pretended her new-born son was a girl, the sister who hid the baby on the riverbank, even the Egyptian princess who knew this was a forbidden Hebrew baby, marked for death – God worked through these powerless, marginal people to save the life of one child, who would grow up to be the leader in the wilderness. They found something as precarious and eternal as a cairn, a secret marker on the way to justice and freedom, a signpost on the freedom trail.
These women did not equate their security in the moment with life. They did not just lie down and die right then, resigned to slavery and depravity. No. They risked all in hopes that God would be there with them. All they needed was a sign, as ephemeral as a baby floating in a basket, as precarious and fragile as a cairn, a sign that came to them from the beginning of time. God blessed them. God gave them everything. God gave them a future.